Indian Government To Seek $143 Million Over Immigrant Ship Rejected in 1914

Indian government to seek $143M over immigrant ship Canada rejected in 1914

By Cheryl Chan
Canwest News Service
July 4, 2010 9:47 AM

The Punjab state government in India is contemplating asking Canada for close to $150 million for turning back a shipload of South Asians, mostly Sikhs, from Vancouver nearly a century ago.

Hira Singh Gabria, Punjab Minister for Tourism and Cultural Affairs, has assembled an 11-member committee to look into initiating legal and diplomatic proceedings against the Canadian government to get back a $15,000 entry tax that Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru reportedly shelled out in 1914.

That amount is believed to have swelled to a whopping $143 million for reasons that were not explained, according to the English-language Hindustan Times. It was also unclear if the apparent tax was $15,000 per passenger, or for the entire ship.

The Japanese steamship Komagata Maru carried 376 would-be immigrants including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from Hong Kong to the port of Vancouver.

Its passengers were refused entry into Canada based on an exclusionary immigration policy that stipulated immigrants should come by continuous journey from their home country.

The vessel languished at the dock for two months before being forced to sail back to India by Canadian warships. Twenty people were killed and many more jailed by British authorities when it docked in Calcutta.

According to the Hindustan Times, the Punjab government decided to undertake the treasure hunt after families of the passengers killed by British officers met with Punjab officials, claiming that the $15,000 deposited as entry tax was lying unused.

The committee will initiate the process for recovery of the money, which, once obtained, would be utilized to fund Komagata Maru memorials in Punjab and Kolkata, Gabria is quoted as saying.

Once the findings establish the facts, the state government will raise the issue with (Indian) Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to press him to use diplomatic channels with his Canadian counterpart.

But Hugh Johnston, professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University, said there was no such thing as an entry tax levied on Komagata Maru passengers.

Its mistaken information, he said, noting that the passengers were required to pay for the chartered vessel in $15,000 instalments, and one of them came due when the ship arrived in Vancouver.

There was a shipping agent here in Vancouver acting on behalf of the Japanese (ship) owners who had the job of collecting that money, said Johnston. I suspect that is the source of the mistake, as there was no tax on entry.

Members of the Khalsa Diwan Society eventually raised about $25,000 from Vancouver Sikhs to pay the ship owners.

Kashmir Dhaliwal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society, said Saturday that he is not aware of the reparation claim in the works, but said he is in favour of monetary compensation if the funds are distributed to descendants of the original passengers.

Jas Toor is president of the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Passengers Society, and his grandfather was one of the immigrants jailed upon arrival back in India

Toor said he, too, was unaware of the claim of the so-called entry tax, but said there was no doubt the ships passengers many of them rich farmers who sold their land and belongings to come to Canada lost everything when they were forced to return.

Toor insisted that what B.C.s South Asian community wants more than money is an official apology from the federal government in the House of Commons, similar to the one offered to the Chinese-Canadian community over the head tax and to First Nations over residential schools.

Thats the main focus, he said. As for any compensation, we are leaving that to the Canadian government.

Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to the Sikh community during a festival in Surrey, B.C. a move criticized by some as insufficient along with $2.5 million in federal funding for projects commemorating the tragedy.

In April, federal NDP leader Jack Layton filed a petition in Parliament calling for an official apology from the Harper government.

For its part, the province of B.C. issued an official apology for the discriminatory policy in the legislature in 2008.