The Komagata Maru Episode
The Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship, became a symbol of Indian exclusion in North America. Chartered by a Punjabi businessman, Gurdit Singh, the ship carried 376 men to Canada in 1914. Canada, like the U.S., placed restrictions on immigration from India beginning in 1907. Indians argued that as British subjects they should have the right to move anywhere within the Empire, which included Canada. The voyage of the Komagata Maru tested this argument. Upon arrival in Vancouver Harbor, Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to disembark. The ship remained docked in the harbor for three months while a legal battle waged in the courts. Punjabis in Canada and on the West Coast helped the fight by sending food and money. In the end, the passengers lost and the ship was forced to leave for India. Many innocent passengers were either imprisoned or executed by the British upon their return. In 2008 the Canadian Parliament offered their apology for this incident.
Gurdit Singh in the white suit with his son and fellow passengers, 1914.
U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind
Bhagat Singh Thind was one of the first Punjabis to challenge U.S. citizenship laws. Thind came to the U.S. in 1913 and attended the University of California, Berkeley. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, he applied for and received citizenship. However, the Bureau of Naturalization appealed and a court revoked his citizenship. Thind fought the decision and the case eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1923, the Court ruled that although he was Caucasian, he was not white and could not be granted citizenship. As a result of the Thind decision, 45 others lost their citizenship because of their skin color.
Bhagat Singh Thind served in the US Army in World War I (1918). Photo courtesy of Thind Family.
Gadar Revolutionary Party
Punjabis in the U.S. supported the efforts to end British rule in India. In 1913, the Pacific Coast Hindustani Association, later known as the Gadar Party, formed and established its operations in San Francisco. The Gadar Party advocated rebellion against the British. Many California Punjabis were Party members and gave money to support the fight for Indian independence. By 1917, increased pressure from British and U.S. authorities forced the Gadar Party to change its tactics. The organization remained active, but less vocal, until Indian independence in 1947. Some patriots returned to India to fight for independence from British rule and were imprisoned or executed. Kartar Singh Sarabha, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, became a celebrated revolutionary in India. At the age of nineteen, he was executed by the British.
The Sikh Sansar, USA-Canada: Gadar Issue-Part 1. Photo courtesy of Echoes of Freedom.