Komagata Maru history vividly revisited in Ali Kazimi's "Undesirables"

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One thing that is most striking to this reviewer is Kazimi's respect for the participants' voice and agency. He never portrays them as helpless victims, but rather agents of their own destiny.

In fact, the Komagata Maru passengers knew the risks of deportation when they signed up. With British colonial rule entrenched in India, it was a risk the ship's riders were willing to take. Kazimi hails the voyage's organizer, Gurdit Singh, who explicitly hoped to challenge Canada's continuous journey law – he was, Kazimi writes, “haunted by a feeling that he wanted to contribute to the welfare of his compatriots.”

“I could not bear the grief and hardship of the Vancouver emigrants, who had been waiting in the Sikh temple,” Singh wrote at the time. “It was a matter of injustice and darkness.”

“If we are admitted we will know the Canadian government is just. If we are deported we will sue the government and if we cannot obtain redress we will go back and take up the matter with the Indian government.”

Singh and his comrades' efforts show that migration – and governments' attempt to restrict it – was as political and controversial a century ago as it is now. In fact, some of the deported passengers went on to become anti-British activists and political prisoners in India, through the socialist, and militant, Ghadar movement.

Other figures in this confrontation with Canada's racist immigration system come into sharp relief. One of those figures was J. Edward Bird, a white lawyer hired by Ismaili Muslim community leader Husain Rahim.

Bird fought vigorously against his clients' deportation, and “sought to establish contradictions and errors” in the law, even questioning the Immigration Act's use of the term “citizen.”

One of the most fascinating photographs is of members of the Vancouver Sikh community standing in protest in front of the detention centre. Behind them, through a set of black iron bars, is a mesh cage holding dozens of turbaned men. There's an intense look to these activists' eyes – a determination that “encapsulates the struggles against exclusion faced by the South Asian community,” Kazimi writes.

Noise-making demonstrations from 2010-2011 outside Lower Mainland detention centres where the Tamil boat arrivals were held evoked this powerful image of a community rallying support. 

By drawing a direct line from the Continuous Journey law and racist riots of 100 years ago, and today's Safe Third Country Agreement, Kazimi is implicitly expressing his support for the activists and migrant justice organizers of our age – whether they be No One Is Illegal or the Canadian Council for Refugees, communities fought back then, as they continue to do today.

Kazimi, himself a Muslim, frequently emphasizes that most, though not all, the passengers were Sikh – there were also Muslims and Hindus aboard. (In fact, the mass media at the time ran headlines warning of “Hindoos” set to swamp “white Canada,” and many of these front pages are included in Undesirables).

But one newspaper headline shows a minority among the press of the time were vocal against the detentions.

“PLEAD FOR JUSTICE,” reads a South Asian newspaper headline. “Thirty-nine Sikhs in custody at Victoria, B.C.”

With hundreds of rare images and text showing Sikh community wrestling matches, religious processions, and protests, Undesirables is not only a definitive historic glimpse of Canada's racist past, but a more hopeful version of history.

Each person encountered in Kazimi's work is an agent of their community's destiny – and an author of its freedom. We would be wise to remember such people today.

Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, An Illustrated History, by Ali Kazimi, is published by Douglas & McIntyre (2011).

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