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The Komagata Maru incident as a violation of human rights

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By Kevin Nguyen

The SS. Komagata Maru was a ship that travelled from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1914, carrying economic migrants who did not like their living conditions back in India. The Komagata Maru incident was an incident in which the Canadian government denied their entrance to enter Vancouver. Upon reaching Vancouver, the Komagata Maru was denied entry with all its passengers due to the exclusion law set by Canada as a way to keep out Asian immigrants. The Asian Exclusion Act was a law that said for a ship to dock in Canada, the ship would have to make a continuous journey from where it started all the way to the country. This meant that ships would not be able to make a detour if they wanted to be able to enter Canada, which would be nearly impossible for the Komagata Maru. The Komagata Maru incident was a long journey, that stayed at the docks for two months with nowhere else to go and when they were sent back to India a terrible surprise was waiting for them that violated at least three human rights in the end.

When the Komagata Maru was denied entry to Vancouver, the passengers had nowhere else to go because they did not want to go back to their home country. They decided to stay at the docks until they were allowed entry. The Komagata Maru stayed at the docks of Vancouver for two months; it arrived on May 23rd, and was forced to leave in July. During those two months, the passengers were denied food and water, but other Asian immigrants that came before the Exclusion Act was enforced and who supported the Komagata Maru managed to give the passengers on board some food and water. Since the ship did not take a continuous journey from their starting point straight to Vancouver, the passengers were not allowed in the country. On July 23rd, the Canadian government sent two naval ships, one of which was the HMCS Rainbow, to escort the Komagata Maru out of Canadian territory.

When the Komagata Maru reached Calcutta, India to drop of the passengers, they were stopped by a British gun boat. The ship was then taken to a place called Budge Budge in Calcutta where they tried to arrest 20 or more men they saw as leaders. When the 20 or more men started to resist the arrest, gunfire from the British gun boat started to break out and at least 19 people were killed. Some of them escaped, while the others were arrested and imprisoned in their village and kept there for the duration of the First World War.

The Komagata Maru incident violated at least three human rights, even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn’t put into effect until December 1948. I think articles three, nine, and thirteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were violated during this incident. Article 3 states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This was violated when 19 people were killed during the gunfire. Article 9e states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” This was violated when the British gun ship tried arresting the 20 men they saw as leaders. Article 13 section 2 states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” This was violated when the British gun boat didn’t let them go back to their home country.

The Komagata Maru incident is significant because it shows a lot about how Canada felt about Asian immigrants in the 1910s. It shows that Canada did not like Asian immigrants in the 1910s or else they would not have an Asian Exclusion Act knowing that people from Asia cannot make a continuous journey without stopping. This incident wasn’t only the fault of Canada's, but it was also Britain's. Both countries violated the passengers' rights, even though those rights had not become officially recognized yet by international statutes like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Kevin Nguyen is a student at Parkdale Collegiate Institute.