On May 23, 1914, a crowded ship from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers, most being immigrants from Punjab, British India, arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet on the west coast of the Dominion of Canada. The passengers, all British subjects, were challenging the Continuous Passage regulation, which stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship.” The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 in an effort to curb Indian immigration to Canada.
HUSAIN RAHIM (1865-1937)
Husain Rahim was a member of the Shore Committee who, along with Bhag Singh, took over the charter of the Komagata Maru after it arrived in Vancouver. Rahim was the one of the few Indians who had managed to obtain legal residence in Canada after the regulatory immigration barrier was erected. He had entered the country in 1910 at Vancouver as a tourist, traveling first-class, and had proceeded by train to Montreal. When Hopkinson discovered him back in Vancouver five months later the immigration department started deportation proceedings against him. The case created a stir in the local Indian community whose leaders mounted a vigorous publicity campaign on his behalf. Rahim hired a lawyer, fought deportation and, to the chagrin of the immigration officials, won his case in court. As a consequence he was still in Vancouver in 1914 and very active on the Shore Committee on behalf of the passengers on the Komagata Maru.
Rahim was born about 1865. He grew up in Delhi, where his father was a dry goods merchant, and he could speak the languages of Delhi and its environs—Hindi and Punjabi. But he was something of a mystery in Vancouver to the Sikh and Punjabi community and to immigration inspector W.C. Hopkinson. He had settled in Japan when he was thirty and had spent nearly fifteen years in Kobe as a merchant in the cotton trade. And his family and caste roots reached back to the merchant community of the tiny princely state of Porbander, Kathiawar, on the coast of Gujarat (where, incidentally, Gandhi was born in 1869). That is where Rahim’s father came from. Rahim belonged to a Gujarati merchant caste community that had spread from Gujarat to Bombay (the centre of the Indian cotton trade), and to South and East Africa and the Far East. As a consequence, Rahim spoke Gujarati. He was also fluent in English, both written and spoken. For a few months in 1914 he produced a newspaper in English that contains some interesting pieces including a description of Rahim’s first meeting with Hopkinson.
Rahim’s name was a mystery because he was known as Chagan Karaj Verma (or Shagan Lall) in Japan and Husain Rahim in Vancouver. The former looked like the name of a Hindu and the latter a Muslim. One story spread about him was that he had absconded from Japan to Honolulu with funds taken from his firm after a falling out with his partner. After seventeen months in Honolulu, he had come on to Vancouver under a new name, a Hindu passing himself off as a Muslim. That is what some of his countrymen in Vancouver were saying. He was an ally that they regarded with suspicion. But Rahim’s caste origins suggest an explanation of his Hindu/Muslim background: an explanation that Punjabis would not have readily known or understood. He was a Lohana, the caste name of a merchant community in Gujarat that included both Hindus and Ismaili Muslims. The conversion of Lohanas to Islam had occurred in the middle ages, but in a somewhat covert way. The Ismaili teachers or pirs who had attracted them to Islam had avoided a direct affront to the surrounding Hindu world by couching Islamic teachings in Hindu terms, retaining language, images and mythology familiar to Hindus. Ismaili Lohanas incorporated both Hinduism and Islam into their faith and practice. Rahim seems to have come out of that tradition.
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