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Specters of Indigeneity in British-Indian Migration, 1914


  • Renisa Mawani

  • Earlier versions of this paper were presented in the Rama Watumull Lecture Series at the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa (March 2011) and at the Law and Society Annual Meetings in San Francisco (May 2011). I would like to thank the respective audiences for their comments and questions, especially Gaye Chan, Nandita Sharma, Kunal Parker, and Mariana Valverde. My deepest gratitude goes to Bonar Buffam, Antoinette Burton, Sherry Dilley, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller, Bruce Miller, Pooja Parmar, Chris Tomlins, and three anonymous reviewers for their astute suggestions at various stages and for pushing me to sharpen the ideas presented here. Additional thanks are due to Antoinette Burton for generously sharing with me her forthcoming work on India and Africa, Zarina Mawani for checking Gujarati translations, Mitra Sharafi for bringing the Hindi Punch image to my attention and for her ongoing generosity, and Sanjeev Routray and Natasia Wright for their invaluable research assistance. The research from which this article draws was generously supported by a Hampton Endowment Grant from the University of British Columbia (2007–2009) and a Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for Canada (2009–2013). Please address correspondence to Renisa Mawani, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia, 6303 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z1; e-mail:


Colonial legal histories of indigeneity and British-Indian migration have not often been placed in conversation with one another. This article pursues such a project by tracing indigeneity as a spectral presence that emerged with uneven regularity in juridico-political conflicts over British-Indian migration. Specifically, I focus on the 1914 journey of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying 376 Punjabi migrants that sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Moji to Yokohama, and across the Pacific, eventually arriving in Vancouver, Canada. Crisscrossing continents and approaching law in its broadest sense, I explore three struggles over the ship and its passengers: a satirical cartoon published in the Hindi Punch (Bombay), a legal test case heard by the British Columbia Court of Appeal (Vancouver), and a public debate on the racial meanings of Imperial subjecthood that ensued among Indian middle-class supporters of the ship and unfolded in English newspapers in various Indian cities. In each moment of struggle, I examine the changing conceptions of indigeneity that were strategically appropriated, never by indigenous peoples themselves or on their own terms, but by the Dominion of Canada and by British Indians, each deploying indigeneity to its own advantage and to achieve particular effects. Ultimately, this article considers the political and legal work that the spectral figure of indigeneity performed, the conceptions of time that underwrote its recurrence, and the temporalities that it sustained and called into question.