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.

When he settled in Vancouver, Rahim took over the management of a real estate business run by local Sikhs (The Canada-India Supply and Trust Company). It was an investment vehicle for immigrants mostly employed in labouring jobs. He had been hired and his predecessor, a Mr. Thompson Tinn, had been fired after the Directors of the Company decided they did not want a white man running their business. That was one story. Perhaps they just did not want this particular white man. But this position, plus his struggle to get landed, put Rahim at the centre of things in the largely Sikh local Indian community.

His Indian contemporaries in Vancouver described Rahim as a stout, well built man in his mid-forties, clean-shaven, with a short neck and hunched-up shoulders (he was approaching fifty at the time of the Komagata Maru). One of his Indian contemporaries wrote to Indian businessmen in Japan, trying to get information about him, and described him as “the man of round head, hot temper.” The head and shoulders photograph we have of him shows Rahim with a turban tied in the Gujarati manner and wearing a formal, Edwardian-style white shirt and tie with suit jacket and vest.

Rahim’s background and his travels equipped him with a nuanced understanding of British culture and etiquette. He knew, he said tongue in cheek, not to tuck his serviette into his top button when eating in a high-tone Western restaurant, although “when not on guard” he might rub his hands together instinctively “as if about to taste some fresh kill in the manner of my primitive ancestors.”

What did Rahim think of Vancouver when he first arrived on the SS Moana in 1910, having previously travelled throughout Europe and Asia? His first view from the pier was of “an ugly, rickety, weather beaten row of sheds to handle the export and import merchandise.” He had the first impression—contrasting what he saw with the waterfronts of Genoa, Marseilles, Bombay, Madras—of a primitive place centuries behind even the more mediocre ports of the world. How could one guess, he said, “that behind these sheds, only at a distance of a stone’s throw, lay the city of Vancouver, B.C., a city with bounteous prospects, and of great metropolitan pretensions.” On that first day in Vancouver he had walked a few hundred yards past the sheds and followed “a dirty miserable path” past the Canadian Pacific Railway depot and an impressive expanse of railway sidings to see a standing train of “palatial railway cars, the acme of comfort, beautifully illuminated by electricity” all of which told him that he was at the Pacific terminus of “the world’s greatest highway.” But even as he passed the platform where passengers boarded the train he had to negotiate a narrow wooden sidewalk running up a steep grade alongside a muddy, slimy road. It was an experience, he said, of extreme contrasts coming every moment of the way: dirt and ugliness alternating with pleasant and beautiful sights.

As a widely experienced traveler he thought in several currencies at the same time. He discovered that a modest meal in a good restaurant in Vancouver with several courses and “ices” or sweets to finish cost $1.25. He could tell you what this was in Indian or British money—3 rupees and 14 annas, or 5 shillings and 2 pence. He knew from childhood, he said, that in Western society a gentleman is known “by the linen and leather” he keeps. That meant that good restaurants with their crisp linens were out of bounds to Indian, Chinese, or even white workingmen with shabby shoes. But Vancouver had “epicurean” eating places, he observed, in its Chinese Chop Suey Houses where entry was barred to none.

What were Rahim’s politics? When Hopkinson arrested Rahim in 1910 he took from him a notebook with the addresses of an international set of Indian activists and revolutionaries. The same notebook contained information about explosives—all of which led Hopkinson to view him as a dangerous individual. But a notebook with addresses and information about nitroglycerine is not conclusive proof that he was actively involved with the militant wing of the Indian independence movement, and Indian police files don’t yield any supplementary evidence. Rahim did espouse Marxist socialism. He shared membership in the Socialist Party of Canada (antecedent to the Communist Party) along with the lawyer Edward Bird who represented the passengers of the Komagata Maru, and he set up a special committee of the Socialist party for Indians. 

Rahim was not afraid to speak in a challenging way to Canadian officials about the problems that Indians had overseas because they were under British rule in India. And he pushed himself to the forefront in the (unsuccessful) struggle for the rights of his countrymen in Canada. His fight against deportation, his attempt to register for the vote, and his role on the Shore Committee during the Komagata Maru Affair—all were part of the struggle. As manager of the Canada-India Supply and Trust Company he almost automatically became the custodian of the money raised by the Shore Committee for the Komagata Maru. After the Komagata Maru had gone some of the contributors claimed that money had been misappropriated and brought suits against Rahim and the estate of the deceased Bhag Singh, winning a judgment of $2,000.

In the fall of 1914, the Vancouver police arrested Rahim along with Sohan Lal and others on the charge of complicity in Mewa Singh’s murder of Hopkinson, but when the prosecution of Sohan Lal failed, they abandoned the cases against the rest. Rahim remained in Vancouver and active in the South Asian community until he died in 1937.

Sources: The Hindustanee, Vancouver, Husain Rahim ed., monthly, Jan.-June, 1914

Sohan Singh Pooni, Keneda de Gadri Yodhe (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2009); National Library and Archives Canada, Governor General Files, RG 7, G21, v. 201 file 332: J.W. Matoon, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Bombay, 20 October, 1911;  Hugh Johnston, “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America,” BC Studies, no. 78, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-26; Hugh Johnston, “Faith and Politics among Sikh Pioneers in Canada,” International Journal of Punjab Studies, IX, Jan-June, 2002, pp. 91-112; Peter Campbell,  “East Meets Left: South Asian Militants and the Socialist Party of Canada in British Columbia,” International Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall, 1999.