Canada truly sorry

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With Justin Trudeau proffering a "full apology" in Canadian Parliament, there can finally be some form of closure, albeit 102 years late, for those affected by the injustice of the Komagata Maru incident. Here's a look back at what transpired in 1914...

102 years is a long time for a grudge to fester. But Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows that old hurts of the magnitude of the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 need closure. And it must come from the source, even if the apology is delivered by the source’s third-generation descendant.

The Komagata Maru incident. Sounds ominous. It was. Men were killed during a bold attempt to challenge anti-immigrant laws as 376 “Indians with British citizenship” sought to enter Canada, in open violation of its exclusionary laws. After spending two violent months cooped up at Coal Harbour in Vancouver, during which Canadian police clashed with the passengers, the ship was driven out back to where it came from. When it reached where it came from, it was set upon by British soldiers, and blood was shed.

This incident, though, has not rankled in popular consciousness as much as it should have. When, over the coming years, the Ghadar Party, a Sikh organisation which fought for liberation from the British Empire, tried to enlist support over the injustice of the deportation, it met with a dull response.

Over the years, formal acknowledgments of the deplorable incident have come in the form of memorials


... A martyrs memorial set up in 1952 by Jawaharlal Nehru near Budge Budge, Kolkata;

... A plaque installed by the Canadian government in a gurdwara for the incident’s 75th anniversary

... A plaque installed by the Canadian government in Vancouver harbour for the 80th

... A monument on Coal Harbour in Vancouver in 2012

... Inauguration of the Komagata Maru Museum at a Sikh temple in Vancouver

... Stamp issued for the 100th anniversary in 2014

... Coins worth ₹5 and ₹100 minted by the Indian government in March 2016.

This won't be the first time a Canadian statesman has acknowledged the sadness of the incident. It isn’t the first time Canada is proffering an apology either. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement of regret at the Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela in Surrey. While the Sikh community was not fully satisfied with the informality of the apology, the Canadian government maintained that this was as far as it was willing to go. And that is why Trudeau’s “full apology” becomes all the more significant. It represents a true thawing of the heart, a sincere comedown from one of the most popular statesmen in recent times.

Around the turn of the century, the Western world was labouring under a significant anti-Asian sentiment. Canada had instituted, among other curbs, a head tax on people migrating from China, as part of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885. Race riots and anti-Asiatic parades were occurring in Canada, driven by the fear of being overrun by immigrants.

The Komagata Maru incident involved a Japanese steamship, Komagata Maru, that sailed from Hong Kong, British Empire, through Shanghai, China, to Yokohama, Japan, and then to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1914, carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, British India. Of them 24 were admitted to Canada, but the other 352 passengers were not allowed to land in Canada, and the ship was forced to return to India. The passengers comprised 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British subjects. This was one of several incidents in the history of early 20th century involving exclusion laws in both Canada and the United States designed to keep out immigrants of only Asian origin. Wiki Commons

^ The Komagata Maru carried 376 passengers. All seeking a fresh start in a new land. | Reuters

In 1908, Canada had passed the Continuous Passage Act, which essentially barred migrants from entering the nation unless their vessel had travelled directly from the port of embarkation, not stopping anywhere in between. This made it practically impossible for people looking to come in from Asia, which was a long way away to not make any pitstops or bathroom breaks.

So, Amritsarite Gurdit Singh Sandhu, a wealthy Singaporean fisherman who was vexed with these exclusionary laws preventing his countrymen from broadening their horizons, decided to push the envelope. He chartered Komagata Maru to take passengers from Calcutta to Vancouver. This was a man who had sought to challenge forced labour in India, and a grandson of Khalsa Army officer, Sardar Ratan Singh, who had fought in the Anglo-Sikh wars in 1800s.

He was arrested in Hong Kong for organising an illegal voyage. After months of incarceration, he got out on bail and set sail on April 4, 1914, with 165 hopeful people on board. After nearly 2 months, Komagata Maru entered Burrard Inlet on Vancouver’s West Coast after picking up passengers in Shanghai and Yokohoma. Two strikes. The passengers were not allowed to disembark and enter port.

^ Canadian officials attempt to board the Komagata Maru as heaps of irate passengers glower over them. | Reuters

It didn’t help that Gurdit was a known proponent of the Ghadarite cause. Canadian authorities were wary of a rebellion breaking out. Which eventually did break out, only not because of a victorious liberation army flooded the streets, but because policemen were showered with “lumps of coal and bricks” by the irate passengers, who had already killed the Japanese captain on board. On July 19, around 100 Canadian officials and policemen tried to board the ship, but ran into a bastion aboard the ship. On July 23, the forlorn vessel was forced, at gunpoint, to wave goodbye to a failed mission, and depart Calcutta-wards.

But the true horror of the incident was yet to unfold. On September 27, when the woebegone ship touched the Calcutta coast, it was received with more guns. British guns. The passengers, who were branded as lawbreakers, were set upon, 20 men were killed and Gurdit Singh fled for his life. The championer of freedom stayed in hiding till 1922, when he gave himself up on Mahatma Gandhi’s counsel and was arrested for five years.

^ Officials stand aboard the S. S. "Komagata Maru" at the port of Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada in this undated handout photo. | Reuters

All this, just to establish the right of people to travel to a free country. All this, just to enable people to broaden their horizons and seek out a better life. All this, just to challenge a draconian and discriminatory situation.

Apologies cannot right a wronging. But they can signify regret, an empty commodity for the affected party. If sincere, they can signify repentance, a stepping stone to reparation.

The Komagata Maru was...

* A Japanese steamship, chartered by Sikh businessman, Gurdit Singh, which...

* Set sail on April 4, 1914 from Hong Kong, with 165 passengers...

* Touched Shanghai on April 8...

* Picked up more passengers in Yokohoma on April 14...

* Left Yokohoma on May 3...

* Sailed into Burrard Inlet on Vancouver’s West Coast on May 23 with 376 passengers (360 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus).

* It reached Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, Canada, on May 23, 1914.

* 24 passengers were admitted, 352 turned away.

* Local newspaper called it a “Hindu invasion”.

* The ship was moored in Vancouver harbour for nearly 2 months, till June 23...

* Before returning to Calcutta on September 27.

* 20 passengers were killed during ensuing riots and clashes with British soldiers in India.

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