As the Vancouver park board prepares to create a memorial to honour passengers who sailed into Burrard Inlet in 1914 aboard the Komagata Maru, some Sikhs in India continue their struggle to rename their town after the vessel.
The Komagata Maru reached Vancouver’s harbour on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers aboard. It wasn’t allowed to dock in Vancouver because of racist immigration legislation of the era, which required migrants to arrive via a “continuous journey”. This effectively barred immigrants from India, who had to stop for provisions along the way because of the great distance they had to travel to reach Canada.
After remaining stranded in Burrard Inlet for two months, the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Canada on July 23. Upon its return to India, it docked in the town of Boj Boj in West Bengal.
British police instructed passengers to get on a waiting train to travel to Punjab, which elicited some resistance. There was a shootout with British authorities in the town, leaving 18 passengers and three police officials dead.
Every year at the temple on the anniversary of the massacre, Sikhs in Boj Boj hold prayers in memory of those who died. The Sikh temple in the town is named after the Komagata Maru martyrs and is called Gurdwara Komagata Maru Shaheed Gunj. The name of the temple is written in Punjabi and Bengali scripts.
A memorial close to the port attracts supporters of various political parties, who gather to pay respect to those who died. Security staff did allow the Georgia Straight to take a picture of the spot where the Komagata Maru was docked.
The harbour in Boj Boj remains neglected and there is no sign to indicate where the Komagata Maru landed. However, the names of the dead are engraved on a stone erected at the memorial site.
Meanwhile, an old railway station building near where the bloody incident occurred needs repair, while an old tree that was hit by the flying bullets has perished.
Local Sikhs, including former gurdwara president Akhtiar Singh, revealed to the Straight that they continue to press the authorities to rename the town and the railway station after the Komagata Maru.
The Indian minister of railways, Mamta Banerjee, who is from West Bengal, has been repeatedly been presented with this request, according to local residents.
The modest Sikh temple has a few pictures related to the Komagata Maru episode. They include a portrait of Gurdit Singh, who charted the ship to challenge Canada’s immigration laws of the era, as well as a painting of the shooting incident.
The temple does not receive big donations in connection with this history, although people with a curiosity about the Komagata Maru’s journey occasionally visit Boj Boj from as far away as Canada.
Singh, the former gurdwara president, said that the temple also gives free books about the Komagata Maru's history to visitors to keep the memory of the martyrs alive.
In August 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in a park in Surrey for the Komagata Maru incident. On Thursday (October 7), Vancouver park commissioners are expected to receive an update from staff on the development of the memorial, which is funded by the federal government’s Community Historical Recognition Program.
Its Web site states that the monument is expected to be a replica of the Komagata Maru. The proposed site is at Brockton Point, which is near where the vessel was anchored in 1914.
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.