Gurpreet Singh: Komagata Maru campaigner supports demand for papal apology over residential schools

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      A prominent member of B.C.'s South Asian community is backing growing demands for Pope Francis to say he's sorry to residential school survivors.

      Sahib Thind of the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation says that the Pope must apologize for abuses suffered by Indigenous people in these schools, which were created to assimilate First Nations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Thind earlier launched a petition that led to a federal apology for the Komagata Maru episode.

      The Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 South Asian passengers was forcibly returned from the Vancouver coast in 1914 under a discriminatory immigration law, which was passed to discourage permanent settlement of immigrants from India and keep Canada as a “white man’s country”.

      In response to years of campaigning by Thind and his team, the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an official apology for the racist incident in the House of Commons in 2016.  

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      Thind told the Straight that he stands in solidarity with First Nations who also suffered historical wrongs at the hands of colonial powers.

      He noted that religion was often used as a tool by the colonists to oppress their subjects, and therefore the Pope must take responsibility for what the churches did to the Indigenous children in residential schools.

      Much like churches colluded with the British Empire to Christianize Indigenous children in these controversial schools, the Sikh clergy also connived with the British when India was under foreign occupation.

      Under those circumstances, many Indian immigrants, especially Sikh revolutionaries in Canada, came together to fight back against racism abroad and British occupation back home. 

      The charting of the Komagata Maru ship itself was an act of resistance aimed at challenging the discriminatory immigration law. Those on board believed that because they were British subjects, they had every right to travel from one part of the empire to the other.

      The Komagata Maru episode not only broke their trust, but galvanized the liberation movement.

      Fearing that those forced to return might turn into potential subversives, British authorities in India tried to arrest them, while the Sikh clergy ostracized them as “apostates”.

      Gurdit Singh, who chartered the ship, was a practising Sikh. He was deeply hurt by the edict that described him and others that way.

      Later in his life, he participated in the freedom movement, while some others aboard the ship were already sympathizers with the cause at the time of the voyage. 

      Thind recently visited India to get the edict issued by the clergy back then changed to redefine the community elders as “freedom fighters”. In accepting the demand, the head priests at Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs in Amritsar—amended the wording. 

      “I am thankful to Singh Sahibaans (the head priests) for correcting the historical wrong,” Thind said.  

      He thinks that Pope Francis should follow the example set by Sikh clergy and show compassion. 

      He welcomed MPs who've a brought a motion asking for papal apology in Parliament, urging those who oppose it to change their minds.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.