Gurpreet Singh: Ballots, not bullets, can beat back racism in Canada on October 21

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      The federal election date of October 21 has a special significance for the South Asian community in B.C.

      It was on this day in 1914 that a controversial immigration inspector, William Charles Hopkinson, was shot to death by a Sikh activist Mewa Singh.

      Singh was executed in 1915 for assassinating Hopkinson and became the first South Asian to be hanged on Canadian soil for a political murder.

      Singh was one of many South Asians who started arriving in British Columbia in the late 1800s and early 1900s to earn a better livelihood. This was a time when India was a British colony and B.C. was a province in the Dominion of Canada, which took direction from the British government.

      The British occupation of India made ordinary people's lives miserable in that part of the world. Since the British Empire claimed that it treated its subjects fairly, many Punjabi Sikh immigrants began arriving in B.C. in search of greener pastures.

      However upon their arrival here, they had to face racial hostilities. They were not allowed to bring their families and were disenfranchised in 1907.

      All this was done to discourage them from becoming permanent settlers because the government wanted to keep Canada as a white man’s country.

      South Asian community elders realized that they were being treated with contempt only because their home country wasn’t free.

      Thus began struggles in B.C. against colonialism back home and racism abroad.

      Under these circumstances, South Asian political activists started getting organized. Since a majority of them were Sikhs, they built a gurdwara in Vancouver under the aegis of Khalsa Diwan Society.

      This temple not only provided a religious space, but also became a centre of political activism.

      Singh, who was a devout Sikh, was among those who collected donations for the first gurdwara in Vancouver. He later became involved in political actions.

      Mewa Singh admitted that he murdered a hated immigration inspector and willingly went to the gallows in 1915.

      The turning point came in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru was forcibly returned by the Canadian government under a discriminatory immigration law.

      The Japanese vessel with more than 350 South Asian passengers onboard was required to leave Burrard Inlet under the shadow of guns on July 23, 1914, after remaining stranded in the Vancouver harbour for two months. This incident galvanized the South Asian freedom movement in B.C.

      The detention of the ship in 1914 started a bloody fight within the South Asian community, which was divided in two camps.

      One was led by the radical activists and the other patronized by Hopkinson. The latter camp included a group of spies who often intimidated activists in the South Asian community.

      Through this network of moles in the community, Hopkinson was gathering secret information about political activists and sending it to the British government in India.

      He had previously served in India and was sent to Vancouver for that specific purpose because he could speak Hindi.

      In September, 1914, one of Hopkinson’s agents, Bela Singh, went into the gurdwara and shot and killed two political activists, Bhag Singh and Badan Singh. This act of sacrilege and blatant racism turned Mewa Singh into an assassin.

      He fatally shot Hopkinson at the Vancouver courthouse where the latter had gone to testify for Bela Singh, who was being tried in front of a jury.

      Mewa Singh did not escape from the scene and, in fact, courted arrest. He also chose to plead guilty in court and took sole responsibility for the murder.

      He chanted prayers as he was being taken to the gallows on the morning of January 11, 1915.

      Singh’s action was in response to structural racism and part of a broader struggle against discriminatory policies. The political activism of Singh and others eventually won the community the right to vote in 1947.

      The growing electoral representation of South Asians in the House of Commons and legislatures across Canada is a result of their tireless and selfless efforts.

      This federal election has become even more important due to surge in white supremacy and ultranationalism in post Trump era. Far-right political parties like People’s Party of Canada (PPC) and even the Conservative Party of Canada are stoking fears against immigrants and refugees.

      Their ties with white nationalists are something we need to worry about. These groups are driven by similar ideology that was behind the Komagata Maru episode and all of those discriminatory policies of that era.

      Emboldened by the hateful rhetoric of these parties, the white nationalists have started getting organized. A Syrian restaurant owner whose son participated in a rally in Ontario against People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has received death threats.

      Not surprisingly, the election signs of candidates from visible minority communities are being vandalised with racist symbols. The New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh, who is a turbaned Sikh, has been repeatedly heckled by white supremacists.

      Under these circumstances, people need to come out and vote aggressively against divisive forces to keep Canada inclusive.

      South Asians whose elders had fought for the right to vote now have an opportunity to challenge racism with ballots, which have replaced the bullets of Mewa Singh.

      These community members only need to do that wisely and strategically to avoid split of progressive votes to keep right-wing parties out of power.

      Unfortunately, these reactionary parties have camouflaged themselves by roping in some South Asian candidates who have sold out.

      The scenario is little different from the one that was faced by Mewa Singh. After all, Hopkinson too had his agents within the targeted community.

      It’s time to vote and send message to the racists that the community isn’t sleeping, as Singh’s legacy remains alive and relevant.