January 8 marked the 112th anniversary of Canada adopting a racist policy to discourage the permanent settlement of Indian immigrants.
The continuous journey regulation, as it was called, required immigrants to come to Canada only through direct passage from the country of their birth or citizenship. It was aimed at keeping Canada as a "white man's land" and stopping Indians from making this country their home.
Indians had started migrating to this part of the world for a better livelihood as their home country was under British occupation, which caused many economic hardships. Since B.C. was part of the British Dominion, they came here as British subjects.
However, many white workers saw them as a threat to their survival, since most of them worked for lesser wages. Buckling under the pressure of white supremacy, the Canadian government began applying measures to stop the immigration. As a result, Indian immigrants began organizing against racism abroad and foreign occupation back home. The confrontation culminated in the Komagata Maru episode.
The Japanese vessel carrying more than 350 South Asian passengers from British India arrived at Vancouver on May 23, 1914. Under the continuous-journey regulation, the ship was forced to return after remaining stranded in the waters of Burrard Inlet for two months. This injustice galvanized the Indian freedom movement and inspired many to join the struggle. They could see that this was done so blatantly because their homeland was not free and that the world saw them as "slaves".
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already apologized for the episode in the House of Commons.
But more than a century later, this history is being repeated by the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP, which wants to transform India into a majoritarian Hindu state, recently passed a controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that openly discourages Muslims coming to India as refugees from neighbouring countries. Among these nations are Muslim-dominated Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The act is intended to ensure smooth immigration to India of non-Muslims, especially Hindus. The BJP claims that these groups have been facing religious persecution in these countries, although it the act against the spirit of the Indian constitution, which is based on the principles of secularism and diversity. Being a secular democracy, India cannot discriminate so shamelessly and blatantly against any religious group.
It goes without saying that some Muslim groups, such as Shias, Ahmadiyyas, or even Muhajirs—as well as atheists—face inequality in Pakistan. How can one deny refuge to them?
Today's situation constantly brings climate refugees to India, irrespective of their religious beliefs, which has nothing to do with the sociopolitical environment in these countries. One does not need a PhD to guess what the motivations of this government are. It's clearly picked on countries that are frequently demonized by the BJP government as exporters of Islamic extremism in order to polarize Hindus against Muslims.
It is worth mentioning that attacks on Muslims have grown in India under Modi since he became the prime minister in 2014. Last year, his party was re-elected with more seats.
Under his watch in 2002, the state of Gujarat witnessed horrific anti-Muslim pogroms. Modi, who was the state's chief minister of the state back then, alleged Pakistan-based Islamic extremists were responsible for burning a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 people died in the incident, which was instantly blamed on Pakistan, following which thousands of Muslims were killed by mobs across Gujarat.
It’s a shame that Indian officials in Canada continue to celebrate the history of Komagata Maru—and are not shy to stake claims in the story—while in their own home country, they raise walls against refugees in the name of religion. Their attitude is no different than the British, who wanted to keep India divided along religious lines to prolong their rule.
Gurdit Singh, who charted the Komagata Maru, shared in his memoir that the British were partially upset for him giving space to everyone on the vessel, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, to practise their religion. The founding fathers of modern India tried to build an inclusive society by taking everyone along in their fight against colonialism and racism, and yet the present-day Indian leadership is bent upon destroying that dream.
Maybe it's time to launch another liberation movement against Modi. It's worth mentioning that the very first rally against CAA in Vancouver was held right outside the Indian consulate on December 20, the death anniversary of Sohan Singh Bhakna, a towering freedom fighter from Punjab.
Bhakna continued fighting against social injustice even after India became free from British rule in 1947. He was incarcerated for his participation in agitations in the post-British India, which left his back hunched over. He often said that this bend was caused by the native rulers. This shows that the struggle isn't over yet. We need to pursue liberation to rid India of the fascists.
Likewise, there was a similar protest outside Indian consulate on January 9 when Indian officials were celebrating the anniversary of the return of Mohandas K. Gandhi to India from Africa in 1915. Gandhi was a leader of the passive-resistance movement against British.
Ironically, he was assassinated by people that BJP leaders glorify. Gandhi was opposed to the religious partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 when the British left. Those who wanted to get rid of Muslims and believed in a Hindu theocracy decided to kill him.
It has been well established that BJP leaders despise Gandhi and only try to appropriate him to be in the good books of international community that treats him as an undisputed icon of civil disobedience. Yet some local South Asian politicians, including NDP MLAs Jinny Sims and Jagrup Brar, walked pass the protesters to attend the official function.
For the record, the founding fathers of the BJP had no role in India's freedom movement. On the contrary, they collaborated with the British and kept a distance from the liberation struggle. Their only aim was to create a Hindu state where everyone except Hindus would be treated as second-class citizens.
That stood in sharp contrast to the secularist vision of Gandhi, Bhakna and Gurdit Singh.
In that sense, those who are protesting against such divisive laws cutting across religious boundaries are the real friends of India and not those who wish to see India turned into an exclusionist Hindu nation.
It’s also time for Canada to wake up and see what’s going on in India. If Trudeau really cares for the Komagata Maru passengers, he should intervene and let Modi know that this is not going to be tolerated.
If Modi doesn’t listen, then Trudeau must think of slapping sanctions against the Indian government.