Senior Indian culture ministry official calls for better maintenance of Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver

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      There was a host of dignitaries near Coal Harbour yesterday to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru.

      Attorney General Suzanne Anton, Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer, Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry, and several MLAs and park commissioners were on hand in Harbour Green Park to listen to Pramod Jain, a joint secretary in India's Ministry of Culture.

      In an unexpected turn, Jain questioned the state of the park board's memorial to the Komagata Maru passengers where he was speaking.

      Jain asked if the VIPs who were present could do more commemorate this historic event.

      "I request that the maintenance of this memorial requires a fresh look," Jain said. "Maybe they can do something about it."

      Next, he stated that there is a "unique opportunity for all of us to seek a grander memorial" in Harbour Green Park.

      The Komagata Maru remained in the harbour for two months.
      VPL Special Collections

      The memorial was unveiled in 2013 and features a famous photo of passengers onboard the Komagata Maru, along with a narrative describing what happened. After two months in the harbour, the vessel was sent back to sea and 352 people onboard were prevented from entering Canada.

      The are also iron panels on the site to simulate the ship's hull. The panels carry the names of all of the passengers.

      As Jain spoke at the microphone, the iron panels were looking a bit worse for wear, covered in bird droppings.

      He thanked those who've kept the memory of the Komagata Maru alive in Vancouver. He also expressed appreciation for the B.C. government's efforts in "memory of the heroes who sacrificed in this harbour and beyond".

      Park board chair John Coupar, Attorney General Suzanne Anton, and Burnaby North MLA Richard Lee join India's consul general, Ravi Shankar Aisola.
      Charlie Smith

      Jain's speech at the memorial began by noting that this was a "very important day". He also stated that the story of Komagata Maru is also being commemorated in India throughout the year.

      He emphasized that Canada was part of the British Empire when the ship entered the harbour.

      "We were citizens of the British Empire at that time," Jain said. "I've been told my historians and researchers that when they were there, the living conditions were not good. There were attempts to create dissension among them. All sorts of matters were used by the then government to send them back."

      The Komagata Maru was chartered by Indian businessman and antiracist pioneer Gurdit Singh, but he wasn't allowed to walk on Canadian soil.

      Singh and 351 others were prohibited from landing because of racist immigration legislation of the era. Laws banned people from entering Canada if they hadn't arrived via a continuous journey, which was a way to keep South Asians out. The Komagata Maru had to stop for provisions along the way.

      The vessel remained in the harbour for two months before being forced to return to India, where 19 passengers were killed in an altercation with British troops in the town of Baj Baj.

      Three NDP MLAs were at the event: Harry Bains, Bruce Ralston, and Raj Chouhan.
      Charlie Smith

      Jain noted that the Indian government is in the process of creating a permanent memorial at Baj Baj, which is near the West Bengal capital of Kolkota.

      "A whole lot of atrocities were heaped upon them by the then government—the British government in India—and some of them were killed," Jain stated. "Some of them were maimed, wounded, insulted, harassed, and pushed back on a train to Punjab."

      He acknowledged that the Komagata Maru incident is an "unwelcome blot" on the history of Vancouver, but emphasized the importance of preserving this story for younger generations.

      "This is a landmark place and a landmark event in the entire struggle of entire humanity against racism," Jain said.

      Prior to Jain's speech, India's consul general in Vancouver, Ravi Shankar Aisola, said that those gathered should not forget the sacrifices made by "our ancestors because of race".

      He also saluted the Ghadar movement, which was founded on the west coast of North America, for fuelling the anticolonial movement in India.

      Local Ghadar activists were deeply involved in supporting Komagata Maru passengers who were stranded in Vancouver's harbour.

      "I don't have to tell you the importance of the Komagata Maru and what it means to all of us," Aisola said.

      Event organizer Naveen Girn noted that the Komagata Maru would have been visible from where he was speaking.
      Charlie Smith

      An organizer of the event, Naveen Girn, pointed out that the passengers were just out in the harbour not far from where he was speaking.

      "This land that we're standing on is the dream that they wished to have," Girn said. "In a sense, us being here and building our lives in Canada is a fulfillment of that dream, which is a responsibility and a privilege as well. It's always a privilege to be on this land that we're on."

      Musqueam First Nation weaver and artist Debra Sparrow delivered the opening remarks. She looked across the harbour to Stanley Park and told a story of another forced displacement from that era.

      "It was the home of my great grandmother—who was escorted by a musket out of the park that was her home," Sparrow said. "There is much history here that none of us are aware of."

      The dignitaries heard several speeches, including one from the Musqueam First Nation's Debra Sparrow.
      Charlie Smith



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