Gurpreet Singh: Looking beyond the Komagata Maru apology

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      On May 18, Canada finally apologized for the Komagata Maru episode. The Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the House of Commons to say sorry for the incident that happened more than 100 years ago. 

      Approximately 300 people of South Asian ancestry were in attendance when Trudeau asked for forgiveness. The Japanese vessel with more than 350 passengers from India was forced to return in 1914 under discriminatory immigration laws designed to prevent permanent settlement of South Asians in Canada.

      The B.C. government made an official apology in the legislature in 2008 and the same year, former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized at a public event in Surrey. By making an apology for the first time in Parliament Trudeau has fulfilled his election promise made to South Asian voters last year. So much so, the interim leader of the opposition Conservative party, Rona Ambrose, welcomed the apology that drew heavy applause from South Asians both inside the parliamentary chamber and outside.

      Trudeau stated that this was an injustice against Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims who came to the shores of B.C. as British subjects for a better livelihood. India was a British colony back then whereas Canada had achieved independence, but was still under the monarchy in a constitutional sense.

      Most South Asian participants came all the way from B.C. to attend the historic moment. B.C. premier Christy Clark also joined them and sat in the gallery to witness the apology. Sikh religious slogans of victory were raised by those in attendance. The leaders of the New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and Green party also made statements to welcome the apology, which was unanimously supported in Parliament.

      Sahib Thind heads the Professor Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation, which advocated for years for an apology inside Parliament.
      Gurpreet Singh

      Trudeau made a special mention of the first Sikh defence minister in cabinet. Ironically, Harjit Singh Sajjan formerly headed a B.C. army regiment responsible for turning away the Komagata Maru ship. Trudeau said that had Sajjan's ancestors been on the ship, they too would have been forced to return. He also acknowledged the signature campaign of Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation that was started 15 years ago to pressure the Canadian government for the apology. The foundation's leader, Sahib Thind, also flew in from B.C. to receive the apology.

      Also present on the occasion were Jas Toor and Raj Toor, whose maternal grandfather was aboard the ship. The Toor brothers represent the families of the descendants in B.C. They both expressed their satisfaction over the apology. 

      Several members of the Khalsa Diwan Society, the oldest Sikh religious body in Vancouver, were also in attendance. Notably, the Khalsa Diwan Society had helped the passengers of the ship. Harminderpal Singh, a Sikh priest at the Khalsa Diwan Society who went to Ottawa, said that the society accepts the apology and is willing to forgive Canada in accordance with the Sikh philosophy that teaches human beings to forgive those who genuinely feel remorseful.

      Cutting across ideological lines, leaders from both the moderate and fundamentalist camps attended the event. Whereas Ambrose recognized the role of the Sikh community in helping the people of Fort McMurray, which was recently hit by a forest fire, the NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, reminded everyone that racism still prevails in Canada.  

      Following the event, Trudeau personally greeted the visitors, many of whom were seen taking selfies with him. Later, copies of the apology were circulated among the visitors.

      Ironically, later in the evening a reception was hosted at a building named after the first prime minister of Canada, the late John A. Macdonald, who had insisted on keeping Canada as a white man’s country. Some said that it was a fitting thing to hold the celebration at this venue as it represents a victory for the truth.

      Khalsa Diwan Society leaders (left to right) Jarnail Singh Bhandal, Gurdeep Mundi, Kuldeep Thandi, and Gurdeep Singh Gill, leave Parliament after the apology.

      Whereas the apology has won the hearts of most South Asians, there are several aspects that need to be looked into. The most striking feature of the apology was that it was mainly directed at the Sikh community, whereas passengers aboard the ship belonged to different faith groups. Certainly, Trudeau took special care of this on the day of apology, but the NDP leader, Mulcair, ended his speech with Sikh religious greetings, which are generally exchanged during a religious event. A day before, Clark also emphasized the presence of the Sikhs on the ship at a reception hosted by her on behalf of the people of her province. 

      Though a majority of the ship passengers were Sikhs, it was not just a Sikh story. Gurdit Singh, who charted the vessel, clearly wrote in his biography that he had created religious space for Hindus and Muslims on the ship as he believed in people’s unity.

      Since the British were interested in keeping the people of India divided along religious lines, they saw any movements toward unity as a threat to their power. It is for this reason that the pro-British Sikh clergy ostracized Gurdit Singh after the Komagata Maru incident. Despite these facts, politicians simply indulged in pandering to a dominant religious group within the South Asian community settled in Canada.  

      Another important aspect of the apology was that both Clark and Mulcair rightfully tried to link the past with the present. While Mulcair has been consistent on the issue of ongoing high-handedness against refugees and immigrants in Canada, Clark was somewhat selective in her approach.

      Justin Trudeau speaks after the apology as Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan looks on.
      Gurpreet Singh

      Mulcair reminded the gathering that the Tamil refugees were mistreated under the previous Conservative government, which makes the history of Komagata Maru even more relevant today. Clark, to an extent, did a good job by bringing up anti-immigrant rhetoric across the border in the U.S. where the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has been making offensive statements against Muslims and other immigrants. Clark said that bigotry in politics still goes on, but she never explicitly condemned the Conservatives for doing their actions in Canada.

      Those who have been campaigning for apology must also reflect upon their brand of activism critically. To ask for an apology for something that happened a century ago is one thing, but there must be a real involvement in grassroots activism on issues currently challenging visible minorities and marginalized communities.

      In particular, the Khalsa Diwan Society, which has a history of activism, failed to question the previous Conservative government about its anti-immigrant policies on behalf of the community. Even a right wing prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was given a warm welcome in the Ross Street Sikh temple governed by the body in 2015.

      Modi's Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party has been involved in hate politics and violence against religious minorities.

      Some critics also noticed the negligible presence of female community activists at the receptions hosted by Clark and the federal government. When the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver's harbour, Indian immigrants were barred from bringing families. But today when there is no such challenge, not enough female activists were seen in the forefront of these events. 

      Overall, however, the apology is a welcome step. But it should leave everyone wondering whether it really means anything regarding the political will to eradicate systemic racism in a nation built on stolen lands of the indigenous peoples, who continue facing discrimination in Canada.

      Winning the hearts of a politically strong Sikh community is one thing, but winning the trust of the original inhabitants of Canada is a herculean task. This fact also has to be acknowledged by Sikh leaders who feel indebted to Canada for giving them respect.

      After all, their daily prayer ends with an appeal to god for the well-being of the entire humankind. So rather than getting carried away by the appointment of Sajjan as the first Sikh defence minister or the apology, they need to see that Canada has never been nice to its First Nations. Rather than romanticizing Canada as a utopia or heaven, there is a need to build bridges between the communities that share histories of racism and colonialism if we want to create a fair and just society.