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India, Canada and the lost voyage of Komagata Maru

The ship that returned to India in September 1914 has come to symbolise a struggle to rid this world of borders and not to draw new ones.

India, Canada and the lost voyage of Komagata Maru

FLASHBACK: India and Canada must remind themselves of the heroism and hope that Baba Gurdit Singh (front row, left) kindled in the hearts of his brothers and sisters. Vancouver Public Library

Vikramjit Singh Sahney

Rajya Sabha MP

NATIONS truly evolve when they do not abandon the truths of their past. Today, two custodians of democratic ideals — Canada and India — are embroiled in a diplomatic row. Amid worsening bilateral ties, India has told Canada to withdraw around 40 diplomats from the country. This row is erasing from public memory the significant history of migration and the sacrifice of great men who enabled trade and movement between the two.

The year was 1914; over 300 Sikh residents of British India boarded Japanese steamship Komagata Maru in the hope of disembarking on the shores of Canada. The ship was compelled to return to Budge Budge, a port town near Calcutta, and the Indian imperial police attempted to apprehend the leaders of the group on their arrival. A violent clash followed, resulting in the death of 22 persons.

A man named Gurdit Singh is worth remembering today in the context of the souring relationship between India and Canada. He was well aware of regulations on immigration and knew that Canadian officers were empowered to turn back Asians who arrived with less than $200. In November 1913, a Canadian judge overruled an immigration department order for the deportation of 38 Punjabi Sikhs who had entered Canada on Japanese liner Panama Maru. He clutched onto that judgment, but fate had other plans for Gurdit Singh, who began planning another voyage. Back then, exclusionary policies were prompted by racial prejudice and fears of economic competition from cheaper labour.

To challenge the duplicity of a country that was promoting progressive values on the one hand and suppressing the entry of labour from economically poorer nations on the other, Gurdit Singh came up with an elaborate plan to charter a ship from Calcutta to Vancouver in the hope of opening windows of opportunities that had been shut on his brothers and sisters from India – searching for nothing more than an opportunity to work harder and live better.

When the Komagata Maru eventually docked at Budge Budge in September 1914, Baba Gurdit Singh was arrested by the imperial police. He resisted the arrest and lived in hiding until Mahatma Gandhi urged him to surrender and come forward as a patriot who was proud of having done what he did. In 2008, on the 94th anniversary of the ship’s arrival in Vancouver, Canada’s British Columbia provincial assembly apologised for the Komagata Maru incident, admitting to the discriminatory immigration policy that once favoured white immigrants. In 1952, Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated a memorial in Budge Budge that stands in the shape of a mighty kirpan pointing to the sky.

The current diplomatic row was sparked by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s allegations that the Indian government was behind the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the chief of the banned Khalistan Tiger Force. For years, the Khalistan issue has been an albatross around the neck of both democracies. Today, Sikhs account for about 6 per cent of the population of British Columbia. By 2019, 18 Sikh MPs had been elected to Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons. Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside India, which is why it became an easy target for separatist groups to inflate their agenda’s scope and reach, but even that has not dented the communal harmony among Sikhs and Hindus coexisting in Canada. These ties stem from our composite culture and from the history of India’s Independence. In a foreign land, it is language, culture and nostalgia that draw people closer, erasing from their minds the differences of faith. Today, when we see Indian-origin individuals heading Google, Microsoft, IMF and World Bank and running the White House and 10 Downing Street, we see them as Indians, not as Hindus or Sikhs. Our hearts are filled with pride because their success encapsulates the success of our motherland’s values.

Separatists, by definition, are those who want to project a sense of identity that is fundamentally irreconcilable with the nation. The media narrative that equates the majority’s aspirations with the ideology of those on the fringes has, time and again, questioned the patriotism of the Sikhs in North America. The majority does not idolise the likes of Nijjar or Gurpatwant Singh Pannun but carries within its heart an undying flame for heroes like Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh. Perhaps, consistent expression of their thoughts on global forums would have helped establish a fairer narrative woven around the rich history of valour and piety of the Sikhs.

As a section of the media packages and sells the Khalistan issue in a manner that benefits its perpetrators, it also ends up projecting the global Sikh community as a militant monolith. This is a great disservice not just to sons and daughters of the soil who are making efforts to represent their nation internationally, but also to those who laid down their lives so that India could secure freedom.

Sociologically speaking, when a community migrates, it collects over the years shared struggles; it bonds over similar patterns of survival in foreign countries; it comes closer through its belief systems. Be it through food banks or blood banks, the indomitable spirit of charity and brotherhood has come to define the Sikh diaspora not only in Canada but across the world. To reduce the intent of an entire community that has crossed shores in search of a better life to sinister intentions of separatism and violence is brutally unfair. Incidents like these heighten diplomatic tensions, but their impact on a community’s morale is much worse.

If Nijjar’s story is doing the rounds today, India and Canada must also remind themselves of the heroism and hope that Baba Gurdit Singh kindled in the hearts of his brothers and sisters on either side of the oceans. That one ship that returned to India has come to symbolise a struggle to rid this world of borders and not to draw new ones.

#Canada #Komagata Maru #Sikhs #Vikramjit Singh Sahney

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