Komagata Maru incident remembered in Canada

Published Date:   Saturday, May 24, 2014

Komagata Maru incident, that marks the rare courage of the Gurdit Singh to fight against injustice by the then Canadian Government towards Sikhs community was remembered recently with the commemoration with a series of events including introducing a postal stamp in Canada. The Komagata Maru incident was largely forgotten in Canada, even though it ended in a tragedy as on its return to India in late September, the British police boarded the ship in Budge Budge, a riot ensued and 19 passengers were killed in firing and over 200 arrested. Several events are being held recently in Canada to mark that watershed event. The Vancouver Maritime Museum is hosting the ongoing Komagata Maru: Challenging Injustice exhibition; The Surrey Museum has the multimedia Echoes of the Komagata Maru; The Surrey Art Gallery is showing Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru; and the Museum of Vancouver has two concurrent events.

Komagata Maru incident took place in 1914 has historical background. By the end of the Second World War, the British colonies were shrinking. In Canada and America, the immigration policies were very restrictive especially for the Asians in those days. Those who fled from the British Colonies to Canada and America were not even admitted as refugees. Many Punjabis arrived at shore of Canada were refused entry to the country. The news about the restricted and discriminatory immigration policy against the Asians spread like wild fire across the world. Many Sikh organisations and associations started registering their protest at the international platform and brought this issue to the world. Such scattered efforts did not yield result as desired by Indians. News about restricted immigration policy also travelled to Hong Kong where a sizeable majority of the Punjabis were living and working. In a courageous act, a Sikh Business man Gurdit Singh from Hong Kong organised some people and thought of hiring a Japanese vassal namely Komagata Maru to take 376 Indian passengers to British Columbia, Canada. The effort by Gurdit Singh was to protest against the restrictive immigration policy of the Canadian Government. The Japanese vassal was carrying Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. The message about the vassal reached to the Canadian Government. On arrival of the vassal, Canadian Government refused to allow the passengers onboard to enter into Canada. The Canadian Border Security Agency treated this vassal as illegal. It was termed as smuggling of human beings illegally into Canada by the government of Canada. A small number of passengers were allowed to enter into Canada and the remaining were sent back to the country of origin. Such act on behalf of the government of Canada got negative publicity across the globe. Not only India but other countries also stood by such step on the part of the Asians.

The resentment was high among the Asians against the government of Canada. Representation by various social as well as political bodies exercised tremendous pressure from all corners on the government of Canada resulting into change in the immigration policy in 1967. According to this new policy the immigrants were accepted on point systems rather than on race or country of origin.

The step taken by Gurdit Singh won accolades among the Punjabi Diaspora elsewhere. Today Canada is known to be a multicultural country where people from all countries reside. Punjabis over the time have established their solid presence by sending elected members to the parliament of Canada. Punjabis joined all kinds of professions in Canada. In a rare gesture of humility, the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, expressed apology to the Indo-Canadian community for the injustice done in the past during a public function. Gurdit Singh died at the age of 95 but left an imprint on the minds of the Punjabis for his courage and audacity to give light to this incident. 

The postal department of the government of Canada released a postal stamp to mark 100th anniversary of Komagata Maru Incident. By doing, the government of Canada won the hearts of the millions of Punjabis living in Canada.  

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