27/10/2015 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Canada Has More Indian-origin MPs Than Ever, But Let's Not Forget The Sikh Victims Of 'Komagata Maru'

The Komagata Maru
SFU - University Communications/Flickr
The Komagata Maru

The Canadian federal election was a triangular contest. However in the end, voters tired of the long run of robotic PM Stephen Harper, gave an unexpected majority mandate to the Liberals pulling them out of the political wilderness of several years. As such, there is little difference in policy terms between the outgoing Conservatives and the Liberals. Both parties share broadly the same neo-liberal platform, including support for the sinister Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The difference is largely on less serious issues like legalising marijuana and overseas military involvement. The latter is not of much consequence, as Canada is neither known to be a martial nation nor possesses a war machine of any significance.

The recipe for the Liberal victory comprised the youthful charisma of Justin Trudeau and promises of public expenditure on broken infrastructure.

"Canadian polity and society only felt the pressure to be more inclusive and relax racist restrictions against Asians when millions of people were displaced at the end of World War II."

What is most gratifying for Indians about these elections is the largest ever contingent of successful candidates of Indian origin - a total of 19 MPs, double the number of Indians in the previous Parliament. I believe that this is an appropriate juncture to remember the struggles and hardships of early Indian emigrants. While the Indo-Canadian community has fervently and consistently celebrated their valour and pioneering spirit, the story needs to be told to Indian folks back home.

Contrary to the majority view, the transformation of Canada into a multicultural society has been far from smooth. Both on popular and policy levels, native Canadians have always believed in biculturalism, recognising only British and French cultures as the defining elements of its national character. Canadian polity and society only felt the pressure to be more inclusive and relax racist restrictions against Asians when millions of people were displaced at the end of World War II.

In his book White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Towards Orientals in British Columbia, Peter Ward summarises this widespread hostility to Asian immigrants. In the last chapter of this book, he writes:

"From the late 1850s to the early 1940s anti-Orientalism was endemic in British Columbia. White society feared and disliked the Asian minority in the community and made its feelings abundantly clear in thought, word and deed. While prejudice was by no means universal within the province, the racist consensus was nevertheless extremely broad. For the most part those who dissented from it kept their council to themselves. Once ingrained in the white mind, racist assumptions remained fixed there for a century.

It was in such hostile environment, between 1905 and 1908, that some 5000 Indians, mostly Sikh villagers driven by economic compulsions of continuous droughts and neglect by the Imperial government, arrived in Canada. Instead of welcome, they faced discrimination and ridicule and assaults on a daily basis.

Wilfrid Laurier, Canada's first francophone prime minister, and well known for his policies of conciliation between French and English Canada, felt in his great wisdom that Indians were "unsuited to live in the climatic conditions of British Columbia and were a serious disturbance to industrial and economic conditions." The British Properties Covenant against Asians and Blacks specified where they could live, work and travel and whom they could employ.

There was even a (failed) state-sponsored attempt at mass transfer of Sikh farmers out of Canada to Honduras. But the major event of historic proportions was yet to happen.

In 1908, the Canadian government passed orders raising the money in possession each immigrant had to have while entering Canada from $25 to $200. It also instituted a direct voyage regulation, which prohibited entry of people into Canada unless they came "directly from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship."

"It is a story of the narrow-mindedness and indifference of the then White community in Canada..."

On 23 May 1914, a ship named Komagata Maru, carrying 376 Indian nationals, all subjects of the British Empire, arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong via Shanghai and Yokohama. It wanted to enter another British-dominion state -- Canada. It was a fair enough expectation on moral grounds at least, but the Canadian law of direct voyage instituted in anticipation to thwart such efforts at immigration in Canada prevailed. Only a couple of dozen of the passengers were allowed to stay in Canada, while 352 people were sent on a long and harrowing journey back to India. Upon their return to Calcutta's shores on 29 September, the ship's passengers were seen as a threat by the British who opened fire, killing 19 people. Those who escaped with their lives were either imprisoned or kept restricted to their villages. It was a tragic end to a journey that began with hope.

Like many other episodes of a similar magnitude, the story of Komagata Maru also exists on several planes and consists of several streams. It is a story of Sikh entrepreneurship, who once freed from poverty and ignorance, dreamt of owning shipping fleets, proudly donning their native identity. It is also a story of hundreds of poor Indians who desired to venture into faraway land to make better life through hard work. It is a story of disillusionment of the Sikh community who were betrayed by those whom they served and for whom they made countless martial sacrifices. With the exposure of the hypocrisy of the British, many Sikhs were alienated and eventually joined the anti-imperialist Independence struggle. It is a story of the narrow-mindedness and indifference of the then White community in Canada who were willing to push away a vessel into the high seas with 352 human beings on board without adequate fresh water and rations for the return journey. It is a story of revolutionary Ghadar party workers who joined the event to help their fellow Indians albeit in accordance with their own methods based on their convictions.

Today, close to 30,000 Indians immigrate to Canada each year. Surely enough, all are integrated in reasonably seamless manner in the new society. It will be a befitting honour if at least some conscientious individuals visit the magnificent memorial of the Komagata Maru voyage before they embark on their citizenship ceremony.

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