This weekend when America is observing Memorial Day, a federal holiday, to honor its soldiers killed in action, another kind of Memorial Day is being observed by Sikhs all over, especially settled in Canada, for those who were killed or suffered because of the Komagata Maru historical incident that happened in Canada over a century ago.
The Komagata Maru incident began on May 23, 1914 when a Japanese steamship attempted to dock in Vancouver. It had departed Hong Kong a month earlier. Of the 376 passengers aboard, 340 were Sikh, 12 were Hindu and 24 Muslims from India – also subjects of the British Empire. Sir Richard MacBride, then Prime Minister of British Columbia, refused to let the ship board. “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean the end, the extinction of the white people and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country,” he said. A popular song in parts of British Columbia at the time was ‘White Canada Forever’. A section of the lyrics reads “We welcome as brothers all white men still, But the shifty yellow race, Whose word is vain, who oppress the weak, Must find another place”. It took two months for the court of appeal to rule against the Komagata Maru passengers. The conditions of their temporary stay were far from comfortable. Canada’s navy escorted the ship out of its waters.
The British feared that those aboard had intended to start a rebellion (Ghadar) upon arrival in India. When the Komagata Maru arrived at the Budge Budge, Calcutta, on September 27, 1914, the passengers were deemed political agitators. The British wanted to arrest the organiser Gurdit Singh Sandhu and other political ‘agitators’. This political standoff ended in bloodshed as the British killed 19 people who attempted to flee the ship. Those who had successfully fled were tracked down and imprisoned. Others were put under house arrest until World War I ended.
In 1952, then Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated a monument to those killed in the incident, near the Budge Budge. The monument is locally known as the Punjabi Monument and is modelled as a ‘kirpan’ rising up toward the sky. Many travel great distances to honour the dead each year on September 29.
A plaque commemorating the 80th anniversary of the arrival of Komagata Maru was placed in the Vancouver harbour in 1994.
A monument in remembrance of the Komagata Maru incident was unveiled in July 23, 2012. It is located near the steps of the seawall that lead up to the Vancouver Convention Centre West Building in Coal Harbour.
A stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Komagata Maru was released by Canada Post on May 1, 2014. The first phase of the Komagata Maru Museum was opened in June 2012 at the Khalsa Diwan Society Vancouver Ross Street Temple.
In response to calls for the government of Canada to address historic wrongs involving immigration and wartime measures, on May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a formal "full apology" for the incident in the House of Commons:
“ Mr. Speaker, today I rise in this house to offer an apology on behalf of the government of Canada for our role in the Komagata Maru incident. ... More than a century ago, a great injustice took place. On May 23rd, 1914, a steamship sailed into Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. On board were 376 passengers of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu origin. Those passengers, like millions of immigrants to Canada before and since, came seeking better lives for their families, greater opportunities, a chance to contribute to their new home. Those passengers chose Canada. When they arrived here, they were rejected.
No words can erase the pain and suffering they experienced. Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it fully and sincerely, for our indifference to your plight, for our failure to recognize all that you had to offer, for the laws that discriminated against you so senselessly, and for not apologizing sooner. For all these things, we are truly sorry. ... Just as we apologize for past wrongs, so, too, must we commit ourselves to positive action, to learning from the mistakes of the past and to making sure that we never repeat them. That is the unique promise and potential of Canada.”
Thus concluded and erased for ever over a 100 years old black chapter on anti-Sikhs racial policy from the pages of Canada’s history, around the same date when it was written on arrival of Komagata Maru on May 23, 1914.