Trudeau apologises: Making common cause of Komagata Maru | punjab | Hindustan Times
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Trudeau apologises: Making common cause of Komagata Maru

The Komagata Maru, a collective symbol of standing up to racial discrimination against Canadian immigrants, has found its way into cinema, literature and art. Filmmaker Ali Kazimi, who migrated from India to Canada in 1983, says: “The Sikh community has led and continues to lead the struggle for recognition of the history of the Komagata Maru (1914 rejection of the Asian migrant ship), but it does fill me with dismay to sometimes see this history being defined in narrow religious terms.”

punjab Updated: May 20, 2016 10:58 IST
Nirupama Dutt
The Komagata Maru passengers in 1914.
The Komagata Maru passengers in 1914. (HT Photo)

The Komagata Maru, a collective symbol of standing up to racial discrimination against Canadian immigrants, has found its way into cinema, literature and art. Filmmaker Ali Kazimi, who migrated from India to Canada in 1983, says: “The Sikh community has led and continues to lead the struggle for recognition of the history of the Komagata Maru (1914 rejection of the Asian migrant ship), but it does fill me with dismay to sometimes see this history being defined in narrow religious terms.”

A 1889 poster luring immigrants to Canada. (HT Photo)

Delhi-bred Kazimi (55), whose 2004 documentary film ‘Continuous Journey’ based on the incident was acclaimed internationally as “a story of immigration and injustice, about equal rights for all citizens as long as they are white-skinned. Extremely beautifully crafted and told, this is a film that shows historical footage in a way never seen before”, is now chair of the department of cinema and media arts at York University, Toronto.

Encounter with gatekeepers

What inspired Kazimi to make the film? His reply in an online interview is: “When I arrived in Toronto in 1983, I had an interesting encounter with an immigration officer, and that experience drove home the power of these individuals to act as gatekeepers for Canada. I also asked myself the simple question — why was it that Canada had started describing itself as a multicultural country only recently? This led to an exploration of early immigration history and various forms of “exclusions” against so called Asiatics — Chinese, Japanese and South Asians. Inevitably, the Komagata Maru appears in this history. Most Canadians, including communities from South Asia, were unaware of this history completely.”

Ali Kazimi and Tariq Malik. (HT Photo)

special moment came for Kazimi at a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru held at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, in 2014, when city-based academic professor Harish Puri stated publicly that the film had inspired a new wave of research. Several artists have acknowledged that watching ‘Continuous Journey’ inspired them to engage with the history of the Komagata Maru, as have many academics. Taria Malik, who wrote the novel ‘Forgotten Shores’; painter Raghu Rao; musician Neelamjit Singh; and theatre director Ravi Jain are among the dozen-or-so creative people to have acknowledged this either publicly or in private. Kazimi also went on to do an illustrated history on the Komagata Maru called ‘The Undesirables’.

Slice of history

Vancouver-based novelist Tariq Malik (60), born and educated in Pakistani Punjab, also does not see the Komagata Maru episode related to any one community. The author of the well-appreciated book on the incident, ‘Chanting Denied Shores’ (2010), says in an online exchange: “The Sikhs have done a remarkable job of preserving and escalating awareness of the Komagata Maru event but this history does not belong solely to them. Agreed, most of the Komagata Maru passengers (340 of 376) were Sikh; but 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus were also on board. It is as much a Canadian history as any experienced by a local minority. Furthermore, the issues of official apologies on regional and national levels keep the event in the limelight.”

Before migrating to Canada in 1995, Tariq Malik worked for 20 years in Kuwait as a manufacturing quality manager. What was his Canadian experience and how did it inspire his novel?

Malik replies: “When I migrated to Canada in 1995, I was surprised to find so many Punjabis among the locals. I uncovered a long Canadian history that linked Punjab to British Columbia, stretching all the way back to 1880s. Central to this local history is the pivotal event of the Komagata Maru in the summer of 1914. No one had yet treated the subject as a source for a full-length novel. I hoped to raise awareness about this shameful incident of Canadian history beyond ‘the great divide that separates our immigrant community from the established locals”.

Pride and prejudice

When asked why this harking back to the Komagata Maru in Canada by writers, filmmakers, and others? Malik’s answer is: “I believe the injustices of the past cloud all our presents, and that there are obvious lessons to be learnt from such events.” He adds: “Racism and the resulting social injustices do not belong to the past alone. Even though modern Canada is an increasingly egalitarian society, the minorities, immigrants, and native societies here still struggle daily with the legacy of past prejudices.”