On May 23, 1914, the Japanese ship, Komagata Maru, arrived at Burrard Inlet outside the city of Vancouver in the Canadian province of British Columbia. However, with discriminatory immigration policies in place, the nearly 400 passengers, mostly Sikhs from India, were prevented from disembarking, and two months later, the ship was escorted out of the harbour and back to India.
The centenary of that historic event in Canadian history is being observed in several ways in Canada, among them the issuance of a special stamp by Canada Post. Hundred years later, the irony of that commemoration is that the CEO of Canada Post, Deepak Chopra, is of Indian origin.
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.
Now, a century later, multiple events are being held 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.
Several memorial events will also be held on May 23. These include a public dedication at the Harbour Green Park, overlooking Burrard Inlet. Vancouver will also witness a centennial welcome gala and stamp release. The events are intended to “fill in the gaps in the narrative,” said Naveen Girn, project manager for Komagata Maru 1914-2014: Generations, Geographies and Echoes, a program, which in Metro Vancouver is “collaboratively commemorating” the episode.
Girn described the event as “a black mark in Canadian history”, but one that led to the Indo-Canadian community getting politicised. While many aboard the ship were already linked to the Ghadar movement, after it occurred, several became radicalised.
Hugh Johnston, Professor Emeritus of History at the Simon Fraser University, said, “It’s immensely important. Hardly another ethnic group has had as dramatic a starting point in Canada.” Johnston, author of the seminal Voyage of the Komagata Maru, said the Indo-Canadian community’s “persistence, success and constant agitations for change” since then have led to equitable immigration to Canada. And the emergence of a vibrant Indo-Canadian population has led to the recognition of the significance of the Komagata Maru episode, as he said, “If the community hadn’t had success in the last 40 years, we wouldn’t be paying attention to this.”
Canadian PM Stephen Harper apologised in 2008 for the incident on behalf of the Canadian Government. And, in a statement released to announce the commemorative stamp, Canada Post CEO Chopra said, “Canada Post’s stamps tell the stories of our history. But we don’t just commemorate our heroic events; our nation is also shaped by the failures of its past.”