Indo-Canadians welcome Trudeau’s decision to apologise for Komagata Maru

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, Toronto
  • Updated: Apr 18, 2016 13:42 IST
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau (centre) at the Gurdwara Sahib Ottawa Sikh Society in Ottawa, Canada. (Reuters)

Indo-Canadians have welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to make an apology in Parliament over the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when Canada turned away more than 350 Indian migrants seeking a better life.

The apology will be delivered in the House of Commons on May 18, days prior to the 102nd anniversary of the Japanese ship Komagata Maru’s arrival at Vancouver harbour.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the apology on behalf of the government relates to the incident where “376 passengers of mostly Sikh descent arrived in Vancouver and were refused entry into Canada due to the discriminatory laws of the time”.

Trudeau made the announcement during a Vaisakhi celebration in Ottawa. He said, “As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not.”

He added, “An apology made in the House of Commons will not erase the pain and suffering of those who lived through that shameful experience. But an apology is not only the appropriate action to take, it’s the right action to take, and the House is the appropriate place for it to happen.”

Tejpal Singh Sandhu, whose great-grandfather Gurdit Singh had chartered the ship to bring the people to Canada, was among those who welcomed Trudeau’s announcement. Sandhu’s grandfather, then seven, was among those on board.

Sandhu, a truck driver based in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, told Hindustan Times: “This is a matter of great happiness; achcha hain.”

Tejpal Sandhu’s great-grandfather Gurdit Singh (front/first from left), who organised the Komagata Maru voyage with his son, Balwant Singh, then just seven, with other passengers of the Japanese steamship in 1914. (Picture courtesy: City of Vancouver Archives)

He was planning a trip to India in May but is trying to postpone it and exploring the possibility of attending the Parliament sitting at which Trudeau will deliver the apology.

“It should have happened a long time back,” said Kuldip Thandi, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society that runs the historic Ross Street Gurdwara in Vancouver.

The gurdwara was involved in providing support and succour to the stranded passengers of Komagata Maru while it was docked at Vancouver for nearly two months in 1914.

The gurdwara also houses a museum dedicated to the episode. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the gurdwara and the museum during his official visit to Canada last April.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper had formally apologised to the Sikh community for the Komagata Maru incident during an event in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, eight years ago. The community’s demand that an apology be delivered in Parliament has finally been met.

Passengers aboard the ship Komagata Maru when it was in Vancouver harbour in 1914. (Picture courtesy: City of Vancouver Archives)

The steamship Komagata Maru arrived near Vancouver harbour on May 23, 1914. Immigration authorities refused to allow the majority of passengers to come ashore, citing the discriminatory Continuous Passage Regulation, a law which mandated that immigrants arrive in Canada directly from the home country.

The passengers had a standoff with authorities. On July 23, the resistance was overcome and the ship was escorted away by a British cruiser from Vancouver and back to India.

On its arrival at Budge Budge in Calcutta, British police boarded the vessel and attempted to arrest the leaders of the passengers who they considered to be insurgents.

In a resultant riot, 19 passengers were killed and more than 200 arrested in what came to be known as the Budge Budge Riot..

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