Komagata Maru descendants in Ottawa for PM Trudeau’s apology

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, Toronto
  • Updated: May 18, 2016 12:13 IST
Tejpal Sandhu’s great-grandfather Gurdit Singh (front, white bearded), who organised the Komagata Maru voyage, is seen with his son, Balwant Singh, then just seven, and other passengers of the Japanese steamship in 1914. (City of Vancouver Archives.)

Around 20 descendants of the voyagers on the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru will witness an apology to be offered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament for the discrimination against those passengers in 1914 .

The group is in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, at the invitation of the government and will be in the House of Commons when Trudeau makes the apology on Wednesday afternoon.

Among the descendants is Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of the Families of Komagata Maru Society, and a resident of Vancouver. He was elated that their struggle for a formal apology in Parliament will culminate successfully within 24 hours.

“This is a proud moment for all Indians; their sacrifices were for us,” said Toor, whose grandfather Puran Singh, then just 24 and a student, was aboard the steamship when it was not allowed to dock in Vancouver harbour by Canadian authorities 102 years ago. 

Officials at that time had cited the discriminatory Continuous Passage Regulation, a law which mandated that immigrants arrive in Canada directly from their home country. After a standoff that lasted weeks, the ship was escorted away from Canada by a British cruiser.

When it returned to India, British police boarded the vessel at Budge Budge near Kolkata to arrest some passengers who they considered insurgents. A riot ensued, and 19 passengers were killed and more than 200 arrested. 

Toor said his grandfather, also a freedom fighter in India, harboured bitter memories of the episode and refused to emigrate to Canada.

His brother Raj Toor said he had met Trudeau, when he was the opposition Liberal Party leader, in front of the historic Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara in Vancouver in 2014. “I had asked him about this and he said if he became PM, he would make an official apology. He has kept his word. We also want to thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Indian government’s support.”

Also present will be Tejpal Singh Sandhu, from Brampton, a Toronto suburb. His great-grandfather Gurdit Singh had organised the journey and chartered the ship, and had been accompanied by his then seven-year-old son. “I’m grateful to God that on this day I’m here in Canada. I feel great, excited,” Sandhu said.

The descendants will be in the Speaker’s Gallery in the House and will have a direct view of the apology as it is delivered after Question Period, to be followed by remarks by others MPs cutting across party lines.

On Tuesday evening, Christy Clark, the Premier of British Columbia, the province where Vancouver is located, hosted a reception for those who had arrived in Ottawa.

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