The Enduring Awkwardness of the Komagata Maru

Terry Glavin, National Post, April 8, 2015

History doesn’t lend itself to being abused and apologized for at the same time.

Leonard Frank/Handout/Vancouver Public Library Special Collections

In the way Canadians like to tell it, the story of the Komagata Maru begins on April 4, 1914, when Sikh emigrants from India, hoping only for a better life in Canada, board a ship in Hong Kong; after a series of disgraceful naval ambuscades in Vancouver Harbour the ship is forced to weigh anchor on July 23 of that year. The Komagata Maru steams all the way back to Calcutta, 20 of its passengers are killed in some kind of dockside melee, and the rest of the voyagers are imprisoned.

In the story’s denouement, Canada has constructed a kind of morality play, an allegorical drama of our national salvation from the shame and squalor of Canada’s racist past that places our redemption in Canada’s eventual law reform and repeal, repentance and contrition. There are apologies, plaque-unveilings and seminars, a federally-funded museum, booklets, exhibitions, and a commemorative stamp. That sort of thing.

But Canadians may soon be revisiting their revision of the Komagata Maru story. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting Canada next week. Only two weeks ago the legislative assembly in the Sikh homeland of India’s Punjab State called on him to demand that the Canadian Parliament apologize specifically to India for the “atrocities committed on the Indian people” during the Komagata Maru affair.

The Punjab Assembly says it wants something along the lines of the House of Commons’ apologies and restitutions arising from the 1885 Chinese Head tax and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Modi is expected to visit the Komagata Maru Museum and Monument in Vancouver. Things might get awkward. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology to Canada’s Indo-Canadians at a gathering of 8,000 Sikhs at a temple in suburban Vancouver, but his overture wasn’t accepted graciously, exactly. The complaint was that the apology should have come from the floor of the House of Commons, and it should have more closely resembled Ottawa’s elaborate regrets about the Chinese Head Tax and the Japanese internment.

Compounding the awkwardness of just who should be apologizing here, and to whom, and for what, is that the story India tells itself about the Komagata Maru has undergone some significant revision as well. It was not long ago that the 1914 voyage was widely regarded in India as something of an embarrassment, an ill-conceived operation put up by Sikh militants and other Indian radicals who were rather too rash in their patriotism.

The since-revised Indian version, which formally acknowledges the voyagers of 1914 as heroes, is closer to the mark than the contemporary Canadian telling of the Komagata Maru story. It’s not just because Canadians tend to leave out all the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary intrigue, the spies, the provocateurs and double-agents, the terror and counter-terror of the time. Most conspicuously absent in the Canadian version of the Komagata Maru tragedy are the villains of that ethno-religious foreign constituency that was most fervently determined to insinuate its belligerent chauvinisms into Canadian affairs at the time. I refer of course to the British.

For all the racist hysteria animating Canadians in 1914 (in the preceding year, roughly 500,000 immigrants had arrived in Canada, a number not exceeded in any year since) the larger drama that determined the pivotal events in the story of the Komagata Maru arose from the brutal, global reach of the British Empire. Its Canadian champions and shadowy agents were already busy manipulating Canadian immigration law and its enforcement in cunning anticipation of the Komagata Maru long before the ship’s arrival in Burrard Inlet.

It was a time when the British Empire was acutely vulnerable to insurrections among its subject populations. Only weeks after the Komagata Maru was barred from docking in Vancouver, the First World War broke out. To the Indian patriots behind the Komagata Maru expedition, the voyage was a win-win proposition.

Allowed to disembark, the passengers could organize the fight for Indian independence at greater liberty from abroad than they could under the crushing oppression and surveillance back home. If they were turned away, the injustice would expose a propaganda lie that was being marshaled to great advantage by the British imperialists in India: steady on, chaps, we’re all equally British subjects throughout the empire, aren’t we?

By its propaganda of the deed, the Komagata Maru proved that the Empire’s Indian subjects were not blessed by the rights of Englishmen after all, not by bloody half. The ship’s co-charterers, Gurdit Singh of Hong Kong and Bagh Singh of Vancouver’s Khalsa Diwan Society, were steeped in the maxims of the radical Gadhar Party. Its slogan: “What is our name? Mutiny. What is our work? Mutiny.” On the voyage to Vancouver, the ship’s passengers recited poems heralding the coming Indian uprising against the British. After the ship was turned back to India, Bagh Singh penned a tribute to the voyagers: “Death awaits us all, but when we know not; if it should come in heroic deeds, don’t fear it. Arise. Arise.”

In my old neighbourhood in New Westminster, the lovely Sikh Temple Sukhsagar, built in 1911, loomed out my kitchen window. Its langar, the ceremonial banquet room, is still called the Mewa Singh Hall, named after the Komagata Maru Shore Committee leader who assassinated the key British spy and principal troublemaker William Hopkinson in Vancouver in the weeks after the Komagata Maru was turned away.

Mewa Singh unapologetically confessed his crime, and was hanged for it. I wouldn’t propose that those who commemorate Mewa Singh’s memory every year have anything to apologize for, any more than one should want Prime Minister Modi to accede to the Punjab Assembly resolution and demand an apology from Canada for the Komagata Maru affair.

Modi’s problem is that the Punjab Assembly resolution was accompanied by a motion demanding that he apologize to the Punjab Assembly, on behalf of the Government of India, for its bloody 1984 Operation Bluestar campaign in Punjab which so brutally rooted out Khalistani Sikh separatists from Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

Should Canada then turn around and demand that the Punjab Assembly apologize to us for the 1985 murder of 329 people, mostly Canadians, in the bombing of Air India Flight 182? That operation was orchestrated by the Khalistani Sikh terrorist leader Talwinder Singh Parmar, whose Babbar Khalsa organization enjoyed refuge in the Golden Temple prior to Operation Bluestar.

History does not lend itself to being abused and apologized for, especially not at the same time. The endearing Canadian custom of sanitizing history and putting it to innocently uplifting and inclusive purposes, too, is bound to go sideways sooner or later.

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