Thinking of the continuing legacy of Komagata Maru



 A report on the Desi Dialogues at Cafe Kathmandu, Vancouver on July 20

AT this cafe, moderated by Summer Pervez, a group of 12 people held a vigorous discussion on the significance of the centenary of Komagata Maru. The discussion was positioned within the various events concerning the centenary in the Vancouver area. It was noted that these events were in marked contrast to the situation 25 years ago, when only a few people in the South Asian community were concerned with Komagata Maru and the general public not at all. The Premier of the province at the time, Bill Van Der Zalm, had even silenced an attempt to raise the issue in the legislature with a mocking comment. However, now there have been commemorative events in many places including public institutions, and the mainstream media have also been reporting on the incident.

But very little had changed at a deeper level in regard to the policy of the Canadian government toward immigrants of color from the global South. A meeting in Edmonton had pointed out that if Komagata Maru had come to Vancouver today the passengers would not just have been kept from disembarking but would have been put into prisons, many of them charged as criminals. Gurdit Singh would have been imprisoned as a “human smuggler.”

Any tendency to be smug about the positive changes in the status of our community should be tempered by the knowledge that those who come to these shores on boats today, as people from China and Sri Lanka recently have done, are not only treated as criminals by the government but face the same racist, exclusionary rhetoric from the media that the passengers of Komagata Maru did. The media and the government construct such immigrants and refuge seekers as illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists. And the public, even the South Asians who have now found their comfortable place as citizens, endorse these views just as the public did in the time of Komagata Maru.

Nor should we forget that there is a class as well as a racial basis to this exclusionary attitude. Those who come by boats such as Komagata Maru are vilified, imprisoned, or turned away. But the many more who come by planes generate no such assault of public outrage and are processed in the usual way.

We should also note that despite the apologies to the Chinese, the Japanese, and South Asian communities for past acts of conspicuous discrimination, the present government has pushed through an extremely discriminatory immigration act, Act C24, that has been severely criticized by immigrant justice activists and the legal community. This act makes family reunion more difficult and creates two tiers of citizenship, in which naturalized citizens only enjoy a conditional citizenship.

More blatantly than ever, the government has placed immigration in service of capitalism. While citizenship is made more difficult, the government serves the interest of business by increasing the number of temporary foreign workers who can be treated as indentured labour, without effective rights and always under the threat of deportation and blacklisting.

It was reported to the group that at one of the most important commemoration events held on Musqueam territory, the chief welcomed the South Asian guests saying that if Komagata Maru had arrived in pre-colonial Musqueam land the passengers would have been welcomed as the Europeans were when they first came on their ships. Just as imagining the arrival of Komagata Maru in our time revealed the continuity of the discriminatory racist-nationalist policies of the Canadian government, the imagining of Komagata Maru in the past of pre-colonial Coast Salish territory uncovered the foundation of these policies in colonialism.

Yet there was another lesson in this event, in which the food served was Indian. It had seemed to the person who reported this event that the First Nations were serving their usual ceremonial function in Canada today while South Asians were affirming their privilege of citizenship, of belonging in Canada. We need to remember that we live on unceded and treaty lands taken from the First Nations while the First Nations live as the most oppressed people on their ancestral territories.

Komagata Maru is a foundational event in the history of the South Asian community in Canada and remembering it is to place it in the consciousness of our youth to ground them in the past struggles of the community. Memory is an anchor of identity. But we must resist the attempt by some to claim it as the property of a particular group and use it as social and political capital, which serves the interests of political parties and governments. We must also resist the attempt to confine this story as a South Asian story and affirm it as a Canadian story, as a part of Canadian history. Its legacy is a lesson in historical injustice that should guide us toward the creation of a just society in Canada.

We should go even further and remember Komagata Maru as a part of the global history of migration, displacement, and quest for refuge on the one hand, and the increasingly restrictive and punitive practices on the borders of nation states on the other. There are 50 million refugees in the world today. Countless millions are internally displaced and innumerable people will face displacement as a consequence of climate change. In response to this the nation states that have been our reality for the last 400 years have increasingly fortified their borders with physical barriers, laws, violence, and prisons.

Remembering Komagata Maru should also make us reflect on citizenship in such a world, a world in which the rights and privileges of citizenship that we greatly desire also depend on the continued oppression of aboriginal people and the exclusion of those who want to cross our national borders.