Why the Komagata Maru is still important

Komagata Maru“From start to finish it is a sad story, but it is the story of my life….If my story paves the way for repetition of any such single inequity being impossible, on any one in the future, I shall die in happiness to know that I had done my duty”.

Gurdit Singh ~ The Voyage of the Komagata Maru Or, India’s Slavery Abroad


THE name “Komagata Maru” is filled with meaning.

On the surface, it is simply a ship that arrived in Vancouver in 1914 carrying 376 British Indian subjects. Only 24 were allowed to land and the rest sent back to India. Upon their return, World War One had begun and many of the passengers were arrested under suspicion of seditious activity. Many others were tragically killed in a riot the day they arrived.

Komagata MaruOn another level, these two words encapsulate so many negative aspects of the South Asian experience in Canada: exclusion, discrimination, and racism. While the community has overcome many systemic challenges, it would be too easy to see this as a positive narrative – from tragedy to triumph.

There are only a handful of histories from minority communities that are known. And the Komagata Maru is one of them. In fact, if you’re South Asian, the Komagata Maru is the only story we have that may have some national significance. And even then, only a small number have heard of it, let alone recognize its significance.

This is also why the centennial anniversary is such a valuable opportunity. The eight partners of the Komagata Maru 1914-2014 project are producing over 16 events that highlight unique aspects of the Komagata Maru episode. Over the course of the coming weeks I encourage you to read Sadhu Binning’s poetry, watch Shushma Datt and Belle Puri’ sdocumentary, witness the new Komagata Maru play, listen to Phinder Dulai’s upcoming work, hear Satwinder Bains discuss official apologies, and attend Ali Kazimi’s talk. From the descendants of Komagata Maru passengers, to distinctive film screenings, from rare artifacts to unique musical performances, this moment provides a platform for many vibrant, creative, and forceful artists, academics, activists (and various combinations of these three). Perhaps most importantly, all of us can create a living legacy where conversations, debates, and ideas that arises from this centenary can be sustained and woven inextricably into the central narrative of Canada.

Komagata MaruIn her poem “C-A-N-A-D-A: in the aftertime, there is always the before” poet Renee Saklikar writes that certain words release vibrations that echo through time to the present. These past traumas and historical injustices infuse the present moment and contextualize ongoing challenges. Through this endeavour we are reminded that the continuous flow of history never takes place in a silo.

Naveen Girn is the Project Manager for “Komagata Maru 1914-2014: Generations, Geographies and Echoes” featuring a group of 8 institutions across Metro Vancouver collaboratively commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru Episode (www.komagatamaru100.com)