"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

We must wake up to parallels between Komagata Maru and repression of Rohingyas Featured

The Komagata Maru brought 376 Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims to Canada, but more than 350 were forced to go back to India. The Komagata Maru brought 376 Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims to Canada, but more than 350 were forced to go back to India.

Gurpreet Singh 

If the attitude of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India toward Rohingya refugees is any indication, it is repeating the history of the Komagata Maru

In 1914 the Japanese vessel carrying more than 300 South Asian passengers from India was forced by the Canadian government to leave from Vancouver's harbour and go back to British-ruled India.

The decision was made under a discriminatory immigration law that was passed to keep Canada as a white man's country. These passengers had come to Canada as British subjects to earn their livelihood and both India and Canada were under the British monarchy.

When the ship arrived, there was a widespread racist backlash from the media and right-wing politicians. Under pressure from the white nationalists, the ship was forcibly returned.

When the Komagata Maru reached India, British colonial police suspected that many of the passengers might have turned into subversives.

Officers tried to arrest them upon reaching near Calcutta, resulting in a scuffle between the police and the passengers, Police started shooting, which left several people dead on September 29, 1914.

Only last year did the Canadian government formally apologize in the House of Commons for this racist episode.

While the Komagata Maru tragedy remains etched in the collective memory of Indo Canadians, the government of India, the country where many of them were born, is taking its society backward.

Following large-scale violence by Buddhist extremists and the Myanmar army targeting the mainly Muslim Rohingyas, thousands of refugees are now seeking shelter in India on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. A minority of these refugee claimants are Hindus.

The refugee crisis was triggered by army repression following an attack by Rohingya militants seeking autonomy and citizenship rights for their people.

But the right wing BJP government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not willing to accept them with open arms.

Some are raising security concerns, citing the Rohingya militancy that they claim might spill over to India if these refugees are admitted.

The more hawkish BJP supporters have gone to the extent of suggesting that only Hindu Rohingya refugees be allowed to stay and Muslims be sent back.

Such hateful statements are no different from messages directed at Komagata Maru passengers and other South Asian immigrants by white supremacists in Canada more than a century ago. Back then, they emphasized that immigration from  India would create problems.

They even threatened Edward Bird, a lawyer who defended the ship's passengers, much as the BJP supporters are attacking people on social media who are defending Rohingyas. 

Social justice activists within the Indo Canadian community cannot overlook this connection.

For those who care about the history of the Komagata Maru struggle it has become even more relevant today in the light of Rohingya refugee crisis.

It's not only the right wing government in India but Canada's Liberal government that also needs to be made accountable for what is happening in that part of the world where a section of the population has become stateless.

After all, Canada has given the leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, honorary citizenship for fighting against military regime in the past.

As she remains complicit in the crimes against Rohingyas, the Canadian government that claims to be a human rights leader in the world should take away her honorary citizenship. 

What binds Kyi with Modi and U.S. president Donald Trump is that they are all indulging in populist politics that survives on majoritarianism.

In the name of security, all three governments are scapegoating Muslims to polarize Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians, respectively.

If Trudeau is really sorry for what happened to the passengers of Komagata Maru 103 years ago, he should now stand up for Rohingyas, as he is the only hope in an international political world that's increasingly dominated by the extreme right. 

Gurpreet Singh is a broadcaster and the cofounder of Radical Desi magazine.

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Last modified on Saturday, 23 September 2017 16:54
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