Komagata Maru and the Politics of Apologies

In the past few weeks, much has been written about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s so-called apology regarding the Komagata Maru incident, which was delivered at the Gadhri Babian Da Mela (Martyrs Festival) in Surrey on August 3, 2008.

Much of the debate has focused around the apology needing to be made in the House of Commons in order for it to be afforded the respect and dignity it deserves. Many South Asian-Canadians have expressed that the racist discrimination inherent to the Komagata Maru incident in 1914 is being enacted today in the treatment of the community as second-class citizens who are not considered worthy of a full apology by the Conservative government.

A history of racist exclusion

In order to discourage South Asian migration, the Canadian government amended the Immigration Act in 1908 with the "continuous-journey regulation," under which travel to Canada required a continuous passage from country of origin and entry with at least $200 cash.

These measures were intended to reinforce a "White Canada" policy, in conjunction with for example the Chinese Head Tax, to restrict migrants of colour at a time when massive numbers of European immigrants – over 400,000 in 1913 alone – were entering Canada.

The continuous-journey regulation was dramatically challenged in May 1914, when 376 Indians arrived in Vancouver harbour aboard the Komagata Maru that sailed directly from Hong Kong.

The steamliner was not allowed to dock, deprived of food and water by Canadian authorities, subject to a legal challenge and intimidated and coerced to depart through use of royal navy boats. The Komagata Maru was eventually forced back to India and the regulation remained in effect until 1947.

Disingenuous apology

Beyond the location of the apology, other details surrounding the Komagata Maru apology have also revealed that the apology was indeed disingenuous. Consider, for example: Mr. Harper left the stage prior to hearing the response of the 8,000 people gathered, the Prime Minister’s office pre-screened and approved the thank-you speech that was to be given by organizers of the festival and Secretary of State Jason Kenney has insisted that "the apology has been given and it won’t be repeated."

In light of this, it is important to interrogate what is behind the string of recent Conservative government apologies. According to a May 16, 2008 Globe and Mail article:

"The motivation and timing behind the announcements are the subject of much debate…What is clear is that many of those Canadians most affected by these acknowledgments live in some of the most competitive ridings in Canada – particularly in British Columbia and Central Canada."

Crass electioneering?

So if not a genuine apology, what was this spectacle intended to do?

Government apologies – whether for the Japanese-Canadian internment, the Chinese-Canadian Head Tax, residential school system, or the Komagata Maru – have been politically expedient for the Conservatives as they are cognizant of their emotional appeal to a constituency that is otherwise cautious about voting for them.

From their perspective, savvy politicians are acutely aware that these apologies are not intended to further a substantial discourse about the state’s responsibility and complicity in perpetuating racist subjugation or to bring about practical change in peoples’ daily lives. It is in fact just the opposite: through the politics of symbolism, it is a painless way of achieving closure while reinforcing the superficial veneer of Canadian multiculturalism and benevolence.

While formal acknowledgment from governments – particularly in light of their resistance to doing so – are one part of a reconciliation process, movements pushing for government apologies rarely further the demands for restitution, reparations, transformation of power, abolition of a repressive system or solidarity with other communities. Instead they often reinforce (whether intentionally or unintentionally) a "model minority" syndrome by seeking equality and monetary compensation with and from an oppressive and colonial state that continues to marginalize and silence through legislating and institutionalizing social discipline and exclusion; through shaping the population’s productivity through the power to grant or withhold citizenship; through expropriating indigenous lands and resources; through the project of imperialist occupation and it’s racist civilizing presumptions; and through the protection of exploitative social and class relations.

Such apologies are also a form of political opportunism that seeks our blind loyalty and gratitude for a government that is hypocritically perpetuating similar realities in the present. There is a strong temptation when hearing an apology, particularly for an incident that happened almost one hundred years ago, to think that amends have been made and that racism is in the past.

In response to the Harper Government’s recent apology to Indigenous residential school survivors, the Quebec Native Women’s Association issued a statement:

"In order for this apology to be considered genuine, more efforts must be undertaken to correct current oppressive measures under the Indian Act that prevent Indigenous peoples from prospering socially, culturally, politically and economically… And while we may recognize the Government’s admission of guilt, the fact remains that many obstacles must be removed in order to give meaning to the spirit and intent of their apology."

Genuine apologies would address current injustices

Sid Tan, President of the Chinese Canadian Chinese Council and the B.C. Coalition of Headtax Payers has cautioned, "The historical injustices of the Chinese Head Tax are being replicated today through Canada’s exploitative guest-worker programs and restrictive immigration policies."

"The descendants of these policies will be demanding apologies in future decades. We should deal with this present reality and not just dwell on the past, especially if a history that we are supposed to have learnt from is repeating itself."

Similarly, the Komagata Maru is not a story of one century ago; it is a story about today. News about immigration visa delays and restrictions; daily reports on racial profiling and no-fly lists; escalating workplace raids and deportations; and the Safe Third Country Agreement are the stories of today, happening right now.

Ali Kazimi’s award-winning film Continuous Journey highlights the clear, yet often suppressed, links between the Continuous Journey Rule of 1908 and the present day Safe Third Country Agreement. This 2004 agreement will not allow (with minor exceptions) asylum-seekers into Canada if they first arrive in the U.S, thus forcing most asylum seekers to make a non-interrupted journey through North America and has resulted in at least a 40 per cent decrease in refugee applications in Canada.

This devastating reality will only change by our determination and dedication to actively struggle against these repressive measures.

The sacrifices of the 376 migrants aboard the Komagata Maru must be honoured. These heroes challenged not only the nature of exclusionary immigration laws of Canada, but, as leaders or sympathizers of the revolutionary pro-independence Ghadr party, they also understood how their treatment in Canada was related to their status as subjects of the global British Empire. In a little known fact, upon return to Calcutta, India in September 1914, the Komagata Maru was stopped by a British gunboat and the passengers were placed under guard. A riot ensued and the British-Indian police opened fired killing a significant number of passengers.

The realities of political and economic migration today are similarly contextualized within a system of global apartheid and neo-liberal rule that demarcates the asymmetrical relations between rich and poor, North and South, citizen and subject.

It is a moral obligation, a moral duty, for human beings to change unjust social orders and to not be easily blinded by the false expectations – and in this case false apologies – rendered by governments to placate us; to always be vigilant; to never be silent or desensitized in the face of injustice; and always to remember that the legacy of the Komagata Maru teaches us that no human being – whether our ancestors or our future generations – deserves less than a full measure of justice and our solidarity.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Indo-Canadian Voice.

Harsha Walia is a Vancouver-based activist and writer.

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