Komagata Maru Centennial: To remember, without forgetting

NISHANT UPADHYAYTHE last few weeks have been marked by a number of events across the stolen indigenous lands, we commonly know as Canada, commemorating 100 years since Komagata Maru arrived at the shores of Vancouver on May 23, 1914. I have been humbled to witness many such events and conversations in Victoria and Vancouver and in the online world. Needless to say that such commemorations, ranging from art events, academic workshops, and community gatherings, and in some instances ‘celebrations,’ are very needed and critical. They are important as they help us remember the past and the injustices, and potentially give us the imperative to continue fighting for social justice.

As we remember, reflect and organize around Komagata Maru and its legacies, however, let’s not forget that it was not just an ‘unfortunate event’ in Canadian history, rather it is a present that still maintains a ‘white Canada’ by continuing to colonize stolen lands and excluding people on the basis of their colour. While most of the conversations have been critical of the racist policies 100 years ago, hardly very few of them have engaged with contemporary realities of racism and exclusion. Much may have changed in 100 years, but not much has changed really. We do disservice to the legacies of Komagata Maru if the conversations are limited to …‘Canada was racist once 100 years ago but now it’s a great nation’ … ‘we are proud to be here’ … ‘thankful for the glories of Canadian mulitiulturalism’ … ‘we have made it and Canadians appreciate us for our labour, culture, and samosas’ … etc.

Learning about the Komagata Maru, not very long ago, was a very informing political and emotional moment for me. The Komagata Maru’s history helped me critically understand how intertwined histories of South Asia and Canada are through processes of colonialism, racism and white supremacy. It helped me see how the Canadian nation project was founded on the logics of exclusion of the racial other, the non-white communities, in two interconnected but differing processes: colonization of indigenous peoples and lands and racially excluding communities of colour from the nation-state. It also allowed to me see how these processes of colonialism and racism still maintain and produce the Canadian nation-state. Critical interrogation of the Komagata Maru history has also been valuable in teaching South Asia within a transitional and anti-colonial framework. The history is also unsettling and affective as it demonstrates the precarity and violences of race and racism.

Rather than framing Komagata Maru as a rare unfortunate event in Canadian history and (limitingly) as South Asian Canadian history, the incidence of Komagata Maru has to be understood intersectionally as the history / making of the empire, colonial and racist pasts and presents of Canada, and histories and legacies of colonialism in South Asia. This framework unmoors the Komagata Maru and allows for more critical engagement with (settler) colonization of indigenous peoples and lands and complicities of communities of colour in these processes, pernicious legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, heteronormativity, broadening of South Asia to include MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady into the analysis, and critical of current and ongoing processes of racial exclusion in Canada.

The absence of MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady from the analysis is very telling. The Ocean Lady arrived in October 2009 with Tamil fleeing genocide in Sri Lanka. Seventy-six Tamil refugees were detained. Similarly, MV Sun Sea arrived in Vancouver carrying 492 Tamil refugees in August 2010. All on board were immediately imprisoned. The Conservative government had insisted that all the refugees on board were terrorists and smuggled in. Mass detainments of Tamil refugees aboard Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea followed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the Komagata Maru in 2008. These obvious connections between Komagata Maru, Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea have been absent from most conversations. While it is important to look at the history of Komagata Maru with a Sikh lens, we lose way too much if that remains the primary lens. How can we challenge Sikh exceptionalism within South Asian Canadian history and anti-Tamil racism within South Asian communities, decentre India from South Asia, and not evade analysis of legacies of colonialism and racism within the empire, Canada and ‘postcolonial’ South Asian states?

This centenary should not be marked as a celebration or remembrance but rather as a critical moment to evaluate past and ongoing processes of colonialism and white supremacy and how to forge critical solidarities with other racialized communities rather than claiming to be ‘model minorities’ who are thankful to the great Canadian nation. Seriously.

Nishant Upadhyay is a researcher, writer, educator and performer based out of Mississauga of New Credit Territories (Toronto). He is currently a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Social and Political Thought, York University. He teaches Introduction to South Asian Studies at York.