Governments apologising for acts committed generations ago do give a veneer, even if superficial, of turning a new page on the blemished past, but there’s competing politics involved. For the large Punjabi community in Canada, the long-sought apology from their adopted country for the Komagata Maru incident is not just about pride. It is a desire of acknowledgement of being part of the fabric and, hence, deserving of the nation’s acceptance that one of their own was wronged. Political parties well recognise the importance of symbolism, but only if expediency and emotional appeal carry enough weight to pull along non-supporters. In faraway Punjab, where seeking an apology and not apologising is often the measure of an MLA, the Vidhan Sabha has asked the Stephen Harper government to apologise for the 1914 incident.
The “White Canada” policy that intended to keep Indians out was challenged when 376 aspiring immigrants, mostly Punjabis, reached Vancouver aboard the Japanese ship. They were denied entry on the basis of the continuous journey regulation and forced to leave after two months. Upon their return to India, 19 died in firing by the British troops. This racist colonial oppression bolstered the realisation that if you are not free at home, you are not free anywhere. Komagata Maru and the Ghadar movement also changed the image of Punjab, which was seen as being inclined towards the British unlike Bengal.
The city of Vancouver has apologised, as has the province of British Columbia. Harper did say sorry for Komagata Maru, but not in Parliament. Since Narendra Modi’s visit to Canada is scheduled from April 14 to 16, the first such trip by an Indian PM since 1973, it is a good time for Ottawa to make amends. If a section feels an apology can change racial attitudes, what’s the harm in offering it?Backing the community in Canada is well taken, but not the Punjab lawmakers’ belief in symbolism. Their resolution, by the way, had no mention of whether the British should apologise for the killings. They haven’t done it for Jallianwala Bagh too. Maybe another quick resolution on the last day of the next session.