'Hate Crime,' Says Punjabi Diaspora as Komagata Maru Memorial Is Defaced in Canada

On August 22, white paint was splattered on the wall of the Memorial bearing names of victims of the 1914 act of racism.

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Jalandhar: The historic Komagata Maru Memorial situated at Coal Harbour in Vancouver, Canada, was defaced on Sunday, August 22, leading to resentment among the Punjabi diaspora who termed it a “racist attack”.

White paint was splattered on the wall bearing the names of the victims, white handprints were also visible and ‘893 YK’ had been written on it. No sooner did the incident come to light, videos went viral on social media with many demanding strict action against the culprits.

While the Vancouver Police is investigating the incident, the City of Vancouver sent its team to clean the graffiti on the memorial wall.

The Komagata Maru steamship had reached Vancouver’s Coal Harbour on May 23, 1914 from Hong Kong via Japan. The ship was carrying 376 Indians, including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India and Far East, who had claimed right of entry as citizens of the British Empire. The passengers wanted to disembark but most of them were not permitted to land because of ‘Continuous Passage Order’ and other prejudicial regulations which left them stuck on the ship for two months with dire conditions.

After two months of mental harassment, racial rhetoric, legal battle and opposition at the hands of the locals, Komaghata Maru left Vancouver harbour on July 23, 1914 and returned to India.

‘Third such incident’

National Director of Khalsa Aid Canada, Jindi Singh, was visiting Vancouver Coast with his family on Sunday when he noticed that the Komaghata Maru memorial had been vandalised.

Talking to The Wire over the phone from Vancouver, Jindi Singh said that he was shocked.

“I immediately made a video, shared it on Twitter and tagged the City of Vancouver for prompt action. Later, the police started an investigation. Nobody knows the exact reason behind this but it is possibly an act of hate crime. The wall had handprints with white paint and ‘893 YK’ written on it. This is the third such racist incident in the past few years at Komagata Maru Memorial,” he said.

Jindi Singh said the City of Vancouver should install CCTV cameras so that no such racist acts never take place.

“Punjabis across the US, the UK and India were asking us about this incident. Even fellow Canadians were upset and have expressed shock over the graffiti,” he added.

Notably, Jindi Singh’s uncle Mangal Singh was aboard the Komagata Maru, when the ship was returning from Vancouver’s Harbour in 1914. “After this tragedy, my uncle went back to India but was arrested by the British. It was only after India got Independence in 1947 that my uncle reached Canada,” he said.

Also read: Komagata Maru Incident a Stain on Canada’s Past, Says Trudeau in Apology

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed shock over the incident and wrote on Twitter: “The vandalism of the Komagata Maru Memorial in Vancouver is a despicable act of hate.”

Rachna Singh, MLA from Surrey Timber Greens and parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, said, “By defacing the Komagata Maru Memorial, you can’t erase the racist history and racism. A lot of historic wrongs have taken place in Canada. What happened with Indians on Komagata Maru is part of Canada’s history and we can’t ignore it. Tackling racism is a big and challenging issue. Earlier also, a man had urinated at the memorial in 2013 and he was caught by the police. We need a concrete plan to stop this from happening in the future and build an anti-racist society,” she said.

The MLA’s husband Gurpreet Singh, who is a broadcaster with Spice Radio in Vancouver, said that in 2013, a white man had hit the picture of the boat’s passengers with a soccer ball, abused and then urinated on it in the presence of a South Asian community activist at the memorial.

“When the incident took place in December 2013, the Vancouver Police had let off the accused claiming that he was mentally challenged. This time, we hope that the police will do justice to the aggrieved community,” he said.

‘Remembrance of extreme racism’

Surrey-based Canadian Jaswinder Toor, the leader of the descendants of Komagata Maru ship passengers and associated with Khalsa Diwan Society, termed this incident as “unfortunate”. “Komagata Maru Memorial is a remembrance of extreme racism. I am a descendent of a Komagata Maru victim and there are many others who too faced this racism,” Toor said.

When the Komagata Maru ship arrived at Coal Harbour on May 23, 1914, it was Khalsa Diwan Society that had helped the passengers with food and water. Later, the memorial was build with the joint efforts and funds of Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver and British Columbia, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Community Historic Recognition Program with the support of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

Toor’s grandfather Puran Singh from Ludhiana was also aboard Komagata Maru when it was turned back. “If even after 100 years, racism exists, then there is need for more education. Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Africans, Blacks all should join hands to educate people about racial abuse,” he added.

Gurpreet Sahota, a Surrey-based Punjabi journalist, also categorically said that this was clearly an act of racism.

Also read: Canada’s Long Overdue Reckoning With Its Colonial Past

“Racism increased in North America after former US President Donald Trump came to power. Under his leadership, rightwing supporters became active and many cases of hate crime were reported against immigrants of all descent. Though the police are investigating the incident, lack of security and CCTV cameras are resulting in the crime. Let us not forget that Canada is an immigrants country but primarily of the indigenous people – the First Nations, about whom we are hearing a lot in the news these days,” he pointed out.

Passengers aboard the SS Komagata Maru in 1914. Photo: James Luke Quiney fonds/City of Vancouver Archives/AM.

Earlier, Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan also tweeted about the incident and said, “The act of vandalism at the Komagata Maru Memorial in Vancouver is heartbreaking. The descendants of the ship and many Canadians have fought to recognise this part of our history and educate Canadians. This ignorant act won’t deter us from sharing their stories.”

Leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party Jagmeet Singh also said in his tweet, “The Komagata Maru represents a painful part of our history. This act of vandalism is wrong and it’s hurtful. This memorial embodies the perseverance and resilience of a community – that will remain long after the paint has been removed.”

‘Possible hate crime’: Vancouver Police 

In its official statement posted on the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) website, the police said that they are “collecting evidence after someone defaced the city’s Komagata Maru memorial Sunday. Police are treating the troubling incident as a possible hate crime”.

“Front-line officers and other specially trained investigators worked throughout the evening yesterday, and will continue to gather evidence in this disturbing time,” said Sergeant Steve Addison of the VPD. “This investigation is a priority, and we are committed to finding out who is responsible and why they did this.”

VPD immediately launched an investigation Sunday.

“This monument is an important memorial to the people who travelled here seeking a better life and were wrongfully turned away because of racist policies,” added Sergeant Addison. “It is disheartening that someone could show such disrespect to this important memorial, and we had like anyone with information to come forward.”

Kusum Arora is an independent journalist.