When the government of B.C. declared May 23 as Komagata Maru Remembrance Day in 2020 at the request of Raj Singh Toor, he was hoping to see more information about the incident included in the official document.
This spring, Toor got his wish. The province made the updated proclamation last week, as part of an effort to confront Canada’s racist and discriminatory history and to stand with the diverse populations who call B.C. home. The proclamation states that the day of remembrance should be dedicated to spreading awareness about the inequalities faced by South Asians and other racial minorities in B.C.
Toor wanted the proclamation to include bits of history of the Komagata Maru incident, including the number of people who were killed.
There are 15 families across Canada who are direct descendants of Komagata Maru passengers, and Toor is a member of one of them. He is also the spokesperson for the Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society, based in White Rock.
Toor’s grandfather, Puran Singh Janetpura, who hoped to continue his education in Canada, was a passenger on the ship, which arrived in Vancouver Harbour on May 23, 1914, carrying 376 Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers from British-India, each hoping to be granted entry into Canada.
However, Janetpura and the rest of the passengers were not allowed to enter the country and instead spent two months on the ship in Coal Harbour before they were sent back to Kolkata, India.
“They were starving, they were thirsty, they were getting sick. They had a very painful, hard time. The ship was sent back, forcefully, under the shadow of a military ship,” Toor said.
When the ship reached India, imperial troops were waiting to arrest passengers who had joined the freedom movement, standing up against the British government that was ruling India at the time. They wanted to see the country once again be independent from Britain.
This caused a riot to break out, during which 19 people were killed.
Toor’s grandfather was captured and put in prison. He served a five-year sentence. Even after being released, the British government placed a restriction on Janetpura, which prevented him from leaving his village.
Janetpura’s efforts to fight for India’s freedom were finally recognized, when he was honoured by the Punjab government in 1962.
In 1968, Janetpura’s relatives in Canada offered to sponsor him to join them, but he refused, saying he had a “painful, bitter memory of Canada.” He lived out the rest of his life as a farmer in India.
Toor said he is carrying on his grandfather’s legacy of fighting for justice for those affected by the events of the Komagata Maru. The first step was getting an apology from the province, and by the request of the society, the B.C. legislative assembly apologized on May 23, 2008.
“We are the ones who suffered in losing loved ones and who deeply shared the pain of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents being rejected by Canada in 1914,” he said.
On July 8, 2019, the city of Surrey approved Toor’s request to change a part of 75A Avenue to Komagata Maru Way, which Toor was able to unveil.
Komagata Maru Remembrance Day should be a time of reflection and education about everything that the South Asian community suffered in 1914 at the hands of the Canadian government, Toor said.
“We can’t undo the past, but we can move forward and leave a legacy for future generations.”