Baba Puran Singh Janetpura was one of the student passenger in Komagata Maru when it landed on the shores of Vancouver. Raj Singh Toor, his grandson, recalls his grandfather’s journey and the decedents fight for the long awaited apology
The Komagata Maru came in May 23, 1914 with 376 passengers including my grandfather. His name was Baba Puran Singh Janetpura. He was a student in that ship. He was already well educated, having studied at an English-Language High School in Ludhiana, Punjab and had studied telecommunication at the University of Amethi.
He was coming to Canada for higher education. He was told that any Indian, part of the British Common Wealth would be welcome to study further in Canada. They were British subjects and they were also holding British passports. They were not illegal immigrants. He told us the Canadian government denied entry and did not treat them very well.
No food, water or medication was provided by the government. Only the local Sikh community provided them with food and water. The Mayor of Vancouver and other leaders were making racist comments and the Vancouver Sun and other media were making racist comments as well. The Komagata Maru was sent back to India after two months forcefully under the shadow of military ship by discriminatory law. The British were ruling India at that time, when Komagata Maru arrived in India, British troops shot them. Around 20 people were killed on the spot, many were injured and the rest of them were put in jail for a long period of time.
My grandfather served about five years jail term, when he was released the government put him on restriction so he could not go out of his village.
In protest most of the passengers joined the freedom movement including my grandfather. Finally India got free in 1947. Komagata Maru was the turning point in the India freedom movement. My grandfather Baba Puran Singh Janetpura was recognized by the Punjab, India government for his services and he played an active role in the India freedom movement.
Around 1968 my uncle sponsored my grandfather to come to Canada, but he refused. He said that he had a painful, bitter memory of Canada. He said that he would not go there, but the South Asian community would go there and would be very successful, and live happily and peacefully there. His word came true. Today the South Asian community is living very successfully, happily, and peacefully here.
Descendants of the Komagata Maru Society was lobbying and working more than 10 years for the Komagata Maru apology and we never asked for any compensation. The BC Government did apologize for this incident in the BC legislature building. I did witness this apology.
The Federal government too finally did apologize for this incident in the House of Commons on May 18,2016. Before the federal election, I had a couple of meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and I asked him, “If you form the government, would you apologize for the Komagata Maru incident?” He said, ” Yes, Mr. Toor”.
The Prime Minister office sent us an official invitation to witness the Komagata Maru apology in the House of Commons . We went there and sat in the speaker gallery in front of the Prime Minister.
PM Trudeau stood up from his chair and he apologized to the descendants of the Komagata Maru and the South Asian community. He gave us a respectful and a formal apology in the House of Commons.
After the apology, the descendants went into a separate room to have a photo session with the PM.
As the descendants of Komagata Maru, we are very happy, as during the tragedy, those 376 passengers suffered a lot and finally their struggle was recognized in the House of Commons. We want to thank PM Trudeau and his whole team who kept their promise.
We also want to thank the South Asian media, Canadian media, South Asian community and Canadian brothers and sisters for supporting us.
MP Ken Hardie, in the recognition of this event, presented me with an official transcript of the PM’s apology which bears his signature.
The Consul General of India, Vancouver Mr. Ravi Shankar Aisola invited the descendants of the Komatgata Maru families. He presented to us a certificate on May 18, 2015 that stated “providing invaluable service in preserving the legacy of the Komagata Maru”.
The Komagata Maru incident of 1914 was recognized as an event of national historic significance with National Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan unveiling a commemorative plaque from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Descendants of the Komagata Maru families were invited to the Vancouver Komagata Maru monument site. Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was also present.
The Komagata Maru and the South Asian Community’s history is more than a century old. This history should be taught in the schools, universities and museums. The government should give enough funding for this.
We cannot undo the past but we can move forward and leave a legacy for the future generations by educating them about the past. These students will be the future ministers and prime ministers and if they learn the history they will not repeat those same mistakes.
My grandfather used to say one day you could be rich, the next day you could be poor. You could lose everything, but the one thing that no one can take away is your education. So give more education to your children. As my grandfather said — the more you educate the society, the less discrimination there will be.
My grandfather passed away in 1974. In 1976 the Punjab government and our family built a hospital in his village Janetpura in his memory. About 6 villages near this hospital use their medical services.
By Raj Singh Toor
(A descendant of the Komagata Maru victim and spokesperson for the Descendants of Komagata Maru Society)