Canada, Sikhs and apologies
What happened in 1914? Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship that sailed from Hong Kong carrying 376 Indians — 340 of them Sikhs — to Canada. But when the ship finally arrived in Vancouver after a long and arduous journey, the Canadian government refused to let the passengers come ashore.
Komagata Maru was ordered to head back while the Indians in Canada fought pitched legal battles to delay the departure. The ship sat in the harbor for more than two months. The desperate migrants even attacked the Canadian police showering them with lumps of coal and bricks. Eventually when the ill-fated ship returned to Calcutta with its miserable human cargo, it faced the wrath of the British colonial powers in India. At least 19 passengers were killed in clashes with the police while the rest were jailed.
Obviously, the Komagata Maru tragedy wasn’t the first of its kind involving the ‘boat people’ — the fellowship of migrants and hopeless dreamers who put their lives on the line to make it to that imagined paradise at the end of the rainbow, on the far side of the world. Yet it caused quite a stir internationally.
Although it hasn’t quite received the attention it deserves in India, it has long been part of the emotional lore of the strong Sikh community in Canada. This is why Stephen Harper, Trudeau’s predecessor, had apologized at an event in British Columbia in 2008. However, the Sikhs have sought an official apology before Parliament. Which is what Trudeau has promised to do next month.
Given the current mood in the West against the migrants and at a time when Western politicians are calling for sinking ships of refugees and building high walls to keep out the ‘illegals’, Trudeau’s promised apology for what is not even seen by many as a crime shines like a ray of hope in the deepening doom and gloom all around us. What was Trudeau thinking, apologizing for something that he or his family hadn’t even been remotely connected with, when crimes far more serious in nature have been shrugged off?
The British are yet to acknowledge their shenanigans during their long colonial rule. We haven’t heard a word of apology for the coldblooded, Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. Or for the wholesale slaughter in Delhi and elsewhere that followed the 1857 war of independence. The Japanese have forever been bowing in remorse for the excesses committed during their occupation of the Korean peninsula, China, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore etc.
However, one hasn’t heard a word of remorse for the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for that matter for the all-consuming Western wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia that claimed millions of innocent lives, besides totally ravaging these countries.
The Americans are yet to acknowledge the elimination of the indigenous population and their whole civilization.
Who would apologize to the Algerians, Libyans and other Arabs for colonial crimes? German and European politicians have repeatedly expressed remorse for the Jewish Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. But who would apologize to the Palestinians for gifting away their country and their very identity to strangers born thousands of miles away?
Who would wipe the tears of Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, Pakistanis and many, many others whose countries have been destroyed in the name of war on terror?
Tony Blair is prepared to apologize for the Irish potato famine of the 19th century but cannot bring himself to say ‘sorry’ for the million lives he and his neocon friends squandered in Iraq.
Back home in India, no one has ever apologized to tens of thousands of innocents killed in thousands of religious riots and pogroms.
No one has ever acknowledged, let alone apologized, for wrecking thousands of innocent lives and careers in the name of fighting terror.
Mohammed Aamir was 18 when he was picked up in 1998 from an old Delhi by-lane and was put away for 14 years. He was implicated in 19 terror cases. He’s out now having honorably been acquitted. No apology will bring back his lost years though. And there are hundreds of Aamirs out there, as Harsh Mander suggests.
Talking of apologies, how about offering one to Kashmiris. They have buried thousands of their loved ones over the past few decades for the sin of being born in the Himalayan paradise.
Another example of the state’s complicity in the organized slaughter of a minority is that of Gujarat 2002. Those responsible have not only evaded accountability all these years, they do not even betray a sense of remorse, let alone apologize.
The whole world watched the 2002 horror unfold on their television screens for months. Fourteen years on, it seems as if we are still stuck in that time warp. And truly enough, without genuine remorse, not a heartless, convoluted analogy of puppets coming under cars, the ghosts of Gujarat cannot be put to rest.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “In almost every language, the most difficult words are ‘I am sorry’.” The Nobel Laureate should know. He forgave the worst tormentors of his people, as did the fellow South African, the great Nelson Mandela.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) offered general amnesty to his sworn enemies after the fall of Makkah. Jesus advised: If anyone slaps you on the right check, turn to them the other cheek.
That was the way of the prophets. Lesser mortals perhaps cannot be so magnanimous. When hurt, it’s only human to expect penitence.
Without acknowledgement of guilt, there’s no reconciliation. There’s no moving forward. And mind you, as Tutu warns, spurious reconciliation only leads to spurious healing. Of course, no apology can put back the clock nor can it bring back the dead. The dead do not need an apology. But it can go a long way in administering a healing touch.
The long-festering wounds may not miraculously vanish overnight but they could hurt less. And remember this may be the only opportunity of atonement. No such possibility in the life next.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.
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