Young Indo-Canadians research historical journeys in India

September 7th, 2008 - 1:49 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Sep 7 (IANS) With a growing desire among young second generation Indians abroad to explore historical events that had a deep impact on the diaspora, two young Indo-Canadians have sifted through archival material in Delhi over several months to focus on significant journeys by ship and air.Alia Somani, a doctoral researcher, is looking at two events - the 1914 Komagata Maru incident when Indians travelling to Canada were turned away from Vancouver and the bombing of an Air India aircraft in 1985. Nalini Mohabir’s research is on the journey of a ship, MV Resurgent, which brought back the last group of Indian indentured workers from Guyana in 1955.

The metaphor of journey is important to migrants since migration is itself a journey, and the journey from home to the new land symbolises the distance travelled from home. Both Somani and Mohabir’s families have made several journeys in the past.

Somani’s family left Rajkot, Gujarat, to go to Tanzania and when the wave of Africanisation swept East Africa her parents moved to Canada. Mohabir’s ancestors left a village near Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh to go to British Guyana more than a hundred years ago and years later her parents migrated to Canada.

Somani, who is writing a book titled “Broken Passages”, deals with two events as journeys that were incomplete and connects them through the notion of broken passages. The passengers on the ship Komagata Maru, denied entry into Canada, had to return to India while the plane journey was radically disrupted and the passage was broken.

Both journeys had a sad end. “The Komagata Maru passengers were arrested when they returned to Calcutta (now Kolkata) on the suspicion that they may be part of the Ghadar Movement, while the passengers on the plane had their Canadian citizenship negated,” Somani explained.

The two events in Canada form a significant part of the creative work by Indo-Canadians in recent times. Many of the creative writers in Canada have returned to the image of a ship and a plane caught between the borders of Canada and India.

Well-known author Anita Rau Badami’s book “Can You Hear The Nightbird Call?” published in 2006 also dealt with the Komagata Maru incident and the bombing of Air India’s flight 182 as well as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India. Earlier, Bharati Mukherjee wrote a short story with the title, “Management of Grief” on the same subject.

A film called “Air India 182″ by Canadian filmmaker Sterla Gunnarsson created a stir when it was premiered in Vancouver recently. The bombing of Air India’s flight was a devastating terrorist act that led to the death of all its 329 passengers when the aircraft exploded just off the coast of Ireland. It resulted in a long-drawn- out investigation and trial that ended in 2005 when two of the accused, Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, were found not guilty and a third, Inderjit Singh Reyat, received a five-year sentence for manslaughter.

The docudrama reconstructed the bombing and the investigation into the crime by talking to the relatives of those who died in the plane crash. Of the 329 passengers on the Air India flight, 280 were Canadian citizens, many of them women and children.

One aspect of the tragedy that has rankled in the minds of Indo-Canadians is that Canada’s then prime minister Brian Mulrooney called up his Indian counterpart Rajiv Gandhi to offer condolences for India’s loss, but he made no gesture to the Indo-Canadians who had lost their kin in the terrorist strike.

“That single act symbolised the official Canadian response to the tragedy. It was as though the victims of the plane crash were not Canadians. Then the bungling and mishandling of the trial added to the pain of the families,” according to Somani. It was the world’s worst air disaster, but there was no urgency about its investigation in Canada.

The passage of the Komagata Maru epitomised Canada’s racial exclusiveness. Canada was a white nation in the early decades of the 20th century and used various devices to restrict the immigration of Asians. There was an unwritten quota for the Japanese while Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax, but Indians as British subjects could not be legally excluded.

Indian immigration was effectively barred under the clause that all immigrants had to reach Canada through a “continuous journey” from their homeland, for there was no direct shipping between India and Canada. The chartered ship, Komagata Maru, which sailed from Calcutta to Vancouver was meant to circumvent that clause. However, the passengers were not allowed to disembark.

Mohabir was fascinated with the voyage of the MV Resurgent and why the Indians wanted to return to India after so many years. The journey had a sad end for the majority of its passengers who found that India in 1955 was not like the imagined homeland they had left so many years ago.

According to Mohabir, even before the Resurgent was refuelled and readied for its return journey, there was a large group of returnees gathered at the dock, clamouring to be taken on board to return to Guyana.

(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at

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