With Prime Minister Narendra Modi trying hard to bolster ties with Canada, his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau has agreed to offer a “full apology” to India for sending Indian immigrants onboard Japanese ship “Komagata Maru” back to the South Asian country 102 years ago. Prime Minister Trudeau made an announcement in this regard earlier this week, signalling that he is a liberal humanist in the true sense. On Monday, the Canadian premier pledged to make a full apology in the House of Commons for the century-old slight against Indians, mainly Sikhs (or followers of Sikhism – a monotheistic religion that originated during the 15th century in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent).

Way back in 1914, the Canadian government turned away the Japanese ship, carrying 376 immigrants. The chartered “Komagata Maru” sailed into the Vancouver harbour on May 23, 1914. The passengers, mainly from India’s Punjab Province, were denied entry due to immigration laws at the time. The Canadian government also refused to allow them to disembark and the vessel sat in the harbour for two months. On July 23, the ship was escorted out to sea by a Canadian naval cruiser, HMCS Rainbow, which was an Apollo-class protected cruiser built for Great Britain’s Royal Navy by Palmers at Hebburn-On-Tyne in England. The cruiser was launched on March 25, 1891 and entered service in 1893. She was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910 and scrapped in 1920. Although the Japanese ship safely returned to Calcutta (now Kolkata, the eastern Indian city), at least 19 of its passengers were killed when British soldiers opened fire (when the passengers disembarked). Other passengers were jailed by the British rulers. The Japanese vessel was chartered by Gurdit Singh Sandhu, a Singapore resident who backed the Ghadar Party founded by Indians of the US and Canada in June 1913 to liberate India from the British rule.

Speaking at an event in Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau said: “The passengers of the Komagata Maru, like millions of immigrants to Canada, were seeking refuge and better lives for their families. With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly. As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not.” He also said: “That is why next month, on May 18, I will stand in the House of Commons and offer a full apology for the Komagata Maru incident.”

Although Trudeau admitted that it would not be possible for him to erase the pain and suffering of Indian Sikhs who live through the shameful experience by tendering an apology, he said that it would be the only way to show respect to the community.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had apologised for the Komagata Maru incident at an event in British Columbia in 2008. However, the Sikh community members wanted a formal apology in the Parliament. Trudeau had pledged to make an apology during his election campaign in 2015. For his part, Harjit Sajjan, the Canadian Defence Minister and first Sikh-Canadian to command a Canadian Army Reserve Regiment, said: “I am truly honoured by Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to the apology on the Komagata Maru incident.”

Meanwhile, the Indian government has welcomed Trudeau’s decision, saying in a statement that the Canadian premier is a liberal person and his move will win the heart of 468,673 Sikhs living in his country. After becoming the 23rd prime minister of Canada on November 4, 2015, Trudeau endeared himself to the Sikh community by inducting four Sikhs in his Cabinet. In fact, the Canadian Cabinet has more Sikh members than the Indian Cabinet. The number of Trudeau’s admirers across the world has been increasing since he came to the office. “I am honoured that two million people around the world have now ‘liked’ my Facebook page. Thank you to all two million of you!” stressed the PM.

During Prime Minister Modi’s three-day visit to Canada in April 2015, then Canadian Premier Harper described the two countries as “natural partners” in a new global economy. Harper also assured Modi that Canada would supply 3,000 metric tonnes of uranium to energy-hungry India, under a USD 254 million five-year deal, mainly to power Indian atomic reactors. The former Canadian PM gave the assurance almost four decades after bilateral co-operation in this sector was frozen over the South Asian country’s nuclear programme. The agreement for uranium supply, which came two years after prolonged negotiations following the 2013 civil nuclear deal between India and Canada, was signed after comprehensive talks between Modi and Harper.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]