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The Independence of India: A Canadian Context

famous speech titled Tryst with destiny. By Priya Verma This August 15thwill mark India’s Independence Day and is celebrated to commemorate its independence from the British rule and its birth as a self-governing nation in 1947. It is hard to imagine that a flourishing nation such as India has only been independent for the last 62 years. It has a rich history and extraordinary customs. Being a South Asian myself, I can recognize the journey and be grateful to my ancestors who fought the front lines for freedom and to make India was it is today. On June 3rd, 1947, Viscount Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British GovernorGeneral of India, announced the partitioning of the British Indian Empire into India and Pakistan, under the provisions of the Indian Independence Act 1947. At the stroke of midnight, on August 15th, 1947, India became an independent nation. This was preceded by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance..... We end today a period of ill fortune, and India discovers herself again.” India did wake to a new life and paved the way for a bright futurewhere it could step out from the shadows of the British. India began to carve a new identity for itself. Indians moved forward and never looked back at the life of oppression, tyranny and ill fate that began not so long ago. This is a national holiday in India and is celebrated all over the country with flaghoisting ceremonies and no celebration is ever complete without the distribution of sweets. The main celebrations take place in New Delhi, which is the nation’s capital. The Prime Minister raises the Indian flag at the infamous Red Fort and tributes are paid to all leaders who were a part of the movement for freedom. There were many leaders who were a part of the freedom movement such as Mangal Pandey, Gandhi and Subash Chanderbose who gave up their lives to fight against the British rule. Their

names will be forever remembered and their struggle marked an end of the oppression of Indians, however, there were others who were fighting on the other side of the world. As Indians battled, many of them began to move overseas to escape the British. They heard about great lands and opportunities in North America and saved up their money to set sail to a new world. Indians were coming to Canada and were so eager to start over and embrace the land. This was a one-sided welcome, as Canada and its government were not at all ready to embrace Indians and all they had to bring. The fight for India’s independence continued, but within a Canadian context – the brown invasion. There were numerous attempts made to stop this “brown invasion” in Canada. Many came with the dream of finding work in order to improve their economic situation. Upon arrival in Canada, they encountered numerous hardships and discrimination. Canada felt that the increasing number of South Asians would take over their jobs and through these uncertainties; British Columbia passed strict laws discouraging the immigration of Indians to Canada. These laws were unfair and the Canadian government pressured steamship companies to stop selling tickets to Indians. In 1907, a bill was passed denying all Indians the right to vote. They were prohibited to run for public office or serve on juries.

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In 1914, the Komagata Maru was an absolute challenge to such exclusionary laws. The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steam liner chartered by an affluent businessman, Gurdit Singh, to bring Indian immigrants to Canada. The ship departed from Hong Kong and the passengers included 376 Indians. The ship was eventually turned back at Vancouver where landing was refused. The ship upped-anchor that very day with 150 Sikh passengers. When the Komagata Maru made it to Shanghai, a German cable company had sent a message to the German press and announced that the Komagata Maru was leaving from Shanghai for Vancouver on April 14th with “400 Indians on board”. In turn, the news was picked up by the

British press. A Vancouver newspaper, “The Province”, published this news report under the heading of “Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver” and “Hindu Invasion of Canada,” hence the name the “brown invasion.” The news of its departure reached the British Columbian authorities. Their instant reaction was that “Hindus would never be allowed to land in Canada.” The Indians who had already settled in Canada had also started to prepare for the arrival of the Komagata Maru. There were meetings held in the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) around what to do. The community collected money and such to help the passengers upon their arrival in Vancouver. On May 23rd, 1914, the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver and anchored near Burrard Inlet. The Canadians wanted to send the ship back to where it had originated. The Indians on the other side had lawyers, money and other provisions ready to help the passengers in any way they could. The Canadian authorities did not let the passengers leave the boat claiming they had violated the exclusionist laws. The claim was that the ship had not arrived via direct passage and most passengers did not have the $200 that would have allowed them to enter British Columbia. Following this, for two months the passengers of the Komagata Maru, the Indians in British Columbia and the authorities of British Columbia were involved in an intense legal battle. In the end, only 24 passengers were given permission to legally stay in Canada. Finally, on July 23rd, 1914 the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Victoria harbour and return to Hong Kong. The stories of the fight of India and its people have shown how strong they truly are. The community is tightly-knit and is a backbone for one another. They did not back down against the British or the Canadians and today we can see that India is a country with so much to offer and has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In Canada, Sikhs and Hindus both have one of the highest populations and more specifically, the largest Sikh community resides in British Columbia today. So, mark August 15th on your calendar and let’s all join in the celebration of India’s independence both across the world and right here at home. ■

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