Kesar Singh Bhatti has something more than his administrative tasks at Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver to ponder these days.
Bhatti, 80, volunteers three or four days a week at the Sikh temple on Ross Street. Most of the time, he’s busy with work related to two projects: construction of a monument and of a museum in memory of the Komagata Maru incident.
The Canadian government agreed last year to fund the projects to commemorate the 1914 incident in which Canada invoked laws that discouraged immigration of Asian people and denied entry to 352 Indian immigrants on board the ship Komagata Maru.
“The incident has been a sore point among Southeast Asians, particularly Indo-Canadians and specifically Punjabi Sikhs,” said Bhatti, the senior vice president of the Sikh organization.
Besides a formal government apology in the parliament, Bhatti said he wanted a museum and a monument in memory of the incident so future generations could know about the injustice.
Related: What is Komagata Maru incident?
Sahib Thind, the president of the Prof. Mohan Singh Memorial Foundation of Canada, and others want the Canadian government to apologize in the House of Commons. The foundation, formed in memory of the Sikh literary figure, has been lobbying for the apology.
“A memorial … before an apology in House of Commons would further insult, mortify and demoralize the South Asian community,” Thind wrote in an open letter published in the South Asian Post in October.
Museum at Sikh temple
When the government invited applications for funds under the Community Historical Recognition Program, Bhatti, on behalf of the society, applied for $2.5 million. The government agreed to provide $1.5 million — $750,000 for the monument and $750,000 for the museum.
Now the completion of the projects by the March 31, 2012 deadline has become the most important task in Bhatti’s life.
“Older people are going and mostly they are gone, ” Bhatti said. ‘‘There are very few people who know about those things like Komagata Maru. It is important to establish something so it’s there all the time for our generations to see.”
A retired engineer, Bhatti said the building on the east side of the temple will be converted into a Komagata Maru Museum. The building now houses a library and classrooms. The temple has two stories, with the big prayer hall upstairs, and society offices, kitchen, dining hall and meeting hall downstairs.
Bhatti said the museum will pay tribute to the Komagata Maru incident and to Sikh pioneers who fought for their rights. He said it also will record the history of Khalsa Diwan Society and its pioneers who supported the Komagata Maru passengers in 1914.
Meanwhile, the process for the erection of the monument is underway. The first phase of the work includes site selection and design conceptualization.
The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation is leading the process of site selection, design preparation and construction. The Khalsa Diwan Society, however, will control the project funds.
Board commissioner Raj Hundal said the location for the monument has not been approved. He said the park board has hired Lee+Associates to select the site and design the monument. The consultants are expected to recommend the location after talking with the public around the proposed site, before they move ahead with the design.
The Society favours Brockton Point at Stanley Park for the monument because it’s close to Burrard Inlet, where Komagata Maru was anchored.
Demand for apology in parliament
The society takes the government funding for the monument and the museum as a recognition of the injustice. But it has not given up the demand for an official apology in the House of Commons.
“Yeah, they should apologize for the wrongs done to the Indo-Canadian community,” Bhatti said. “But we also wanted something more than a simple apology. We wanted to erect some monument in memory of the ship. We wanted to establish some sort of museum in memory of our pioneers who put up the fight 100 years ago.”
The demand for formal apology and compensation for the incident grew after the size of Indo-Canadian community swelled to nearly 1 million by 2006 in Canada — largely in Vancouver — and after the federal government in 2006 formally apologized and provided compensation for past discrimination against Chinese immigrants.
The B.C. legislature and Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the Komagata Maru incident in 2008.
However, many Indo-Canadian community members rejected the apology. They said they wanted the apology in the House of Commons, because the government had apologized in the parliament for abuse suffered by aboriginal, Chinese and Japanese people in the past.