An Evening with Arundhati

arundhati

Written by Randeep Singh

She came. She spoke. She conquered. Arundhati Roy filled the pews of St. Andrew’s Wesley Church on April 1 as part of the Indian Summer Festival 2014.

Roy began by criticizing “representative democracy” as too much representation, not enough democracy. Democracy has plenty of institutions, Roy remarked, but those institutions have turned into conduits for a short-term, extractive, economic philosophy. “Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans,” she reads, “precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly – our nearsightedness?”

Capitalism controls culture too. Roy spoke of how corporations engage in “perception management,” deliberately not funding artistic projects which question the system. Martin Luther King Jr., Roy says, drew a connection between capitalism, imperialism and the Vietnam War; but American multinationals did not highlight this aspect of his legacy when they sponsored the Martin Luther King Junior Centre for Non-Violent Social Change, an organization which works with the US Department of Defence. The Indian mining group, Vedanta, Roy points out, recently sponsored the “Creating Happiness” film competition for film students to make films on sustainable development (in communities affected by the mining) with the tagline “Mining Happiness.”

Roy also questioned Gandhi as the mahatma or “great soul.” Roy recounted how the anti-imperialist, anti-racist Gandhi fought alongside Great Britain in the Boer Wars, refused to ride in the same railway carriages as Africans and wrote in prison that Indians deserved separate prisons from vile and immoral blacks and Chinese.

When asked whether she was an activist, Roy replied she was a writer telling the world’s stories. Her readings and discussion with The Tyee’s David Beers, brought to life the politics of development, resistance movements and the management of culture by corporations just as the arts have reenacted the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement or the experience of Canadian aboriginals in Residential Schools. As Roy puts it, “why wouldn’t we write about the critical issues our society is facing?”

White Canada Forever

chinese head tax

This year marks the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident. The celebration of that centenary has been marked by some as a historic episode in the story of Indians and Punjabi Sikhs in Canada.

The Komagata Maru however is not the history of any one ethnic or religious group: it is the history of Canada. It is a page in a chapter of Canada’s history whereby English-speaking Canadians sought to create a Canada of English values, traditions, language, law and institutions from sea to sea, a “White Canada Forever.”

There had been earlier attempts to exclude, marginalize or assimilate the aboriginal communities and the French in Canada. The Indian, like the Chinese and Japanese however, was considered an alien and unassimilable breed. His arrival on the west coast moreover threatened to bring hordes of Orientals to the shores of British Columbia.

What followed was the advent of exclusion towards Asian immigrants in British Columbia: the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 and the Chinese Head Tax; the Komagata Maru incident; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 which completely banned Chinese migration to Canada until 1947, and the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage in 1942 to name a few. The exclusion of undesirables was not limited to Asians. It included denying entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the internment of Italian-Canadians during the second world war.

H.G. Wells once said that history more and more becomes a race between education and catastrophe. Our history demonstrates that we have never been a multicultural utopia. We have our tragedies, follies and regrets like any country. Let’s open our eyes to the Komagata Maru, the Chinese Head Tax, the Indian Residential Schools, so we don’t close them again. Let’s remember them as the history of Canada, our reminder as how to best move forward.

Further Reading: Peter Ward, White Canada Forever (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).