Trinidad and Tobago experienced an influx of tens of thousands of
Indians during the nineteenth century. Some Indians came directly from
India but many are the descendants of indentured labourers from other
Caribbean islands. These originally worked on the sugar plantations and
then on the newer plantations which produced cacao, the basis for cocoa
and chocolate. The Indians of Trinidad and Tobago are mainly from the
Hindi belt in the central north of the country and are ethnically
‘A Virtual Round the World Voyage’Many here might recall the Natalee Holloway case of a few years back involving a young US student who disappeared while on a class trip to the island of Aruba, and remember as well the primary suspects, a Dutch national and two brothers of Indian origin. Some of you at the time may also have wondered exactly how a population of Indian ancestry wound up living in this region of the Caribbean, where Aruba is located, on the other side of the world from India. Wonder no more.
It is of course much the same story for many other peoples, whether they are called ‘coolies or ‘immigrants’, whether they be non-European or European. As a general rule they are peoples in a national state of weakness being preyed upon, ‘imported’ by diktat to live amongst other peoples, and having their labor systematically stolen from them, the essence of slavery, in what is euphamistically referred to as ‘cheap labor’.
For almost sixty years, the Nourse Line would primarily engage its oceanic fleet in the transport of cheap labor.
“The service operated by Nourse Line was a virtual round the world voyage, initially sailing from London for European ports where a general cargo was loaded before heading for Calcutta. After discharging its cargo, a cargo of rice would be back loaded, and her passengers of coolies would embark for the voyage out to the West Indies, Mauritius or Fiji.”
Indian “Coolie” Families
‘Having observed the carriage and possible profits to be gained from the carriage of “Coolies” James Nourse entered into negotiations with the Crown Agents for the Colonies, his proposed service was to be between India and Mauritius, the West Indies and Fiji. Once the contracts were secured James Nourse bought India, an iron barque of 912 tons from Cowie & Company of Liverpool and chartered from T.O. Harrison of London, the Adamant in 1865. By way of explanation, a Coolie was of Indian or Chinese nationality, indentured labourers, who were hired for work in foreign lands, the word Coolie is traceable to a tribe from the West of India known as the Koli. Sadly the term became synonymous with cheap labour and they did in fact replace the African slaves whose use was outlawed in British possessions in 1834. In the main James Nourse’s passengers came from north central and northeastern India though some came from the Tamil and Telugu speaking regions of the south. The terms of contract were that they agreed to work for a defined number of years, five, in one of the colonies and in return they earned return passage but were paid extremely low wages, but, perhaps more importantly, were fed and housed. The Chinese Coolies were employed under exactly the same terms and it should come as no surprise to anyone that this form of indentured labour explains why the Indians and Chinese populate virtually every country in the world.”
Built: 1866 by Denny and David Rankin, Dumbarton.
Launched 13th of July and completed a week later.
“Between 1866 to 1869 the company built four ships, all to James Nourse’s specifications and all with the carriage of Coolies taken into account, Indus by Denny & Rankin, Jumna & Syria by William Pile and Neva by J.G. Lawrie The carriage of Coolies dictated that for each one and a half registered tons equalled the carriage of one Coolie, later it was measured in covered deck space. The medical requirements of those travelling was monitored by a Surgeon Superintendent, they all had food and water allowances overseen by the ships Purser and both Officers were paid by a capitation grant for those successfully completing the voyage. Two further ships were acquired in 1872/3, Stockbridge, which was bought outright, and Jorawur that remained owned by J. Fleming, 42/64’s and D.K Mair 22/64’s.”
Built: 1894 by Charles Connell & Co, Glasgow.
Tonnage: 1829 grt, 1713 nt.
Yard No 212.
“The service operated by Nourse Line was a virtual round the world voyage initially sailing from London for European ports where a general cargo was loaded before heading for Calcutta. After discharging its cargo, a cargo of rice would be back loaded, and her passengers of coolies would embark for the voyage out to the West Indies, Mauritius or Fiji. The ships that voyaged to either Mauritius or Fiji would normally then travel to Australia to load coal. Those on the West Indian route after discharging their coolies and cargo would proceed up to the east coast of the United States to load grain or case oil for Europe. Prior to the carriage of case oil Kerosene had been transported aboard sailing ships in wooden casks, this proved not only wasteful of space but also dangerous because of leakage. Various American exporters improved the transport of their oil by packing their product into cases, each case contained two five-gallon tins making it infinitely easier for the recipients to handle and store. The next progressive stage was to fit the sailing ships with large storage tanks placed in their holds leading of course to the eventual building of ships for the sole transportation of oil.
Nourse Line in the eighteen eighties increased the size of its fleet by some fifteen vessels, Allanshaw, The Bruce, Hereford, British Peer and Rhone all of which were second hand, the remainder, new, and all but two being built at the Glasgow yard of Russell & Co.”
Courtesy Alex Duncan
Built: 1906 by Charles Connell & Co., Ltd., of Glasgow.[center]Tonnage: 3,475 grt, 2,151 nt, 5,200 dwt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion, 426 NHP, 11.5 knots by D. Rowan & Co. of Glasgow.Launched on the 9th of March 1906, completed in the May 1906, Yard No 303.
“By the early twenties the importance of the carriage of Coolies diminished to be replaced by that of cargoes such as rice and gunnies, gunny is a fabric made from strong course jute fibre more commonly known as sacking, however the company still maintained a return voyage facility for those, by now indentured labour, to return home on leave. The company’s Managing Director, Mr C. A. Hampton died in the November of 1922 and was succeeded by Mr C. Hampton. As with all shipping companies the twenties proved to be something of a retrenching period and it wasn’t until 1928 that Nourse Line commenced to replace its somewhat aging fleet. Three ships were completed between 1928/30, Saugor, Jumna and yet another Ganges”
People always assume because I’m from India that my interest in the Caribbean must lie exclusively in the Indian components of the Caribbean. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve been so little interested in matters pertaining to the Indian diaspora that it wasn’t until last month (after 25 years of being here), when I had to write a review essay of Gaiutra Bahadur’s superb Coolie Woman: An Odyssey of Indenture that I really started delving into the history of Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean.
And having done so I’m finding it difficult to avert my gaze. Like myself not many Indians seem familiar with this classic example of subaltern history that is slowly coming to light once again with books like Bahadur’s. Scholars have studied and written on the subject for many years but it takes a book like Coolie Woman to bring the troublesome subject of indenture to the forefront of what I think of as the popular sphere.
Between 1838 and 1917 around half a million Indians were brought to the Caribbean to serve as indentured laborers on three to five year contracts, replacing the loss of free labor after plantation slavery was abolished in the 19th century. Around 238,000 of these laborers were brought to British Guiana to perform the back-breaking work of cultivating sugarcane. For a description of the kind of people who made the journey let’s turn to Rahul Bhattacharya, the writer I mentioned in my last post, from his novel The Sly Company of People Who Care:
MEANWHILE ship upon ship of coolies from India kept coming – and kept coming steadily for almost another eighty years, by which time they outnumbered the Africans in Guyana. It is a forgotten journey; few, even in India, are now aware of it. The history was too minor compared to slavery and the Middle Passage, its damage not so epic. The ships sailed from Calcutta, and a few from Madras. The immigrants were drawn mainly from the peasant population in the Gangetic plains of the United Provinces–modern-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar–and a minority from the presidencies of Bengal and Madras. They were mostly young and middle-aged, mostly male (which led to the sensation of ‘wife murders’ arising from jealousy), mostly Hindu, and mostly taken from the agricultural castes, lower castes and outcastes. The largest caste groups were the chamars, the lowly leather workers, and the ahirs, the cowherds. What was common to them was the fate they were escaping: the famines and revolts, the poverty and destitution of British India. Making their way, that is, from the mess of one end of empire to another.In her book Mobilizing India Tejaswini Niranjana (citing Hugh Tinker) points out that the anti-indenture movement in the early part of the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi’s first major political intervention in India during which he gave anti-indenture speeches all over the country. Anita Desai records how, ‘It was a shock to Gandhi to find that in South Africa he was considered a “coolie”—in India the word is reserved for a manual laborer, specifically one who carries loads on his head or back. In South Africa the majority of Indians was composed of Tamil, Telugu, and Bihari laborers who had come to Natal on an agreement to serve for five years on the railways, plantations, and coal mines. They were known collectively as “coolies,” and Gandhi was known as a “coolie barrister.”’ It was also the first such campaign fought entirely in India rather than metropolitan Britain. By 1915 it had become a central issue in Indian politics. As Bahadur notes:
Lured by local recruiting agents and their tales about the land of gold, they set out to cross the seas. Crossing the sea: kalapani: this was the great Hindu taboo. It came with a loss of caste, of one’s place in the social order – but also, for the wretched, a liberation. When victuals among the castes spilled and mixed on the stormy waters, when each person was treated by the white man with equal indignity, the curse of being judged by birth was lifted. From here on they could be anything.
The policy made indenture a cause for the nationalists, who saw it as an insult to their dignity and self-respect, an attempt to make Indians permanent coolies in the eyes of the world..indenture offended the pride of Indians by “brand[ing] their whole race in the eyes of the British colonial empire with the stigma of helotry. But this shame over reputations as slaves paled in comparison to their anger over the sullied reputations of their women.In the review essay I mentioned at the top of this post I dive in-depth into the politics of the struggle over the status and conduct of indentured Indian women, about how Indian nationalists were incensed by the “harlots of empire” even more than the danger of being branded the helots of empire. I had to look up what helot meant actually–an interesting word meaning serfs or slaves–with a history dating back to Spartan times and referring to a subjugated population group from Laconia and Messenia who became state-owned serfs whose job it was to cultivate land to feed and clothe the Spartans. Their status was in-between that of freed people and slaves.
For purposes of this post I want to stick to the other problem that worried Indian nationalists–that of being regarded as “permanent coolies” in the eyes of the world. It was one I found rearing its ugly head unexpectedly and perhaps by mistake when I first posted the link to Bahadur’s Coolie Woman on Facebook. “‘Indian woman’ not ‘Coolie woman’” a well-meaning African-Jamaican friend responded, a bald declaration that crept under my skin and niggled at it. After an inconclusive back and forth during which she firmly maintained that the word “Coolie” was too disrespectful a term to use while I rankled at her presumption in blithely determining the vocabulary a young descendant of indenture was permitted to employ, I snapped something to the effect that the word ‘coolie’ is a living word in India today and is by no means a synonym for its 2 billion strong population.
I’m convinced my Facebook friend didn’t mean to conflate the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘coolie’–and surely if we don’t want to be branded by the word we should demolish the conditions that continue to give it currency in the 21st century, not abroad now but at home–but I realise that the C-word as Bahadur calls it in her book, has a Caribbean history reflected in the discomfort my friend showed when she tried to erase it. In places like Jamaica there were arguments in the local press about what ‘Coolie’ meant and to whom it could be applied which you can see reflected in the letters to the editor of the Jamaica Gleaner appended above and below.
Laxmi and Ajai Mansingh, colleagues from India who worked at the University of the West Indies, produced a book on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of indentured Indians in Jamaica in which they note:
In Jamaica, the term ‘coolie’ was legally banned in the 1950s because it was used in a derogatory sense for an ethnic minority. This process began when the founder-President of the East India Progressive Society (EJPS), Dr. J. L. Varma, was popularly (but not abusively) referred to as ‘coolie doctor’. The EJPS then moved the government to ban the use of the term.Now my Facebook friend’s squeamishness at the use of the term ‘Coolie’ becomes clearer. But although laudable I wonder whether banning words or proscribing them ever achieves the desired outcome. Should we be trying to sanitize history or recording it in all its ugliness for the benefit of future generations? Can we ever liberate the word ‘Coolie’ from the unbearable weight of its history if its contemporary namesakes continue to work under the backbreaking conditions they do? These are hard questions for hard times.
This article was first posted on my EPW blog (Economic and Political Weekly, India)
Sunday January 18, 2015
ndian Arrival Day & Indentureship
Friday 30th May 1845Ship: Fatel RozackCargo: 225 Indentured labourers on a journey
of one hundred days from Calcutta, British India
3 fatalities -222 Arrived
3 fatalities -222 Arrived
Indenturers arrival on an island port near Trinidad
It was the lucrative Slave Trade to the British Caribbean islands, (not Chattel Slavery) which was abolished in 1834 by the English Parliament. Though the plantocracy was compensated, Afrikan captives considered property were required to serve five more years of service to their "OWNERS" under an assumed "Apprenticeship" scheme. This period was designed to enable them through a transition to CIVILDOM.
The British East India Company imported Indentured Labourers from Portugal,Syria, Lebanon, India, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Indonesia to replace the Afrikan captives.
This anniversary is celebrated with a Public Holiday in the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.
Home Sense of Identity
Sunday, 18 January 2015
The labourers were bound in five and ten-year contracts to sugar estates (cocoa plantations to a lesser extent), and from 1866-1880, were offered an incentive to remain in the island and form a peasantry which would provide a seasonal workforce for the plantations.
Whilst bound to the estates, a few owners and managers of a more benign disposition would have introduced Christmas to the lives of the workers.
Listen to the audio version of this story on KALW
When Gaiutra Bahadur came to India from the United States, the anxiety about women’s safety was at fever pitch. “Everyone freaked me out about Delhi,” recalls Bahadur. “They said Delhi is a particularly unsafe city for women. Don’t go out by yourself after 6 o’clock or after sunset.”
The advice was well-intentioned but ironic. When it comes to women going out by themselves, Bahadur comes from a family where the bar has been set quite high.
In 1903 Sujaria, her great-grandmother, a 27-year-old Brahmin woman boarded a ship from Calcutta bound for the sugar plantations of British Guiana. She was traveling alone. She was not headed to meet any family on the other end. And she was four months pregnant.
Bahadur never met her great-grandmother. All she had was the story her father told about his father being born on a ship. And her great-grandmother’s immigration pass which said how old she was and that she had a burn mark on her left leg and written above it in pencil the fact that she was pregnant.
But working backwards from that story, Bahadur uncovered an astonishing piece of history. “It started out as a story of identity but it didn’t take long for gender to become much more important,” says Bahadur. Her great-grandmother was not alone in making that journey. About a quarter of a million women did that as well – the first large scale migration of India women overseas. “About 75 percent of the women who migrated were traveling without a husband and that’s when I realised I had a book to write that wasn’t just about my great grandmother but about generations of women,” says Bahadur. That book is Coolie Woman – The Odyssey of Indenture.
The stereotypical image, positive or negative, of the migration story has usually been male – the Mexican man picking California strawberries, the Indian or Taiwanese engineer in Silicon Valley, the Bangladeshi immigrant coming across the border illegally who became a hot button issue in India’s recent election. Or it has been about family migration like the motel owners in a small town in the American South.
But women too are on the move around the world on their own. A 2007 World Bank report says women comprise almost half the world’s immigrants and that number is on the rise. “The share of women migrating for employment rather than family reasons has increased over time,” says Maurice Schiff, lead economist at the Development Research Group.
Women like Bahadur’s great-grandmother are the unacknowledged foremothers of that trend.
The reason why so many women went on their own from India to the sugar plantations of Guiana are complex. The plantations needed labour to replace the African slaves they had once used.
So they turned to the colonies. There was a huge gender imbalance on the plantations and there was a great demand for coolie women. No ship could sail unless there were at least forty women for every 100 men among the coolies it carried. But the 1883 Indian Emigration Act would not allow married women to emigrate without the permission of their husbands. And as Bahadur notes the 1891 census of the United Provinces reported that 90 percent of girls between ten and fourteen were already married. That meant recruiters were on the lookout for all kinds of women who were alone – for example widows, pilgrims, sex workers, women cast out by their families because of some scandal.
“It was an unsettling question to ask myself was my great-grandmother possibly a sex worker,” muses Bahadur. But she says from the little that is known about her history and the fact that she was picked up in Ayodhya, she has her own hypothesis. “I think she was probably a widow who was on the Vaishnavite pilgrims circuit and she might have ended up in a relationship or being exploited by a temple priest. My father, for instance was told his father’s father was a gosain (sadhu).” Her research shows many women were picked up from Mainpuri most likely, she reasons “siphoned from the pilgrims on their way to Vrindaban in search of food, shelter and god.”
The exact truth will never be known. Bahadur found a village in Bihar that was possibly the one her great-grandmother came from. She even found a family that claimed her as their own. But these stories can never be watertight.
What is clear however is that even life as a coolie woman in a sugar plantation was a sort of liberation for many of these women.
Or if not liberation, at least a new beginning. “There were so few of them they actually had a limited amount of leverage in choosing partners,” says Bahadur. Her great-grandmother got into a relationship with a man on the ship. Later she married a cow herder and set up a business selling milk, a business in which she was a partner. Some women married their white overseers who bought them out of indenture. Many shocked the missionaries trying to “civilize” them in Guiana. Bahadur quotes Sarah Morton hired to teach Indian girls to become proper wives asking a Brahmin widow if she had family in Guiana.
“No, Madame,” she replied. “Only myself and two children; when the last immigrant ship came I took a ‘papa’. I will keep him as long as he treats me well. If he does not treat me well, I shall send him off at once, that’s the right way, is it not?"
Of course, calling the plantations of Guiana a haven for women’s liberation would be sugarcoating reality. Women were exploited as well, many murdered or disfigured with the same cutlass used to chop down the sugarcane.
The story of the indentured workers of the Indo-Caribbean is something that’s little discussed in India. In Kolkata, Bahadur found that few knew where the old British Guiana immigration headquarters in Garden Reach were. But she says Calcutta holds a huge place in the imagination of the Indo-Caribbean because that was their ancestral point of departure from India. In India most people don’t know anything about this history which “is unfortunate because this was the first significant movement of Indians abroad,” says Bahadur. “It was a third the size of the British slave trade – more than a million people.”
Some of the amnesia is because the “brain drain” of doctors and engineers has always been the migration story India wanted to highlight rather than the “coolie” migration. That holds true even today. The Indians building stadiums in the Middle East were not the ones feted in the first Pravasi Indian Divas-es organised with such fanfare by the government.
Indenture became a burning issue in British India. Gandhi demanded the viceroy abolish indenture. Sarojini Naidu talked about the “the misery and shame of our sisters in the colonies.”
The missionary C F Andrews called indenture little more “than a legalised form of prostitution”. It was the first time women petitioned the viceroy about their rights. Bahadur writes India’s freedom fighters squared off against the British “in moral combat, over the bodies and honour of indentured women” and coolie contracts were cancelled in 1919. But when the indentured did come back, the returnees, especially women, were not welcomed back home after crossing the kala pani. Coolies deserted their wives from Guiana, often from a different caste because they had other wives in the home village. Many just camped out in the slums of Metiabruz in the docklands of Calcutta. When a ship with returnees docked in Calcutta, Nehru, with his hands already full with refugees from Pakistan, complained “Thetar log agaye (the stubborn people have come).”
Bahadur however bears that stubbornness as a sort of badge of pride. She says that looking back what she sees is just “how brave and exceptional these women were in leaving by themselves.” That history deserves to be remembered, especially in these times.
Indian Labour in British Guiana | History Today
British Guiana, 1908
Indian Labour in British Guiana
Emancipation in British Guiana brought an influx of indentured labourers from India, whose working and living conditions were destructive of caste and culture, and often as harsh as those of the slaves they replaced.
The importation of labour from the Indian sub-continent was part of a continuing search by Guianese planters for a labour force that was docile, reliable and amenable to discipline under harsh, tropical conditions. Emancipation had conferred on the Guianese labourers both physical and occupational mobility. They could withhold their labour temporarily or permanently and vacate the estates if living and working conditions did not satisfy them. In fact, a gradual exodus from the plantations began soon after emancipation. What the planters desired was an alternative and competitive labour force which would give them the same type of labour control they were accustomed to under slavery.
Only memory of the oppressed can defeat colonial ideology
Gopal Krishna is an activist and associated with ToxicsWatch Alliance, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), IMOWatch, MediaVigil & WaterWatch Alliance. He is also researching the corporate crimes in India after Independence. He can be contacted at krishna2777[at] .
“The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.” Eduardo Galeano‘s book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent sounds like it is the story of the Indian sub-continent. The story of the indentured labourers and coolies is the story India’s open veins and arteries.
As Girmit Remembrance Day (14 May) is commemorated recollecting the departure of Indian indentured labourers and coolies at least since 1879, 22 years after 1857, can it be hoped that our ‘decolonized’ state will conserve, restore and manage its natural resources and desist from imitating a cannibalistic model of development that forces people to migrate and become wage slaves? The illiterate workers transliterated the word ‘agreement’ in contract as ‘Girmit’ and ‘Girmitya’
The famines of 1873 and 1896-7 took its toll because of excessive land-revenue demands and export of foodgrains. They have been referred to as ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’. The money needed to combat famine was diverted towards British military effort in Afghanistan. After that the East India Company of British royalty laid the foundation of its rule by defeating the Indians by deceit and treachery at Plassey and Buxer as lands came under company control, the “violent” land tax was raised fivefold — from 10 per cent to up to 50 per cent of the value of the agricultural produce. The hoarding of food grains was banned. The food crops made way for opium poppy cultivation for export to countries like China. The farmers were made to grow indigo instead of rice. This reduced food availability. The company facilitated establishment of monopolies in grain trading. This led to a catastrophic famine.
The control of Indian affairs was complete by 1857, “India became a dependency” of British King Emperor and “she passed under British guardianship” as per British records. But India had become ‘dependent’ long before the formal declaration. As a consequence British government’s market policies had a field day resulting in famines. Advocating Macaulayism, British India Viceroy Lord Chelmsford revealed the plot in his speech while inaugurating the new Indian legislature, consisting of the council of state and the legislative assembly at Delhi on February 9, 1921 after ‘the glorious imperial half century’. It was in these glorious years that after the abolition of slavery by Britain that Indians left their homeland as in answer to the need of many former slave-plantation colonies for labour that was cheap and plentiful. From 1830 until 1920 the recruitment of Indians in India to work on the various plantations was organised through what became known as the indenture system. It was engineered through a licensed recruiter or “Kangani” who used lure people away from their homes with promises of a bright future in the colonies. The journeys were long, for example, that from Patna or Benares to Calcutta took thirty to forty days. They were forced to march till the Indian emigration depots under supervision of the licensed recruiter.
In pre census era estimates about the number of migrants from India remains uncertain. A total of about 3,42,575 were sent from Calcutta during the period 1830-70 with emigrants drawn from Bihar and other north Indian states. These migrants went to Fiji, the West Indies, Mauritius, British Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and other places. Before 1870 about 17 to 20 per cent of the labourers died before they reached their destination. The whole indentured labour system and the Indian Diaspora were indeed the consequences of British exploitation. Our ‘decolonized’ state is yet to realize that it cannot comprehend its identity without situating itself in the historical context of indenture system at least since early 18th century. The state needs a blueprint to ensure that situations of famine, displacement, migration and humiliation do not arise in future.
When Bihar likes Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who visited Bhelupur in the Buxar district of Bihar in January 2012, it cannot forget that her great grandfather Ram Lakhan Mishra was compelled to migrate as a Girmitiya labourer to Trinidad and Tobago, then a British colony in the Caribbean islands in 1889. It cannot feign ignorance or remain callous about the economic policies that lead to such migrations. There has been internal migration as well and their records in census data.
As “we the people”, there is no alternative to learning from at least last 300 years of impoverishment and subjugation of Indians. The central and state legislatures and governments ought to make a concerted effort to reach out to those who left and are leaving for other countries in unfortunate circumstances. The lessons they learnt on their voyage away from their roots since then must be recorded for posterity.
It is quite visible that in the last few centuries the plight of migrant workers from places like Raxaul, Narkatiaganj, Betia, Sugauli, Motihari, Chakia, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Jaynagar, Nirmali, Farbisganj, Munger, Purnea, Saharsa, Begusarai, Araria, Sitamarhi, Vaishali, Chhapara, Gopalganj , Ara and Buxar in Bihar and Ballia, Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Basti, Banda, Gorakhpur, Sultanpur, Gonda, and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh remains wedded to history of misery and exploitation. In colonial times they took long ships and now they take long distance trains to work as workers on contract “agreement” or even as casual labourer sans any social security.
Within the country the kind of racist assault migrant workers face in states like Maharashtra and in other non-Hindi speaking parts of the country merits sensitive engagement with political imagination. There appears to be a political consensus in adoption of development fundamentalism as an ideology which is creating an ideal situation for forced displacement and migration in its myopia and after doing that indulges in victim blaming with colonial cruelty.
“Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors” observed Jean-Paul Sartre in The Wretched of the Earth. It must be realized that those attempt to naturalize the existing colonial system are on the side of the oppressors.
Indeed all history is contemporary history. It cannot be forgotten that indentured labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh are still being sent to far off places both within the country and outside the country. How can it be forgotten that words, gestures and looks we use and we have inherited us so that they can express themselves through us. It is deeply tragic commentary on sensitivity that those in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in particular who seem to have forgotten all about the Girmityas. But those who were forced to adopt and live in foreign lands carry the emotional pangs of separation. The memories of history of one’s own community and family have been overwhelmed by manufactured history of the dynasties of all ilk. This needs to retrieved for waging the continued struggle of memory against forgetfulness before it is too late.
There is nothing to celebrate about indenture; it is an occasion to resolve to reconstruct the untold history by back tracing the roots and struggling to claim it and own it. The phenomena of Girmit system is a product of colonization both by internal and external forces. Therefore, Girmit Remembrance Day must not get reduced to a routine affair, it must face those economic forces and ideologies that will have us believe that colonial language, education, dress and culture that has been adopted is a natural phenomena. This naturalization of cognitive and physical exploitation can only be resisted if in the words of Howard Zinn the author of A People’s History of the United States, historical memory is seen as a weapon.
It cannot be forgotten that decolonization struggle is not over as yet. It has to continue till the time the existing imperial architecture of dialogues with fellow beings across historical times is made rootless to ensure that the disadvantaged and the aggrieved are not compelled to leave their homeland ever again. The defeat of the oppressed is not final as long as their memory is intact.