We often remember Sunil Narain’s lethal top spin delivery in the numerous IPL seasons well. A previous generation would remember gritty Shivnarine Chanderpaul batting and battling as the batting line up collapsed at the other end. Both have very Indian sounding names. I often wondered while growing up as a cricket obsessed kid where do they come from. They are from the Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean and South American Country called Guyana respectively, which were both British Colonies where during the 19th and 20th early centuries their forefathers were taken from current day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as indentured labour to work in abysmal conditions on sugar plantations to serve the colonial economic grid.

These men and women travelled for three months on a ship stuffed to the brim as sardines in unhygienic conditions to reach Guyana and Trinidad on one end to Fiji on the other. Natal in South Africa, where a certain Mohandas Gandhi went to practice law when he did not find work in Bombay was a popular destination too for workers.

The labour ‘signed on’ to agreements creolised as ‘Girmit’ (a contamination of the term Agreement) and were hence known as the ‘Girmitiya’.

The Bidesia, or the far away, was a place for work far away from home, which the Girmitiya never saw again and settled down.

The labour circulations of the Girmitiya started with Mauritius after the formal abolishing of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. The Girmit indentured labour system was one form of slavery replacing the other. Migration is not a contemporary phenomenon, and the Levant crisis was repeated in previous centuries as well as poor labour escaping brutal agricultural taxation policies of the East India Company that triggered famines were compelled to sign on to exploitative contracts for work in far way lands again to serve British Colonial Capitalism, as indentured labour cost far less than European labour. One tragedy was heaped upon another. 

Why is this discussion important enough to be raised in this post? The answer lies in the ethnic composition of Guyana, Fiji, Trinidad and Mauritius who have substantial Indian diasporas with ethnic Indian leadership. They are natural allies to India due to our longstanding cultural ties although the first Indian Prime Minister Nehru had a particular disdain for the Indian origin diaspora as he considered them foreigners and called upon them at the time of Independence to be loyal to their adopted countries. The lingering suspicion however is that he thought of the diaspora as British collaborators in an impending era of early decolonialisation which had commenced with the independence of India after the war. The diaspora on the contrary has been an active site of anticolonial imagination as is shown in the book by Prof Priyamvada Gopal at Cambridge titled ‘Insurgent Empire’, where London itself was the hub for revolutionaries. The Mahatma’s had his tools sharpened in Natal. 

There are generations of Girmitiya in Suriname (A former Dutch outpost bordering Guyana) and these Surinmese Hindoostani had migrated to Holland, the former colonial masters in the 1970’s. There are plenty of Indo Caribbean diaspora communities in United States where they comprise a large proportion of the overall South Asian population in the country. Dr Gaiutra Bahadur, author of the seminal ‘Coolie Woman’ writes about her ancestors’ journey from Calcutta to Guyana via ship. As a recent SAADA Curatorial Fellow, she attempts to chronicle the issues of the women of the Indo Caribbean Community in the Mandirs of the Queens District in New York. There are community organisations such as ‘Jahaji Behen’ which cater to the community. 

These ‘Double Diaspora’ in the words of Dr Maya Parmar (originally coined for East African Gujarati’s settled in the UK) have made a presence felt in Australia and New Zealand as well from Fiji, has been documented by Prof. Brij Lal, who is an Indo-Fijian in exile himself, for speaking against the anti-Indian policies in the country.  These circulations through out the globe are not counted when we speak about the Indian diaspora in our discourse reserved primarily for the techies, whereas many of these community members travel to India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to discover their roots. The Bidesia Project, captures the oral archives in the pathos of the folk songs which the Girmitiya sung in order to hold on to their cultures in far away lands. They have made a documentary and have an active YouTube Channel.

The Girmitiya in Suriname speak a patois called Sarnami, which is a blend of Bhojpuri and local languages.

Hindi is a language actively spoken in Fiji with a Tilak Indian High School present on the main island. There is a Facebook Page named Girmit Global which curates a community archive of indentured labour stories worldwide. Social Media has become an active site of engagement between present day descendants of Girmitiya’s and Indians who are interested in knowing more about the past. The era of historical amnesia has drawn to a close thankfully to the intervention of the digital commons. I have been actively following Indo-Guyanese writers based in the United States such Mr. Rajiv Mohabir who have come back to Benares to study Hindi and infuse their poetry with the pain of inter-generational trauma as they write both in English in Guyanese Bhojpuri. 

As Indians we need to not only research the past but engage with our distant ‘colonial cousins’ of the same fraternity. The Surinamese Hindoostani diaspora in Holland is hardly known in India, but their art work especially in dance has been exhibited in the online cultural project ‘Le Thinnai Creole’ on creole circulations founded by Prof Ananya Jahanara Kabir at Kings College London and Oslo based Franco-Tamilian writer Ari Gautier. This initiative also opens many vistas for thinking about the Indians who were sent to Reunion in the Indian Ocean as labour from Pondicherry and the corresponding influence of French cuisine on Tamil fare in the former French enclave. 

The end to the treacherous Girmitiya system was lobbied by a former labour from Fiji who was a teacher/priest to other workers in the community as he was literate and was able to read the scriptures in Sanskrit. He opted to come back and worked with the Natal returned Mahatma to put an end to this architecture of neo-slavery.  We fete the educated expat in Silicon Valley for professional excellence but forget the migrant worker who sends back remittance to feed mouths back home. We started ignoring our own starting with the Girmitiya. 

History if not actively engaged and revisited tends to be forgotten especially in the perennial stream of the breaking news ticker tab. However, few histories are too painful to be silenced nor erased. Writing about it is the step towards a conversation. I hope this article serves the purpose.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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