Aapravasi Ghat Day Commemoration: A Diaspora Event


By Dr R. Neerunjun Gopee

What is now known as the global Indian diaspora refers to people of Indian origin who live outside India and whose forbears came originally from India. Whereas historians have recorded that Indians have travelled out of India since ancient times – vide, for example, the book ‘Land of the Seven Rivers’ by Sanjeev Sanyal –, it is only comparatively recently that they started to settle overseas.

Labourers and children of Indian heritage in the early 1920s. Pic – The Field Museum Library

The ‘Great Experiment’ that brought Indian indentured labourto Mauritius is one such movement that mobilized about 700,000 workers, about half of whom returned to India. Subsequently, indentured workers were taken to other British colonies – South Africa, the Caribbean, Guyana, and Fiji.

In all these countries, there are national commemorative events that are held on specific days to honour the ancestors. Locally it is the well-known Aapravasi Ghat Day celebration on 2nd November which had to be fought for valiantly by Shri BeekrumsingRamlallahbefore there was official recognition and initiation of the annual event.

Why commemorate?

It is important that we remember the contribution of those without whose toil and sweat we would not be where we are today. Cushioned as we are by the comforts and temptations of modern life, we may find it hard to imagine what they went through. Indeed, it is a sad reflection on contemporary times that evils such as drug addiction and other social ills have taken such a hold that we have lost all notion of the values that sustained our ancestors, have no shame, and have lost our self-dignity without which there can be no meaningful life.

We need to be jolted out of this stupor into which we have fallen, and there can be no better way to do so than to be reminded of the inhumanity that was meted out to our ancestors. One example is, as recorded in a petition by De Plevitz(re: Select Documents on Indian Immigration, Vol 1, MGI), concerning one Aubeluck, No. 268,683 on the Colville estate belonging to MrDesenne –

Fast forward: Indian Diaspora in London in the 2020s . Pic – The Diplomat

‘In May 1869, one morning about breakfast time, I saw a party of constables from Moka, one from Villebague, and another from Pamplemousses; altogether about fifteen in number. They surrounded our huts, arrested us — although we had our tickets, with photographs and passes — and after tying us two by two, marched us off to the Villebague police station, a distance of eight miles, when they locked us up for that night without food, in such a small place (about eight feet by twelve) that we could not lie down. About seven o’clock the next morning we were turned out, tied up two by two again, and marched to Pamplemousses police court without giving us any food. We sat in court up to about four o’clock in the afternoon… after which we were locked up for the night…’

This was in relation to passes. Arbitrary arrests. Tied. Locked up. Malnutrition, disease, long hours of daily toil plus corvées on Sundays took the beating out of their bodies — but their spirit did not die.

Of diaspora and diaspora…

Fast forward to this century and we are now part of the global Indian diaspora, a term that has ancient origins but has been generally accepted in today’s jargon. In an article in The Hinduby Subha Singh titled ‘Discovering the diaspora’ the author writes that –

‘The three-day PravasiBharatiya Divas extravaganza in New Delhi early in January (2000) was the first official gathering of the “global Indian family”. It demonstrated the diverse nature of the Indian diaspora, and the distinct concerns and varying expectations that overseas Indians have of India. A variety of opinions were aired at the discussions, which covered areas such as culture, language, literature, entertainment, ethnic media, hospitality and tourism, science and technology, knowledge-based industries, health care and education.

‘The conference threw up several fundamental questions, the most basic one being about the use of the term “diaspora”.’ Elaborating, the author goes on to explain that ‘The term diaspora is of Greek origin and means dispersal; it originally referred to the Jews who were exiled from their homeland in ancient time… In recent times, the term has been used as journalistic shorthand to denote any sizable community living outside its original home, be it Greeks, Armenians, or the Chinese. The Economist, in a recent special report, described diaspora as “a community of people living outside their country of origin”. The 1990s saw an increased interest in the subject, particularly in the field of cultural studies, with centres for diasporic studies coming up in several universities. Although it may raise the hackles of purists, the new usage of the term has come to stay.’

So be it. Thus, ‘In the 1990s, the overseas community emerged as an acceptable ethnic identity around the world, be it the well-mobilisedChinese overseas community or the Jewish one. More and more countries are trying to reach out to their prosperous emigrants for a variety of reasons that may include leveraging influence, enhancing an international presence, and providing access or prospective foreign investment.’

India a late diasporic entrant

However, wrote the author, ‘India is a late entrant in the diasporic search because it required a major change in its outlook. At the time of Independence, the government had to take a careful look at the status of Indians living abroad… The advice officially proffered to Indians living abroad was to give their “loyalties” to their countries of adoption.’ 

However, ‘The rise of a prosperous, confident, and demanding overseas Indian community in the United States and the United Kingdom since the late 1980s, brought a change in the Indian government’s attitude towards the pravasicommunity. Indians in the US began to gain in influence once they became politically active and came to be wooed as potential donors by American politicians. …The remittances from expatriate Indians in the Gulf countries became an important factor in boosting the country’s foreign exchange reserves.’

Moreover, ‘Though India looks up to overseas Indians for foreign investment, that cannot be the main reason for engaging the pravasi community. The diaspora gives India a wide reach in the international arena, through engagement with a wide range of countries. India has a natural link with people of Indian origin and their strong desire to remain connected with their Indian heritage.

‘The overseas Indian community can be divided broadly into two categories. The larger category is constituted by the older diaspora, that is, second, third or even fourth generation descendants of Indians settled abroad. The second category comprises mainly first-generation migrants, who live in the developed economies and still maintain close connections with their homeland.’

In Mauritius we belong to the first category. The second category is dubbed the ‘dollar diaspora’ which ‘tends to dominate because of the influence of its members in their adopted lands and their access to capital for investment. These migrants are ambitious people, driven by a need to succeed, but their success often carries a trace of guilt for having left their motherland.’

We have no such guilt, and definitely we do not have the investment capabilities that the dollar diaspora possesses. Nevertheless, because of the disruptive geopolitical churns that the world is undergoing, the Indian Ocean has assumed a major importance in global security, and as part of the Indian Ocean Rim Mauritius has acquired certain importance among great powers, including India. Already the fifth largest economy, and on course to become in a few years the third one according to expert projections, we have every reason to be mindful of the interest that India may show in our development and play our cards judiciously and strategically.

Diaspora: layered identity

But let’s leave these mega concerns aside, as I end with a tale that shows that the diaspora comes in many shades, shapes, and flavours. Recently I was delighted to meet a Mauritian family living in the US who had come for a short holiday here. The wife was of Mauritian origin, and I had known her as a little girl in my neighbourhood. Her husband is of Indian origin, and they have two daughters, one of whom is married to a second generation Indian (like herself). I was pleasantly surprised to hear them speak perfect Creole, in addition of course to their American English.

The unmarried daughter lives and works in New York, and she was very confident and proud about her layered identities: a religious identity (Hindu), a national identity (American), a cultural identity (Indian & Mauritian). I asked her whether like modern youngsters she was addicted to fast food. No, she replied, I cook my own. And what are your favourites, I enquired? ‘Carri poule ek carri la vianne’ she shot back – she had learned to cook from her late Nani who was in the US with them.

So much for diaspora and identity!

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 3 November 2023

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