By Dr R N Gopee
Centred around last weekend, there have been several activities about commemoration and reflection on diaspora matters that ended on Wednesday 5 November. In connection with the commemoration of the 180th Anniversary of the Arrival of Indian Indentured Labourers organized by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and the Ministry of Arts and Culture, undoubtedly the highlight event was the inauguration of the Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre by Her Excellency Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs, Republic of India. The other highlight was the International Conference held at the MGI from 3-5 November on ‘Towards the Establishment of the International Indenture Labour Route’ (ILR). There were also an Antarastriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw and an International Conference of the World Hindi Secretariat that took place.
As I have been doing for the past several years since I got to know late Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah, I attended the Yaj ceremony that is held there by his family every year since 1970 early in the morning. This year I stayed on for the function held by the government for obvious reasons. It was a great joy and pride to be associated with the Ramlallah family for this important milestone at the Aapravasi Ghat, namely the inauguration of the Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre. I will have to spare some more time for a detailed visit later to acquaint myself more thoroughly with the exhibits there and the excellent work done that has led to its setting up.
The speech by Smt Sushma Swaraj was entirely to my expectation, having heard her several times before, courtesy Indian television. It was sheer pleasure to listen to her starting her address in Bhojpuri, going on to Hindi and then English. There was an immediate connect, for that is what many of us do very regularly. In her case of course on this special occasion she delivered the relevant messages and reaffirmed the emotional, cultural and blood bonds that link Mauritius to India. Her speech completely overshadowed all the others that were made there, on which I will therefore spend no more time.
However, I must add that the superb performance of the artists, local and from Suriname, was spellbinding, fittingly matching Smt Swaraj’s speech. I particularly liked the dragon dance. The audience was treated to a literal festival of colours, dance forms, and melodious sounds. If it had not been for the fact that they had to put a stop to their singing, I am sure that the Suriname troupe would have had everyone up and dancing! Kids sitting in front of me were joyously and loudly clapping – and when kids are happy, they are genuine.
Another enjoyable moment that morning was listening to the Bhojpuri folk singer Smt Malini Awasthi singing when the Yaj ceremony was over. She accompanied her singing with some dancing, in which she was joined by other ladies. She was in a class of her own, and hopefully the competent authorities will take forward with the help of Bhojpuri artists like her and others the much-needed task of upgrading the level of performance of Bhojpuri dancing and singing in this country. I would not be alone in thinking that the local scene needs much professionalization, and I am certain that Smt Malini Awasthi would be more than willing to help in this respect. I am sure that there are avenues of exchange programmes at official level that can be usefully put to use.
As I have plenty of spare time on my hands, I decided to attend some sessions of the Conference on the International Indenture Labour Route. This I did on the second day, Tuesday afternoon, and on the third day, Wednesday afternoon, leaving after I had listened to the lecture by Prof Ajay Dubey of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. JNU is located in an area that I am very familiar with, Delhi being my second home. He spoke about the Indian Government’s response to the Indentured Labour system, and made reference specifically to Nehru’s position on the issue. I had heard about this earlier at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that was held in Mauritius a few years ago. I had also had an opportunity to interact with Prof Dubey a couple of days before, and came to know that he had done his PhD on Mauritian politics. He has been a frequent visitor to Mauritius and his views were therefore of great interest to me.
I gathered a lot from all the learned papers presented at the Conference by people who are experts in their fields. What came though most significantly is that there is much more research, study and documentation to be done to fill in several gaps that exist in knowledge about the Indentured Labour, from the routes taken to the international spread of this system, the transnational links that were part of it, the oceanic dimensions such as the Indo-Pacific space and so on.
Smt Sushma Swaraj, who inaugurated this Conference also, spelt out the perspective: ‘…the objectives of the Indentured Labour Route Project deserve all our support. The creation of a network of professionals in various fields such as history, anthropology, archaeology, heritage management and development of international database on indentured labour would give worldwide access to archival material, photographs, historical sites, and resource persons. It will help in disseminating information about the role played by indentured labour in shaping modern societies around the world.
‘In this regard, I must commend the remarkable role played by the Aapravasi Ghat Fund Trust and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. Both these institutions are home to priceless collection of rare archival materials related to the history of the first indentured labourers. It is, therefore, only natural that they have taken a lead in this initiative and deserve full backing.’
In his keynote address on the third day, Prof Parsuramen who has been a Director at UNESCO and has been largely instrumental in piloting the ILR through to the Executive Board of UNESCO gave a concise expose of the project so far, and was confident and hopeful that it will make it at the Global Conference due early next year.
I was also very pleased to meet young Ms Terence Joseph from St Lucia, West Indies, who spoke about how ecology and geography had impacted the settlement and assimilation of Indentured Indians in her island. I told her about my hostel mate Tom Hinks from St Lucia when I was doing my medical studies in Kolkata. And guess what – she told me she knows the Hincks family very well! And that’s almost half a century after I have left Kolkata…
Talk about this being a small world!
And of course I met several other interesting people among the foreign delegates, as well as local ones who had presented papers or, like me, had come to listen and learn. One of them recalled an article about the Brooklyn Bridge in New York that I had written several years ago, which he had kept a cutting of. What had struck him, so he said to me, was the determination of the engineers: father and son – the Roeblings – to bring the project to completion, despite the fact that they suffered from severe medical problems while doing so. The bridge was opened in May 1882.
Aren’t we all connected, in some way or another?
* * *
On the occasion of 180th Anniversary of Arrival at Aapravasi Ghat
Of our Ancestors, to their Glory
Without memory, nought is there of history, dignity
’Tis the reason why we have a duty
To remember, commemorate Ghats Aapravasi
In story after story
Of those of our ancestry
Is a tale of misery
Of toil under tyranny
Lured by promises as girmity…
Boarded they the ships to sea
On a long, wrenching, perilous journey
Towards an unknown destiny
Indentured, akin to slavery
Not all reached safely
Death came calling to many a sickly
Who was jettisoned overboard with nigh a ceremony
Leaving relative and friend in heartfelt agony
Over disposal in such ignominy
Tearful weight left in their hearts forever to carry
In colony after colony
From Marich desh through to Fiji
Were scattered the bhais jahaji
Not always together as one family
Forced to bear, silently
Tearings that rendered them lonely
Least the concern of the plantocracy or authority
Beasts of burden, alike to donkey
No respite, days sunny or rainy
Exhausted bodies, nourished less than needy
What with rations measly
Bouillon, satini, farata, dalpuri
Made on roche carri, and chulhas fanned by phoukni
Laced with love of ma, nani and dadi
Become now favourites national, so yummy
Endured they this life perseveringly
Clinging together in their poverty
Face to face with difficulty, daily
Grew they thus into community
Imbued with spirit of Mother Country
Where never returned a majority
Through force or choice remaining in lands migratory
Forged they bravely their new history
Challenging domination of polity, adversary
Through winds of change revolutionary
In struggles sometimes bloody
Fought they till was gained their liberty
Deserved they too, their share of humanity
Their place on the highways of modernity
Boosted by Bharatiya Divas, Pravasi
Surfing on waves global, diasporic, contemporary
Not the time, though, to become heady
Nor reason for smug complacency
Instead, to work, and harder still, be ever-ready
So as to build on hard-earned legacy
The only, true homage owed by their progeny
To our ancestors, to their everlasting glory…
6 November 2014
* Published in print edition on 7 November 2014