We Can and Must Keep Alive the Story of Our Origins
Descendants of indentured labour migrants do not really get an opportunity to learn about their roots. Without its roots a people will wither
An international conference was held from Friday 18 to Sunday 20 August to mark the 100th Anniversary of the End of Indenture in Mauritius and the World, as well as the 70th Anniversary of the Independence of India. It was organized by GOPIO International in collaboration with International Indenture Girmityas Foundation, Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture, Mauritius India-Friendship Society and Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad (Indian Council for International Cooperation). The venues for the three days were respectively Institut Français de l’Ile Maurice at Rose-Hill, Indira Gandhi Centre Indian Culture at Phoenix, and Ramayana Centre at Union Park.
Local participants were joined by delegates coming from India, France and several Indian diaspora countries – Reunion, South Africa, Fiji, Guadeloupe, Guyana. In addition, there were distinguished guests such as Ms Bhaswati Mukherjee, Former Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO and Mr Henri Amogom-Poule, President GOPIO Reunion.
The official opening ceremony was held on 18 August in the evening at the IGCIC where performances of Geet Gawai and by Groupe Tambours Sacres from Reunion preceded the traditional lighting of lamps that was followed by Ganesh Vandana. After the protocol speeches IGCIC presented a cultural item, and the Vice-President of the Republic of Mauritius Shri Paramasivum Pillay Vyapoory then delivered his speech and officially opened the conference.
Two books were launched on that occasion. The first one was ‘Satyagraha, Gandhi and the Struggles of the Indian Indentured Labourers in South Africa’ authored Prof Kalpana Hiralal & Dr Reddi from South Africa. The other one was ‘Academic Work, Achievements and in honour of Prof Brij Lal’, Senior Historian and Scholar of Fiji and retired Professor from Australian National University. Further, awards were presented by GOPIO to Indo-Mauritians for their contribution to the advancement of the Indo-Mauritian community, and there was also a visit to an exhibition on Indian Immigrants mounted by Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, Reunion Island and Guadeloupe before the dinner.
There was an interactive session on the last day, Sunday 18th August, between the delegates and representatives of several socio-cultural organisations after the latter had given brief accounts of their history and activities. Before the closure of the conference, a series of resolutions were voted and adopted after discussion and modifications proposed.
This conference was one among the other commemorative events that have been held in the other diaspora countries where indentured labour was imported from different parts of India to be used mainly in the sugarcane plantations. The number of such migrants was about 1.3 million, as part of the ‘Great Experiment’ that, significantly for us, began in Mauritius with the arrival of the first contingent in the Atlas ship on November 2nd, 1834. They landed at what is today a World Heritage Site, namely Aapravasi Ghat, before being taken to the Antoinette Sugar Estate where they had been recruited to work. When this initial part of the ‘experiment’ was found to be ‘successful’ as regards the labour requirements of the sugar estate, it was then extended to the other parts of the world, to as far as Fiji and the Caribbean and South America.
Although there are archival records of indentured labour in the respective erstwhile colonies, as well as in the colonizing countries, it is only fairly recently, over the past few decades, that this epochal phenomenon of colonial times – like slavery — which was to transform the countries involved in multiple ways (demographic, social, economic, cultural among others) has begun to be the subject of serious scholarship and empirical study. The seminal work by Hugh Tinker, ‘A New System of Slavery’ was important as a trigger to such studies, as was pointed out by one of the delegates in his paper.
It goes without saying that the papers presented at such conferences are the outcome of serious research work. This is clearly required to analyse properly and as accurately the available information culled from different sources so as to give a balanced perspective on not only the trials and tribulations of the migrants, but also of the larger context in which such migration took place, the conditions under which the migrants worked and lived, the impacts on the economies and societies of the destination countries, as well on their own culture and that of the new countries – and so on and so forth. As is to be expected these papers are highly technical and are couched in the terminology of the specialized fields that are called in to uncover the various aspects of indentured labour, which include history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, archeology, paleontology and others.
They are therefore not readily available or accessible to the laymen, tucked away so to speak in compilations of conference proceedings and other such records that are to be found in academia. Besides, what with history in Mauritius no longer being taught in our schools and colleges, the descendants of these brave ancestors of ours do not really get an opportunity to learn about them, to gain a needed awareness and to learn about their roots. For without its roots a people will wither. And as was evident at this conference, whether it is Reunion or Guadeloupe, Fiji or Guyana, Mauritius or South Africa – the common roots make it such that there are common values and aspirations that prevail among these people. It was easy to relate to everybody present, and to discover that after all, despite seeming differences, there was much to be shared in terms of ancestral memories and the commonalities in cheminement across widely separated geographical spaces.
And thus the importance, both generally for others and particularly the descendants, of more concrete representations of indentured labour, in the form of symbolic monuments, museums, libraries and so on. The account of the effort to put up a Memorial to Indentured Labour in Guadeloupe for example, by delegate Michel Narayaninsammy, was not only informative and insightful, but very poignant. The networking at the conference has already gained him a pledge of help to complete the art work on the Memorial, and I thought to myself that it would be great if one day I could travel there to see it.
By the same token, the setting up of the Pravasi Bharatiya Bhavan, about which I wrote in my article ‘Visit to India: Of culture and modern biology’ in the May 19, 2017 issue of this paper, is not only a gift to the worldwide Indian diaspora as well as a great tribute to the Indentured Labour migrants and their descendants by the Government of India which has entirely funded this jewel, but also a powerful reminder that we can and must keep alive the story of our origins. And that we must make it a duty to visit and revisit such vivid symbols so as to draw inspiration and guidance as we take cognizance of the courage, fortitude and struggles of those who toiled so that we would lead better lives.
In the same spirit is being canvassed at the level of UNESCO the inscription of the Indentured Labour Route Project (ILRP), which was one of the resolutions adopted at the international conference. For a start, one could take a trip to the Aapravasi Ghat where one can learn about all the various projects that are in the pipeline and that will shed further light on our ancestral travails.
- Published in print edition on 25 August 2017