‘Kahe Gaile Bides?’ Why Did You Go Overseas?

New Perspectives on Indentured Labour

By Sarita Boodhoo

First of all. I am grateful to Prof Maurits Hassan Khan of Suriname for honouring me with a copy of the book ‘Kahe Gaile Bides?’ – “Why Did You Go Overseas?”. It is such an immensely and intensely seizing title I could not help but borrow it from the beautiful Resource Book of the Bidesia Project (2005-2007) (Suriname, Holland and India) which sets the tone of the whole saga of immigration of all times whether indentured or otherwise, for the purpose of this article.

The Aapravasi Ghat Ttrust Fund in collaboration with the Ministry of Arts and Culture and the University of Mauritius organized a four-day International Scientific Conference this week on Indentured Labour. Inaugurated by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Mookesswar Choonee on Monday 5th last at the Octave Wiehé Auditorium of the University of Mauritius, this conference seeks to demarcate itself from the current trend of diaspora studies and Indian Indentured Labour as such. During these four days it has sought to focalise attention and concerted efforts on highlighting new perspectives on Indentured Labour from 1825 to 1925.

On the same occasion two monumental works by Mrs Leela Gujadhur Sarup were launched by the Minister of Arts and Culture in presence of the Vice President of Mauritius Mrs Monique Ohsan-Bellepeau. These are ‘Volume VIII of Proceedings of Colonial Emigration in the 19th and 20th Century’ and ‘Facts about Indentured Labour, Reports and Diaries of Major G.D Pitcher and George Abraham Grierson’. It would be recalled that ‘Volume VII of Proceedings’ was launched earlier this year in May in Port of Spain by the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs Kamla Bissessar.

As for the second book, which throws significant light on Indentured Labour, said Mrs Sarup, “of forty copies published in 1882, there is only one copy left in the whole world which is to be found at the National Library of Calcutta.”

This international conference saw some 70 academicians, scholars and NGOs from thirteen countries gathered for four days to analyse and make a scientific, methodic multi-disciplinary study of the history of indentured labour across the world from 1825 to 1925.

It is the first major international conference on indentured labour system and its sequel since the historic first ever international conference on Indian Labour Immigration held in 1984 at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in the context of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the advent of Indian Indentured Labour in Mauritius. The earlier conference, 27 years ago, sought to throw light on the relation between slavery and Indentured Labour and the impact of the two of them on the social, economic, cultural and political life of the plantation colonies. But they also tried to put into perspective the transition from “Indian” to “Nationals” in the various countries to which Indian immigrants had went. Both country and general papers were invited which gave a platform to voices hitherto hushed, silenced or inferiorised. More than 30 scholars participated from Fiji, Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Guyana, South Africa, Suriname, Malaysia, UK, France, USA, Reunion, Singapore, Holland, India, etc. At the same time, there was a strong civic and grass roots participation which gave an emotional aura to the academic conference. 150 delegates from India had marked symbolically the 150 years of the cutting off of the umbilical cord from Mother India.

The current gathering of academicians and scholars marks a departure from the earlier conference in the sense that it seeks to make more incisive, bold methodological research into hitherto untouched territories of historical studies such as minor histories and the emotional aspects of indenture systems. An interdisciplinary approach that includes archaeology, oral history, anthropology and ethnography has been adopted. A broadened horizon of indenture-ship has been undertaken that includes periods before the “great experiment” of Indian Indenture-ship, to Mauritius in 1834. This includes the earlier experiences of Chinese indenture-ship, Malagasy and Comorian Indentured Labour experience from 1839 to 1860 and Indenture-ship on Mozambican cotton plantations.

Dr Vijaya Teelock, Chairperson of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund is supported in this dynamic, empirical pursuit by a band of hardworking, sincere and devoted young committed historians, mostly her former students where “there is no place for self-seekers”. For Dr V. Teelock, the conference fulfilled one of the important recommendations of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO when the Aapravasi Ghat Site was inscribed on the World Heritage List (16 July 2006). The World Heritage Committee also recommended that Mauritius, as State party, undertake further in-depth research on indentured labour in Mauritius and in other parts of the world. This international conference adopts a scientific approach which is also in line with the objectives of the AGTF Act of 2001 and in accord with its Mission Statement.

Parallel to the eleven sessions where more than fifty papers were read followed by interactive exchanges, several meetings and a round-table conference with brain storming sessions were also held on the concept of “Emotion and Historiography” and Indenture Labour Route. Those living and working in the indentured Labour World discussed ideas and formulated a project on the International Labour Route to be submitted to UNESCO.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that the High Commissioner of India, Mr S.T Seetharam showed special interest in the Conference. Besides attending the inaugural session, he participated actively in two sessions on Tuesday 5th and addressed the gathering on the whole process of migration not only from India but into India, starting from the Aryan period, to the Greek, Moghul and British empires, among others. He also addressed the issue of “Tracing of Roots” and the Global Immigration Database and the help extended by the Government of India in this context.

A remarkable and refreshing feature of the Conference has seen not only the resourcefulness of seasoned authorities of history such as Professor Richard Allen of the USA and the respected pioneer of Indian Indentured System, Professor Brij V. Lall of Fiji and Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University whose monumental volume – The Encyclopedia of Indian Diaspora (National University of Singapore) is the first comprehensive survey of Indian communities around the world, Catherine Servan Schreiber of France; Prof. Sudesh Mishra of Fiji who gave the keynote address. Mrs Leela Gujadhur Sarup, Maurits Hassan Khan (Suriname), Badri Narayan Tiwari of the GB. Pant Social Science Institute of Allahabad, India; Vahed Golam of South Africa, Dr Carpanin Marimoutou of the University of Réunion, Jocelyn Chan Low of the University of Mauritius, Mansraj Ramphal of Trinidad and Tobago. But also a new crop of fresh and dynamic young historians such as Satyendra Peerthum – Conference Co-ordinator of AGTF, Raviraj Beechook (UoM), Babiba Bahadoor (AGTF), Kiran Jankee Chuttoo, (AGTF), Leo Couacaud (anthropologist from Sydney, Australia), Ashutosh Kumar (New Delhi). As well as the young and budding Ashvin Nemchand, Girish Bissoon and Christelle Miao Foh of AGTF who are breaking new grounds in research methodology and interdisciplinary perspectives.

The closing ceremony at Trianon Indentured Labourers Estate Barracks yesterday evening gave participants an insight of the intangible cultural heritage of Indian Indentured Labourers and their descendants.

It is expected that this type of serious scientific gathering will take place regularly to give scholars and other interested parties the opportunity to share knowledge and bring more insight into the indentured Labour system and its aftermath.

It would be a good idea if Mauritius, as a pioneer in setting up the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and the fact that the Aapravasi Ghat is inscribed on the World Heritage Site of humanity and its advanced work on database treatment of archival documents at AGTF and also at the MGI Indian Immigration Archives, may offer consultative collaboration to Caribbean countries and Fiji in this direction.

* Published in print edition on 9 December 2011

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