A Story of Resilience and Dual Sharing

Indians in Suriname and Mauritius

By Sarita Boodhoo

For some decades now diasporic studies are gaining much significance. Globalization and the era of e-technology have brought peoples of the world closer to each other more than ever before. This is paving the way for much meaningful interaction and durable connectivity.

It is in this context that the current visit to Mauritius of Dr Chandersen Choenni, professor of Indian migration at the Faculty of Arts and Political History at Free University, Amsterdam sets an interesting dynamism at work.

Prof Choenni gave a thought provoking talk on Indians in Suriname and the challenges they face on Monday 30 July, at the initiative of the Organisation for Diasporic Initiatives at the Municipality of Port-Louis. This talk was chaired by Mr Chit Dukhira, ODI’s energetic chairman. But quite pertinent and relevant to the occasion also was the stimulating intervention of Hon Mookeshwar Choonee, Minister of Arts and Culture.

It is interesting to note the happy coincidence in the surnames of the two. They share the same original family name – Choonee; though written differently. According to the Professor, his family name originates from the Agarwal Bania trading community. The observation to be made here is how people of the Indian origin from proximative bonding in terms of language, culture and traditions have been thrown in juxtaposition with people in alien surroundings with completely different cultural orientation, in distant lands in different oceanic belts.

And they have been able to adapt to their new environment and achieve remarkable social mobility over some 100 years of displacement.

As the Professor revealed, his “par aja” – grandfather – left India for Suriname, then Dutch Guiana, in 1889 from the neighbourhood of Danapur while Mookeshwar Choonee’s forefathers hailed from Arrah, both within a distance of 30kms in the former Oudh, Bengal Presidency, during the British colonial period. The names were recorded in each host country according to the language of the prevailing masters though in the original phonology it would be written in the same way in the Devanagri script.

Suriname and Mauritius belonged to different colonial masters, the former Dutch, the second the British. Professor Chand Choenni’s ancestors landed in the vast land of Suriname on the north coast of South America flanked on the west by former British Guyana and the east by French Guyana. So people of possibly the same origin would adapt three different lifestyles, languages and political systems while living side by side in their new adopted lands.

Suriname is, moreover, a dense tropical hot forest land whose interior has remained impenetrable even to this day. Hence the Indian immigrants and other settlers kept to the meager fertile cultivable plain along the coast. The indentures in Suriname are mainly from the Bhojpuri-Awadhi belt of the western Bihar and Eastern UP. In Mauritius, Indian indentured labourers were recruited from the above, but also from Madras Presidency and Maharashtra Presidency.

Mauritius was the first experiment in indentureship and it proved successful. The experiment that began on 2nd November 1834 with 39 girmitias (from English Agreement) on board the Atlas from Calcutta, disembarking at the Aapravasi Ghat, Port Louis, would pave the way for other such experiments which would become a most lucrative business in other plantation colonies as well. The French and Dutch would sign an agreement with the British Raj to benefit from such labour. It was on board the Lallah Rookh, which dropped anchor in the Suriname River on 5 June 1873, that 399 girmitias would land on “Shri Ram” – Sarnami soil.

How interesting to note that immigrants immediately gave a mythological name to their new homelands – thus Mauritius became Marich des and Suriname – Shri Ram. Lallah Rookh for that matter has assumed a strong symbolical significance for Sarnami Hindustanis, featuring in poetry, songs, writings and name plates of streets and institutions.

By 1914 when immigration of indentures would come to an end some 30,000 had landed in Suriname out of which some 12,000 went back. But there was rapid demographic growth among the PIOs. In Mauritius, we had a much larger intake – 450,000 in all (1834 to 1924). Being a minority community in Suriname, the Indians whether Hindus, Muslims and Christians are very closely knit and have a jahaji bhai jahaji bahen bonding. A “Hindustani” culture and heritage developed among them. “It was much easier to create a collective Hindustani culture with the development of a Hindi variant known as Surinam Hindustani or Sarnami,”says Dr Choënni.

The Surinamese planters also had recruited Portuguese, Madeirans, Chinese, West African and other inhabitants of other Caribbean countries to work on the plantations and in the factories. Half the population of Suriname are of Javanese and Indonesian background. Languages that are recognized in Suriname are Dutch, English, Spanish, Sranang Tongo and Hindi (Sarnami).

As far as religion is concerned, 45% are Christians, while 28% are Hindus and 20% practise Islam. Sarnami Hindi is widely spoken in Suriname at home, in the political field and during festive occasions and celebrations. However Indian languages have a greater literary and cultural vibrancy in Mauritius, having been successfully integrated in the educational system. Outside India, Mauritius has the largest number of prolific writers and poets in Hindi with more than 300 literary works to their credit.

Being a minority group, Surinamese Hindustani people are more successful in the socio-economic field, while they remain marginalized on the political front. I remember going to the rice belt in Nikeri in 1996, 2003 and 2007 where the Surinamese Indians are some of the renowned and prosperous rice growers of the world. The political instability with coups in 1980, 1990 and the government being under military rule till 1991, led many Surnami Hindustanis to flee to the Netherlands or the USA. But the bulk would go to Netherlands. According to Dr Choenni, the percentage of Hindustanis in the Netherlands is higher than in Suriname itself. It could be in the region of 125,000 currently in Suriname while some 160,000 Surnami Indians live in the Netherlands. This phenomenon is due to the fact that “the national image building in Suriname gives more visibility to the Creole people.” However as from 1991, democratic elections established a civilian coalition. In 1992, a peace agreement was reached between guerrillas and government troops, putting an end to long-lasting civil war.

In Mauritius, besides political stability so far, we have the welfare state and a policy of inclusion. But it is worthwhile noting that people of Indian origin, though, have a secondary economic status. Because of the corporate system, a legacy of the sugar plantocracy, 80% of the economy is still in the hands of the dominant white community.

For Mr Mookeshwar Choonee, the migratory people of all diasporas have developed a culture unique to their situation which has allowed them to thrive and succeed. These traits were summed up as: (1) resilience (2) tolerance (3) dual sharing (4) adaptation. The Indian people coming to Mauritius had “the rare propensities to accept the values of the adopted country,” while retaining their basic intrinsic socio-cultural values and religion.

The sum up, people of Indian origin (PIOs) wherever they are have worked very hard to lift themselves up from the ‘girmitia’ level to forge a way to the top of the political and social ladder.

While the people of the diaspora have managed to have a remarkable social mobility, they have struggled hard to preserve their identity. Asked Hon. Choonee “Why do you have to lose your language or culture?” However, it is a fact that language proficiency in their parents’ mother tongue is not the priority of present generation of descendants of the girmitias. Nonetheless, the sense of religious consciousness and cultural ethos is strong. At the same time, they have learnt to develop a new “Indian popular culture” rooted in their adopted lands, very visible in terms of their vibrant cuisine, dress, worship and sacred space, music and dance forms and art.

The determination and adaptability in their new homelands reflect the Indians’ efforts and ability to forge ahead without cutting their ancestral, cultural, linguistic and spiritual roots from Mother India, which sustains and nurtures their souls.

* Published in print edition on 3 August 2012

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