Wake Up Call of Indians in Guadeloupe

Serious thought is being given to the promotion of Indian languages in the Indian diaspora these days.

At the initiative of the Indian High Commissioner Shri Anup Kumar Mudgal and coinciding with the celebrations marking the 180th anniversary of Indian indentured labour, an international regional conference on Hindi was held in Mauritius by the World Hindi Secretariat, as follow-up to the World Hindi Conferences. It grouped resource persons, linguists and teachers concerned with the methodology and strategies to find new and modern ways of teaching Hindi in diasporic countries so as to make it more accessible and appealing to the students.

On the same occasion, the Bhojpuri Speaking Union, under the aegis of the Ministry of Arts and Culture in collaboration with the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, organised a two-day International Academic Bhojpuri Conference which focused on the literary and cultural values of Bhojpuri language. There have been other conferences highlighting the ways and means of teaching of Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Urdu languages by Speaking Unions, Cultural Trusts and socio-cultural organisations.

 Focus on Indian Languages in the Diaspora

This all goes to show how much importance is attached to Indian languages as an element of identity by Indians in the diaspora countries. In this context, it is encouraging to see the bold initiative undertaken to focus on the status of Indian languages, in October this year, at Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean department.

The aim of this conference is not only to develop strategies to retain languages of origin of Indians in the diaspora but also to look into the different modes of transmission. The conference is being chaired by Dr Appasamy Murugaiyan of the EPHE-UMR7528 Mondes Iranien et Indien based in Paris. It has the collaboration of several Guadeloupian organisations including the Conseil Guadeloupien pour les Langues Indiennes and the Regional Council of Guadeloupe.

Western linguists and social anthropologists have been focusing for decades on language loss in several societies, as if to celebrate the disappearance of these languages. However, it is comforting that there is a positive sign of reversal in the strategies by a new wave of linguists, anthropologists and historians. Their initiative aims at identifying the reasons of abandonment of languages of origin and then developing strategies of language retention and transmission in diasporic contexts. The UNESCO has warned about the disappearance of 50% of the world’s 7000 languages in the next few decades if Governments of States Parties do not make adequate efforts to protect, preserve and promote these languages in the face of the challenges of modernity. That is why the UN decreed the annual celebration of Mother Tongue Day and International Day of Languages since 2008.

Language: Element of Identity Reconstruction

The rationale of the Guadeloupe conference is that for more than three decades focus on the diaspora has been laid on the historical, anthropologic and political dimensions of migration. “The presence of Indian languages and their role within the diaspora populations have so far attracted very limited interest than expected.” Another assumption put forward in the rationale of the conference is that of all the elements of identity reconstruction, language retention and transmission is the most problematic. And language stands out as an essential component of the identity building process.

The degree of language retention and transmission varies from one diasporic country to another, depending on the distance of these communities from India and a number of other factors such as group size, the socio-cultural networking, and facilities and tools provided as well as the host country’s language and cultural policy. Indian languages in the diaspora countries vary from complete disappearance (Guyana, Trinidad, French Guyana, Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, Jamaica) or extreme marginalisation to recovery, preservation and promotion through the efforts of socio-cultural organisations and/or the States Parties.

Problematics of Retention and Transmission

Emphasis at this conference will be laid on the problematics of retention and transmission of languages in the areas such as French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion. The conference seeks to find ways of transmission through socio-cultural associations, family and group networks, language of origin vitality through ancestral literatures and ritual songs, and determine strategies for stabilization and revitalization of languages of origin.

In the case of Guadeloupe, focus will be laid on Tamil. Migration to Guadeloupe and Martinique following the abolition of slavery in French colonies in 1848 saw the recruitment of indentured labour from Pondicherry, Madras, Karaikal, but also from Chandnagore and Mahe, with a small percentage from the Bhojpuri belt too. But the predominant language of origin is retained as Tamil. Because of lack of active communication and spatial distance from the Mother country as well as neglect and assimilation policy of the host countries, Indian languages in Guadeloupe are a threatened species hanging on to ritual songs and practices.

Politics of Assimilation

Out of a total estimated population of 400000 in Guadeloupe, 60000 are of Indian origin. However, most of the Indian population has been assimilated into the Roman Catholic religion due to the French practice of “assimilation” and acculturation. Indian indentures were forced to follow the Code Noir and adopt Christian names to have access to education and jobs. There is a vast revival movement throughout the DOM TOM now to go back to the ancestral roots. Indian names are being given to newborn babies of PIOs.

Needless to say that the treatment to Indians in these countries was harsher than in other colonial plantations. They suffered not only the humiliation and “mépris” of the Whites but also that of the ex-slaves who copied the White man’s ways of living and adopted his languages. Remarkably, PIOs in Guadeloupe and Martinique own nearly 40% of total land in the islands due to their “infamous” culture of savings and love for land and cultivation. They are also in the liberal professions and education. The Indians were despised for their weird languages, dress code and eating and religious practices. Thus, they were seen as “uncivilised and repulsive.” “But the strength of their nostalgic adherence to hold on to their cultural practices and customs would play a major role in withstanding the pull of the cultural standardization of the French society.”

Francophone PIOs

When the question of total integration of the islands into the French administration came up during the 1940s, the Whites and people of African origin opposed full citizenship to the Indians. Veterans like Henry Sidambaram known as Guadeloupian Gandhi managed to get the Indian community to accede to full French citizenship and civil rights. One would recall the move of NMU in the 1940s and 50s who insisted that the Indians in Mauritius go back to India. Nonetheless, some of Indians in Guadeloupe have acceded to important posts in the public and private sectors. Dr Henri Bangou held the post of Senator from Guadeloupe in the French Senate. Ernest Moutoussamy has served in the National Assembly of France as a Deputy from Guadeloupe.

In 2004, the Indian community in Guadeloupe celebrated the 150th anniversary of their arrival in the island. A statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled on the occasion at St François town. Thanks to the drive and efforts of GOPIO International and Michel Narainsamy, President of GOPIO Guadeloupe, the Francophone PIOs are having a sharper voice in the annual PBDs. In this year’s PBD, Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs, Government of India gave a particular attention to the Francophone PIOs. Late Gilbert Canabady, noted businessman of Reunion Island, was one of the awardees of the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Sammaan in 2014.

With Shri Narendra Modi at the helm, Indians in the diaspora expect a better deal and accrued investment on behalf of the Mother country in the protection, promotion and propagation of heritage languages which they have battled to maintain against great odds and obstacles for more than 150 years and in the case of Mauritius for 180 years!


* Published in print edition on 11 April  2015

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