The Jahaji Bhais – Our Forefathers

For a Remembrance

They were not boat people. Nor were they slaves. They were jahaji bhais (boat brothers) though most of the time they were treated almost as slaves. They were contracted labour.

Who were the jahaji bhais? Every year around this period we are compelled to let our thoughts linger back over 182 years of our chequered history and pay tribute to our forefathers. They were sturdy and faced untold difficulties, hardships, poverty, humiliation, injustice, and exploitation. But they had the capacity to bear and affront the colonisers and plantocrats with aplomb and tenacity. They were united.

They were the jahaji bhais: boat brothers travelling the sat samundar together and suffering the vagaries of alien environment together. They shared their tribulations but also their hope for a better future for themselves and their children. Fate united them. In 1834 Mauritius became the first country to be chosen by the British from among all the plantation colonies to begin its “Great Experiment” in the exploitation of indenture labour for the production of wealth for the plantocrats. This followed the passing of the Bill against slavery in the British Parliament.

First Post in Great Experiment

It was precisely the site that is known today as the Aapravasi Ghat in the harbour of Port Louis that ushered a new era, a new tryst with destiny for Indians in Mauritius. Between 2nd November 1834 and 31 May 1924 when the indentured system was definitely terminated some 462,000 Indians had climbed the 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat within a period of 90 years to turn Mauritius into a haven of prosperity for plantocrats and the colonisers. Thus Mauritius was known as the First Post in this Great Experiment of Indentureship.

The Indentureship system has been known throughout the plantation diasporic countries as Girmit, a Bhojpuriased appellation of the term Agreement, which the Bhojpurias could not pronounce. The Indentures thus became known throughout the plantation diaspora as Girmitias, a word coined into Bhojpuri from the English Agreement.

Every year we pay homage to those first girmitias, whether they came from the Port of Calcutta (Kolkata), Vishakapatnam, Madras (Chennai) or Bombay (Mumbai). They resisted insolent might and subjugation, as did the slaves from Africa and Madagascar before them. Their souls, muscles and sinews joined in one great propelling force to challenge the cruel forces of colonization.

No wonder then that every 2ndNovember, we gather with pride and gratitude at Aapravasi Ghat to pay homage to them in a morning solemn yaj, followed by protocol functions of laying of wreath and commemorating the annual event of Indian Indenture Labour arrival. It is the least small action that we can do to thank our forefathers and say “We Remember”.

Point of Entry – A Monument

It is also important to remember and remind our younger generations that the Aapravasi Ghat as the Point of Entry of the Indian plantation workers is held as a significant symbology by their descendants. It is the Aapravasi Ghat which has been the gateway into Mauritius of the Indians.

Succeeding governments have maintained this tradition. We appeal to the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund to mark with a stèle or monument the historic arrival on Mauritian soil of almost ½ a million contract workers from India. They transformed not only the demography but also the arithmetic of ethnic politics in Mauritius, reversing the calculations of the oligarchy for good. It is not one thousand or two thousand. But the bulk of indentures came from India.

Another achievement is that the Aapravasi Ghat has been listed among the world’s Tangible Heritage as from June 2006 at UNESCO and 2016 marks its 10th year of inscription.

It is also of great historical significance that the Government of Mauritius celebrated on 9th June this year the Inscription of the Records of Indenture Immigration on the Memory of the World International Register of the UNESCO which is of immense historic and heritage value. It is accessible now to the whole world, online. Three institutions were commended for their invaluable service in this preservation by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Santaram Baboo earlier this year.

1)     The National Archives in Coromandel, which houses some of the best records of Indian Immigration in the world.

2)     The Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Moka also which houses in its Immigration Archives and Museum, the only registers of girmitias with minute details of port and district of origin, physical and social characteristics of the immigrant and photographs since a certain period in the 19th century.

3)     The National Library in Port Louis also has a good number of valuable documents.

It is good also that the Indenture Labour Route project has been reactivated.

All these go to add to the fact that Mauritius has a well preserved treasure in the documentation of Indian immigration which help PIOs to trace their roots and ancestry and research scholars as well.

It is also worth reckoning that the Aapravasi Ghat houses the Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre which pays tribute to both late Beekrumsing Ramlallah, a pioneer (Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Mauritius Times) and leader who militated for the recognition of the Aapravasi Ghat as a historical monument as well as a “Lieu de mémoire” as a homage to our brave ancestors.

Nomination Dossier on Geet Gawai at UNESCO

The Government has also submitted the Nomination Dossier of Bhojpuri Songs – Geet Gawai for inscription on the World List of Intangible Heritage of UNESCO for 2016. The efforts of Government to see to it that the Geet Gawai, a remarkably well preserved oral tradition of Mauritian cultural patrimony gain recognition at UNESCO, would be certainly followed closely by one and all as the days of Nomination approach towards the end of November.

In this context, it is comforting and assuring that the Minister of Arts and Culture, Hon Baboo represents Mauritius on the Inter-Governmental Committee for the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage for a period of four years beginning June 2016. India has given the assurance in no uncertain terms that she will definitely support Mauritius in this historical endeavour. Once Geet Gawai is listed it will gain international recognition and funding like Sega Typik, Le Morne and AGTF.

It will also put Geet Gawai and the Bhojpuri artists on the world map and benefit the old plantation diasporic countries too which have Bhojpuri as language and culture of origin – such as in Fiji, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Guyana, French Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica too. This listing of Geet Gawai at UNESCO is of great potential in cultural tourism and should start being made visible on Government road shows here and abroad. It is a great window dressing for our tourism, film industry and hospitality industry too.

It must not be forgotten that it is thanks to criteria 6 of Nomination File that Aapravasi Ghat gained recognition as a World Tangible Heritage in 2006 because of the well-preserved mosaic and fabric of the Bhojpuri linguistic and cultural heritage matrix.

Coming back to the Jahaji Bhai concept, let us ask ourselves where do we stand today on the threshold of an e-Economy and as an International Financial Hub way back from a monoculture of sugar?

If Gandhiji were to revisit us?

We very proudly proclaim that Gandhiji not yet a Mahatma halted in Mauritius for some weeks in October 1901. During that chance visit, he could not help being appalled by the abject poverty of the girmitias. We very proudly parade the two teachings that Gandhiji gave to us upon his evaluation of our situation then: To join politics, and 2) to educate our children.

Today we have reached the topmost levels of political and educational development.

If Gandhiji were to be here today would he not wonder at what we have done to the concept of Jahaji Bhai? And what have we turned our children into with education – robotized individualists, outrageous self-centered consumers and rank materialists with corruption fast becoming a norm? Is it not time to revisit the route and roots left by our forefathers as their legacy to us? Simple and plain living but full of the richness of hope, dignity, honesty, integrity, respect for others and elders, imbibed with moral values and strength of character?

An Appeal

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