Overseas Indians: What future?


By Harry Booluck

Mass migration of Indians overseas is directly linked to the emancipation of slavery in 1834 in the British sugar producing colonies, mostly in Mauritius and the Caribbean colonies of Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica and the islands of Barbados, St Kitts, Nevis… and, after 1876, in Fiji when it became Crown Colony. Emancipation wreaked havoc in the plantations and planters appealed to Britain to halt the ruin of colonial economies. The British government decided to seek indentured labour (on contract) from the United Provinces and Bihar that had an abundant supply with the right profile. Mauritius was the first country to try what later came to be known as the ‘Great Experiment’ as from 1834. The success of the ‘Great Experiment’ in Mauritius led to its adoption by other colonial powers from the 1840s.

Over the decades hundreds of thousands left India in search of greener pastures. Many returned home at the expiry of their contract for various reasons, but many more remained and settled down in the colonies. Elsewhere, Indians were recruited for other types of manual work, as in South Africa, or skilled workers in the construction of railroads as in East Africa. A total of over two million left India by the time indentureship came to an end in 1917 in the Caribbean and in 1925 in Mauritius following the Kunwar Maharaj Singh report.

After almost a century after the end of indentureship, what is the fate of the descendents of those Indians who ventured to leave their motherland for the unknown destinations they were lured to? The picture isn’t that rosy everywhere: in some independent former colonies they are safe and secure and progressing but elsewhere they have been harassed, aggressed and chased out. 

The first to regret their lot were the Indians of Dutch Guyana, now Suriname, in the Caribbean. They were victimised by fellow neighbours and field workmates with impunity. Unable to seek legal redress, many fled to the Netherlands where they are grateful to the Dutch authorities for the protection granted. Those who remained behind struggle to make ends meet in a hostile environment, the more so when their socio-economic success is looked upon with suspicion and envy.

Indians in Uganda are not from the poorer eastern regions but from western India, a well-to-do mass of people who settled in East Africa when the British reigned supreme. Through hard work and thriftiness, they went on to become successful businessmen and entrepreneurs who today own large sugar factories. Their phenomenal success soon became the cause of their destruction: unpopular politicians or those from minority African tribes soon took to populist politics and eventually extremist policies to win and retain power. This is how Idi Amin Dada from the minority Kakwa tribe sought to win the support of the majority of Ugandans by confiscating the assets of the Asians and distributing them to his Afro-Ugandans cronies. The policy proved very popular and was heartily welcomed even if six months later most went bankrupt, resulting in Amin being chased out of power.

One Madhvani patriarch, who at the time of his demise owned Kakira Sugar Works, tea and sugar estates, schools, colleges and recreational centres, was summoned by Amin at a military garrison and a mountain of neatly attached notes were placed on sheets on the ground with Amin sitting on a chair at one end and the old Indian at the other. Amin threw a Ugandan shilling coin to him instructing him to leave the country within 24 hours, leaving behind all his possessions. With tears in his eyes, he left Uganda for Britain.

Note that the East African Asians from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda had negotiated with the British prior to independence to grant them and their descendents dual nationalities just in case and Britain accepted to receive 5,000 Asians annually! Within a decade in the UK, they recouped their losses. (Fearing that one day things may turn sour in Africa, the Indians had parked their money in safer overseas destinations). Since then, Indians have been apprehensive about returning to Africa. Even when Ugandan President Museveni appealed to the Indians to come back and reinvest in the country, they remained hesitant.

The saddest story of the fate of the descendents of indentured labourers comes from Fiji. It received some 20,000 labourers from the same regions as the others to work in the plantations. They too climbed up the social ladder thanks to their hard work and thriftiness. Their achievements and success became a bone of contention between the ‘foreign Indians’ and the natives. And as in Uganda, Rabuka in Fiji replicated Amin’s ruthless methods. Without support from the Indian government, the Indo-Fijians felt abandoned. But Fijian Asians weren’t as wealthy as their Ugandan counterparts. Those who could afford it, mostly the intelligentsia, fled Fiji for Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, other neighbouring islands, and the UK, leaving behind the downtrodden.

In Mauritius, Trinidad/Tobago and Guyana, relative peace and stability have been achieved thanks to a proper balancing of different competing interests. The future, however, does not look bright in light of the exodus of young professionals and the resulting brain drain that’s presently underway.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 2 June 2023

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