June 25, 2017

End of Indian Indentureship

As we wrote last year, March 10th will mark 100 years since Governor-General Hardinge of the Government of India issued an order ordering the cessation of shipments of Indentured Indians to Guyana, the West Indies and Fiji. And to mark this seminal event, commemorative events are being organised in each of these locales to allow the descendants of those immigrants to reflect upon their past from the perspective of their present, with an eye towards charting a course to their future.
In Guyana, most of the groups that work in the Indian-Guyanese community, culturally, socially, religiously, etc, have made a laudatory and successful attempt to coordinate the timings and locales of their events so that clashes are minimised. This will ensure that as many Guyanese as possible have the opportunity to participate by their presence. I do not want to pre-empt the official calendar of events that will be released soon save to say that March is practically booked for the entire month.
I can speak about one event I am involved with the youths of the Hindus for Selfless Service (HSS) who have chosen to host a mass event on the West Coast of Demerara on “INDIAN ABOLITION DAY 100: End of Indian Indentureship”. They are collaborating with the umbrella group, “Guyana Indian Immigration Abolition Association”, that is also sponsoring an Arts Exhibition and a Symposium. Rhyaan Shah is involved with this initiative.
The HSS/GIIAA group plan to utilise the “Mela” form of collective activity – “Mela” means “gathering” in Sanskrit – to bring together Guyanese on this special day. They will adapt their Mela, however, to their theme of “Examining the history of Indian Indentureship; confronting the challenges of the present to create a bright future”. The “Mela” or fair was a feature of 19th Century village India and was the site from where a large number of individuals were enticed by the “Arkatiyas” (“Recruiters”) to emigrate to become plantation labourers in so many countries. The group will be recreating the phenomenon by deploying actors as modern-day arkatiyas.
One of the survival mechanisms of the Indian immigrants was to exchange their right of a return passage to India for small plots of lands on which they planted rice. The land was invariably worth less than the return passage, but they accepted the exchange since they would have by then made the decision to remain in Guyana. This crop was first cultivated commercially at Plantation Edinburg on the West Coast of Demerara. The group plans to demonstrate the early method of rice cultivation where stalks of paddy were first cultivated in a small “biyari” and then transplanted laboriously by hand to the “rice beds”. Today, the rice industry – which includes the milling, packaging and shipping of rice – is the largest employer in Guyana and brings in huge amounts of foreign currency.
The Mela will also illustrate the harsh times into which the industry that brought the Indians to Guyana, sugar, has fallen. The closure of the factory at Leonora and Versailles was quite traumatic during the 1970s. But the sudden closure of Wales appears to be replicating the harsh conditions of life during indentureship and they hope to bring some youths from that Plantation to illustrate their plight in skits, song and dance. Special songs have been composed for the occasion.
They also intend to illustrate the other Indian contributions to Guyana, which in addition to saving the sugar industry and creating the rice industry can be seen in jewellery, foods, clothing, religion (Hinduism and Islam), sports, arts and crafts, music, business, entrepreneurship in forestry products, multi-culturalism, movies, etc. As far as possible, booths will be dedicated to these activities. It is interesting that CheddiJagan, who played a critical role in bringing Indians into modern politics, was born and died in March. He, along with other Indian leaders such as Jang Bahadur Sings, will be commemorated in one booth.
But the dark underside of Indian life in Guyana will also be illustrated: booths dealing with the social problems of Indian Guyanese – suicide and alcoholism – will distribute pamphlets and offer suggestions for institutionalised approaches. As they say, come one, come all on March 5th. Venue to be announced.

By Ravi Dev