At Aapravasi Ghat, echoes of suffering, a fight for recognition

An Indian and Mauritian recall struggle to get World Heritage Site status for the landing point of indentured labour.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Published: March 13, 2015 3:30:07 am
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the Aapravasi Ghat at Port Louis in Mauritius on Thursday. (PTI Photo) Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the Aapravasi Ghat at Port Louis in Mauritius on Thursday. (PTI Photo)

At the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tributes to the “brave” Indian indentured labour that landed in Mauritius 180 years ago — writing in the visitors’ book that the site was an “eloquent tribute to the indomitable human spirit”.

In the years that immediately followed the abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire in 1834, nearly half a million Indians were forced to migrate to Mauritius, as the colonial system struggled to keep up the flow of captive agricultural workers for the sugar plantations there.

These ‘girmitiyas’, people from modern-day UP, Bihar, West Bengal and parts of southern India, who had signed the ‘agreement’ or contract with employers, mostly thought they were going to a better life “just a little way off north India” — but were instead sent on a long and arduous sea journey that took many of their lives.

These indentured labourers were never to return to India, but they went on to shape the future of Mauritius, and many other distant lands, in multiple ways.

Aapravasi Ghat was where the indentured labour force — rather, the individuals who had survived the voyage from India — landed, as the redeployed slave ships docked in “Marich Desh”, or Mauritius.

Unlike the ‘Slave Route’ however, which was institutionalised by UNESCO in 1994, agreement on recognising the ‘Indentured Labour Route’ happened later, and far more grudgingly. It took the joint efforts of India and Mauritius to ensure that even the idea that Aapravasi Ghat could be a World Heritage Site was acknowledged, former UNESCO officials said. The advisory board that had inspected the site earlier had found “nothing” worthy of recognition.

“I recall how before me a British delegate spoke of how Aapravasi Ghat should be called ‘Immigration Depot’ as that was the gateway for impoverished, caste-ridden Indians to better their lives, just like the IT immigrants to the West today,” said Bhaswati Mukherjee, then ambassador to UNESCO, India’s representative on the World Heritage Committee.

“I had to spell out the difference between indentured and immigrant; how immigration involved choice, while indentured meant people were misled, lied to and forced with the prospect of prison sentences to travel thousands of kilometres to a place from where they could not return, and for which they were paid a pittance. It was after much persuasion that the idea of a depot was abandoned,” Mukherjee, who argued the case for the African Group and Mauritius at the meeting of the committee in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2006, said.

Speaking from Mauritius, Aramoogum Parasuramen, former UNESCO representative for Mauritius, said that because many Europeans had “probably not lived that life, or been in its shadow, they did not realise that a World Heritage site does not just mean a building or fancy place, but a place like Aapravasi Ghat is.

“They perhaps could not appreciate how a place where ships came in could constitute heritage.

“Aapravasi Ghat,” Parasuramen said, “is of great significance for all of us. It is the first bit of land our forefathers stepped on after leaving the shores of India. It symbolises their suffering and misery as they journeyed on ships used for slaves earlier.”

Mauritius now has two heritage sites, and is the only country to have one each of the International Slave Route Le Morne, and of the Indentured Labour Route, at Aapravasi Ghat.

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