January 15, 2021 3:23:24 pm
In his autobiography, Munshi Rahman Khan wrote about the sudden meeting with two strangers on the platform of a railway station in Kanpur that would mark the beginning of the journey of a lifetime, taking him to the South American country of Suriname. “They asked me why sahib do you want to do a job. I asked, whose job? They said, a government job. Then enquire me whether I had schooling or not. I said yes I am middle school passed. Then they gladly responded that I would be made a sardar and I shall be paid twelve annas,” he writes as reproduced in historian Ashutosh Kumar’s book, ‘Coolies of the empire: Indentured labourers in the sugar colonies.’
In 1898, at the age of 24, Khan left for Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, to work as a plantation labourer there. Suriname, a Dutch colony at that time was reeling under the shortage of labour on their sugar plantations due to the abolition of slavery in 1863. Concerned plantation owners lobbied the Dutch government, and the colonial parliament of Suriname, to allow the procurement of indentured labourers from British India. On September 8, 1870, the Suriname immigration treaty was drafted and three years later began the immigration of Indian labourers.
On June 5, 1873, Lalla Rookh, the first ship carrying 399 Hindustani emigrants from Calcutta came to shore at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname. A majority of the labourers belonged to the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In the course of the next five decades, these long excruciating sea voyages would establish the Hindustani community in Suriname, which at present constitutes the largest ethnic group in the country. So deep were the connections made through the indentured labour system, that Sarnami Hindustani, a product of the combination of Bhojpuri and Awadhi, was born in Suriname and is currently known to be the third most spoken language there after Dutch and Sranan Tongo.
The current president of Suriname, Chandrikapersad Santokhi, is the second head of state belonging to the Hindustani community, the first being Ramsevak Shankar who held the post from 1988 to 1990. Both are afflilitated to the Progressive Reform Party, which was previously known as the United Hindustani Party (VHP), which was formed in 1949 to represent the Indo-Surinamese community. After being elected last year, Santokhi took the oath of office in Sanskrit while holding copies of the Vedas in his hands. In the recent past, he has been calling for stronger relations with India and has also proposed visa-free travel between the two countries.
“You would be surprised to know that the system of indentured labour is seen as a positive thing in Suriname today. The Hindustani community feels grateful that this system is what allowed them to live and grow there,” says Kumar, Professor of History in Banaras Hindu University and a specialist on the indentured labour system in the Caribbeans.
Setting out on an unknown journey
In the second half of the 19th century, the Gangetic plains including regions of western Bihar and Oudh experienced acute famines. The resulting poverty led to large-scale migration from the area. Consequently, these were the regions where the plantation recruiters were most active in looking out for potential labourers.
Professor Chan E S Choenni in his research paper titled, ‘From Bharat to Sri Ram Desh: The emigration of Indian indentured labourers to Suriname’, explains in great detail how recruiters, locally known as ‘arkatis’, used several questionable methods to find workers for the European colonies in the Caribbean. Apart from Suriname, similar employment was also being done in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana and the like. The arkatis lured potential emigrants from crowded markets and train stations and informed them of an opportunity in a different country, although the precise location of the country was not specified.
Mauritius, for instance, was referred to as Mirchidesh (country of peppers). Trinidad was Chinidad or country of sugar. “The passage to Suriname was thus depicted by many arkatis as a pilgrimage to the holy country of God Ram, named Sri Ram or sarnam (famous) or srinam (sublime name),” writes Choenni. He adds how the “arkatis portrayed Suriname as an affluent country where food was served in gold thalis (plates) and gold lotas (bowls) were used for drinking.” Then there were the stories of returned emigrants who had apparently made a fortune and even become zamindars (landlords). There was also the effort to build confidence by convincing the potential recruits that they would be under the protection of the British ‘sarkar’. Occasionally the arkatis would resort to more forceful means like kidnapping as well.
Once they agreed, the potential recruits were brought to Calcutta where they had to undergo a rigorous health check-up before embarking on a three-month-long journey via the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope to South America. Those heading for Suriname went to the barracks at Chitpur or Ballygunj. Then they were made to sign an agreement marking their voluntary recruitment through which they were bound to service for five years. The agreement came to be known by a corruption of the word as ‘girmit’ and those signing it as ‘girmitiya’ or ‘kontraki’, the latter a corruption of the Dutch word, ‘kontrakt’ or contract.
Only British ships were used for transportation of the ‘girmitiyas’ to Suriname. “Between 1873 and 1916, 64 ships with names like Ganges, Sheila, Sutlej, Dewa, Zhenab and Zanzibar transported more than 34,000 Indian immigrants to Suriname,” writes Choenni.
Several accounts speak of the homesickness, diseases and fear of the sea that afflicted the labourers once aboard the ship. Despite the many dangers, a strong bond also developed among fellow passengers. As noted by Choenni, “they became jahaji bhai and jahaji bahin (ship brothers and sisters), a relationship that was to some so sacred that even marriages between children of those who became brethren during the ship journey was not allowed.”
An important aspect of the friendships formed aboard was the breakdown of caste and religious divisions. The harsh weather conditions, the limitations of space during life in the sea and the inability to cater to specific food restrictions meant that everyone was forced to forgo caste barriers. Religious obligations like prayers five times a day by Muslims and daily Hindu prayers also could not be properly observed. Consequently, a casteless Hindustani community emerged even after they landed at Suriname. Khan, in his autobiography, observes how at the depot, the higher castes did not oppose eating with the lower castes: “Here no any Brahmin or Kshatriya said a word that they will not eat with Muslims, Chamars or dom otherwise our religion would spoil.”
A decision to not return
Despite the life of hardship faced by the labourers in the plantations, a majority of them decided to not return after the expiry of their contract. There are many reasons as to why they did not wish to return. The fact that two-third of the more than 34,000 Indian immigrants settled down in Suriname and gave up their free passage back to India is to some extent proof of the fact that life in Suriname was perhaps better than in British India.
Scholars of the indentured system note that Indian immigrants to Suriname arrived by the end of the 19th century, by which time adequate improvements had already been made to provisions in the ship and health care. Further, these immigrants were also given protection on the basis of the treaty between the British and the Dutch.
“Unlike the British colonies, the Dutch had a policy through which the indentured labourers were entitled to some amount of land. This was one big reason why a majority of them stayed back,” says Kumar. “Moreover, there was much lesser racial violence in the Dutch and French colonies in comparison to the British colonies. Consequently, it was easier for the labourers to be integrated into Suriname’s society,” he adds.
Another big reason for the desire to stay back was the absence of caste and religious divisions in the Hindustani society that took birth in Suriname. “Most of the people who left India for Suriname were either from lower castes or very poor. Once in Suriname, they were freed from caste oppression,” explains Kumar.
In his book, Kumar notes that those labourers who decided to return on account of the love for their mother country, were often met with discrimination back home. “In their villages, returnees ostracising for having crossed the ‘black waters’ and having mixed with other castes and religions,” he writes. Subsequently, if they returned with money, they would either be looted by their brethren or priests. The fear of this societal backlash often convinced labourers to stay on in Suriname.
There was also the fact that in Dutch Suriname, even though caste lines had disappeared, the girmitiyas were free to engage with their own culture, language and traditions, all of which went on to become big contributions to Surinamese society. Khan notes that Hindus would perform religious rituals like aarti in the plantations, chant Gayatri mantra, read the Ramayana, listen to Ram katha and the like.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Indian nationalists like G K Gokhale and Sarojini Naidu attacked the indentured system on grounds that it deprived Indians of their freedom and led to departure of strong and healthy Indians from British India. Consequently, an organised agitation was carried out to end the system. On March 12, 1917, the emigration of labourers from British India officially ceased.
However, both the Surinamese government and the Indian community in Suriname were disappointed with the decision. In 1920, a delegation from Suriname arrived in India to meet with Madan Mohan Malviya, Mahatma Gandhi, Shaukat Ali and Chimman Lal. They argued their case stating that the indentured system had more advantages rather than disadvantages. While the Indian leaders were impressed by the conditions in Suriname, apart from Lal, the others refused to reopen emigration.
With the Independence of Suriname in 1975, many Indians moved to the Netherlands. This was mainly to keep intact their Dutch citizenship, and also because they were unsure of the economic prospects in Suriname.
At present, the Hindustani community accounts for about 30 per cent of Suriname’s population. The rest of the population consists of Creoles who are descendants of African slaves and the Dutch, Surinamese Maroons whose ancestors were runaway slaves, the indigenous tribes, as well as Javanese and Chinese who like the Indians are descendants of indentured labourers.
As they integrated fully into Surinamese society, they kept alive their Indianness, as is evident from the ways in which Bhojpuri and chutney music, as well as folk dance forms from India like Ahirwa Naach are getting global recognition today from Suriname. An interesting example over here is that of singer Raj Mohan, whose Bhojpuri songs are extremely popular in India.
“The movement of Surinamese Indians to the Netherlands in the post-independence period has allowed them to interact with other communities from erstwhile Dutch colonies. Thereby, a new generation has emerged which is engaging with Indian, Surinamese, Black and Dutch cultural materials,” says Ananya Jahanara Kabir, who is a professor of English literature at King’s College in London and co-founder of the digital platform on Creole culture, ‘Le Thinnai Kreyol’.
She gives the example of Shailesh Bahoran, a dancer based in Netherlands, who apart from using Indian dance techniques, depends heavily on Black dance forms like Hip Hop and b-boying. She further notes that the dynamism with which Bhojpuri cultural traditions are being repurposed by Dutch Indo-surinamese artists is very different from their equivalents in any of the other European colonies when Indians served as indentured labourers.
Coolies of the empire: Indentured labourers in the sugar colonies by Ashutosh Kumar
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