The Indian Diaspora’s ‘Indentured Route’ – And A ‘Lost’ Children’s Quest For Identity

Ironically, the forced migration also laid the seeds of a diaspora in countries where Indians of another generation looking for better economic opportunities would not have normally settled.

The Indian diaspora – estimated at 30 million and growing depending on how inclusive one makes it – has been the subject of much writing and discussion in recent times.  It is seen as an important source of  ‘soft power’ for India, and the one to leverage it politically and diplomatically has been none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who unfailingly includes an engagement with the diaspora in every country he visits where Indians have settled in substantial numbers. The Indian diaspora is a source of investment and support for the ruling dispensation, and large sections of the diaspora in turn idolizes Modi – he calls them “brand ambassadors” of the country  – and the mass adulation that he receives from New York to Sydney has been the envy of his hosts, whether in the United States to Australia.

The Indian Diaspora's 'Indentured Route'However, the diaspora is not just the affluent and well-settled Indians In the richer economies of the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, or Down Under who have been the subject of special reports in The Economist and other reputed international publications as a “powerful resource” for the nation. When talking or writing about the Indian diaspora and their experiences, a segment that is often lost sight of are the so-called ‘lost Indians’ – descendants of “more than 2,2 million indentured labor (who) were moved from India to more than 26 countries in various parts of the world, making it one greatest mass movements of India’s future Diaspora worldwide”.

Bhaswati Mukherjee, a former Indian diplomat who was Ambassador to UNESCO and the Netherlands and has studied this subject extensively, delves in her recently published book “The Indentured Route: A Relentless Quest for Identity”,  about how a few million Indians were shipped in the 19th and early 20th century as indentured or contract labour to work in British plantations across the world, from Suriname to South Africa, to Mauritius and the Reunion Islands; to Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

The Kalapani metaphor

This is a story that hasn’t been told in its entirety or the trials and tribulations of the shipped labour documented for posterity. “The journey of India’s children across the Kalapani, their suffering and humiliation at the hands of the colonizers and their relentless quest for identity cannot remain an untold narrative,” argues Mukherjee who chose to shine the light on what she calls “a forgotten part of our history” in which the British, adept at using transportation to distant shores as a form of punishment, came up with the system of indenture “as a substitute for slavery” after the British Parliament abolished slavery in 1833.

How the term Kalapani – literally meaning ‘dark waters’ – gained currency as a metaphor for the forbidding ocean whose crossing, it was believed, would not just bring them evil but make high-caste Indians lose their exalted status is itself a fascinating commentary on how the British played upon Indian religious sentiments and economic deprivation, which in many ways was their creation, to set one community against another in the process of crushing “a so-called subordinate culture”.

The penal act of transportation across the high seas and oceans as contract labour to run the sugar and coffee plantations of British, as well as Dutch and French colonies, that had lost African labour following the abolition of slavery was just not an act of crafty business and political manipulation but a cynical economic action that duped tens of thousands of poor Indian workers into believing that they were being given the choice of a better life which they could harness to better the indigent family conditions back home.

This thinking gets reinforced by a question from the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series quoted by Mukherjee that, in a bout of self-searching, wonders if  “It is important to consider whether the Indian indentured labour had been inveigled into a new system of slavery’.

Rainbow nations

Ironically, the forced migration also laid the seeds of a diaspora in countries where Indians of another generation looking for better economic opportunities would not have normally settled. “The movement of one-and-a-half million Indians across continents from the mid-nineteenth century was dictated by the demands of imperialism and finance capitalism,” noted Mukherjee, as the “descendants of the indentured built new rainbow nations in the erstwhile plantation colonies as free and independent states” to become the “protagonists of a hybrid culture, similar to India but also different.”

How Indian culture and traditions, in the form of festivals like Diwali, have not only taken roots in these countries, much to perhaps British chagrin, in the form of cross-cultural celebrations is perhaps illustrated in the nine-day Divali Nagar festival, a popular diaspora draw, that takes place in Trinidad and Tobago, where nearly 40 per cent of the 1.3 population of the twin islands is of Indian extraction.

At the recent inauguration of the 35th edition of the festival, Mayor Faaiq Mohammed of Chaguanas, Central Trinidad, pointed out that the National Council of Indian Culture, through the Divali Nagar festival,  “(had) brought cultural traditions of our ancestors, allowing our multi-cultural and multi-religious and multi-ethnic society to embrace Divali and what it represents as a national festival” in the Caribbean nation.

This is a meticulously researched book spanning continents that narrates the painful story of India’s earliest migrants who established new cultural roots that kept them emotionally connected to their native land and whose forefathers’ epic transoceanic journeys have now come to be acknowledged in the UN system as one of history’s greatest tragedies of human exploitation just as slavery had come to be accepted. (The author is a veteran editor and founder, South Asia Monitor. Views are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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India: A Nation In Disharmony With Its Philosophical And Constitutional Values

The values that are glorified today ironically are those that were always held anathema by classical Hindu society – majoritarianism, intolerance, hatred, and revanchism, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor

If there is despair and dark foreboding at the turn of the year in India, it is not just because the pandemic has engendered in all a feeling of existential confusion, or the political and social discourse is becoming more caustic by the day, but the spreading clouds of hate and inter-community ill-will that has taken hold of a nation always held up to the world as an exemplar of democratic pluralism and inter-faith harmony.

Hinduism, an eternal and inclusive religion, has been figuring in the global media for all the wrong reasons — lynching, hate speeches, attacks on minority institutions and places of worship, obstruction of their religious practices, call to violence against minorities – particularly Muslims who comprise over 14 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population and are the third-largest Muslim population in the world.

Although these actions and utterances go against the country’s secular constitution and violate some of its sacred principles, like freedom of worship, there has been no condemnation of these from anyone in the government, and in most cases the offenders have got away with impunity or slapped with mild charges that have not held up in courts.

What Bhagavad Gita says

Most hate actions and utterances have been in the name of protecting Hinduism, a religion practised by 82 percent of the nation and whose most sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, is known for its wide catholicity and against absolutism.

“The Gita does not speak of this or that form of religion but speaks of the impulse which is expressed in all forms – the desire to find God and understand our relation to HIm,” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the nation’s second President, one of its foremost thinkers and a renowned exponent of Hindu philosophy and its ancient texts, says in his scholarly work The Bhagavadgita.

“Hindu thinkers are conscious of the amazing variety of ways in which one may approach the Supreme, of the contingency of all forms….no manifestation is to be taken as absolutely true from the standpoint of experience; every one of them has some validity….The same God is worshipped by all….All manifestations belong to the same Supreme,” Radhakrishnan says.

Radhakrishnan, whose birthday on September 5 is celebrated as Teachers’ Day all over India, goes on to say that “(Only) the spiritually immature are unwilling to recognize other gods than their own. Their attachment to their creed makes them blind to the larger unity of the Godhead. The Gita affirms that though beliefs and practices may be many and varied, spiritual realization to which these are means is one.”

What Ramakrishna preached

Radhakrishnan’s interpretations have validation in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th-century mystic saint who personally experienced all  the major religions and came to the conclusion that the world’s various religious traditions represented “so many paths to reach one and the same goal.

“Never insist what you profess is the sole truth and rest all fallacy. Hindus, Muslims, Christians – all are travelling in the same direction, albeit on different paths (Jato moth, too poth) – I have tried all known paths to God, and I accept them all,” Ramakrishna famously said.

That Hindu-majority India would travel down a path quite contrary to their sages’ teachings has confounded the cognoscenti, but has been debunked by the Hindu right and its vocal proponents who see the present sectarian politics as a chance to assert its majoritarianism, overturn the country’s secular constitution, which they say is an anachronism, reassert what they hold is the Hindu pride that they say was crushed by centuries of Muslim rule and “appeasement” of minorities under successive Congress-led governments since independence.

His disciple, Swami Vivekananda, in his famous speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. said,”I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Ruling party’s silence

The present assault on minorities is seen to have the tacit support of the ruling BJP leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has remained enigmatically silent despite a spate of anti-minority actions and utterances. These include shocking calls from self-proclaimed Hindu religious leaders calling for a “genocide” against Muslims, community support promised for such attackers, dubbing of Mahatma Gandhi as a “traitor”, and the spreading virus of degradation and vilification of Muslims, including its women, that has led to an atmosphere which analysts see as the cynical exploitation of a society’s fault lines for political gain, especially as the BJP faces crucial state elections in the coming months.

“That is not Hinduism. Hindutva is fundamentally the most un-Hindu set of beliefs and practices that you can imagine. And that they call themselves Hindutva which means Hindu-ness is an absolute travesty…,” rued opposition politician Shashi Tharoor, a former UN civil servant and author on books of Hinduism.

The values that are glorified today ironically are those that were always held anathema by classical Hindu society – majoritarianism, intolerance, hatred, and revanchism with the Hindu reactionary forces using the majority muscle to snuff out any opposition to what has been often called by those opposing such religious extremism as the “Talibansation of Hinduism”. It is a testing time for India, and the kind of country that future generations will inherit will depend a lot if the “silent majority” is able to assert itself.

As the scholar Rajmohan Gandhi wrote of his grandfather, the Mahatma’s core beliefs that in India, a person of any religious belief – a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Jew, a Zoroastrian, a Jain, a Buddhist, an atheist, an agnostic, whatever – had an equal right to India. Religion was one thing, national another.

Vice President is upset  Even India’s Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, a former BJP president, was constrained to call out the hate mongers, saying in a recent speech that “Hate speech and writings are against (the country’s) culture, heritage, tradition and Constitutional rights and ethos” and expressed his “disapproval of attempts to ridicule other religions and create dissensions in society”.

“What we are witnessing today is a deliberate and cynical attempt to resurrect painful wounds of the past, re-enact past contestations and prevent the consolidation of a common and equal citizenship, which is the foundation of a democracy,” India’s former Foreign Secretary and respected public intellectual Shyam Saran wrote recently in The Tribune.

“If these vile threats are tolerated and go unpunished and unchecked, the very idea of India that we have inherited and nourished through many challenges will cease to exist. This is a moment of peril for all Indians,” Saran warned.