The Caribbean community did not celebrate the defeat of Indian Indentureship

Dear Editor,

Although four months late in coming, I applaud UWI Vice Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles for his missive captioned ‘The Caribbean celebrates centennial of defeat of Indian Indenture’ (SN, Jul 12). He should be praised for his courage in stating that Indians and Amerindians, like Africans, “are entitled to reparatory justice” for the inhumane practices associated with slavery and indenturedship which Prof Beckles described as neo-slavery. This is the first time he unambiguously made such a declaratory statement. When he spoke about reparations for slavery, he did not include indentureship and the enslavement of Amerindians. To reparations for Africans, Indians and Amerindians, I will add Portuguese and Chinese who also suffered under indentureship.

In the SN missive, Sir Hilary made several questionable comments about the ongoing “celebrations” relating to the end of the abominable system of indentureship as practised by the British, French, Dutch. These need clarification.

Prof Beckles penned that “the Caribbean community is rising to celebrate the centennial of the defeat of post-slavery Indentured Servitude”. There have not been any celebrations per se, but commemorative activities to mark the historic occasion. While ending bonded labour is something to celebrate, similar to celebrating an end of slavery, the indentured system continued long after. Also, the socio-economic and political conditions of the descendants of indentured labourers are not something to celebrate. They are in dire straits.

For clarification, indentureship did not end in 1917; rather further recruitment of indentured labourers to the colonies was stopped in India. Similar to how slavery continued after the abolition Act in 1934, official indentureship continued for almost three more years. Those who “signed” the indentured contract in 1917 or before were required to fulfil it for five years. However, the British government decided to officially end Indentureship on Jan 1, 1920, terminating all contracts. The estate owners, similar to what happened after slavery ended, were compensated. The indentured labourers were not compensated even though their contract was violated. Injustice continued.

Vice Chancellor Beckles stated that the Caribbean community is celebrating the centenary. Really? Where is the evidence to support that comment. How, when and where did the Caribbean community celebrate? Which government or which university or ethnic group in the Caribbean region or the Diaspora celebrated or planned to celebrate this 100th anniversary? Not UG! UWI of which Prof Beckles is the VC did not organize a lecture or seminar on the occasion and he did not provide financial support for research on the subject. UWI was not supportive of requests to host or co-sponsor a conference on the occasion of the 100th anniversary. I personally went with Ashok Ramsaran, Dr Tara Singh, and Deo Gosine to the office of the Principal of UWI Trinidad campus in September 2016 to discuss UWI hosting a conference on this historic end of indenture. He was busy, his Secretary said. We left a message and a request to see him later, but got no response. We followed up with official memos and made phone calls to discuss this proposed conference at UWI Trinidad which we would have co-funded. These were not entertained. We approached the Social Science Department heads at UWI to co-host or co-sponsor the conference but received the same roadblocks ‒ it must be approved by the Principal or the VC. A conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary was eventually held at the Diwali Nagar site and other locations without any government or UWI support. And it was all organized and paid for by the Indo-Caribbean community, not the Caribbean community. It was an open affair; the public and the media were invited. But 98% of the attendees and 90% of the presenters were Indians. There was only one African presenter.

Almost the same was experienced in Guyana, although the New York commemorative experience was positive. President Granger’s office did reportedly provide $3M (and other support) to help fund the “celebrations” at Leonora in March; for this the Indian community is grateful as it was much more than the predecessor PPP government provided Indians for any celebration. Contrast that with the treatment of several NGOs that approached the Culture Ministry last year for funding. Only two groups got approval of $100K each; one group returned it describing it as an insult to the Indian community. The other groups were specifically told by the then Junior Minister, who is now acting Minister of Education, that there was no money for them. So there could not have been celebrations by the Caribbean community in Guyana or around the region. The governments of Grenada and St Vincent were supportive of commemorative events and the Culture Minister of Grenada did attend the commemoration in Trinidad. St Vincent also sent a representative. The Jamaica and Guyana diplomatic representatives did attend the commemoration in Trinidad. The Guyana PM was a keynote speaker.

The largest celebrations were perhaps in Jamaica where Dr Tara Singh and myself were invited as main speakers (but I was in Guyana at the time). Thousands were in attendance similar to Leonora.  The Jamaica celebration was perhaps the only truly multi-racial one in terms of attendance, as there were many Africans and Mixed in attendance. This could fall under “Caribbean community” celebrating for its multi-ethnic crowd. But the Jamaica event was privately funded as was the celebration in NYC and all the events were free and open to the public.

Queens College in Flushing hosted a celebration organized by the Asian Studies Department and the Indian government provided space for a celebration in Manhattan; several White and Black American politicians, patronized both events. The Guyana CG in NYC patronized the one hosted in Manhattan but provided no support. And as was the case with celebrations in the Caribbean, it was the Indo-Caribbean and the Indian American communities celebrating, not the Caribbean community, which was absent. And an important point is a white university in America hosted a celebration but not a university in the Caribbean. So how could Sir Hilary Beckles make a claim that the Caribbean community is celebrating the defeat of indenture?

I must also note that at the conferences in NYC, Guyana, Trinidad, and India, not one academic was present from UG and only one presenter came from UWI. Neither the UG VC nor the UWI VC provided funding for academics to attend any of the conferences. But the VC of both universities provided funding for conferences and or reparation meetings relating to slavery outside of the region. Even Prof Beckles himself attended presentations in NYC and London.

But similar funding was not provided to intellectuals to discuss or to attend events relating to indentureship. It is not too late for UWI or Dr Beckles himself to host a seminar or conference on the 100th anniversary. I would be honoured to assist in organizing it as I did for all of the conferences in the region as well as in NYC and India, and as I am now doing for the one being planned for Mauritius next month.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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