Story of indentured Indians is one of survival and one to be celebrated

Dear Editor,

With regards to your photos and commentaries on Indian Arrival Day, celebrated on May 5, should we celebrate the day? Indian Arrival is celebrated not only in Guyana, but by Indian communities almost everywhere they are found (in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.). In some territories, it is a national holiday as in Guyana, Trinidad and Grenada. Or the day the Indians landed on the territory is given recognition (St. Vincent, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Suriname, etc). It is often asked why celebrate the arrival of Indians in the Caribbean (and North America and Europe) when arrival meant Indians being subjugated or bonded into slave like conditions. Indians were bonded on slave plantations abandoned by African predecessors who obtained emancipation (1834-1838) from that cruel and inhumane system of labour. It is penned that indentureship was another name for slavery. So why celebrate Indian arrival into an oppressive enslavement system? Many people feel Indians should celebrate the end of indenture that took place on January 1, 1920 and or recruitment of indentured labourers that ended in March 1917.

The counter argument is celebrating Indian Arrival (IA) is not celebrating their indentureship (a system of slavery) or oppression. Rather it is celebrating their survival of the entire indentureship system from recruitment stage to completion of their bonded contracts. It is a celebration of the pioneering spirit and the legacy left behind by the indentured labourers and that is inherited by their progenitors. Celebrating IA is to remember the history and experiences of the Indian ancestors. It is not dissimilar to how Africans celebrate Emancipation to remember the history of slavery and the pioneering spirit of their ancestors. Africans use the Emancipation occasion of the liberation of Africans from slavery to give recognition to and remember the contributions of the slave ancestors. Indians are not doing much different in celebrating IA.

Indentureship was slavery by another name, and it was wrong and so the Indian community uses the occasion to pay tribute to the ancestors and celebrate the positives handed down by them. As someone commented, “the Indian community celebrates the achievements of Indians in overcoming their degradation and the sub-human conditions under which they lived” for over a century as well as all their contributions to the land they were bonded.

Some feel we celebrate Indian Arrival as a way to honour our ancestors for their resilience during recruitment process as indentured labourers (girmityas), the long voyage on board cramped ships to the Caribbean, and working lengthy hours on the plantations to which they were bonded. We honour and celebrate the pioneering spirit and achievements of those hundreds of thousands who came to the Caribbean as well as those born on the plantations and who helped laiy a foundation for a better life. They survived the journey and thrived under oppression on the colonies overcoming myriad obstacles placed on their path by the colonists and the racist governments that replaced the colonizers post colonialism. And so we celebrate their immense contribution to growth and national development. We also salute and celebrate those who have kept our ancient culture alive.

As penned in so many published writings, Indians were abused and persecuted. But they have risen above all the social, political and economic impediments placed in their path to make enormous contributions to the development of the territory to which they were indentured and also became very responsible citizens. Without their pioneering efforts, hard work, contributions and achievements, future generations would have been nothing. Because of the legacy they handed down, Indian culture is alive although it faces many challenges from hostile governments that seek to erase the Indian legacy. Because of their desire to have a better life for their progeny, they made sacrifices to provide their descendants with education. As someone commented, these sacrifices helped their descendants “to rise out of the ashes of the oppressive plantation system” to become professionals and business folks. And because of their pioneering spirit and sacrifices, many Indo-Caribbeans have occupied influential spaces in the territories where they live contributing to every facet (politics, law, government, economics, education, medicine, business, engineering, etc.) of life.

So should we celebrate IA? The story of the Indians indentureds and their descendants is one of survival and one to be celebrated. IAD is the Indians’ equivalent of Emancipation for the enslaved Africans.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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