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Telling the Tales of Indo-Caribbean

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By Annesha Das Gupta

People who are ardent fans of cricket are well acquainted with the legendary player Sonny Ramadhin or the ones who call themselves bibliophiles celebrated when VS Naipaul’s was conferred with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Both of them, are of Indian descent and both are born in Trinidad and Tobago. While Ramadhin was from Esperance Village, Naipaul is from the capital; Port of Spain.

This can make one wonder, from where do the people of Indian origin come into the Caribbean picture? Or are both of them the single cases, the exceptions.

We have the NRIs who have gone and settled down in the USA or at Britain; they might be one’s relatives or neighbors or else friends. The geopolitical realm of the Caribbean, whereas, does not come into the head, especially to an Indian one, when there come, a prospect for an education or a job. The Caribbean connotes to the mind, of the tropical beaches, the coconut trees and, of course, the West-Indies cricket team.

Unfortunately, many of us forget or are just oblivious to the fact that there is a community of Indians who did spread across the various islands much before the other portions of the Indian population dispersed to the parts of the West.

Who are the Indo-Caribbean?

The British, French and Dutch colonists were in a state of jeopardy when the century-old slavery of the Africans was abolished. The African ‘slaves’ used to work in the sugarcane plantations, but with no one to fill up the vacancy they turned towards the people of China and Portugal first. But the plan did not work and as a last resort for a substantial quantity of cheap labor, they sought out the Indians. And this time, they hit the bull’s-eye.

The indentured laborers as they are called were promised remuneration, the supply of food, and even the expense, the one which will be the responsibility of the plantation owners if they want to take a voyage back to their own country.

Two ships left with the first batch of Indians (about 400 people) to the British Guiana on May 5, 1838. The ships were called Whitby and Hesperus, which left the port of Calcutta with people mainly belonging to the Chota Nagpur area of West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.

Most of the people who took on the journey were from the lower class/caste strata or as known today, were the Dalits. It is worth a mention that very few women comprised the first batch; only a maximum of 35%. The reason for the scanty number of women who voyaged, at first, is explained by the historians and sociologists in three main points. Firstly, the colonists did not consider women to be economically beneficial.

Secondly, the men who came were mostly married and assuming that they will be returning to their homeland at the end of their contract (which was meant to be after 5 years), they did not bring their wives along with them. And finally, since most of the persisting societal norms limited the movement of women within the society, for instance, those who were unmarried, were not allowed to take a voyage alone and also that the widows had no provision to remarry and join the mass again, so the female population of the first batches was on a lower scale. Though the numbers hit almost about 50% by 1380-1390, but again fell during the end of the indenture era (1914) to about 40%.

The offer by the colonial powers seemed lucrative enough; an escape route to the poor of the country who suffered invariably and wanted an alleviation of their woes. But unfortunately, as the idiom goes: ‘All that glitters is not gold”.

They were about to face an infinite amount of hindrances, which none of them were likely to foresee. And the struggles continued for about 75 years, as history knows it and only ended with the annihilation of the indenture system in 1917.

What were the struggles of the Indo-Caribbean ?

All was not hunky-dory even before the two ships left for their destinations. Many of the laborers were given false promises by the professional recruiters who were aided by paid local agents.

They were deceived in innumerable ways, as cited by a post on The Indian Down Under blog: “Names of places would be altered, to fit a higher meaning. For example, recruiters told migrants, heading to Dutch Suriname they were heading to Sri-Ram, instead of Suriname, taking into account that Ram in the Hindu religion means a religious place where good triumphs over evil”.

Many died of starvation during the voyage and their bodies were thrown (about 17% of the population) into the sea (often called by the immigrants as Kala Pani), such were the atrocities done.

There was also an outbreak of cholera, malaria and dysentery on the ships. The mortality rate was only a meager of 25%.

Especially vulnerable were the women. They had to continuously endure the lecherous stares and advances from the British lots. And apart from that the authorities used to lock them up in the rooms for more than three or four days. The women had to sleep, eat and sit in their own filth.

A lot of them were even raped and pimped out from men to men while they worked on the plantations. It is evident from the fact that one 8-year-old was raped, named Nuneedy, as soon as the first batch landed.

A Brahmin named Jugmohan used to trade out the women among the British men (especially to the Scottish lot) and anyone who wanted to keep their wives safe was forced to pay an amount of one dollar.

Though this did not subjugate the women folk entirely. They formed self-protective circles, which might have come together as they were already organized as groups which plucked weeds in the cane fields, to fend off the lecherous overseers.If one goes to Gaiutra Bahadur’s blog  Coolie Women, they will come across the quote which will make anyone shudder who will dare enrage a woman’s modesty ever again –

“They would strike him to the ground and thrash him as well as do other more nasty things. In one incidence, they pinned the overseer to the ground and took turns at urinating on him. On another occasion, they made a line and walked over the overseer until his excreta came out”.

Like The Africans who were paid a wage of only one shilling, the indentured laborers were not paid even the bare minimum. They were exploited relentlessly no holidays were allotted to them. If someone took even a day off, they ran the risk of being in the jail for as much as five days.

At the year when the contract was supposed to have ended, the laborers did not find any ships at the port which would have taken them back to India. Thus, the injustice was followed by strikes which were held by the workers. One plantation named Anna Regina refused to give them the supply of food as a result. The people even insisted on paying in exchange for the food, which clearly explains that they feared that accepting rations would leave them in debt.

Later, men confronted with the British colonial police in wake for the sake of the women and the demand for obtaining their wages. Later they submitted an affidavit to Guiana Governor, Henry Light; where ten men marked the sign ‘X’ next to their names stated that they want to return immediately to their country as it was promised in their contracts.

Historians mention the infamous Rose Hill plantation conflict (1913), where many of the workers were killed and a vast number of people were injured. It was probably the deadliest indenture era suppression as stated in Bahadur’s blog.

Many laborers committed suicide during this period. They tried to run away several times by trying to cross the rivers as it was a common belief that they were not so far away from India while some even faked illness.

Another thing, worth mentioning is that the British played their old trick of ‘Divide and Rule’ even in the Caribbean. The villages of the Africans and that of the Indians were segregated. Also, as the Colonists did not want too much intermixing of the two communities, which they feared will ultimately lead to the solidarity of the workers, and that’s why the indentured laborers were allowed to keep their own religious customs, the institution of marriage, their holy books and even their own priests.

Though, where do the confluence of the slavery of the Africans and that of the indentured Indians occur? Like the Blacks, the colonists also used to whip indentured laborers, rub salt and pepper on their wounds. And perhaps, that’s why the indenture system was called ‘a new form of slavery’ and indentured laborers as the ‘bound slaves’.

By the end of the indenture era, much of the regulations were relaxed and the married couples were allowed to leave outside the plantations, in their own quarters.

Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, an eminent educationist, and politician, also the creator of Banaras Hindu University, lobbied for the rights of the Indo-Caribbean people to the Indian Congress and urged them not to allow anymore Indians to take a voyage there. Among the other famous names, who protested against the human rights violations of the Indo-Caribbean were Mahatama Gandhi.

After the termination of the indentured system, the colonists offered the Indians their plots as they did not want the complete emancipation of the workers as their African counterparts. Though many chose to stay and continued to work on the plantations under many peaceful conditions, about 66,000 of them decided to head back again for their motherland.

How are the Indo-Caribbean people today?

For the first two or three generations, the descendants of the indentured workers were not sure about their identity of either as Indians or as members of the Caribbean islands. They slowly have incorporated themselves as people of Indo-Caribbean origin. The amalgamation of two very dynamic cultures.

We can have an idea of them, in the recent times, by looking at the numbers of days, celebrated in different parts of the Caribbean islands as ‘Indian Arrival Day’. It is to commemorate the presence of the community and their valuable contributions in the arenas of agriculture, economy, education and politics.

The Indo-Caribbean community also helped to expand the cultural spectrum of the regions. For instance, the Indo-Caribbean gave birth to the musical genre of Chutney, whose pioneers include Drupatee Ramgoonai. The songs have lots of Hindi and Bhojpuri lyrics along with Caribbean English. Also due to the Indian influence, ‘the Roti’ has almost become a staple food of the masses there.

Jamaica was the first to start celebrating, the arrival of the Indians on May 10, 1995. Many other countries followed suit and declared holidays to respect the people of the community like Guyana (May 5), Trinidad and Tobago (May 30), etc.

Some of the Indo-Caribbean people have become twice or thrice migrants by settling down their communities in places like that of New York.

The current population of the Indian community in the various islands of the Caribbean is estimated to be over two million people.

Still there remains much to be done on the topic about the heritage and history of the Indo-Caribbean to be induced, into the mainstreamed dissemination and discourse. Whether the goal will be achieved or not, only time can tell.

Annesha Das Gupta is a student of Sociology,pursuing her degree from IGNOU, Kolkata. She has a special interest in the branches of Feminism, Sexuality and Dalit Studies. Twitter: Dancingbluepen

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Indian Economy Complex with Multiple Layers in its Social System

This may not matter as much when the economy is growing because the trickle down effect is positive all around, no matter how small

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Indian, Economy, Social Status
This data is not sufficiently robust and we need to be cautious in assuming that all is well based on these numbers. Pixabay

The economic slowdown is worrying. They say it is a global and cyclical phenomenon, and that things will improve in due course. Perhaps. Yet, we need to worry because the Indian economy is complex, with multiple layers in its social system that are at various stages of economic stress. They cannot afford to be stressed any further and the impact of the slowdown will be severe in these fragile segments. The tragedy is that we are losing momentum rapidly and India is already headed for a sub 6 per cent GDP growth rate which is the lowest in many years. Data on manufacturing, employment and investment indicates that sector after sector is tightening the belt. The worry is that even this does not reflect the real gravity of the situation.

The official figures of GDP, employment, credit stress and similar data do not capture the informal sector where the impact is certainly worse. This data is not sufficiently robust and we need to be cautious in assuming that all is well based on these numbers. This may not matter as much when the economy is growing because the trickle down effect is positive all around, no matter how small. It is during the downturn that we need to worry. The current stress on the ‘hidden’ economies has the potential to destroy fragile ecosystems irreversibly. That will put us in serious trouble.

India’s ‘hidden’ economy is a formidable challenge. It is a plurality of village communities, agricultural under-employment, cottage industries of weavers, craftsmen and other marginal workers and microcosms that survive on uncertain incomes even in the best of times. Pulling them out of the under-employment, if not the poverty trap, requires serious and committed effort but policy makers have been shying away from tackling it.

Take the example of the handloom sector which in some ways is representative of the many other communities with similar economic struggles. This sector is one of the largest unorganised economic activities after agriculture and represents the informal economy that is struggling to survive. Handloom has been traditional India’s lifeline and the weavers are largely from the weaker sections of society with a legitimate claim on prosperity. Weaving is not only an integral part of the rural and semi-rural livelihood, it is also an exquisite art form that has been passed down in weaver families through generations. Weavers come from various religions, though 74 per cent of the weavers are Hindus and 17.5 per cent are Muslims. The latest government survey indicates that 75 per cent have not studied beyond middle school and, in fact, around 52 per cent have not gone beyond primary school.

Indian, Economy, Social Status
The official figures of GDP, employment, credit stress and similar data do not capture the informal sector where the impact is certainly worse. Pixabay

If it wasn’t for a handful of people who believed in the richness of traditional art, the handloom weavers would be extinct by now. They would only be discussed in history books as a lost heritage that was once the pride of Indian culture and economic support for the communities. One such example is Chandra Jain in Bengaluru, who understands village communities because she has been working with them for almost three decades in some manner or the other.

For the past 15 years, she has been working with handloom weavers to promote their skills in profitable ways and says, “The hand woven fabric is a valuable and cultural heritage, sustained by transfer of skills from one generation to the other. The weavers are India’s heritage but unfortunately they continue to be a very vulnerable section of our society. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for them to cope with the multiple constraints. They only know how to weave magical fabric, so intricate that even computerised machines can get stumped. Unlike power looms, the weaving skills are not mechanical processes. These skills are learnt right from early childhood through observation, experience and understanding of the creative expression while working with these master weavers. The master-weavers are exceptionally skilled but they are small communities and not commercial organisations. They have no skills in marketing, finance etc. and they need to be protected from and helped to cope with the painful onslaughts of modernisation and digitisation. Unless there is active support for them, the weavers may not survive in the era of mass production and technology.” Chandra has been giving talks on the beauty, varieties and techniques of India’s hand-woven textiles and the making process behind them, trying to create a market for the weaver, that could allow him to stay on in his line. She also works with a few master weavers, and continues to support their efforts.

There are many others like Chandra who believe that handloom is a major thread that binds the weavers, the artisans and the cotton farmer ecosystem as a community. This ecosystem is the fragile underbelly of the country’s economy and has to be helped to survive, not only economically but also as a society. This was recognised by Mahatma Gandhi even during the independence struggle. He emphasised khadi and charkha to help the local economy survive the onslaught of industrial looms and to ensure that the local weavers could eke out their living. Despite this, these craftsmen remain marginalised even today. It is distressing to see polyester and power-looms eroding the exquisite splendour of the traditional Banarasi weaves, Kanjeevaram, Chanderi, Ikat and other outstanding handloom techniques and products that are associated with different states of India.

Surely, it is time to ensure that handloom facilitation centres are provided more budgets and the state emporiums become more active in promoting handloom and crafts, rather than mark time as relics of the years gone by. Instead, in recent years, this community has become even more fragile and vulnerable. Demonetisation and GST impacted the weaver community seriously. Demonetisation was a setback for weavers who struggle with credit constraints and perforce operate entirely on cash transactions. For the uneducated weavers, GST is a complicated animal that diverts their focus from the critical effort of finding buyers to unfamiliar activities like digital compliances and filing returns, often at additional cost.

Also Read- Tech Giant Apple Fixes Issue of Background App Bug with Latest iOS, iPadOS

This recent effort that attempts to merge the informal sector into the formal economy by dictat, and without adequate preparation has been counter-productive and destructive. It is like a badly handled ‘M&A’ project. Mergers & Acquisitions are not easy even in the corporate world. Mergers are mammoth projects even for largely similar and organisationally strong companies. They are successful only when the merging companies minimise conflict and trauma between their different cultures. They identify facilitators, study the differences in their functioning, and address weaknesses in the process before attempting the cross over.

Similarly, when attempting to include the informal economy into the organised sector we need to first understand the reasons why they have remained excluded until now. We need to understand that the informal sector is marginalised because of fundamental compulsions and not because of choice. They have remained fragile because of lack of education, lack of familiarity with commercial procedures, lack of organisational capabilities, and essentially because there is a cultural mismatch between their work ethics and commercial processes. Dictats and surgical policies are successful only when the policy maker is a magician. Unfortunately, we do not have magicians. We only have politicians and their policies that transform economies on paper and in files. If we are realistic, we will need to address a lot of basic issues so that we can prepare the informal economy to transition into the world of taxable economic activity. This cannot be bypassed.

Despite its many contradictions, India has immense economic potential and its economy is unique. It is a beautiful tapestry of multiple cultures and multiple economies woven together. It is a delicate framework and a vibrant pattern of an organised economy, an agricultural economy and the extensive informal economy that have remained in a fragile equilibrium for decades. The artisans, the weavers, the craftsmen and the farmers who form the rural eco-system have sustained themselves with traditional skills and knowledge that has been passed down over generations. It is the essence of India’s mystique. They need to be protected and cannot be left to the vagaries of economic cycles.

India’s potential radiates from amongst others, its ability to grow as a modern economy while ensuring that the informal sector survives the onslaughts economic headwinds. The challenge for the government and its economists is to go beyond their captive think-tanks and seek solutions from experts actively involved in those sectors. They need to get real and activate handloom promotion bodies that are today sitting on the sidelines for want of resources and adequate budgets. The worry remains that if the GDP remains in a ‘tailspin’ and dives below the current 6 per cent, one by one these ‘hidden economies’ will run out of steam. It will be tough to revive them after that. (IANS)