This article briefly addresses challenges to commemorate Indian Arrival Day (IAD) in Guyana and Trinidad and the struggle to achieve official recognition (with a holiday or government sponsored activities) of same. What Indians in the region (or each territory) have consistently sought was a recognition of the contributions of their ancestors to the region similar to how African ancestors have been recognized for their contributions.
As we observe Indian Arrival in the Caribbean, and in North America and Europe, we are reminded that Indo-Caribbean have faced many challenges for their cultural and physical survival ever since they came in May 1838 (until 1917). Indians are found in many Caribbean territories (British, Dutch, French, etc.) and their presence everywhere has (had) been resented by those who came before them or those who they replaced on slave plantations and who have now assumed the positions of the masters. Our ancestors have made immeasurable contributions to the region shaping and building it. Yet they have not been recognized for their hard work and sacrifices in developing the territories where they were indentured. Several of us from North America and within the Caribbean region had to wage a long running battle with the governments in Caribbean societies (Guyana and Trinidad, in particular) in order to honor our ancestors and descendants (with a holiday) for the sacrifices they made to build the region.
Wherever they are found, Indians have had to struggle against great odds to promote their cultural heritage and or to gain recognition of their presence and their contributions to national development. In some territories, like Guyana, for example, their culture has been marginalized. A kind of cultural genocide has been unleashed on the Indian community there and in some other societies as well. Their presence is gradually being erased. Even physical survival has been an issue in Guyana with many Indians being robbed and murdered and their properties confiscated by the state.
The enormous contributions indentured laborers and their progenitors have made to the greater Caribbean region have not been (officially) recognized by all of their governments. The Indian ancestors and the community at large deserves some form of recognition of their presence, contributions, and the struggle they waged to gain their freedom from indentureship. Their suffering and sacrifice are similar to those of Africans who are rewarded with Emancipation Day holiday. The Indian community has had to wage a long arduous battle for Indian Arrival Day (IAD).with governments as a recognition for their presence and sacrifices they made for freedom from indentured servitude
In the societies (Guyana, Trinidad, Surinam, Grenada) where they are recognized for their contributions, governments did so grudgingly or half-heartedly. Recognition came after a long period of goading and arm twisting of politicians by the leadership of the Indian community as though such recognition has not been deserved or that Indians don’t exist or ought not to exist in the region. Recognition is important in the collective history of Indians not dis-similar to that accorded Africans. Such recognition is geared to salute and honor the hard work and sacrifices made by our fore-parents from India who have made the region a habitable place. The ancestors have handed down a rich treasure of cultural values, traditions, customs, practices, religions, music, cuisine, and development skills that have survived in spite of the onslaught from those with political control who seek to exile or liquidate the Indian community.
While government in each territory has not been very supportive of recognizing the sacrifices of the indentureds, private (non-government and religious) community based Indian organizations have held annual commemorative celebrations over the last several decades going back to the mid-1900s in each territory to mark the presence of Indians and celebrate their identity (culture) and by extension Indian arrival. It has been a tradition over many decades (in fact since the early 1920s right after indentureship was terminated in 1917) to hold such annual commemorative festivities (cultural variety concerts, seminars, conferences, banquets, and the like) to mark the date Indians first arrived in each territory. It is called Indian Arrival Day (IAD) because it celebrates the contributions made by Indians in the region. Such celebrations are held not only in the Caribbean but in the metropolitan cities of North America (New York, Toronto, Orlando, Jersey City, Miami, etc. since the 1980s) and Europe (Amsterdam, Paris, London since the 1970s) to where Indians have migrated from the Caribbean.
Several territories in the region recognize the presence and laud the contributions of the Indians with the celebration of Indian Arrival Day, a date that varies from territory to territory depending on the actual date when Indians first arrived there. This recognition has come about as a result of the work of some dedicated grass roots activists (political, cultural and religious). It has not been an easy journey or task to organize commemorative events marking the Indian presence in the Caribbean and or in North America and Europe. Black governments initially have not been supportive of events and refused to give grants to commemorate IAD. But over time, the governments of Guyana and Trinidad gave minimal amounts of funds to host community activities as contrasted with support for Afro festivals or Emancipation Day celebrations. IAD, in Guyana and Trinidad, for example, obtains less than a tenth of the resources committed to Emancipation Day activities. Also, Black governments had adamantly opposed granting a holiday to recognize IAD in contrast with Emancipation Day.
Significant pressure has/had been applied on (African dominated) governments by grass roots (Indian) organizations and community activists to make IAD a national holiday. Some of these commemorative events are “officially” sanctioned by the government while others are privately carried out by community organizations without government encouragement or support. It took a lot of lobbying and pressure from the Indian community before governments agreed to grant a holiday on the occasion of IAD.
Tribute is paid to those who conceived and or assisted in organizing commemorative events (of IAD) marking the presence of Indians in the Caribbean and those (too many to mention here) who also helped to propagate Indian culture in North America and Europe as introduced by the Indo-Caribbean immigrants. We salute and acknowledge the dedication and hard work of all those who struggled to obtain official recognition of the enormous sacrifices of the Indian ancestors and their progeny.
*Dr. Vishnu Bisram was involved in the struggle with a handful of others for the granting of IAD holiday in Trinidad and Guyana.