180th Arrival Centenary: Indian connections

180th Arrival Centenary: Indian connections

Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

It is of course, widely known today that Indian immigration continued until the SS Ganges docked in 18 April 1917. It disgorged 437 persons:  268 men; 130 women there were 22 boys and 17 girls - to plantations in all three counties. Since one-third of them were picked up from Madras and the remainder from North India, it was quite representative bunch. Twenty-five came to my village of Uitvlugt and, like the others, brought direct knowledge of life in India with them.

The constant influx of new immigrants during the 79 years of Indentureship thus had the unintended consequence of keeping the connection with Indian culture alive – especially in the plantation setting. But there were also more direct interventions during the 20thcentury, even before the end of immigration. In 1905, Bhai Parmanand, a Punjabi from the reformist Arya Samaj movement visited Gandhi in South Africa, who had been sending dispatches to Gopal Krishna Gokhale in India about the travails of the Indian community – including the merchants and Indentureds. Parmanand then came to Guyana where he spent a year. 

Gokhale had moved a resolution in the Legislative Council on 25 February, 1910 for the prohibition on indenture recruitment. Two organisations, the Arya Samaj and the Marwari community of Calcutta actively took up took the campaign against indenture. By 1905 the Arya Samaj had already established a mission in South Africa by Bhai Parmamand who then planted the seeds of the Arya Samaj here when he arrived in 1910. He then moved to the US where he became part of the Ghadar (Revolutionary ) Party that pushed for the violent overthrow of the British in India. He was later tried along with many Gaddharists in India and sentenced to jail. The journalist, Chandra Paul Persaud popularly known as Paul O'Hara Paul O’Hara one told me that the Ghaddar newspaper was smuggled into then British Guiana, and must have influenced the budding Arya Samajists. O’Hara’s elder brother was Pandit Sama Persaud of the Arya Samaj who was a Senator in the 1953 PPP government.

More organised work took off in 1929 under the tutelage of a Vedic missionary – Mehta Jaimini – who also visited Trinidad. This work was carried to its zenith under the sustained efforts of another youthful and vigorous missionary, Professor Bhaskaranand MA, LLB, between 1936 and 1945. Bhaskaranand commuted between Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname and by the time he left (he was to return periodically in the fifties), the Arya Samaj was firmly established in each of those countries.

Most importantly, the reformist movement precipitated a sustained debate in the wider Hindu society about the fundamentals of its religious and social practices and engendered tremendous changes in those practices. They pushed the notions that priests/pandits could be from any caste; murtis/images were not to be worshipped; and that women should be educated and could become priests. V.S. Naipaul has famously written about the agitation in the Hindu community in Trinidad during the thirties – when among others, his father adopted the tenets of the Samaj.

In retrospect, the Samaj greatest contribution was to precipitate that great debate. Today there would scarce be a Hindu in the Caribbean that would deny the Samaj’s central claims. The first generation of Samajists (including my father) were famously argumentative – some would say “dogmatic” - groomed as they were by Bhaskaranand, who had been trained (as was Swami Dayanand) in the ancient Indian Nayya mode of argumentation that enjoined “cavilling”.

The social and political awareness fostered by the Arya Samaj movement ensured that its members were in the forefront of the modern political struggle in Guyana, which was initiated in the late forties. The strongest early Arya groups were located on the East Coast of Demerara and it from this district that Dr. Cheddi Jagan was to secure some of his staunchest second tier of leadership – none of them “socialist”.

As mentioned, Pandit Sama Persaud from Buxton, was made a PPP Senator in 1953 for his contributions and his leadership. Dr. Jagan also acknowledged the contributions of the youthful Balram Singh Rai towards his election to Parliament in 1947. Rai, of course, was to famously become Minister of Education and the first Minister of Home Affairs in the PPP governments of 1957-1964. There were numerous other Samajists in the PPP, such as Pt Ramlall who was imprisoned at Sibley Hall in the ‘60s and Pt Budhram Mahadeo who headed the RPA between 1964-1992.