Genesis of Indian Arrival Day as a national holiday in Trinidad and Tobago
Photo : Paras Ramoutar
Port-of-Spain: After 150 years of Indian Arrival, it was only in 1995, that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago opted to announce a day marking the first arrival of over East Indians here, May 30, 1845.
The Patrick Manning Government had announced that May 30, 1995 would be called Arrival Day, which
was a one all day. In 1996, when Basdeo Panday came to the political throne he feverishly announced
that May 30 will be Indian Arrival Day which was to be etched in our national calendar.
Despite earlier attempts by the Indian Revival and Reform Committee led by Ramdath Jagessar, the
Hindu Seva Sangh with Dool Hanoomansingh and others, the Indian Review Committee led by Kamal
Persad and Ashram Maharaj, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha , it was former Member of Parliament
for Oropouche, Trevor Sudama who moved a motion in Parliament on October 28, 1994 to have Indian
Arrival Day declared a national holiday annually.
And despite stiff opposition within the corridors of Parliament and in public opinion, Sudama
successfully moved the motion which was ably seconded by then MP for Caroni Central, Raymond
Sudama in his presentation made a strong plea which was buttressed by philosophical and sociological
data and facts so that he would have left no stone unturned. This he did with great clarity and maturity,
and it was passed with contributions from Members of Parliament. One would imagine that the debate
was a very emotional issue, and one had to look at the historical antecedents of the whole question of
Indian Arrival, as was the case of the Chinese. Syrians, Africans and Europeans coming here, that each
group singularly would have called for similar treatment.
Sudama moaned that the Motion to declare Indian Arrival Day a national holiday was on the Order
Paper since 1989, but was only afforded the light of the day on October 28, 1994. Notwithstanding the
fact the then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams had announced that both Divali and Eid would be public
holidays from 1966, which was an election year. Later, then Prime Minister George Chambers
announced in 1982 that Discovery Day, which was celebrated on the first Monday in August, was to be
replaced by Emancipation Day August 1. Both Prime Ministers had ignored the presence of the East
Indians in Trinidad and Tobago.
It is worth remembering the spirited tone of Sudama when he piloted the motion saying that it must be
accepted in the “spirit of light, in that spirit of seeking what is best for the nation, what is best for the
people of Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed, of acknowledging the cultural and plural diversity of our
society and where we are as a nation today”.
“Madam Speaker (Occah Seepaul) we do not want to put the systems of indentureship and African
slavery as counterpoised; they are different systems; they are different historical experiences. The
conditions under which the African slaves were brought in.”
Sudama must be congratulated for his incisive and straight forward presentation, which would serve as
a reference point for any dialogue today or in the coming decades about the relevance of a public
holiday to mark Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago. Just in March 2017, the world community
observed the centenary of the abolition of Indian indentureship, and Trinidad and Tobago was the
venue for this historical observance as scores of notably former Prime Ministers, Presidents,
Government Ministers, legislators, East Indian leaders, professionals among others gathered to discuss
the past and the future role of the 33 million Indian diaspora membership in over 100 countries.
A nation is marked as to how it shows respects for it ethnic groups, and this means equal treatment for
everyone, and one is reminded to paraphrase Dr Williams’ address to the nation on Independence Day
August 1962 that there is No Mother India, No Mother Africa, No Mother China, No Mother Lebanon,
but the only Mother is Mother Trinidad and Tobago. And that a Mother cannot discriminate among its
children. I think that it was in this vein that Sudama so brilliantly proposed that Indian Arrival Day
becomes a national holiday.
The East Indians were brought here between the period 1845 to 1917, when in excess of 347,000, most
of whom were devout Hindus who brought with them Ramayana, Gita, Mahabharat, the Puranas,
Hanuman Chalisa, among several others, principally from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to rescue a dying
agricultural economy, and their presence brought new hope and aspirations for the planters, and by
extension the national economy. They brought with them new cuisine, jewelry, customs, habits,
religion, culture, thought and way of life.
Today, the East Indian community has contributed significantly to the national well-being, prosperity as
they remain leaders in the professions, corporate sector, business, culture and politics. And the rest
is history for we have had two Prime Ministers of East Indian extraction, namely Basdeo Panday and
The East Indian labourers ignited friendship between India and Trinidad and Tobago, despite their
geographical distance. The East Indian labourers were brought here to contribute to British capitalism,
and they worked hard, very hard and struggled with other ethnic groups for this country’s prosperity,
and as well for political freedom and independence. Independence was not a one-party or one ethnic
group affair, but rather it was a people’s consciousness blended with the different ethnic groups and
peoples that made it happen.
Today friendship between India and Trinidad and Tobago continues to escalate to greater heights as the
clock ticks, and one could decipher that it would continue to escalate in the coming years and decades,
and even centuries.
As we observe the 173rd anniversary of Indian Arrival Day, the 71st anniversary of India’s Independence, and our own 56th anniversary of our Independence, all of these factors make it compulsory for both our countries to continue in this trend of friendship, of growth, and support in all the councils of the world’s geopolitical and economic groups.
Trinidad and Tobago have benefitted from India’s graciousness in terms of ITEC, consultancies in various
endeavours of economic, agricultural, cultural co-operation. Aside to these initiatives, religion and
culture continue to dominate the calendar of both countries. The Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Cultural
Co-operation which was inked when India’s Indira Gandhi came here in October 1968, after 50 years,
has now taken shape.
This is a first for any diplomat, more so, an Indian diplomat. Incumbent Indian High Commissioner, Shri
Bishwadip Dey, has embarked on an unique foray of cultural diplomacy by visiting descendants of
indentured labourers at their homes and presenting hampers. This must be viewed as a micro
engagement initiative, and His Excellency must be publicly commended. Usually, diplomats are noted
for presenting or promoting macro issues .
Dey told the media these elderly citizens have contributed not only to the development of Trinidad and
Tobago, but have played an important role in keeping family values alive and passing on cultural and
religious practices from one generation to the next. He continued that there are also,” strong family ties
in the homes visited where I witnessed that love and devotion for the elderly.”
Dey added that as “senior members of society, the elderly have had an important guiding role for the
local communities and form an historical link for Indian nationals of East Indian origin”, as India remains in all of us.
The marking of the anniversary of our arrival in Trinidad and Tobago is a celebration of our triumph over odds stacks against us.