Dr. Lomarsh Roopnarine, from Guyana, has been teaching, researching and writing on Indian experience in the Caribbean and its diaspora for the past twenty-five years. Dr. Roopnarine has helped to shape the field of Indian Caribbean historiography by providing fresh models of resistance and adaptation to examine and analyze structurally dominant plantation domains. He has shown how the subaltern Indian peasantry has resisted domination and turned adverse circumstances to its advantage by using its own adaptive and adaxial capacity amid some degree of conformity. He has argued that the Creole identity (Euro-African) cannot be totally applied to many Caribbean ethnic groups, including Indians, and has developed a multipartite analysis of local, national, trans-Caribbean and global to understand Indian identity. Central to this model is the departure from binary opposite theorization of retention and assimilation of Indian identity to the argument that Indian identity is negotiated and shaped by geography, history, political leadership, migration and globalization which is not totally physical or permanent but also imaginative incorporating issues of ethnicity, resistance, human rights, among other factors. In 2018, Roopnarine’s book, Indian Caribbean: Migration and Identity in the Diaspora won the Caribbean Studies Association 2018 Gordon K. & Sybil Lewis Book Award. In this interview not only does he allude to his book but also shares some exceptional insights into Indian experience from India to the Caribbean.
Praveen Gupta (PG):Can you explain why Indians were taken to the Caribbean?
Lomarsh Roopnarine (LR):Indians began to arrive in the Caribbean soon after the emancipation of African slaves during the latter part of the nineteenth century (in the British Caribbean in 1838; the Danish and French Caribbean in 1863; and the Dutch Caribbean in 1873). The movement of Indians to the Caribbean was one segment of a larger movement to have Indians replace slave labor wherever African slavery was abolished. Indians were shipped to Mauritius, La Reunion, Strait Settlement, Fiji, Natal, South Africa, British Guiana, Trinidad, Suriname, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Jamaica, Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Kitts, and St. Croix.
PG: So they were brought to replace slave labor but were they, slaves?
LR: In some respects, the treatment they received on the plantations from their overlords were like slaves but they were not slaves. They were brought under a conservative and cyclical five-year contract labor system or indenture initially but by the 1860s they were given a bounty of 50 dollars to re-indenture for another five years and by the 1870s they were given a small parcel of land in exchange for their entitled return passages signed in their contract to settle permanently. An estimated two-thirds of them stayed in the Caribbean. The planters, not the indentured servants, dictated the direction of the contract and so the changes occurred because the planters wanted to prune cost and maintain control over labor.
PG: Now, what methods were employed to have these Indians signed contracts to labor overseas to which they had very limited knowledge?
LR:This is where we have a huge gap in the literature or differences of opinion on Indian indentured emigration to the Caribbean. We do not know exactly what percentage came freely or what percentage were duped, kidnapped or were falsely led to signing contracts because the recruiters in India provided a fanciful image of the Caribbean. My position is that Indians chose to work in the Caribbean mainly because of socioeconomic reasons brought about by their own internal oppressive social system, natural disasters, civil wars, and the impact of British colonialism. These contract workers were mainly rural peasants who were not totally aware of the terms of their contracts or the severity of plantation work that awaited them in the Caribbean. Some were duped and kidnapped into the indenture, while a majority left their homeland willingly.
PG: Which parts of India did they come from?
LR: Majority of them were recruited from Bihar and Bengal, the Northwest Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), Oudh, Fyzabad, Gonda and Basti in the United Province. A minority of them were recruited in Punjab and South India.
PG: I suspect then that since they were recruited from many locations in India they might have been a diverse group of emigrants who went to the Caribbean with a single goal of becoming at least marginal economic beneficiaries of the indenture system.
LR: Exactly, they were as diverse as India itself in gender, social status, religion, language, and age. The proportion of women to men varied from less than one half to a third or even less. The common ratio was 25 women to 100 men. The emigrants were recruited from the four main castes within Hinduism: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors and rulers), Vaishya (business and agricultural caste), and Sudras (menial caste). On the whole, the caste composition of the emigrants recruited reflected somewhat the caste composition of India, which meant that more low- and middle-caste Indians were recruited to labor in the Caribbean. The religious composition of the emigrants also mirrored the religious breakdown of India, with 84 percent of migrants being Hindu and 16 percent being Muslim or other religions. They spoke Bengali, Punjabi, Hindu, Urdu, Oriya, Nepali, Gujerati, Telugu, Tamil, Oraons, Santals, Vanga, Radha, Varendra, Rajbangshi, Magahi, Maithili, Shadri, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Eastern and Western Hindi, Bangaru, Ajmeri, and Tondai Nadu. Over time, however, Bhojpuri in Trinidad, Sarnami in Suriname, and various forms of Caribbean Creole became the main languages of communication among Indians. Young men between the age of 18 and 30 were the majority.
PG: So, what was the size of the Indian population that went to the Caribbean?
LR: Roughly speaking, 500,000 arrived, 175,000 returned, 350,000 remained in the Caribbean. Another 10,000-15,000 went back to India and returned to the Caribbean for the second time. Some came to the Caribbean without an indentured contract for the second time. Interestingly, an estimated 50,000 were rejected by immigration authorities in India to come to the Caribbean because they were considered unfit for labor. Those who remained in the Caribbean, over time, eventually formed the majority population in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname through less out-migration, more births and fewer deaths (see my article Indian Arrival Day, May 5: May I ask for a moment of silence in Guyana Times)
PG: Can you compare and contrast the Indian sea voyage or the Kala Pani from India to the Caribbean and from the Caribbean to India?
LR: Briefly, the sea voyage from India to the Caribbean and back was about eleven thousand miles. Nineteenth-century wooden sailing ships would make this journey in about four to five months or just over one hundred days. After the introduction of iron steamships in the 1870s, the same journey was completed in about three months. Most ships left India during August and March when the weather was more favorable. Ships from the Indian Ports of Calcutta and Madras generally traveled through the Bay of Bengal and around the Cape of Good Hope and stopped at St. Helena to pick up fresh water and food, if needed, before continuing to the Caribbean islands. On the way back from the Caribbean, the ships left in the plantation off-season. Deaths, births, abuse, diseases, trauma were common events on arriving and returning voyages but more so on the arriving. The emigrants’ Caribbean experience made them more robust to cope with the challenges of the sea voyage. Arriving emigrants normally bowed to authority figures but returning emigrants oftentimes said: “how do you do, Sir.” The Kala Pani was a floating prison but emigrants formed makeshift unions of brotherhood and sisterhood to console, cohere, and coexist in times of hardship (see my article Dynamics on board the Indian floating prison: the sea in Guyana Times).
PG: I would imagine that their plantation experience was tough since harvesting sugar cane is conceivably one of the hardest agricultural jobs.
LR: The emigrants were mainly rural peasants, urban dwellers or jobless but a majority had never harvested sugar cane before and so many were maladjusted to plantation labor. Many died young while others deserted or became victims of social ills like rum drinking. But those who stayed on with their contracts worked hard and eventually were able to take home with them in the Caribbean and India some savings or branched out to independent communities in the Caribbean when their contracts expired. The toughest part was the restrictive ordinances in their contracts that controlled their very existence. They were trapped in a plantation prison without walls. But remarkably they survived indenture through sacrifice and hard work that by the 1930s they were comparably better off in the Caribbean than their village base in India. They acquired some land, retained some Indian cultures and customs, and were not subjected to the caste system as known in India. The social structure of caste was transformed into a class system. They experienced no major famine, disaster or starvation as known in India; the reasons that drove them to indenture in the first place. I would say they were building a new society in a new environment using their homeland ways and incorporating new ones in the Caribbean.
PG: How well integrated is the diaspora of the ‘indentured’ Indian population into the ‘West Indies’?
LR: The Indians who went to the islands –Grenada, St. Lucia and so on – in small numbers, a few thousand, were quickly assimilated into the Caribbean creole culture through mainly Christian missionary work to a point where these Indians have little connection with the Indian culture in the Caribbean or India. In places where Indians have formed the majority population in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname, they have not only been well-integrated in terms of participating and competing for positions and places in politics, law, medicine, business, and civil service occupations but they have retained a remarkable aspect of “Indianness” like in religion, festivals and the likeness for Bollywood films, Indian songs and cricket. Interestingly, a majority of Indians do not understand the meaning of the Indian songs since they do not speak Hindi but they will sing along and dance to the rhythm; something that will supposedly surprise someone from India.
PG: What particular cultural practices, language or religious beliefs have they retained?
LR: Holi, Dewali, Hindu wedding customs like matching potential couples but the latter is not as widespread as it used to be some thirty to forty years ago. Indians still speak Sarnami in Suriname and Bhojpuri in Guyana and Trinidad, which are really a broken form of plantation sort of Hindi. Of course, Indians practice Hinduism without the caste system in the Caribbean. Islam is also practiced as they are huge elegantly-looking Mosques in Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad. Friction between Hindus and Muslims is minimal or non-existent. Actually, it is common to see Mandirs and Mosques situated within a stone throw of each other. The Indian culture, as elsewhere, is experiencing changes because of modernization and the impact of globalization.
PG: Do you still have any cultural roots in Guyana?
LR: Yes, I do, even though most of my immediate family live in the United States. We do have a house and a small parcel of rice land in a rural village in Berbice, home to a majority of Indians in Guyana. I try to go for a visit every two years. I also go to Guyana and the wider Caribbean for academic reasons. My generation hasout-migrated from Guyana in the 1980s because of bad politics in the country and so when I return I am somewhat a stranger in the village of my birth but I do like the Indian and the Caribbean way of life: the slow pace, the food, and the overall “traditional” culture. My cultural roots is analogous to the Guyanese adage “my navel string was buried in the backyard of my parents’ house in Guyana.”
PG: Are the people of Indian diaspora proud of their heritage? Does it in anyway form a part of their history curriculum in schools/ or at a higher level?
LR: I think the Indian people in the Caribbean, for the most part, are proud of who they have become over the past century, namely that they possess a uniquely Indian Caribbean culture that is not totally like the Creole Caribbean or like that of India but is a combination of both with more emphasis on things that are Indian-oriented like in religion, customs, and life in general. Indian culture, and the entire notion of an Indian presence in the Caribbean, their history, for example, is not taught in schools as rigorously like African and European history. It may sound strange that Guyana is home to the largest Indian population outside of the United States in the Western Hemisphere but there is no such thing like an Indian studies program at the national University of Guyana. I believe that the Indian Caribbean population is in a flux and let me share what I wrote in my recently awarded book. “Caribbean Indians will continue to migrate because of inequities in the global system as well as political, economic, and social instabilities and tensions within each nation-state where Indians have migrated and settled—Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, and in the European and North American Diasporas. Migration will also continue because a culture of migration has now formed among Indians that is predicated on the belief that in order to grow and develop one has to migrate, despite how temporally. Half of the Indian population in Guyana and Suriname live outside of these countries. What will also happen in the future is that certain patterns of migration will dominate. The preferred destination will be to developed countries and less so within the Caribbean, particularly among Indo-Trinidadians, reflecting a hierarchy of migration. Vertical rather than horizontal forms of migration will be the preferences. The latter will occur when the first preference is denied, particularly among economically deprived Indo-Guyanese who tend to migrate almost anywhere in the Caribbean. Some trends of migration will continue. Outward rather than inward migration will continue, meaning that when Indians leave their respective homeland only a minority of them will return, even occasionally. The new diasporic communities will be the preferred places to live because of attachment, investment, and the second and third generations who have very little knowledge of the first-generation lifestyle in their departed homeland. It is also predicted that sentiments of and remittances to homeland will be progressively reduced. Nonetheless, Caribbean Indian migrants will continue to shape their departed and new destinations.”
PG: As a historian and author what are your pursuits?
LR: I will continue to research and write on Indo-Caribbean experience for at least the next twenty-years for two fundamental reasons. The first is that even though the field of Indo-Caribbean studies has been receiving academic growth and attention, it still lags behind when compared to other Caribbean studies, and so in that regard, my aim is to continue to contribute to the field to a point where it will probably encourage others to do research and write on Caribbean Indians. The second is that I have a passion for Indo-Caribbean studies. I get excited when I discover new things, and in some ways, I am hooked to the field in a nice way.