Photo : Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Indian Arrival is celebrated by Indian communities almost everywhere they are found (in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.). In some territories, it is a national holiday as in Guyana, Trinidad and Grenada. Or the day they landed on the territory is given recognition (St. Vincent, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, etc). It is often asked why celebrate the arrival of Indians in the Caribbean (and North America and Europe) when arrival meant Indians being subjugated or bonded into slave like conditions. Indians were bonded on slave plantations abandoned by African predecessors who obtained emancipation (1834-1838) from that cruel and inhumane system of labor. Indentureship was hardly different from slavery. So why celebrate Indian arrival into an oppressive system? Many feel Indians should celebrate the end of indenture that took place on January 1, 1920 and or recruitment of indentured laborers that ended in March 1917. There is a misunderstanding of why Indian Arrival is celebrated.
Celebrating Indian Arrival (IA) is not celebrating their indentureship (a system of slavery) or oppression. Rather it is celebrating their survival of the entire indentureship system from recruitment stage to completion of their bonded contracts. It is a celebration of the pioneering spirit and the legacy left behind by the indentured laborers and that is inherited by their progenitors. Celebrating IA is to remember the history and experiences of the Indian ancestors. It is not dissimilar to how Africans celebrate Emancipation to remember the history of slavery and the pioneering spirit of their ancestors. Africans use the occasion of the liberation of Africans from slavery (Emancipation) to give recognition to and remember the contributions of the slave ancestors. Indians are doing anything different in celebrating IA.
Indentureship was slavery by another name, and it was wrong and so the Indian community uses the occasion to pay tribute to the ancestors and celebrate everything handed down by them. The Indian community celebrates the achievements of Indians in overcoming their degradation and the sub-human conditions under which they lived for over a century as well as all their contributions.
We celebrate Indian Arrival as a way to honor our ancestors for their resilience during recruitment process as indentured laborers (girmityas), the long voyage on board cramped ships to the Caribbean, and working lengthy hours on the plantations to which they were bounded. We honor them for surviving the recruitment process (often times deceived by the recruiters and for their courage in undertaking this long arduous journey. We celebrate the pioneering spirit and achievements of those hundreds of thousands who came from India to the Caribbean as well as those born on the plantations and who helped to organize us to confront the oppressors. They survived the journey and thrived under oppression on the colonies overcoming myriad obstacles placed on their path by the colonists and the racist governments that replaced the colonizers post colonialism. We celebrate their immense contribution to growth and national development. We also salute and celebrate those who have kept our ancient culture alive in spite of the adversities and horrific experiences they faced as a people.
As penned in so many published writings, Indians were abused and persecuted. They faced countless adversities not the least being sorrow of being away from India, psychological depression, home sickness, social stress, physical abuses, malnutrition, diseases and theft of earnings. But they did not allow these lingering difficulties to impede their will to survive in order to lay down a foundation for a better life for their progeny.
The Indo-Caribbean people have risen above all the social, political and economic impediments placed in their path to make enormous contributions to the development of the territory to which they were indentured and also became very responsible citizens. Without their pioneering efforts, hard work, contributions and achievements, future generations would have been nothing. Because of the legacy they handed down, Indian culture is alive although it faces many challenges from hostile governments that seek to erase the Indian legacy. Because of their desire to have a better life for their progeny, they made sacrifices to provide their descendants with education. The sacrifices and education helped their descendants to rise out of the ashes of the oppressive plantation system to become professionals and business folks. And because of their pioneering spirit and sacrifices, many Indo-Caribbeans have occupied influential spaces in the territories where they live contributing to every facet (politics, law, economics, education, medicine, business, engineering, etc.) of life.
So should we celebrate IA? Yes! The story of the Indians indentureds and their descendants is one of survival and one to be celebrated. Where it is not a holiday, and where Indian were bonded into indenture, a campaign should be wage for IA to gain national recognition and be rewarded with a public holiday similar to that given to Emancipation Day. IAD is the equivalent of Liberation Day for the indentured Indians.