The Making of a Holiday-Indian Arrival Day
Photo : Ramdath Jagessar
As we celebrate Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad, we must salute the strength and determination of our Indian ancestors to survive amidst hostility and threats. The collusion of the colonial administration and other dark forces to obstruct, diminish and destroy their dharma reinforced in their psyche the value of cultural capital and their obligation to bequeath it to their descendants. We, their descendants, have a moral duty not only to preserve but also to propagate these great traditions, customs and history for future generations.
The development of Indian Arrival Day (May 30) into a public holiday is a victory that must be celebrated every year as we mark this historic event. In 1995 the then Patrick Manning Government could have no longer ignored this historic event. The people were out in their numbers demanding that May 30 be etched in the annals of the history of the republic.
It would be remiss of me if I don’t highlight some of those pioneers. In 1945, the centennial anniversary (1845-1945) of Indian Arrival was marked with a massive procession through the streets of San Fernando. An integral part of the commemoration was the publishing of the Indian Centennial Review, a book profiling the leading 100 Indo-Trinidadian personalities in the country. Some of the distinguished personalities endorsed in that historic document were Murli Kirpalani, Timothy Roodal, George Fitzpatrick, F.E.M, Hosein and Adrian Cola Rienzi among others.
In the 1970s Swami Satchidananda, founder of the Divine Life Society (DLS), held processions annually on the anniversary (May 30) from Enterprise DLS Mandir to the Sivanda Mandir at Carlsen Field, Chase Village. The procession along the Southern Main Road was accompanied with the chanting of kirtan. Then it was called Indian Immigration Day.
Ramdath Jagessar, the Father of Indian Arrival Day, defined May 30th as “the birthday of the Indian community.” He founded the Indian Revival and Reform Association and advanced an ideological challenge through regular pamphlets in which he outlined the contributions of Indians in law, medicine, the arts, farming, business, sports, etc. Through these pamphlets Jagessar affirmed the contributions of the pioneers. He argued that the Indian community was “behaving like an elephant that was unaware of its strength and power.”
The Indian Revival and Reform Association floated an Indian Arrival Day Committee. It comprised of Ramdath Jagessar, Khalique Khan, Rajnie Ramlakhan, Anand Maharaj, Azamudeen “Danny” and Rajiv Siewnarine. This Committee joined hands with the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and converted that ideology into an awakening of Indian consciousness. At the first celebration held at the Lakshmi Girls’ College (1979) and the following year (1980) at Spring Village Hindu School Sham Mohammed, founder of Mastana Bahar, and Idris Hamid, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, were the feature speakers respectively. Both speakers endorsed the commemoration of this historic event. In his address, Sham Mohammed urged the celebrants to “celebrate without apology.”
At Endeavour Village, Chaguanas, Ramdath Jagessar collaborated with the Endeavour Hindu Youth Organization to commemorate this historic event. The programme comprised of cultural presentations and the recognition of the elders of the community. Profiles of honourees were read and gifts were presented to them. Similar activities were sponsored by the Penal Rock Road Hindu Organization and the Brazil Village (Arima) Hindu Organization. In 1982 the Penal Rock Road Hindu Organisation and the Brazil Village Hindu Youth Organization held two massive street processions in Penal and Sangre Grande respectively. These celebrations were always well attended and provided fertile grounds for the sowing of seeds for social and cultural change.
Another groups that contributed to the ideological battles to champion May 30 as a historic landmark was the Indian Review Committee. Founded by Kamal Persad in the early 1980s, other members were Kumar Mahabir, John Jaglal, S.K. Ragbir, Mukesh Babooram and Ashram B. Maharaj. The Indian Review Committee joined hands with the Indian Revival and Reform Association. The regular pamphlets and magazines produced by these two organizations provided irrefutable arguments for the commemoration of this day.
The Hindu Seva Sangh, founded in 1983, played a significant role in taking these celebrations across the country. Led by Haripersad Harikissoon, Mungal Chattergoon and Ramdath Jagessar, the Sangh rallied the masses across the country. Harikissoon reasoned that “it is not enough writing pamphlets.”
Strategies used by the Seva Sangh included street processions, re-enacting the landing of the Fatel Rozack at villages along the sea coast, cultural programmes and the honouring of surviving indentures and elders, and addresses by prominent citizens. Between 1984 and 1992 the Seva Sangh, in collaboration with the local communities, initiated celebrations at Chaguanas (1984), Couva (1984), Cedros (1984), St Mary’s Village, Moruga (1985), California (1985), Curepe (1986), Princes Town (1986), Waterloo (1986), San Fernando (1986), Claxton Bay (1986), Orange Valley (1986), Felicity (1987), Mon Plasir Road, Cunupia (1991) and Aranguez Savannah (1992).
Other national figures identified and supported the campaign to declare May 30th a public holiday. At the unveiling of the first commemorative statue in 1984 (sponsored by the St Patrick County Council and the Hindu Seva Sangh) at Cedros, Suruj Rambachan, Chairman of the St Patrick County Council, came out in full support of the event. Rambachan accused the then TTT (Trinidad and Tobago Television) of inadequate coverage of Indian cultural events. His sentiments were endorsed by the large gathering.
While many came together to rally with this singular historic event, there were always the few that were opposed to it. One of the arguments proffered by those opposed to celebrating the arrival of the Indians was that the commemoration of May 30 was the “celebration of our bondage.” It was shocking and heart wrenching to hear such contemptuous remarks from Members of Parliament who had backgrounds in academia. Stunned and betrayed the rank and file concluded that it was their battle and that they would have to take to the streets.
Parliamentarians were split down the middle on whether or not a public holiday should be granted. Trevor Sudama and Raymond Pallackdharrysingh of the United National Congress presented arguments for May 30 to be declared a public holiday. Representing the Indian Review Committee, Kamal Persad led a delegation before a Joint Select Committee of Parliament to support the call for a public holiday. Persad’s experience before the Joint Select Committee made him conclude that “no other public holiday came with such scrutiny, resistance and analysis.”
“Opposition there would always be,” said Ramdath Jagessar. “I was never troubled by the minor ridiculous objections of a few parliamentarians,” he remarked. The persistence of the Hndu Seva Sangh, the Indian Review Committee and other groups and individuals ensured that May 30 was declared a public holiday in 1995 by Prime Minister Patrick Manning. Kamal Persad welcomed the holiday.
The granting of May 30 a public holiday was a victory for all Indo-Trinidadians. It fulfilled the truism that “unity in strength.” This singular historic event united a people in a common struggle for survival. The holiday further galvanised the Indo-Trinidadian community and was best expressed in the electoral results of the General Elections of 1995 which saw the UNC/ DAC forming the government and the rise of Basdeo Panday to Prime Minister.
Indian Arrival Day reflects the positives that can be achieved when one individual holds steadfastly and works toward a vision. Ramdath Jagessar never wavered from his mission but remained focused on the destination. His single-minded focus on his goal attracted the likes of the Hindu Seva Sangh, the Indian Review Committee, the SDMS and other groups and individuals. This unity rallied the people. The government of the day was left with no other choice but to grant a public holiday.