May 5 is Arrival Day. Although that is the day that Indians arrived in Guyana in 1838, and no other group came that day or use it for self-reflection, observance, and recognition, succeeding governments have consistently refused to call it Indian Arrival Day (IAD) when it was legislated and assented to by the President in 2004. IAD is a day of reflection of the presence of Indians in Guyana, no other groups. It salutes the Indian pioneers for their sacrifices, hard work, perseverance, and contributions to Guyana. As we commemorate their arrival, we must do so in acknowledgement of their struggle to survive in harsh surroundings and to build a better society for all. There was a long struggle for the recognition of that day as a holiday in Guyana. It is important for the nation to reflect on how and why Indian Arrival has become a national holiday.
The public struggle for IAD was initiated by Indian Guyanese in the diaspora supported by Indo-Trinis – affiliated with the Indo-Caribbean Federation (like myself and Ravi Dev), Conservative Party of Guyana (like Dr. Baytoram Ramharack), and Jaguar Committee for Democracy (Vassan Ramracha). I agitated for this holiday going back to the early 1980s after visiting IAD celebrations in Trinidad. I played a prominent role transplanting the celebration in New York thru the ICF.
The idea of an IAD was transplanted to Guyana by activists like Ravi Dev and myself and took on a life of its own when it was enjoined by GIHA and other groups. Other individuals and organizations like Dharmic Sabha was also speaking the language of a holiday for IAD which was celebrated by that organization going back decades. Before Dharmic, British Guiana East Indian Association led by Dr JB Singh celebrated IAD as did other groups like Gandhi Org led by Dr Balwant, that celebrated Rama-Khan Day. Among the other groups that later joined the movement for IAD were: Guyana Islamic Trust, Guyana Indian Foundation Trust, ROAR, and Indian Arrival Committee (IAC); etc.
The indentured labourers or girmits who came to Guyana have left an indelible imprint on the cultural (language, cuisine, music, clothing, dance, arts, etc.) landscape, and on the economic, social, religious, and political fabric of the nation. Their immense contributions and accomplishments in every field of endeavor have been on the basis of great personal sacrifice (of disconnection with their ancestral homeland) to better Guyana.
The indentured have been an ethnically persecuted people since the time they arrived on May 5, 1838. They lived in a most degrading and in inhumane slave-like conditions. They were often cheated out of their pay and denied land as compensation that was promised. They were battered and bruised by the white colonial masters and other ethnic groups. They persevered under very harsh conditions. They struggled very hard to overcome the adversities they faced, doing so with dignity and with much cultural retention of the practices of life in Mother India. Their presence has added to the richness and uniqueness of the Guyanese nation: multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and cuisine. Their values have persisted till this day. Thus, it is appropriate for the nation to recognize the contributions made by the pioneering Indians and the values and material things that they brought from India.
It took decades after independence to convince national politicians that the tremendous contribution and sacrifices of Indians to the nation must be recognised with a national holiday similar to the honour (Emancipation Day) given to enslaved Africans, whom the Indians replaced on the plantations under similar conditions of abuse. Emancipation Day was recognized as a holiday early in the nation’s history, but it was a long struggle before the Indians were given recognition of a national day in 2004. Indian activists and community leaders had to wage an arduous battle for this recognition to be accorded the indentured Indians. The PNC was adamantly opposed to it. It took intense lobbying from Ravi Dev, myself, and others to convince the PPP to honor the Indians with IAD.
This holiday honours the hard work and great sacrifices made by Indian indentured labourers, who laid the foundation for a better life for their descendants.
It is befitting to honor them with an appropriate recognition like making May 5, Indian Arrival Day as was requested by Indian rights activists like Ravi Dev, Rhyaan Shah, myself, among others. Right now, the holiday is Arrival Day. As Ravi Dev pointed out the title of the holiday is contra the recommendation of the parliamentary committee that proposed the holiday. The Indian in front of it is missing. Patrick Manning had similarly called the holiday Arrival Day in 1995. When Basdeo Panday became PM, he changed it permanently to IAD in 1996. The same must be done in Guyana.
By Dr. Vishnu Bisram