Today May 5, we commemorate Indian Arrival, a national holiday, a day that recognizes the enormous contributions of Indians to Guyana. It is also observed among the Indian Guyanese diaspora in NY. May 30 is Indian Arrival in Trinidad and Tobago. As it was for Emancipation Day, Indian Arrival celebrate a peoples’ contributions to our land. Indian Arrival Day (IAD) is more than just the commemoration — it is the recognition of a people who have contributed so much to our economic, social, cultural and political development. The country stands with pride and dignity in the total enrichment of our nation by the pioneering indentured laborers or girmits as called in India. The holiday is a proud moment for all Guyanese as it is also for Emancipation Day of Africans. Ditto Indo-Trinidadians.
May 5th holds a special historical significance with celebrants gathering to honour their ancestors who had crossed the kala pani — three oceans and 10K miles — to travel halfway around the world to reach Guiana. This is a day of remembrance as well as reflection, and it is also a day for celebration — of one Guyana, of diverse people sharing a common land.
Long before official IAD in 2004, cultural celebrations for arrival were taking place all over the country at mandirs and community centers without any assistance from the government and without the need for its official recognition or approval.
In fact, long before there was an official Indian Arrival Day, Indians were already celebrating their presence and history with cultural programs. One of the earliest IAD celebrations was held in 1938 in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the arrival of the first group of immigrants on May 5, 1838. There were huge cultural celebrations in villages on plantations all across Guyana and in Georgetown. Mandirs and Masjids around the country held their own commemoration – with puja and ‘Readings’.
Thereafter, several groups began holding Indian Arrival celebrations – including the Dharmic Sabha and Gandhi Youth Organization. Mohammed Insanali organized celebrations at UG during the 1970s; he tore up his diploma at a commencement exercise in presence of Burnham to protest election rigging and racial persecution. Dr. Balwant Singh, President of GYO, and Insanali organized the Rama-Khan day (May 5) celebrations at the GYO ground during the 1970s. Dr Balwant Singh, a leading micro-biologist and head of the government lab, was President of the British Guiana Civil Service Association, a labor union. Although a member and supporter of the PNC, Burnham would victimize him for championing IAD as a holiday and for opposing the appropriation of the Indian Immigrants Fund to build the Cultural Center. Dr. Balwant was fired from his job for opposing Burnham. Thousands attended the Rama-Khan event annually during the 1970s. Later, Dharmic Sabha led by Pt. Reepu partnered with mandirs at various parts of the country to host annual IAD celebrations. Highbury Park, the site for the arrival of the first shipload of indentured laborers, also hosted massive celebrations. Some of the largest crowds seen in Guyana for cultural events were at Highbury during the 1990s.
In New York, Guyanese and Trini diasporas came together to organize IAD celebrations and to advocate for a holiday for IAD in Trinidad and Guyana. The idea was borrowed from Trinidad’s celebrations. ASome of us participated in a movement in Trinidad during the 1980s championing IAD holiday – the group was led by Ramdath Jagessar, Rajnie Ramlakhan, among others. Jagessar and a handful of stalwarts are largely responsible for the holiday in Trinidad. I met with the group regularly from 1981 onwards during my frequent visits to the island to solicit support for the anti-dictatorial struggle. Bhanu Dwarika, myself, and a few others who founded the Indo Caribbean Federation (ICF) of America decided to emulate the Trinidad IAD celebrations in NY. The first celebrations were held at Rufus King Park (150th Street and Jamaica Ave.) in 1984 attended by large numbers of Caribbean people. There has been annual event thereafter at Smokey Park in Richmond Hill.
By the 1990s, the impact of Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad, Guyana, NY was undeniable and the question of a holiday in both Trinidad and Guyana was perhaps only the next natural step. Trevor Sudama had championed a holiday for IAD in Trinidad; he was consistently opposed by the PNM administration. In 1991, he piloted a bill to make IAD a holiday; it was opposed by all the leading Indians in the NAR administration including Kamla Persad Bissessar, Winston Dookeran, Brinsley Samaroo, Suruj Rambachan, Bhoe Tewari, Sahadeo Basdeo, and others. They all lost their seats in general elections after IAD celebrations. The PNM’s PM Patrick Manning eventually agreed to a one time holiday in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of arrival. Under pressure, he decided it would be an annual holiday and that it would be called Arrival Day. Basdeo Panday, after winning snap elections in November 1995, changed the holiday’s name to IAD in 1996.
A group of us (including Ravi Dev, myself and others) from NY initiated the idea of IAD holiday in Guyana in 1990. It took Dev’s presence in parliament as a MP (2001-06) to push the paper work to get approval in 2004. The Parliamentary Committee agreed to a bill calling the holiday IAD. President Jagdeo assented making it official!
By Vishnu Bisram