Girmitiyas in 2021

I HAVE been researching, writing, and teaching about Girmitiyas – Indian indentured servants who were brought from India to the Caribbean to substitute slave labour in the nineteenth century – over three decades focusing on migration, resistance, and identity formation. I realise that we have now turned the corner as evidenced from the following stanza written by Guyanese poet C.E.J Ramcharitar about four decades ago in “The Weeding Gang”.

I know the girls are coming,
For I hear the gentle humming
Of choruses they’re singing on their way;
I hear their saucepans jingling,
And their cultasses a-tingling,
Which as their music instruments they play.

We have emerged from the weeding gang and are heading somewhere we have never been before. I am also espousing the gradual movement of the study of indenture from the margin to the mainstream in the annals of world history and literature. It seems that we are departing steadily from the appendage status of post-emancipation society. I do understand, however, that we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go in terms of showcasing ourselves in the drive towards recognition, contribution, and achievement in places where we have been, in some cases, forcibly homed and unhomed. Moreover, we have a good sense now of where we have come from, but we are not sure where we are going. Irrespective of our situation, we must push forward and accommodate those who are willing to join and journey with us in the study of Girmitiyas.

I preface this piece by the above to demonstrate that much has been going on in the world of Girmitiyas in the past five years or so which might have not caught the attention of all and sundry. Without any order of importance, I start with the mushrooming of international conferences focusing on indenture and beyond. There are too many to list here. The recently held Old and New Indenture conference in the Pacific Islands region will suffice. The conference attracted presenters from across the globe, and I must admit, that it was vivacious, vibrant, and visionary, so much so that another one is planned for India next year. Similar enthusiasm has been expressed at other conferences, indicating a long-term vision for examining, assessing, and discussing issues of Girmitiyas. Articles and books have emerged from these conferences, revealing the seriousness of contribution to the study of indenture. I welcome these initiatives since I have been in the trenches of indenture studies with only a few scholars for a long time. I am tickled.

There are also academic journals such as Indenture Papers and the Journal of Indentureship and its legacies where none had existed a year ago. While we wait for a journal of this caliber to emerge in the Caribbean, we embrace these existing ones and salute those indenture-related journals in India and elsewhere. At the minimum level, we can say that articles on indenture have finally found a home without losing sight of the high standard of reviewing, accepting, and publishing them. This is forward-looking to at least solve the problem of too many articles being rejected by journals based on a misfit of their mission and focus.

More initiatively, much effort has been applied by the descendants of Girmitiyas from Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, the Caribbean, and the Diaspora to have UNESCO accept and endorse a project named The Indenture Labour Route. The goal is to have UNESCO accept The Indenture Labour Route, which was responsible for transporting no less than two million Indians from India to work as indentured labourers in European colonies. Today, there are about 15,000,000 Indians living in these former colonies.

A proposal is already drafted by the team and copies have been sent to various governments in countries where descendants of Girmitiyas reside. The current government of Guyana, for example, has a copy. We are hoping that these governments will support The Indenture Labour Route project as efforts are currently under way to speak to the Assembly of United Nations/UNCESCO to endorse the project.

There are other initiatives going on with Girmitiyas in 2021, although they are too early to confirm. I understand that the University of Guyana is starting an undergraduate programme on Indo-Caribbean Studies. This is great news since Guyana, which is the largest recipient of indentured Indians, has been, for the past three decades, on the back burner of Indian studies. Equally disappointing is that there is a shortage of individuals based in Guyana researching and writing on Guyanese Indians, although Ravi Dev, Ryhaan Shah, and Tota Mangar might be an exception. One Indo-Caribbean scholar from Trinidad informs me that most individuals writing on Indians in Guyana are overseas-based, indicating that they are too distant from the day-to-day experience of Indians there, and because of this vital missing link, they are apt to use the disparaging label “Coolie” recklessly. They do not experience the local Indian in-sensibilities.

I understand, too, that there are efforts underway by a group of academics and politicians to start a university of Girmitiya studies. Taken together, these initiatives on Girmitiyas are forward-looking and have done an enormous service to the 15,000,000 Indians residing in former European indentured colonies. We have arrived eventually, although not always with “smiles and subtle graces.” Nonetheless, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, we must create what is next and without dreams and goals we are just existing, counting the days rather than letting the days count. (

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