A new wave of Indians in the Caribbean
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THERE is no precise date as to when Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) arrived in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. The basic understanding is that some arrived during the indenture period in the nineteenth century as religious travellers spreading Hinduism and Islam. Their purpose was to provide religious inspiration and support for the indentured community on the premise that these labourers were uprooted from their homeland and taken to a foreign land where their religion was unknown. Toward that end, religious travellers ensured that the labourers were protected from religious abuse and conversion and that they continued their religious practices in the Caribbean. While over time the indentured community produced its own religious leaders, however few, these early religious travellers played a role in aiding indentured Indians to retain, at least,
some aspects of their religion in their new domicile.

The flow of these religious travellers was sporadic and small, not more than two to three hundred throughout the whole indenture period. Their impact or intended impact was more significant than their numbers. Their tradition has remained as a part of the Indian experience in the Caribbean. Indian religious travellers and now religious gurus and leaders continue to come to the Caribbean, while Caribbean-born Indians continue to travel to India for religious education and training.

By the end of indenture in 1920 there was a small group of NRIs in the Caribbean. How they got to the Caribbean is not clear. It is believed that some were sailors; some answered advertisements in local newspapers that took them to Brazil to cut timber; some came to do business. The latter was the most popular reason for them being in the Caribbean, as evidenced by their continued participation in business—mainly selling Indian clothes, religious items, and groceries.

Some of these early immigrants did not come directly from India but were already in Latin America and the Caribbean region. Through conversations with their customers and among themselves they became more knowledgeable of the history of their new surroundings, especially regarding extending their business beyond their immediate base.

Unknown descendants of the first wave of NRIs to Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname have blended with descendants of indentured servants through intermarriage and residential assimilation. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, they have intermarried with the Creole population or even migrated to Europe and North America.

The major flow of NRIs to the Caribbean began after India achieved independence in 1947. Independence provided India the opportunity to establish ties with countries that had large populations of Indians to enhance growth and development as well as to develop stronger cultural connections. Nowhere is this initiative as noticeable as on various Indian High Commission websites in countries with large Indian populations, such as Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname. High Commissioner of India to Guyana H. E. V. Mahalingam, on the 67th Republic Day in February 2016, said in a speech, “to consolidate cultural links, the Indian Cultural Centre has been functioning in Guyana since 1972 and during the four decades, a large number of Guyanese have benefitted from its yoga, dance and music classes”. Over in India, the Times of India, a news magazine, ran this: “helping upgrade a much-needed mortuary, sending a Ramlila troupe to exchange ideas with the local troupes there or providing expertise in renewable energy—India is actively engaging with its large diaspora in the small and distant countries of Suriname and Guyana in meaningful ways”.

Not all NRIs in the Caribbean are associated with the Indian High Commissioner’s office on diplomatic duties. There are four categories of NRIs: diplomats, professionals (doctors and teachers), businesspeople and religious leaders. The population of these NRIs is small, ranging from three hundred to one thousand each for Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname. Despite their category and size, they share four fundamental characteristics. The first is that they live a life of privilege and prestige. Their residences are in well-to-do neighbourhoods and their children attend the best schools in the host country. Their main aim is to send their children to the United States. The second is that they see themselves as immigrants first rather than as residents and have little meaningful contact with the wider society other than their occupational connections and Indian-related activities. The third is that they consider themselves better than Indians in the Caribbean because they believe Caribbean Indians have lost true Indian values. The fourth is that they do not generally marry someone or let their children marry someone from the Caribbean.

NRIs are more visible and progressive in Trinidad than in Suriname and Guyana. Trinidad is more developed and therefore Indians are associated there beyond diplomatic functions. Doctors and professors earn higher salaries in Trinidad than in Guyana and Suriname. There are about one thousand to fifteen hundred NRIs living in Trinidad, which translates into about two hundred families. Some are diplomats, doctors, academics, traders, and business personnel. There is also a small student population. They are located mostly in Port of Spain and in Chaguanas, the business district. Unless they speak or dress for an occasion, it is difficult to distinguish them from Trinidadian Indians. NRIs have good professional relations with Trinidad, but they are not deeply connected culturally, which, paradoxically, is one of the mission statements of the Indian High Commissioner’s Office (lomarsh.roopnarine@jsums.edu).

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