By Dr Vishnu Bisram
Caribbean political leaders and academics have been advocating for reparations (compensations) for forced labor. The issue made the news last week during the visit of a Prince of England to Jamaica, Belize, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Prime Minister Rowley brought it up in Trinidad a few days ago as did PMs of other territories and academics as well as sports personalities. Indians were also ‘enslaved’ but no one speaks of their enslavement. The regional Caribbean Community organization (Caricom) established a commission in 2013 to advocate for reparation for forced labor (slavery, indentureship, and abuses to indigenous people) but did not appoint any non-African on the commission. The result was the commission has only been focusing on reparation for those affected by slavery, excluding the victims (Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Amerindians, and indentured Africans) of other forced labor systems.
There is a compelling argument for reparations for Indian indentureship in the book entitled “Sat Maharaj: Hindu Civil Rights Leader of Trinidad and Tobago” by biographer Dr. Kumar Mahabir. Mahabir (p 147) wrote: “During the hundred-year period of 1845 to 1945, all marriages not performed by the Christian church or at a warden’s office were not legally recognized by the State. Thus, widows and children of Hindu and Muslim land owners were unable to claim their relative’s estates after they had died. Children of Hindu and Muslim marriages were considered to be illegitimate and thus the land that they should have inherited was given over, once again, to the State”. Also, money sent from the territories to families in India were disrupted and undelivered remaining in the coffers of the state amounting to hundreds of states of pounds that would be in hundreds of millions of US dollars today. These and other injustices must be ‘repaired’. There should be compensation to the descendants of Indian indentured for crimes committed against their forebears who were duped into leaving India, underpaid and cheated for their labor, jailed and beaten wrongfully, and robbed of the wealth and land that they were promised.
Caribbean political leaders and academics have the temerity to only champion justice for one race of people. Reparations for indentureds and natives have not been part of the advocacy or vocabulary of leaders or academics in the Caribbean. Forced labor violated the human rights and dignity of all groups and they are all entitled to some form of compensation. Governments must champion reparations (compensation) for all groups and not just one group.
Slavery and indentureship were among the most exploitative, heinous, inhumane labor systems and crimes committed against humanity. African and Indians suffered tremendously. The Portuguese and Chinese did not labor as long as or thought to suffer the same degree of humiliations and rights violations as Indian indentureds who were flogged (in violation of rules) and often starved not much different from Black slaves. The Portuguese and Chinese did not suffer physical abuse like the Indians and Africans. Indian Indentureship included several features of slavery. In “A New System of Slavery: a seminal and comprehensive book on the subject, Professor Hugh Tinker gave details of many similarities that the two socio-economic systems shared in common.
Also, Prof Tayyab Mahmud, the law director of the Center for Global Justice at Seattle University. argued that indentured labor was cheaper than a slave in his paper titled “Cheaper than a slave: Indentured labor, colonialism and capitalism”. As an epigraph, Dr. Mahmud quoted a passage from Amitav Ghosh’s “Sea of Poppies” (published in 2008): “’Do you mean slaves, sir’? Mr. Burnham winced. ‘Why no, Reid. Not slaves – coolies (Indians). Have you not heard it said that when God closes one door he opens another? When the doors of freedom were closed to the African, the Lord opened them to a tribe that was yet more needful of it – the Asiatick (Indians)’”.
Prof Mahmud adds: “The main successor to modern slavery was the institution of indentured labor, which is often portrayed as a bridge between slavery and modern forms of contract labor. This switch in the form of labor also involved a switch in the source of the labor supply from Africa to Asia.” In short, Indian indentureship was another form of slavery, and Indians deserve or qualify for reparations in the same way Africans do. If one group is to receive reparations, all groups that suffered from forced labor must also receive just compensation.
African historians have been given recognition and support by CARICOM governments to champion reparations for slavery. But there is no similar advocacy for forced labor endured by the ancestors of present day Indians or other groups. In 2013, CARICOM established a reparations commission (CRC) to pursue the path of justice for the victims of slavery and their descendants. CARICOM funds this body all of whom are compensated with stipends for their work and travel expenses. But there are no Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, or Amerindians in the group. This is unjust and a violation of equal treatment to all.
There should also be reparatory justice for the descendants of victims of indentureship as well as the genocide of the indigenous peoples. CARICOM governments cannot agitate for compensation for only one race of people, violating the concept of fairness, equity and justice by excluding non-Africans. The Chairman, Prof Hilary Beckles, VC of UWI, should champion the inclusion of Indians in the CRC. If not possible, there should be a separate indentureship and indigenous people reparation commission along the line of CRC with funding from Caricom. The Guyana government has been providing funds for Guyana representative of the CRC in addition to the body itself. The government should provide an equal amount of fund for a proposed Indentureship & Indigenous People CRC.
The advocacy for reparations for forced labor should include all groups – everyone must be treated fairly and equitably regardless of race.