Contemporary Predicament of Indo-Caribbeans

Presenters at the conference

Conference at Columbia University on Issues, Struggles, and Challenges

By Dr. Tara Singh

On the occasion of 100th anniversary of abolition of recruitment of labor under the Indentureship system, the Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies (FIIDS-USA) hosted a conference on “History, Present and Future of Indentured Indian Diaspora” at the Columbia University, New York along with the Hindu Yuva Chapter of the Columbia University with special reference to the Caribbean.

This conference was another in a series of events held throughout the diaspora in 2017 to commemorate the end of recruitment of labor under the indentureship system. Dr Khanderao was the coordinator, and he did an excellent job.

The India Consul General in New York, Hon Sandeep Chakravorty stated: “India is proud of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora for their resilience, achievements and contributions to their host countries.” But he noted the formidable struggles that Indo-Caribbeans have to face and said that the leadership of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is reaching out to the Indian diaspora to address their concerns.

(l-r) Dr Tara Singh, Indian Consul General in NY Hon Sandeep Chakravorty and Dr Vishnu Bisram.

Ravi Deo spoke on the concept of “entitlement” in a ethnically divided society of Guyana. Politicians and civil society have to confront the nagging problems of racism and also must reject the ethnic-based politics.

The writer (Dr Tara Singh) presented a case for reparatory justice. He said that the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) that was constituted in 2013 to advance the cause of reparatory justice for descendants of slaves and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean region, should have also included the descendants of indentured laborers whose fore-parents inherited slavery-like conditions. Despite those hurdles, Indian labor had been able to save the sugar industry from collapse. Indian immigrants also pioneered the rice industry as well as livestock and other agricultural crops.

“The history of the Indians in the Caribbean is one of individual, family and community resilience. In many instances, individual strength was tied to community strength. Storytelling was a medium for comfort and for staying connected to their memories of India.” Despite the hardships, the indentured Indians reshaped the landscape of each country in which they were planted, observed Karen Dipnarine-Saroop, cofounder of the Green Brain Initiative.

Professor Lomarsh Roopnarine from Jackson State University said that there were a number of misconceptions about immigration, including the size of the migration flow as well as the grant of lands. He pointed out that less than 3% of Indian immigrants were granted land in lieu of return passage to India. Land “grants” were not free.

Dr. Somdat Mahabir, a Scientist at the National Institutes of Health, made a case for science to be given prominence at conferences and other public events. He emphasized the need for research, data integrity and the scientific approach. Dr Somdatt highlighted the extra-ordinary contribution of two great Guyana-born Indian Scientists, the late Professor Nutan P. Bishun, a pioneer in the field of cytogenetics and Professor Premsuk Poonai, who made major scientific contributions in the field of agronomy.

Dr Somdatt Mohabir receiving an acknowledgement

Dr. Vishnu Bisram, New York based Indo-Caribbean political analyst said, “India has had an institutionalized caring, compassionate relationship focused on culture, business, education, diplomacy and other non-political fields. India must develop the courage to address political issues like the racial persecution of Indians especially in Guyana similar to how the Chinese or Israeli government speak out against victimization of their Diasporas.”

Denis Ramdahin, an environmental scientist, described a model poverty reduction program (Vihar) in India, that could be replicated, with modifications, in Indian diaspora countries.

Dr Balkaransingh stated that there have been 4 distinct waves of emigration from India. The first two were non-contractual (namely, the earliest migration to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. and that was followed by the emigration of gypsies. The third wave was contractual in nature and it covered emigration to the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, etc. This third wave ended in 1920.

The fourth wave was primarily during the post-indentureship period from India to North America, Europe, Australasia, and elsewhere. He also challenged the prevailing view that indentureship was accompanied by only Hindi, Bhojpuri and Urdu languages. Dr Balkaransingh listed several other languages, including Punjabi that were spoken on the sugar plantations.

The proceedings of the conference at Columbia University will shortly be published. We congratulate Dr Khanderao and his team for organizing a great conference. We also extend our gratitude to the Yuva Chapter and Columbia University.

Further conferences will be organized and strategies developed to address the problems of Indo-Caribbeans.

Ravi Dev making his presentation


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.