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Indian slaves who brought prosperity and liberation to alien lands

Article from: Indian Express:, dated 27th June 2000

In search of gold we sailed to this land. Alas, our golden body melted away here'. The cathartic song of first generation 'Girmitias'-the name given to generations of Indians which was ''forced'' to leave the country in the middle and late 19th century to serve as laborers in the then British colonies where they eventually settled down- has echoed in the sugarcane fields, from Mauritius to Fiji and Trinidad to Natal, for more than a century.

Years of toiling by these people in their adopted countries has transformed barren lands into mines of golden crops, bringing prosperity and abundance for everyone-themselves, fellow African laborers and natives.

The Girmitias survived the ugly world of colonialisation but today, in the uglier world of ''invisible colonialism'', some of the fifth generation Girmitia children are still passing through an ''agnipariksha'' (tough time), more recently in Fiji.

An Indian Fijian poet-politician Satendra Nandan, expressing the sadness and helplessness of the community, said, ''yet homeless, nameless between earth-sky/a race without a place must forever die/uprooted transplanted lives grow in pain/to live, must their generation die again?''

The world 'Girmitia' was coined by Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, who called himself 'Pehla Girmitia' (first Girmitia), as a recognition of his fight for the cause of the community. ''Girmit is a corrupt form of the English world 'agreement'. The term cannot be dispensed with. An agreement under which thousands of laborers used to emigrate and still emigrate to Fiji, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana on contract for five years is known by the laborers and the employees as Girmit. A labor so emigrating under Girmit is a Girmitia.''

Dissecting the word, Gandhi said, ''Girmit is indeed a state of semi-slavery.''

In 1997, Dr Vasudeo Pandey, a Girmitia and the then prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, came on a pilgrimage of sorts of India to visit his ancestral village-Lakshmanpur in Azamgarh district of eastern Uttar Pradesh. In an emotional speech at Banaras Hindu University, where he was conferred with D. Lit., Honors Causa, Mr. Pandey said ''Lord Ram had to undergo 14 years banishment, our exile lasted 140 years.'' Gutka of Ramcharitmanas (hymns) was the main source of solace and inspiration to the Girmitias-- after a long day of toiling in the fields, one of the pandits among them would recite the chaupayees, reassuring fellow laborers that good would triumph over evil and Ramrajya (model governance) would be established even in that alien land, one day.

Vasudeo Pandey is only one among many esteemed political leaders of erstwhile colonial countries where Indians organized themselves and fought against colonialism and later worked for nation-building, together with African laborers and native people.

Sir Shivsagar Ramgoolam, Mr. Kashimuttinlk Chhedi Jagan and recently Mahendra Chaudhry led their people to overcome colonialism, thus ensuring a better future for them.

Girmitia children actually excelled in every field-from-politics to sports and literature to popular culture.

Sir Vidiadar S Naipaul is arguably the most famous Girmitia child, establishing himself as the greatest living writer in English language. Strangely, he never visited eastern UP, the land of his ancestors, of course, his father Surajprasad sent his daughter Kamla to study in Banaras Hindu University in the 1950s as, if to forge a cultural relationship with the Bhojpuri land.

V.S. Naipaul, a Brahmin from nowhere, searches India every where-from Majaphit in Indonesia to the palace of Cyrus in Iran, from frontier province in Pakistan to a Malayk village in Malaysia.

Recently Sir Vidia, in an interview, disclosed that the family had tried to locate their ancestral village which was somewhere near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh but the search was not successful.

In the Caribbean countries, Indian community produced the finest of players and sportsmen. Rohan Kanhai, Alivan Kalicharan, Chanderpaul and Shravan were and are the strength of the West Indian cricket team.

Vijay Singh of Fiji is among the top ten golf players in the world.

Perhaps hard labor, success, enterpreneurship were not sufficient enough to overcome the legacy of discord and racial differences left by the British colonialists in these countries.

Mr. Vasudeo Pandey narrated how colonialists ruled in his country by dividing the people.'' the British rulers taught natives and Africans that they were the ' sons of the soil', while Indians were foreigners. To Indians they said- ''look at these Africans and natives. They are the descendants of Rakshas Ravana,'' Dr Pandey told the BHU audience.

According to newspaper reports, when Dr Pandey was to take oath as the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, he expressed his desire to swear by the Bhagavad-Gita but there was not a single copy of the Hindu holy book in the otherwise rich presidential library.

In the recent decades the Indian communities in the erstwhile colonies have been witnessing a resurgence- politically and culturally. In Caribbean countries, the Indian community celebrated on a large scale the 150th anniversary of the arrival of first Girmitia group there. The 500th anniversary of famous saint poet Goswami Tulsidas was also celebrated in every major city in Caribbean countries.

District authorities in eastern Uttar Pradesh receive many inquiries from Girmitia children for help in locating villages or towns of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the records of Girmitia laborers are not explicit and unavailable in many cases. But whenever some success is achieved the Girmitia children celebrated and make it a point to visit the place.

NB: In Mauritius, the most common term used is "indentured labour"