Perpetual bonds: Exploring Indian roots of Grimitiyas of Suriname

By Aashna Kanhai The grimitiyas, those who agreed to leave the British colony India, in the 19th century, have created a legacy of proud Indian origin populations across the Globe. Indian indentured labourers were taken to various parts of the colonial world. In the early 19th century the Bhojpuri Region was flourishing sugar cultivation and production region. After the abolition of slavery in the European colonies, there was a demand for cheap yet skilled agricultural labour. In the late 19th century, under an agreement between the British and the Dutch Governments, with the assistance of the East Indian Company, arkatiyas were deputed to recruit labourers from mainly the Bhojpuri region under an agreement of five years. Suriname, a Dutch colony in the northern part of South America is one such Caribbean country where British Indians were taken to and between 1873-1917 a total of 34.000 crossed the waters from the Ports in Kolkata to Suriname. The Consul of the Kingdom of the Netherlands rented a depot located at No.20 Garden Reach Calcutta Port, where many would stay for weeks before starting the two months-long journey by ship to a new homeland. The majority of the girmitiyas opted to stay after the expiration of the agreement in return for a plot of agricultural land and homestead land. Ironically, the economic rise of the Indo-Surinamese community was a consequence of World War I, as the prices of crops became high. The Indo-Surinamese farmers invested their profits in better education of their children, those children who were born on the soil of the Dutch colony. Having its own pace with decolonization, Surinames independence took place in 1975 and by then around one-third of the population consisted of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) actively engaging in movements of retaining the ancestral culture, traditions and languages. The emergence of Sarnami, a linguistic amalgamation of Bhojpuri, Awadhi and Maithili and continuation of social structures like Panchayat and Jamaat, have amongst others, perpetuated the bond with the land of origin. The government of India initiated serious relevance to PIOs under the leadership of former Prime Minister of India, the late Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, recognizing the PIOs as substantive parts of the populations of Caribbean countries. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) emerged as an event where statesmen (and women) with Indian roots are highly involved. India has introduced the very successful- Know India Program, for the descendants of the Indian Diaspora to visit the land of the ancestors for a few weeks and to get a real sense of the images they have in mind. My own expectations, met with reality when I stood at Suriname Ghaat, an old jetty at the Kolkata Port, in 2013 and sensed the possible image of my ancestors leaving the shores of Hindustan, taking with them a pair of dhotis or sarees and other small valuable possessions, not excluding a hookah pipe, which we still have kept in our family and a Golden Victoria Rupee, which is widely known in my country as mohar and is a traditional gift at weddings. Ramayan, Garud Puran and a Holy Quran were also taken along. In a journey of 2 months, one is very likely to establish fast friendships, and the jahaaji brother or -sister bonds are till date another extension of the familys blood relatives. With a positive belief in perpetual memories, the idea of a monument was born and in 2015, the Indian Government established the Baba and Mai Monument, in collaboration with the Government of Suriname, at Garden Reach, Kolkata Port, to commemorate the courage of the men and women who left to Suriname. Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) is another acclaimed initiative from the Indian Government to facilitate Indian Diaspora. In the Caribbean, the celebration of Diwali, Holi, Eid-Ul-Fitr and Bakri-Eid, are observed as National Holidays. In Suriname, the non-Indian origin communities, naturally participate in the festivities, making the Caribbean Holi a canvas of a mixture of many ethnic varieties dancing and cheering on a Baithak Gana or Chutney a version of Rangbarse from the eighties Bollywood starrer Silsila. Eid-Ul-Fitr prayers are being performed on the square of Independence, barring no one from joining the festivities. The roots speak, they dance, sing, and express themselves in thoughts and even political formations, yet the roots do not determine the identity of these fourth, fifth and in some cases even the sixth generation of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). Avoiding the blame of speaking from the heart, Phir Bhi Dil hai Suriname, I do think the outlook in a dialogue of preserving the Indian roots is very eminent. PIOs in the Caribbean strongly believe that they are citizens of their respective countries, recognizing Bharat as the land of their roots. They may or may not wish to be part of a Pan India ideology and at the same time preserve their ancestral heritage. (Author is a lawyer and currently the Ambassador of the Republic of Suriname to India. Views expressed are personal)