By Annan Boodram
“In recognition and remembrance of Indian Indentured Labourers: 19th – 20th centuries”, India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) is working with the Ministry of Culture, the Port Trust and Government of West Bengal towards finalizing the date and logistics for the installation of a commemorative plaque, dubbed the Kolkata Memorial. The plan is for the installation to take place on January 11, 2011 at the Kidderpore (Demerara) Depot Clock Tower at 14 Garden Reach, Kolkata. This would be followed by second phase project aimed at acquiring land in Kolkata for a museum and resource center containing records of Indian indentured laborers’ emigration (1834 –1920), literature, works of art, documentaries, films, artifacts, photographs and emigration records relevant to that era and those who left as indentured laborers.
As a number of commentators and scholars have pointed out, until this initiative, this episode of Indian history has been more or less ignored by the history books of India, an incomprehensible attitude given that a great deal of the original documentation exists in archives in Calcutta and Bombay, and the India Office Library of the British Archives (UK).
So while the objective for the memorial plaque to reflect the sentiments of “honoured tribute, with due recognition, gratitude and lasting remembrance of all those who left these shores from 1834 – 1920 as Indian indentured labourers to far away lands seeking better livelihoods for themselves and their descendants” is quite commendable, one may want to ask to what end this belated commemoration.
Does the Government of India plan to take an active interest in the welfare of the descendants of indentured laborers wherever they currently reside; to perhaps agitate on their behalf and give voice to their plights and concerns? Will there be a concerted, ongoing effort to assist these Diaspora communities to continue to maintain and pass on the spirit of Indianess to their descendants amidst the growing pressures of acculturation and deculturation in an increasingly global village? Is there any planned campaign to foster their preservation of sense of origin, traditions, culture and religion, and their promotion of the Indian culture?
The simple reality is that there is so much that needs to be done, including but not restricted to the building of museums to record and preserve for posterity the artifacts and memorabilia that symbolize this Indianess and the funding (including increasing the numbers of scholarships) of efforts to foster the culture and art forms – dance, music, signing, language, drama, writing.
Until quite recently, various aspects of the history and conditions of the system of Indian indentureship, especially in the Caribbean have been told from perspectives other than those of the Indians themselves. Guyanese born, the late Dwarka Nauth, historian Dr. Basdeo Mangroo, writers David and Cyril Dabydeen and poet Sasenarine Singh are among the handful who undertook/have undertaken the journey of claiming ownership through their research, documentation and creativity.. So too has Guyanese American Rohit Jagessar via his feature film Guiana 1838. Does the government of Indian plan to encourage and foster such scholarly and creative endeavors in order to redress the current imbalance and historical inaccuracy? Will there be a decided increase in fellowships and residencies et al offered to members of the Indian Diaspora communities? Are there going to be increasing efforts to encourage conferences and related fora, focusing on the Indian Diaspora (descendants of Indentured Laborers), rather than NRIs or direct descendents of those who voluntary migrated from India over the last century or so?
So that the Kolkata Memorial not be deemed a mere token, one would indeed hope that it marks the beginning of this journey of fostering reconnection, reculturation, revival, recording and reclamation.