Girmityas are best remembered by connectivity

Sir Anand Satyanand – 

For nearly a century, people from India travelled by ship to Mauritius, South Africa, Malaysia, Fiji and notably the Caribbean, essentially to work in the sugar industry, harvesting, cutting and processing sugar cane for eventual shipment, mainly to England and more latterly to other European destinations.

We meet here in Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean, a hugely significant place for indentured labourers for upwards of 70 years.

We meet in comparably delightful surroundings of the National Council of Indian Culture of Trinidad and Tobago today, resembling in decoration and dress and atmosphere, an occasion that could well be in India itself, although that country is half way around the globe from here.

People from India are here as well as some from South Africa and other places.

I myself am from the Pacific, from New Zealand with direct linkages to Fiji.

Stress and Struggle

I want to pause for a moment to reflect on the struggle and difficulties undergone by the Girmityas so far as their recruitment was concerned within India and so far as their conditions of work were concerned in so many places, including Trinidad and Tobago.  Their resistance and resilience and faith in education and advancement have produced all of those of us who are able and willing to acknowledge their past.

I would like to think that they would be proud of what has been achieved by the subsequent generations in terms of education, advancement and participation in the governance of the countries in which they were so downtrodden.

To Fiji and beyond

My precise place to stand among the several hundred of you here, is that I am the grandson and great-grandson of four Girmityas who made that kind of journey from India to Fiji, two in the early 1880s and two in the early 1900s.

My maternal forebears Chalakdas and Tilakdas were recruited from Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh and went to Fiji from Kolkata aboard the vessel Berar in 1882.

They worked out their indenture in the sugar fields and chose to remain thereafter in Fiji, eventually taking up business and residing in Suva.

My mother was the youngest child of Tillak as the family name became and his wife Sumintra. My paternal grandparents, Mutyala Sriraman and his wife Kanthamma came from Rajahmundry in today’s Andhra Pradesh and went to Fiji from Madras aboard the vessel Sutlej II arriving in Fiji in October 1911.

My grandfather was a young man who spoke Telugu and knew Tamil, Malayalam and English. He saw the opportunity to use the Girmityas to join the colonial government as an interpreter in the civil service for people before the courts. To do this, he needed to add the Fiji baat, the amalgam of Hindi, Bhojpuri and other languages that the Fiji Girmitya community devised for itself.

He spent a whole lifetime in that kind of role. My father Mutyala Satyanand was their only son and in time he went to New Zealand for study eventually qualifying as a doctor, marrying and staying in New Zealand.

My father and mother married in New Zealand and had two sons of whom I am the elder.

Advantage New Zealand

I have been fortunate to enjoy the benefits of a New Zealand education and subsequent professional life as a lawyer, judge and ombudsman.

Our family has always been proud to acknowledge its Girmityas background and we have maintained links to the present day with our cousins in Fiji or in other places to which migration has taken place such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

I want to make three points about us gathering together over these three days.

The first is to say that we do so as a matter of respect for the hard work and suffering of those people, which was sustained for so long, before pressure came to be applied for its cessation.

The second is the opportunity for those present to be able to share their experiences of what has happened since, and to gain insights from each other.

India’s new approach

The third is to observe that the Indian government has in the time since 2000 adopted a new approach towards people of Indian origin living in many countries of the world.  There are between 20 and 30 million of these people, some who have been born and lived in India before migrating – those who are called Non-Resident Indians (NRIs).

Then there are those who have never lived in India but whose parents or grandparents and more may have come from there, who wish to maintain the connection.  These people are termed People of Indian Origin (PIOs).

Over the past decade or more, the Indian government has developed means of encouraging these Indians to visit the mother country as tourists, to seek out ways of connecting with where they were from, to appraise the new India and its capability and to consider investment and even dual citizenship.

To draw all of this together, I am pleased to observe that the organisers have expended considerable effort to bring together scholars from India, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, as well as the Caribbean, to spend two full days in an academic conference presenting papers and engaging in discussions.

Those discussions and the printed and broadcast output of this Convention will be a resource for the future and be something from which our children and grandchildren will benefit.

The Challenge

It is mention of children that leads me to the final aspect of my address which is to express a challenge. We have been entertained by the singing and dancing of young people who presented, with charm and confidence, their interpretation of their ‘Indian ness.’

This Conference has an obligation to that new generation.

There is also a challenge for another group to be acknowledged, that is those of Indian origin, who despite the years of advancement are still in struggling circumstances.

A number of us are able to afford to travel from our respective countries to India and to travel to the Caribbean to enjoy what I have referred to in address.

But there are many who are not in that position. They also need our consideration and attention.

The final words I leave, quoting the pen of a man regarded by many in the Pacific as the pre-eminent historian and writer about Girmityas, Professor Brij Lal, Emeritus Professor of The Australian National University and an Honorary Professor of the University of Queensland. He is a Fellow of the Australian Humanities Academy, an Officer of the Order of Fiji and a Member of the Order of Australia. He has published widely on the history of Indian indenture and on the history and culture of the Indian diaspora. Among his many books is Chalo Jahaji: On a journey of indenture in Fiji (Suva: Fiji Museum, 2000).

Professor Lal has written of a need for balance in the Girmitya discourse, expressed in the following terms: – “Girmit history is…. in the danger of passing from the domain of reasoned discourse into the realm of heritage studies, as a subject for veneration and reverence. Once derided as damaged people, flotsam and jetsam of humanity, Girmityas are now portrayed as men and women who were noble and courageous, without blemish or blame, victims of unremitting, systematic violence (some of it perpetrated by Indians themselves: sirdars, the lynchpin of the system, were Indian).

“To characterise them as people who participated in the making of their own history, who had agency, who had all the faults and foibles of the normal human character, is to risk being labelled heartless and condescending. The new popular narrative brooks no debate, no criticism. Minds are made up; they should not be confused with facts. This won’t do. We should also resist the temptation to turn the story of Girmit into a serviceable ideology of grief and grievance deployed for various political purposes. Girmityas are gone. We honour their memory but we must steadfastly continue the search for the fundamental truth of their experience. We owe them at least that much.”

Sir Anand Satyanand is former Governor-General of New Zealand. The above was his address to the delegates attending the Indian Diaspora World Convention at the Indian Diaspora World Convention at Chaguanas, Trinidad & Tobago on March 17, 2017. The four-day Convention commemorated the 100th Anniversary of the end of Indentureship of labourers from India to various parts of the world.


Photo Caption:

  1. Sir Anand Satyanand speaking at the Convention
  2. Sir Anand and Lady Susan Satyanand with (from left) Deo Gosine (Trinidad), Dr Deokinand Sharma (Trinidad), Ishwar Ralutchman (South Africa), Ashook Ramsaran (USA), Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo (Guyana), Ms Sita Nagamootoo (Guyana), Brenda Hood (Minister of Culture, Grenada) and Professor Anand Anesh (USA)
    Sir Anand and Lady Susan Satyanand with Ena Maraj (President, GOPIO International Trinidad & Tobago Chapter) and Deo Gosine, Managing Director, Labdico Port Services Limited, Trinidad.
  3. The Commemorative Stone at Saith Park in Chaguanas, Trinidad & Tobago

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