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Indians enslaved: Remembering a pernicious history of organised labour through cultural events

A hundred years ago, in March 1917, a pernicious system of organised labour came to an end. The indenture system under which Indian men, women and children were contracted to work as agricultural labour in distant colonies was abolished in 1917 after a long agitation in India. The Indian indenture system was the largest organized migration of its time. From 1835 to 1917, over a million Indians were taken to British, French and Dutch colonies and put to work.

Representational photo. Wikimedia commons

Representational photo. Wikimedia commons

Descendants of those indentured workers are now marking the centenary of the abolition of indenture with conferences, literary discussions, diasporic film festivals and cultural events in countries as far apart as Trinidad, Guyana and Fiji. The commemorations will continue through the month of March and April. Last year, the Girmit Centennial Committee organized a commemorative function to mark the arrival of the last indenture ship, Sutlej V to Fiji in November 1916.

According to professor Mauritz Hassan of the University of Suriname, most of the descendants of indentured workers hold annual Indian Arrival Day events. “The commemorative functions are a remembrance of our ancestors and the years of hardship and struggle.” While, the indentured supplied cheap labour for the imperial colonies, for them it was a time of dislocation, alienation and suffering.

Hugh Ticker, in his authoritative work on indenture called it “a new form of slavery”. Indentured workers were bound over for five years, provided free passage and low wages and worked in conditions of semi-slavery with harsh punishments. The workers were known as girmityas, for the indenture agreement or contracts that they signed.

Transplanted across the world, ridiculed for their religious and cultural practices, and placed at the lowest strata of society, indenture was a dehumanising experience for the workers; the girmitiyas described their indenture time as “narak” (hell). With the end of their indenture contract, the workers had to restore their dignity, rebuild their lives and make a living in the colony without any kind of assistance.

The system of indenture was adopted by the British to provide cheap labour for their plantation colonies after slavery was abolished. The plantation economies in the new colonies thrived on slave labour, but slavery had become anathema to the liberal conscience in England and it was eventually abolished in 1833. As the slaves were freed, the plantations went into decline and the planters looked to other sources of cheap labour. Indians were chosen as they were good agriculturists.

Each colony entered into an agreement with the British Government to recruit Indian workers, and appointed an emigration agent to supervise the recruitment process. Licensed recruiters were appointed who hired local men to look for prospective emigrants; these arkatiyas as they were known used all kind of wiles to entice young men and women.

Each recruit signed or more often put a thumb print on the ‘contract of indenture’. Few knew the stringent conditions of the contract, including the penal punishments for not meeting the provisions. Naïve villagers were lured with glowing visions, some were deceived and others entrapped into accepting the contract. Some believed that they were going to work for a few months. Many of them did not know that they were going beyond the seas to a foreign land; they were led to believe that their destination was just some distance away.

It was when the migrants boarded the ships that they realised the enormity of their decision. The sea was frightening and all familiar social rules and values were set aside on board the ship. But worse was to follow when they reached the colony. Migrants were allotted to different plantations; their usual occupations were ignored and all migrants were set to work according to the supervisor’s decision.

Slavery had ended but many of its conditions were retained on the plantations. Indentured workers were housed in the same barracks. Migrants were not allowed to leave the plantation for fear of arrest, allotted tasks had to be completed in time or face fines or even physical punishment with no redressal of grievances. Supervisors frequently resorted to over-tasking and fining workers. Conditions on the plantations were harsh, sometimes even brutal. Indentured workers suffered from malaria, yaws, hookworm and other tropical diseases in the cramped, unsanitary quarters with little medical care.

While the indenture system lasted from 1834 to 1917, public sentiment in India was against indenture. Gopal Krishna Gokhale moved a resolution in the Legislative Council on 25 February, 1910 for the prohibition on indenture recruitment. On 4 March, 1912 Gokhale moved a resolution in the Governor General’s Council where he spoke of the criminal penal laws, the high death rates on board the ships, and suicides and murders, and situation of women. The resolution was defeated, but Gokhale and the nationalists vowed to keep up the pressure on the government.

Two organisations, the Arya Samaj and the Marwari community of Calcutta actively took up took the campaign against indenture. They printed pamphlets, set up offices and gave lectures at the main recruiting centres to dissuade new recruits. Trains carrying indentured workers were raided and recruits persuaded to flee the clutches of the arkatiyas. The movement against indenture was the first major campaign that spread through the country. Public anger mounted as newspapers like Swarajya, Leader of Allahabad and other publications carried articles on the suffering of the indentured workers.

When Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya brought a resolution against indenture on March 2016, the government agreed to end indenture after those already recruited were sent to the colonies.

At the end of their indenture contract, the workers were free to leave the plantation and find a way to make a living on their own. They found work as market gardeners, farmers, barbers, carpenters, jewellers, peddlers, and farm workers. By sheer determination and perseverance, the girmitiyas made a home for themselves in the new lands, struggling against discrimination and disdain to create a place in society. '

The descendants of those pioneers are well assimilated and are an intrinsic part of the countries in which they reside. As Fiji’s President Jioji Konrote said, the girmit story was not confined to one community but was “an inspirational chapter of the story of the development of our nation as a whole.”

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2017 19:49 PM

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