By Stephen Kangal
March 07, 2012
Writing in her Sunday Guardian column of January 22, Ira Mathur a naturalized citizen of T&T but Indian, was born of military middle class parentage completely detached from the reach of the systems of Caribbean indenture-ship and slavery. She has unwittingly and falsely included herself as a victim of that system.
Ira is not one of the children of the indentures or the girmitiyas. Her parents never crossed the Kala Pani, nor cut canes in Caroni, nor lived in Caroni Barracks. She, therefore, cannot truly empathise with nor reflect the socio-cultural dynamics of indenture-ship. She demonstrates a total ignorance of the legacy of our ancestors in T&T and of their humble station in life in the famine, deprived and remote, inaccessible villages of the States of Bihar and UP during the period 1845 to 1917 from which the T&T girmitiyas originated.
Ms. Mathur proceeded to make the procedural error of classifying the indenture-ship and slavery systems of sugar-based guest workers in the Caribbean as being identical and to make the following psycho-cultural falsities and misleading generalizations:
- “…slavery and indentureship destroyed our most important resource. By stripping a people of dignity, separating families, coercing them to change religions, forcing them to neglect their native languages, forget their villages and cities by geographically cutting them off from their ancient histories and oral traditions we were virtually shorn of our humanity…”
- “… Powerless, dependent on hand outs, bereft of the soul of ancient civilisations, or oral traditions that could comfort us, make us self reliant, humanise us, we turned blank, harsh and empty giving us among the highest murder rates on the planet in a non warring country…”
- “… That there is not just grace in humility in that gesture, but economics that allowed the world’s largest democracy to break out of poverty through its ancient values of hard work, humility and sacrifice to become one of the most powerful in the world, then we will understand the true meaning of that gesture…”
- The real poverty we are battling now is the which stands poverty of the spirit ready to destroy us. We have to regain our humanity from somewhere. Why not here with a Prime Minister’s gesture?
I categorically object to her bungling and bundling of the two systems of labour because the wild conclusions she made did not apply to the system of indenture-ship that I know very well. I may not be able to speak for slavery with any authority. Nor can Ira.
The following is a summary of my response to this unfair, wholly erroneous and uninformed act of speculative journalism:
- T&T is both racially and socio-culturally not a homogenous society.
- The indenture experience and the ex-post facto reaction to the system of indenture-ship is not identical to that of the slavery experience.
- We did not lose our humanity anywhere because our “Africanness” and “Indiannness”(6,000 years of acculturation) is deeply embedded in our psyche.
- Ira being a high caste ex-patriate Indian domiciled in T&T (“shorn of our humanity”) would appear to claim to be a member of the two culturally different groups simultaneously although the minds and personalities of the indenture and the slave are fundamentally different. One is agricultural and the other service oriented; one is Hindu/Moslem and the other Christian.
- Slavery was harsher than indenture-ship that was regulated by contract and The Protector of the Immigrants.
- “the values of hard work, humility and sacrifice…” are part and parcel of the socio-cultural landscape of T&T and is not exclusive to India.
- There is cultural persistence in the Indian community of the Caribbean because colonialism could not have wiped it out.
- The Indian community is very self-reliant culturally and in the economic sphere.
- The high murder rate is not the product of a de-culturalised people who could be classified as zombies( “blank, harsh and empty…” and who have no ancestral memory. It is drug and gang-related.
- People were not allegedly deprived of their humanity by indentureship and slavery and we do not need to regain what we did not lose. Our humanity and spirit are what drove us to be the progressive people we are today.
- Indians have practiced the goar lagay ritual continuously even after they came to T&T and for 167 years on a daily basis and we have not lost our spirit nor humanity. We also are very proud of the legacy of hard agricultural work, sacrifice, thrift and humility bequeathed to us by our pitris on the bases of which we have attained social and economic mobility and broken the chains of poverty that stalked us not only here but in the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from whence our pitris fled from famine and starvation in search of the better life while these same villages remain today fossilized in poverty and penury although they have the same values of thrift and hard-work but exposed to the caste system and marginalization.
- The indentures perceived their advent to the Caribbean, although not as harsh as what they left behind in UP/Bihar, as a divine instrument for their advancement in life (Mission to the Caribbean”) and kept in touch with their ancestral villages because thousands returned (20%) and came back in subsequent voyages. Today thousands have traced their roots and keep in touch with their ancestral villages.
- Indians were not shorn of their links with their ancient history because the Ramayan written by Sant Tulsi Das and other books including the Koran were in their proverbial jahajee bandles and this persistent ancestral connection was serviced via the films, visits of swamis, visits to India, ancient books, the Indian High Commission since the 1950’s etc.
There is no poverty of the spirit in T&T because we are basically a God-fearing society that never lost its humanity because neither the Spanish nor the French nor the British had the superior capacity to play God and strip us of what they never had control over and to whom the indentures felt that they were culturally superior. The Indians were never the hand-out class and built every institution by the sweat of their brows because they were outside of the corridors of power dominated by the black – urban educated elites who imitated the Anglo-whites in every possible detail, form and fashion but more fashion that led Naipaul to refer to them as “mimic men”.
- The ritual of the goar lagay cannot restore our humanity because we never lost it in the first instance. The inhumane indenture-ship system of treatment will have made us stronger and more determined to succeed against adversity and overwhelming odds and that is the platform for our success today as a society. The goar lagay is a cosmetic ritual that is neither here nor there because it is a custom and cannot usher in any fundamental change. It is like shaking hands or giving the namastay greeting.