Commemorating Indian Arrival in Trinidad: mapping migration, gender, culture and politics in the Indian diaspora


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Commemorating Indian Arrival in Trinidad: mapping migration, gender, culture and politics in the Indian diaspora
   Commemorating Indian Arrival in Trinidad: mapping migration, gender, culture and politics in the Indian diaspora    Kalpana Kannabiran    Economic and Political Weekly , Vol. 33 No. 44, October 31-November 6, 1998, pp. WS 53-WS 57. Introduction This paper began as a reflection on what the terms communalism and religious fundamentalism mean; what are the contextually specific ways in which “communalism” gets played out; would a radical difference in context pale into insignificance against the weight of manifestations of a cultural ethos that are similar, comparable or continuous on the surface? Or, is it on the other hand necessary to go beyond surface similarities and attempt to understand realities and correspondences without losing sight of historical specificities? These questions arose in the course of a six week visit to Trinidad to dialogue with East Indian groups on the issue of domestic violence. It is necessary to clarify at the outset however, that my own location in the work that I did in Trinidad was complex. As also my interaction with Hindu/Indian communities there. The complexity had largely to do with the ways in which Hindu religious belief and  practice intersected with everyday life, and the forms which the discourse on the mainland [India] took. The difficult moment of that complexity that I found myself trying to negotiate constantly was the way in which I, a Hindu Indian woman from India was “placed” in relation to the larger historical relationship of the people with the mainland/motherland. Yet another twist to this complexity was the fact that I was in Trinidad at the invitation of a women’s group that consisted primarily of women of African srcin, with the stated purpose of furthering an inter ethnic dialogue on women’s rights, especially on the problem of domestic violence in the Indian community. To  problematise the issue of Hindutva in the course of this work was far from easy and most    times not accepted. The other contentious issue that is foregrounded in this entire discourse on the identity of the diaspora is that of cultural citizenship. There has been in the past decade a spate of writing on religious fundamentalism, more specifically on Hindu nationalism both in India and the diaspora. There are groups in the United Kingdom the United States of America and elsewhere particularly fighting the  polarisation of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in the wake of Operation Bluestar, Babri Masjid and the increasing violence against minorities and Dalits in India. There are also groups of immigrants in these countries who support and host events featuring the BJP-RSS, or pro Khalistan groups. Clearly therefore, there is a live link between the mainland and the diaspora, both in the arenas of fundamentalist politics and democratic resistance to this politics. And resistance has been integrally multi-cultural and anti-racist, not stopping at being anti fundamentalist/anti communal. 1  However, the UK and the USA have very different diasporic histories than for instance, Fiji, Surinam, Trinidad, Guyana or South Africa. The latter have a history of giving birth in a sense, to the Indian diaspora. Unlike the UK and the USA, whose history begins post Partition, these countries have a history that dates back one hundred and fifty years - to the period of British colonialism. This stark difference in historical location, it appears, accounts for the very different terms in which racism is experienced by different groups. One living in/fighting racism in the 1970s, another inheriting a history of indentureship to white plantation owners, having replaced peoples of African srcin on the plantations at the end of slavery, thus inheriting a racial polarisation on both sides. Again unlike Britain where the Indian family is barely 20 years old, 2  the Indian family in Trinidad is 150 years old. There are written histories of indentureship, and of the East Indian community in Trinidad. A cursory look at the contemporary experience of these two communities is very similar despite these critical differences in historical experience. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has a flourishing network that embraces both realities. The cry of Hindu nationalism is getting increasingly strident across these regions and somewhere along the way the    difference fades away. As one takes a closer look, however, the difference takes shape yet again. From the standpoint of popular consciousness in the mainland, immigrant communities in the UK, the USA and Canada are tied to images of affluence, of achievement and have a high recall in the minds of the middle and upper classes across communities in India. Trinidad and countries with similar histories on the other hand do not have this recall. The reasons for this are to be sought not just in the fact that migration took place more than a century ago, but also, and more importantly, because the migrants belonged primarily to the lower castes/classes and marginalised sections 3 . This low recall is to be seen in the context of unequal reciprocity, where imagining India constitutes the core of Indo [Hindu] Trinidadian consciousness. The relationship between diasporas and the mainland therefore are uneven and unequal to begin with. Although there has been a globalisation of Hindu nationalism, the specificities of contemporary cultural assertion are significant. Contexualising Indian Arrival The experience of the English speaking Caribbean has been shaped by histories of slavery and indentureship. “they came in ships. From across the seas, they came. Britain, colonising India, transporting her chains from Chota Nagpur and the Ganges Plain.” Some came with dreams of milk-and-honey riches, fleeing famine and death; dancing girls, Rajput soldiers, determined, tall, escaping penalty of pride. Stolen wives, afraid and despondent, Crossing black waters, Brahmin, Chammar, alike, hearts brimful of hope.”  Mahadai Das, “They came in Ships ”. 4  Having come to Trinidad, however, a significant proportion of the Indian population chose to remain in Trinidad after indentureship rather than be repatriated to India. Between 1870 and 1900, the Indian community in Trinidad was transformed from a    group of immigrants into a community. This process involved the shift of Indians from immigrant wage labour into peasant proprietorship, from estates into villages and a reordering of social relationships in ways that were congruent with this shift. Mohammed argues that ethnicity and gender identity were interlocked in the affirmation of this emerging Indian community. 5  The fear of fragmenting identities and the concern over the need for ethnic purity inevitably took the form of prescriptive norms for marriage, which again depended on a policing of women’s sexuality. Mohammed suggests that while patriarchal systems governed each of the three racial groupings – the white, creole and Indian, these systems were constantly contending with one another for economic, political and social dominance, “the contest was for a definition of masculinity  between men of different races.”  6  Indian men who had been demeaned during indentureship and dispossessed of the power that classic patriarchy invested in them, sought to retrieve their masculine pride through a consolidation of the traditional Indian  patriarchal system that formed the basis of their cultural capital. However, given the shortage of Indian women in Trinidad and the fact of women being wage earners, Indian women were in a position of relative strength, and resisted emerging interpretations of  patriarchy, or the restrictions that sprang from this newly reconstituted ideology. 7  The East Indian community in Trinidad is not an internally homogenous one. Presbyterians, Muslims and Hindus constitute the dominant religious groups, each with very different perceptions of their own locations in Trinidadian society and in the larger South Asian diaspora. It has been suggested that after Partition some Muslims traced their srcins to the newly formed Pakistan. Hindus in Trinidad also contend that Muslims today distance themselves from their Indian past and link themselves increasingly to Pan Islamic trends in Central Asia, the illustration being cited of the absence of any commemoration of Indian Arrival during the Eid celebrations in 1995. Clearly this is a contentious issue as several Muslims still identify with India both in terms of self description and collaboration. Presbyterians define themselves as representing a resistance to Hindu orthodoxy, the primary tension between them and Hindus being on the issue of conversion. Hindus across the board identify very strongly with India, not  just as the motherland but as the religious centre of Hinduism. In linking with India, the     primary bond is with Benaras and the Ganges. India is imagined by Trinidadian Hindus as a Hindu nation, the sacred motherland of the Hindu people. 8  Within Trinidad, there is a gradual shift in Hindu self perception from a religious group within a larger ethnic community, to a religio-ethnic community, race and religion being key determinants in this shift. One of the ways in which this shift is being consolidated is through the training of popular culture into specific modes. This paper will examine the reconstruction of the history of the East Indian Hindu community at a particular moment, and present the texture of the reconstruction as also its context: 1995, the year that marked the 150 th  anniversary of Indian Arrival in Trinidad, and the Pichakaree [a musical event] organised on Phagwa by the Hindu Prachar Kendra to commemorate Indian Arrival in 1995. Indian Arrival: Reliving 150 years  “De itihaas dey say, started in Bharat, Coolie jaaji bandal on de Fatel Razack, Ramayan Koran jhandee for new teerath” 9  Much of the commemorative writing that marked 1995 had to do with reminiscences of arrival by survivors who were honored on the occasion, and a collective recall of the  journey from India. Undoubtedly, economic hardship as well as personal troubles caused thousands of Indians in the villages to leave. The key players in the indentureship system were the recruiters or arkatias who convinced, duped and kidnapped people who eventually found themselves on the ship to Trinidad. 10  “  Jahaaji ”, by Mukesh Babooram recaptures the experience of the  jahaaji : “In India where I was born, life was hard. An arkatia came and told me, come to Trinidad. All the people here were told, that the streets were paved with gold and once we reached over there our problems will disappear.  Now that we are all on this ship, and we sailing out to sea, The arkatia come and tell me: we are all bong coolies.
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