To commemorate the 180th anniversary of the day when the first Indian indentured labourer set foot on its shores, the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Mauritius had organised a week long event that had many facets to it. These began with an official commemoration ceremony on the 2nd of November with India’s Minister for External and Overseas Indian Affairs Smt. Sushma Swaraj as the Chief Guest, followed by an interactive business forum on the next day, which provided the ideal platform to discuss investment opportunities between the two nations. An international three-day conference organised by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund was also held at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Moka between the 3rd and 5th of November, on the theme ‘Towards the Establishment of the International Indenture Labour Route.’ Other activities included a Hindi and Bhojpuri festival, cultural extravaganzas by Indian, Mauritian and Caribbean artistes, and the inauguration of the Beekrumsing Ramallah Museum. An NRI Achievers team was present in Mauritius to feature the island nation during that time, which brings you this report on key events that took place during the week-long celebrations.
Indians first arrived in Mauritius during French rule in the 1700s, from Pondicherry (now Puducheri) as artisansmainly masons and joiners – to teach their craft to the Mauritians who were then mostly slaves from Africa. On Nov 2, 1834, the first Indian indentured labourer set foot on Mauritius soil during the British reign, and that day is commemorated as a public holiday in remembrance of this pivotal event. Many, who arrived to work on the plantations, were from Bihar, Bengal and Gujarat, and stayed on. many of the Tamils, though, returned to their homeland after a few years, and this led to the growth of the dominant Hindi-speaking community. On Nov 2 this year, the Ministry of Arts and Culture in Mauritius had organised the 180th commemoration of Indian indentured labour in Mauritius. During the weeklong event, local and foreign delegates participated on various activities, attended conferences and seminars where they shared their papers on Indian indentured labour locally and abroad. India’s Minister for External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs, Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, was the Chief Guest at the official ceremony that preceded the celebrations. She had, among other things, announced that the People of Indian Origin visa for Indo-Mauritians will be extended for life. Fifth-generation Indian Gopalla Nayakan said: “This visa extension will encourage more Indo-Mauritians to travel to India to retrace our roots.”
Minister Swaraj also participated in an interactive business forum on 3rd November. The Mauritius Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regional Integration and International Trade, Dr Arvin Boolell and Ms Swaraj also held detailed discussions and consultations on how to broaden the scope of bilateral cooperation between India and Mauritius, and to explore new facets of the partnership. Minister Swaraj assured Mauritius of Indian support in infrastructure development. According to a news agency, the minister conveyed to top leaders, including President Purryag and PM Ramgoolam, that India would not take any decisions that may “adversely impact” bilateral ties, and amendments to the bilateral tax treaty would be made only after considering the legitimate interests of both sides. Minister Swaraj, who was on a three-day visit to Mauritius, while delivering her address at a programme commemorating the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labour in Mauritius, surprised the audience by starting her address in Bhojpuri, drawing a massive round of applause from the audience. The event was attended by Mauritian President Rajkeswur Purryag, Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam and Swaraj’s counterpart Arvin Boolell. “The commemoration of the day of arrival of the indentured labourers from India is an occasion for grateful remembrance as well as introspection. By remembering the historic date of November 2, 1834, we pay tribute to all those resilient ancestors who landed on the shores of this rainbow island from India and other parts of the world. Through their toil and tears, sweat and sacrifice, they enabled later gen – erations to live in comfort and security,” Swaraj said. “The success of Mauritius embodies the triumph of the principles that are so precious to India – democracy, rule of law, tolerance, social harmony and human enterprise. You have consistently ranked very high in various indices of human development, be it governance, standard of living or economic competitiveness. Mauritian society is a model of peaceful, democratic, vibrant and pluralistic mosaic of ethnicities, religions, and languages, which others around the world can follow to their advantage,” Swaraj added.
In his address, the Prime Minister of Mauritius emphasised that arrival day was a yearly opportunity to acknowledge our existential root, tracing the journey of the indentured labour from India to Mauritius after the abolition of slavery in 1834. He paid tribute to those unsung heroes who through perseverance, resilience and fortitude contributed significantly to make Mauritius country what it is today. Indentured labourers were treated like slaves, stated Dr. Ramgoolam, but they persevered because they had an indomitable spirit to overcome all obstacles. He recalled that the country was built by immigrants from different continents, but they have all worked together for the prosperity of Mauritius. “We have travelled a long way and achieved much, but this road has no end,” said the Prime Minister. “We must continue to strive for a better life and rise up to the challenges of this changed, globalised world. We must unite our efforts so that we can unleash the full potential of all our people,” he added. It was but barely a month or so ago on the 31st of October 2014 that UNESCO had green-signalled the establishment of an International Indentured Labour Route, a project that has been led by Mauritius and having within its ambit 26 countries that have been destinations for indentured labourers in the past. The project is also intended to complement the existing Slave Route Project, due to inherent synergies that exist between both. According to the UNESCO document, the highlights of this Labour Route will contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of the movement of millions of peoples and cultures in that age; throw light on the global transformations and culture interactions that has resulted from this history; and contribute to a culture of peace by promoting reflection on culture pluralism, inter-cultural dialogue, sustainable development and peace. UNESCO states that the Route will aim to ‘connect people, to foster research on indenture, disseminate information on Inden tured labour as an international phenomenon and also to set up collaborative programmes that will promote the history of Indentured labour worldwide.’ The three-day International Indentured Labour Route Conference focussed on aiming to discuss the strategies to adopt on to further the implementation of the project, and it’s financing with the assistance of UNESCO and Member States. The conference was flagged off by the Minister of Arts & Culture of Mauritius, Mookhesswur Choonee. India’s Minister of External and Overseas Indian Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, was the Chief Guest, and other eminent personalities present included the Special Representative of the People’s Republic of China on African Affairs, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua and others. Minister Choonee, in his address, highlighted that the Indentured Labour Route Project symbolises the story of more than 2.2 million people mostly from India, sent as indentured labour to some 26 countries in various parts of the world. He was of the view that the Project would contribute handsomely to the Slave Route Project as well, since both relate to the mass movement of people across continents. An international database on Indentured Labour, accessible worldwide, is also to be set up as part of the project. This database would disseminate information about this majoristorical event and contribute towards building greater understanding and cooperation among peoples.
Mauritius, as initiator of the project and the only country hosting a World Heritage Site linked to Indentured Labour, the Aapravasi Ghat, is now home to the project secretariat at the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund under the aegis of UNESCO. The Secretariat will coordinate the conduct of research and document the indenture experience in Mauritius and in other countries where the system existed, and set up national as well as international links with other countries. The need of the day is a roadmap for the future, and this goes hand in hand with the establishment of an international scientific committee to elaborate a plan of action that could be implemented with the help of the Secretariat. Minister Sushma Swaraj, for her part, stated that indentured labours forged and shaped the destinies of their new homelands through their hard work and perseverance. Today, their descendants continue to make sterling contributions to modern society in all conceivable fields, embodying the ideals of their ancestors. The arrival of these brave people from India, she averred, was much more than the mere transportation of a group of labourers to an unknown land, it was a profound transfusion of the very pluralistic soul of India and her cultural heritage. This heritage is found alive in all its colours to this very day in Mauritius and other countries on the Indentured Labour Route, she said. The story of the Indentured Labour Route deserves to be studied, narrated and heard, in a more complete, systematic and scientific manner. This Project, she added, would provide a platform and act as a catalyst to bring together researchers and scholars from around the world for conducting research and documentation on hitherto unknown aspects of the global indenture experience. It would also lead to the preservation and promotion of important sites and places of memory associated with the Indenture system, as well as finding expression for the intangible cultural and artistic expressions borne out of this chapter of world history. Mauritius was the first and largest recipient of indentured labour from India, and is home to the Aapravasi Ghat, a spiritual and emotional shrine to the memory of these brave souls, Mrs. Swaraj stated. For her, India’s relationship with Mauritius is truly unique and extraordinary, and is anchored in the metaphorical footsteps imprinted on the sixteen steps of the Aapravasi Ghat by the first Indians that landed there 180 years ago. “India is extremely proud of its Diaspora around the world, and its achievements in various fields be it political, economic, scientific, or cultural. From Ebene to Silicon Valley, the Indian Diaspora has made valuable contributions to the socioeconomic fabric of their adopted countries.
We also believe that the Indian Diaspora has much more to contribute to the building of modern India,” she concluded. The conference attracted participants from across the countries and territories that will dot the so-designated Indentured Labour Route, from host Mauritius of course, and India, the Reunion Island, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Uganda, St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Guyana, Fiji, Australia, the Netherlands, France and the UK. Numerous interesting and thought provoking papers and presentations abounded, emanating from the broad spectrum of delegates, who ranged from academia to professionals from various fields to historians, social scientists and people from behavioural sciences, art, culture and the media. Participants our team spoke to said that it was indeed fascinating to hear papers about indentured labourers (Indian and non-Indian) in places from St. Lucia to Fiji, from Reunion to Suriname. And it was great in particular to be able to listen to two presentations which showed that the legacy of indenture still has ramifications todayfrom the South Sea Islanders community’s experience in today’s Australia and female indentured workers in Sri Lanka. End of the day, as the conference wound to a close, what was clear was the pressing need for a more concerted, network intensive, ‘joined up’ thinking between the academics, activists, and other community professionals across the countries that were touched by 19th and early 20th century indenture.