Indenture system ended a century ago, but Indians still face racism in British colonies

The Indian indentured labour system enforced by the British empire, in the mid nineteenth century led to the displacement of close to 3.5 million Indians to other colonies of the British for meeting with labour requirements there. (Wikimedia Commons) The Indian indentured labour system enforced by the British empire, in the mid nineteenth century led to the displacement of close to 3.5 million Indians to other colonies of the British for meeting with labour requirements there. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Growing up, my connection with India was fairly abstract. It was only through Bollywood and religion and the fact that there were segregated housing and schooling for Indians,” says Brij Maharaj, a third generation immigrant to South Africa. Maharaj’s grandfather had moved to Tongaat, South Africa at the age of 16, to work as an indentured labourer on sugar estates there. His family started prospering when the indentured labour system of the British regime was banned by the beginning of the 20th century and his grandfather procured some land. His father and uncle later moved to Dublin where he along with his siblings were brought up in an atmosphere that marked them apart from the whites and the indigenous population.

Maharaj is currently engaged in conducting research on the nature of the Indian indentured labour system enforced by the British empire, in the mid nineteenth century that led to the displacement of close to 3.5 million Indians to other colonies of the British for meeting with labour requirements there. The hardships and discrimination faced by the Indian community in places like South Africa, Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji and several others have been documented by several historians, sociologists and writers of popular literature such as Amitav Gosh and Nathacha Appanah.

In March 2017, India completed 100 years of the end of the indentured labour system. (Wikimedia Commons) In March 2017, India completed 100 years of the end of the indentured labour system. (Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, India celebrated 100 years of end of the Indentured labour system that took place in March 1917. As part of the commemoration, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in collaboration with the “Becoming coolies” project organised a two-days conference to dwell upon the nature of the Indian indentured system. Attended by prominent scholars on the subject like Dr. Andrea Major, Dr. Crispin Bates and Dr. Satnarine Balkaransingh among others, the conference discussed issues of racial discrimination and identity formation faced by Indians and the struggle for ending the institutionalised form of labour dispensation, that a large number of scholars have equated to slavery.

The system that started soon after slavery was abolished in 1833, required Indians to sign a legal agreement stating the consent to move abroad for a minimum of five years to work mainly on sugar estates. Incidentally, the nature of the recruitment was such that only those from the lowest castes and poor economic backgrounds were approached for the practice and the famines that had taken place in the recent past were ideal justifications framed by the British to persuade Indians to look for opportunity abroad. However, the miserable conditions in the sugar estates and the conflicts with both the white community there and the indigenous population soon led to widescale protests against the colonial government.

The system that started soon after slavery was abolished in 1833, required Indians to sign a legal agreement stating the consent to move abroad for a minimum of five years to work mainly on sugar estates. (Pinterest/ Romola Lucas) The system that started soon after slavery was abolished in 1833, required Indians to sign a legal agreement stating the consent to move abroad for a minimum of five years to work mainly on sugar estates. (Pinterest/ Romola Lucas)

The nationalist battle to end indenture

The origins of the movement to end the indenture labour system lay in fact, not in the concern for the labourers, but rather for the discrimination faced by wealthier Indians, particularly from Gujarat, Bombay and Madras who moved to these colonies later to make a fortune as traders. The biggest proponent in this regard was Mahatma Gandhi whose 1906 satyagraha campaign in South Africa marked the beginning of the struggle against British rule in India.

However, when Gandhi started his campaign, his priority was to fight against the Natal Assembly Bill passed to disenfranchise Indians. As penned down by professor Aushutosh Kumar, “though Gandhi’s campaign against such acts of the South African government was indirectly related to indenture as well but it was not until 1913 that he showed his concern towards indentured Indians.” In fact as pointed out by Kumar, Gandhi’s speeches showed that he himself had a derogatory attitude towards the indentured labourers, who were colloquially often referred to as coolies.

Gandhi in South Africa (Wikimedia Commons) Gandhi in South Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1901, while Gandhi addressed the issue of racism faced by Indians in South Africa, he came up with the following argument: “I may tell you that all the Indians, no matter who they may be, are classes as a coolie. If our worthy president [D.E.Wacha] were to go to South Africa, I am afraid; he too will class as

a ‘coolie’.”

It was only when Gandhi and the Congress realised that their efforts were not resulting in equal treatment of free Indians that they decided to attack the indenture system, which they believed would be a drain out on the colonial economy.

Accompanying Gandhi’s call against racism were a large number of movements against the labour system that propped in India by the second decade of the 20th century. Kumar noted that the formation of the anti-indenture emigration league in Bengal, Bihar and UP “made colonial officials anxious as the league was analogous of ánti-slavery society’ of Britain, which was responsible for the abolition of slavery from British empire.” The pamphlets written by members of the league along with first person accounts of labourers stationed in sugar estates abroad were freely circulated around India by the 20th century, that resulted in bringing public notice to the plight of the immigrants. A pamphlet produced by an anti-indenture leader in Muzaffarpur read the following and had been reproduced by Kumar in his work:

“ESCAPE FROM DECEIVERS.

ESCAPE FROM THE DEPOT PEOPLE

BEWARE ! BEWARE ! BEWARE !

It is not service. It is woe.

Don’t fall in to their snare. They will ruin you.

You will weep your life along.

Instead of rupees, rubbish will fall (on you).

They are taking you across the sea!

To Mauritius, to Demerara, to Fiji, to Jamaica, to Trinidad,

to Honduras.

They are not islands; they are hell.”

Finally on March 20, 1916 Madan Mohan Malviya moved a resolution in the Indian Legislative Council for the abolition of the indenture system. While the British government accepted the resolution and formally banned the system in 1917, migration for indentured labour went on till at least the third decade of the 20th century. The last ship carrying indentured labourers arrived in Mauritius in 1924.

The indentured labour community in present times

Ironically, despite the fact that it was the indian indentured labour system that initiated the nationalist uprising against the British, it was not until the 1990s that the Indian government tried to regain its contact with the succeeding generation of Indian Indentured labourers in order to attract investments. According to Brij Maharaj, “the history of Indian indentureship reminds India of a less sophisticated past.” “Until 1990s, the Indian community in South Africa did not know what paneer was,” says Maharaj as he explains that the descendants of the labourers have a very abstract connection with India.

“whenever we talk about indenture, we talk about loss. But it is also a discourse of a new and changed identity.” (Wikimedia Commons) “whenever we talk about indenture, we talk about loss. But it is also a discourse of a new and changed identity.” (Wikimedia Commons)

While on one hand the connection with their native country is patchy, on the other hand the relation with the indigenous population in these countries have been equally strenuous. In 2002, a song written by Zulu playwright, Mbongeni Ngema, called AmaNdiya (the Indians) came under attack for spreading hatred towards Indians in South Africa. In 2014, a similar song was composed by the African rap group, AmaCde, urging Indians to go back to their own country. The same year in Dublin, the government had decided to tear down the Warwick market that was the workplace of a large number of Indian traders. When Indians protested against the decision, politicians came out with speeches declaring alarmingly anti-Indian sentiments. In Fiji as well Anti-Indian sentiments have been forming a contentious issue in elections held in the recent past.

On a brighter note though, one has to acknowledge the creation of a multi-cultural identity among the descendants who are a product of the cultural integration of the Indians, British and the natives of their host country. As noted by economist and playwright, Dr. Satnarine Balkaransingh, “whenever we talk about indenture, we talk about loss. But it is also a discourse of a new and changed identity.”

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