Only memory of the oppressed can defeat colonial ideology

Gopal Krishna is an activist and associated with ToxicsWatch Alliance, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), IMOWatch, MediaVigil & WaterWatch Alliance. He is also researching the corporate crimes in India after Independence. He can be contacted at krishna2777[at]

Gopal Krishna
Gopal Krishna

“The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.” Eduardo Galeano‘s book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent sounds like it is the story of the Indian sub-continent. The story of the indentured labourers and coolies is the story India’s open veins and arteries.

As Girmit Remembrance Day (14 May) is commemorated recollecting the departure of Indian indentured labourers and coolies at least since 1879, 22 years after 1857, can it be hoped that our ‘decolonized’ state will conserve, restore and manage its natural resources and desist from imitating a cannibalistic model of development that forces people to migrate and become wage slaves? The illiterate workers transliterated the word ‘agreement’ in contract as ‘Girmit’ and ‘Girmitya’.Girmitiya

The famines of 1873 and 1896-7 took its toll because of excessive land-revenue demands and export of foodgrains. They have been referred to as ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’. The money needed to combat famine was diverted towards British military effort in Afghanistan. After that the East India Company of British royalty laid the foundation of its rule by defeating the Indians by deceit and treachery at Plassey and Buxer as lands came under company control, the “violent” land tax was raised fivefold — from 10 per cent to up to 50 per cent of the value of the agricultural produce. The hoarding of food grains was banned. The food crops made way for opium poppy cultivation for export to countries like China. The farmers were made to grow indigo instead of rice. This reduced food availability. The company facilitated establishment of monopolies in grain trading. This led to a catastrophic famine.

The control of Indian affairs was complete by 1857, “India became a dependency” of British King Emperor and “she passed under British guardianship” as per British records. But India had become ‘dependent’ long before the formal declaration. As a consequence British government’s market policies had a field day resulting in famines. Advocating Macaulayism, British India Viceroy Lord Chelmsford revealed the plot in his speech while inaugurating the new Indian legislature, consisting of the council of state and the legislative assembly at Delhi on February 9, 1921 after ‘the glorious imperial half century’.  It was in these glorious years that after the abolition of slavery by Britain that Indians left their homeland as in answer to the need of many former slave-plantation colonies for labour that was cheap and plentiful. From 1830 until 1920 the recruitment of Indians in India to work on the various plantations was organised through what became known as the indenture system.  It was engineered through a licensed recruiter or “Kangani” who used lure people away from their homes with promises of a bright future in the colonies. The journeys were long, for example, that from Patna or Benares to Calcutta took thirty to forty days. They were forced to march till the Indian emigration depots under supervision of the licensed recruiter.

In pre census era estimates about the number of migrants from India remains uncertain. A total of about 3,42,575 were sent from Calcutta during the period 1830-70 with emigrants drawn from Bihar and other north Indian states. These migrants went to Fiji, the West Indies, Mauritius, British Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and other places.  Before 1870 about 17 to 20 per cent of the labourers died before they reached their destination. The whole indentured labour system and the Indian Diaspora were indeed the consequences of British exploitation. Our ‘decolonized’ state is yet to realize that it cannot comprehend its identity without situating itself in the historical context of indenture system at least since early 18th century. The state needs a blueprint to ensure that situations of famine, displacement, migration and humiliation do not arise in future.

When Bihar likes Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, who visited Bhelupur in the Buxar district of Bihar in January 2012, it cannot forget that her great grandfather Ram Lakhan Mishra was compelled to migrate as a Girmitiya labourer to Trinidad and Tobago, then a British colony in the Caribbean islands in 1889. It cannot feign ignorance or remain callous about the economic policies that lead to such migrations. There has been internal migration as well and their records in census data.

As “we the people”, there is no alternative to learning from at least last 300 years of impoverishment and subjugation of Indians.  The central and state legislatures and governments ought to make a concerted effort to reach out to those who left and are leaving for other countries in unfortunate circumstances. The lessons they learnt on their voyage away from their roots since then must be recorded for posterity.

It is quite visible that in the last few centuries the plight of migrant workers from places like Raxaul, Narkatiaganj, Betia, Sugauli, Motihari, Chakia, Darbhanga, Madhubani, Jaynagar, Nirmali, Farbisganj, Munger, Purnea, Saharsa, Begusarai, Araria, Sitamarhi, Vaishali, Chhapara, Gopalganj , Ara and Buxar in Bihar and Ballia, Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Basti, Banda, Gorakhpur, Sultanpur, Gonda, and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh remains wedded to history of misery and exploitation. In colonial times they took long ships and now they take long distance trains to work as workers on contract “agreement” or even as casual labourer sans any social security.

Within the country the kind of racist assault migrant workers face in states like Maharashtra and in other non-Hindi speaking parts of the country merits sensitive engagement with political imagination. There appears to be a political consensus in adoption of development fundamentalism as an ideology which is creating an ideal situation for forced displacement and migration in its myopia and after doing that indulges in victim blaming with colonial cruelty.

“Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors” observed  Jean-Paul Sartre in  The Wretched of the Earth.  It must be realized that those attempt to naturalize the existing colonial system are on the side of the oppressors.  

Indeed all history is contemporary history.  It cannot be forgotten that indentured labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh are still being sent to far off places both within the country and outside the country. How can it be forgotten that words, gestures and looks we use and we have inherited us so that they can express themselves through us.  It is deeply tragic commentary on sensitivity that those in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in particular who seem to have forgotten all about the Girmityas. But those who were forced to adopt and live in foreign lands carry the emotional pangs of separation.  The memories of history of one’s own community and family have been overwhelmed by manufactured history of the dynasties of all ilk. This needs to retrieved for waging the continued struggle of memory against forgetfulness before it is too late.

There is nothing to celebrate about indenture; it is an occasion to resolve to reconstruct the untold history by back tracing the roots and struggling to claim it and own it.  The phenomena of Girmit system is a product of colonization both by internal and external forces.  Therefore, Girmit Remembrance Day must not get reduced to a routine affair, it must face those economic forces and ideologies that will have us believe that colonial language, education, dress and culture that has been adopted is a natural phenomena.  This naturalization of cognitive and physical exploitation can only be resisted if in the words of Howard Zinn the author of A People’s History of the United States, historical memory is seen as a weapon.     

It cannot be forgotten that decolonization struggle is not over as yet. It has to continue till the time the existing imperial architecture of dialogues with fellow beings across historical times is made rootless to ensure that the disadvantaged and the aggrieved are not compelled to leave their homeland ever again. The defeat of the oppressed is not final as long as their memory is intact.

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