Book Title: THE INDENTURED AND THEIR ROUTE: A RELENTLESS QUEST FOR IDENTITY
Author: Bhaswati Mukherjee
Bhaswati Mukherjee’s ‘The Indentured and their Route: A Relentless Quest for Identity’ delves into the origins and impact of the indentured system introduced in British colonies after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. Slaves provided the labour force for the sugar plantations in Mauritius, the Caribbean island countries and Guyana. Once slavery was done away with, a new form of servitude was needed to ensure that the plantation owners had a regular supply of docile and obedient human beings who could be exploited. The indentured system performed that function. While it met the requirements of the colonialists, it ruined the lives of the millions who left Indian shores almost never to return.
Mukherjee competently goes into the different aspects of the system and its colossal injustice to the people who were ensnared to cross the oceans. They were often victims of complete deceit but were always kept ignorant of the conditions in which they would be working. Their first shock began with the voyages to the colonies sometimes in ships used in the slave trade. Some perished during the journeys, which also made the observance of their social customs impossible. But these voyages also led to creating new bonds which survived long after the voyages were over.
Those who survived and reached the plantations soon realised how miserable their lives had become as coolies. Mukherjee fully explores the humiliation and horrors of “coolitude”, which was part of the exploitation of the colonial system. Colonialism had caused the breakdown of traditional patterns of life and agriculture in India, leading to recurring famines and death. Ironically for the colonialists, the indentured system was good for those who left India because it provided an escape from the conditions prevailing in India! Such attitudes survive. As Mukherjee notes, a British ‘expert’ “tried to portray indenture as a pre-modern form of immigration so that Indians could leave behind their lives of poverty and destitution for a golden future”. This opinion was put forward in 2006 during a meeting of a UNESCO advisory body, which was considering Mauritius’ proposal to include Aapravasi Ghat on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
It is good that Mukherjee specially focuses on the lives of the women who went out as indentured labour. They suffered far more than men. Their characters were assailed by Indian men and also by their employers. Yet, despite all their suffering, these remarkable women were mainly responsible for ensuring that Indian cultural traditions survived and that the indentured did not lose their sense of identity.
Mukherjee also breaks new ground in considering the lives of Indians who went to the Reunion Islands, which was a French colony, and went through the French version of the indentured system. The scars left behind on their descendants still continue.
Fiji occupies a special place in the indentured system. It became a British colony in 1874 and was the last space to be covered by the system when Indian labour reached there in 1879. They suffered the indignities that others did elsewhere, but developed among themselves, despite the contradictions which naturally emerge among the exploited, a kindred spirit. This was facilitated by the development of a common language, ‘Fiji baat’, which was followed even by those who came from the southern parts of India. The iniquities of the indentured system were also brought to the attention of India by the conditions prevailing in Fiji. That led to a growing opposition to the system by Indian nationalists from the early years of the 20th century. It was finally abolished on January 1, 1920, but not without the opposition of the imperialists who wanted its end to await something to be put in its place. These die-hards did not succeed.
Today, UNESCO recognises that the indentured system was exploitative and demeaning. There are 26 UNESCO member states which are members of the ‘International Indentured Route’. Mukherjee correctly notes that it ‘complements’ the Slave Route. As India periodically celebrates the success of its diaspora, of which the descendants of the indentured labour are a part, it would be only fit that it constructs a remembrance monument in Delhi to those who were its victims. It would have been appropriate for Mukherjee to advocate this, especially because she has so correctly, though emotionally, dealt with the issue in her book which deserves a wide readership.