Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Indentured Laborers - The First Non-Resident Indians

When we think of NRIs today, we probably largely think of wealthy movers and shakers like Lakshmi Mittal or Swaraj Paul or Bobby Jindal and the likes of them. a few will perhaps recall the many numbers of Indians who sweat it out in the Gulf countries and some others will recall the professionals – the doctors, the scientists and the IT professionals. But not many perhaps will think of the first NRIs as slaves or rather glorified slaves as the indentured laborers from India in a way were.

If you have read Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Sea of Poppies, you will know. In the 18th century, the labor needs of the rapidly expanding British Empire were met by the slave trade.This was opposed by Christian reformers like William Wilberforce in Britain and William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, tabled a motion in Parliament in 1792 to gradually abolish slavery. In 1807, the shipping of slaves to British colonies was forbidden and in 1808, the slave trade was prohibited. The gap in the labour market was filled by indentured labourers or contract labourers, and these came largely from india. Although these men( and some women); mostly from the cow belt of India and usually victims of political machinations as well as poverty and often both were treated marginally better than slaves, they too were permanently uprooted from their home lands which they would never see again. India was the source for the greatest number of indentured workers to the New World, and approximately 1.3 million individuals crossed the oceans under contracts of indenture.

As Amitav Ghosh’s book recounts, poverty, political upheaval, ecological disasters such as droughts, floods, and famines, and overcrowding were causing increased internal migration and large refugee populations. Conditions were often so bad that although many Indian communities were close-knit and, in some cases, migration overseas actually violated certain caste restrictions, many individuals often felt compelled to abandon their homes and families and seek employment in other areas of India or across the ocean in an effort to improve their situations

Many of the indentured labourers were convicts. Indian convicts transported out in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped settle and colonize the overseas European empires. Such workers filled a critical need for labor, playing an especially significant role in carrying out the building and infrastructure projects that were so critical to the institution and consolidation of the Empire. For instance, Indian convicts sent to Singapore built some of the finest colonial buildings here, including the St Andrews Cathedral and Government House. With the convicts came indentured labourers to provide manpower for the ports and railway, Sepoys and Sikh policemen, milkman, tailors and artisans, merchants and moneylenders

The end of indentured labour from India was actually decided through the intervention of the growing clout of the Indian nationalist movement; and it happened as later as in the earliest years of the 20th century- that is barely a hundred years ago. Curzon was the first Viceroy to India to actually consider the plight of the indentured labourer an issue and, although he often had to accept the commands of his superiors in England, he was staunch in pressing the issue and raising awareness. Gandhiji was also instrumental in bringing to light the racism and inequality suffered through the indenture system and low-paying labour. In fact 2016, just eight years away, will mark the centenary of the struggle spearheaded by Gandhiji against continued Indian indentureship from India to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Fiji and Mauritius, among several other countries, at the height of British colonialism, an event that might well go unrecognized in spite of the now institutionalized pravasi bharatiya divas observed every year.

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