5 June marks the immigration of Hindostani people to Suriname. A day on which we are taken back to the past when our ancestors left India to an unknown destination. Nevertheless, they decided to step aboard the ship that would take them to the plantations in Suriname where they had to work on the basis of a five-year contract. There are different opinions about whether the departure was (entirely) voluntary or not and whether we should therefore celebrate this day or commemorate it in mourning. As is often the case, it is not necessarily one or the other; it is also possible to do both. We often see that when a person dies, their life is celebrated, even though the loss is cause for grief.
No one would deny that the system of so-called indentured labour had elements of slavery in disguise and as such cannot be applauded. On the other hand, I think we do not do justice to the resilience of our ancestors if we only zoom in on their misery, ignoring what they achieved despite the hardship. The system also offered them opportunities. Opportunities to save, to own land, to educate their children. Opportunities they seized, and which enabled the Hindostani group to work its way up to become one of the most important population groups in Suriname. It is therefore understandable that, on a day like 5 June, people look back on this with due pride.
Despite the progress achieved, we often see that Hindostani are characterised as modest, submissive, not activist and even cowardly. They allow themselves to be overruled by others with a bigger mouth and fighting spirit. In politics, it seemed obvious until recently that they always play second fiddle. Some still like to see them pushed into a corner as a ‘coolie’. I was once even called a ‘euro coolie’ by a shopkeeper in Paramaribo, because I had told him that he had sold me a rotten product. Because of my unexpected assertiveness, I was labelled ‘euro’. Speaking of stereotyping, my mother had already warned me not to expect to get any money back from that ‘stingy Lebanese’.
There were also unpleasant experiences with Indians who looked down on the descendants of indentured labourers. I am thinking of Indian business people in Suriname who formed their own community and felt superior to those ‘backward Hindostanis with their village customs’. I was therefore very happy once to hear how my mother put an Indian acquaintance straight who was denigrating the Hindostani marriage tradition. While that woman was bragging about modern marriages in Delhi and other cities in India, my mother remarked that in Suriname, even in the remote areas, there was no bride-burning because of a disappointing dowry. Something that did happen in Delhi, for instance.
I myself once experienced the behaviour of the then Indian judge at the International Court of Justice, whom I met in Leiden at a meeting of an international law debating society. He approached me enthusiastically for a chat. However, when I told him that I came from Suriname, where my (great) grandparents had settled after their contract had expired, I saw him freeze. He did not know how quickly he had to end the conversation. I saw him look my way a few times afterwards, but well, I was unworthy of his company. I was disappointed that someone of his caliber could not escape the ját-pát system where the caste of a fellow human determines the contact.
We have seen that in the early 2000s, the Indian government instituted the Pravāsī bhāratīya divas on 9 January, a day specially dedicated to the Indian diaspora, including the descendants of the then British-Indian indentured labourers. Moreover, on 25 November 2017, on the occasion of Suriname’s Independence Day, the Mai-Baap Memorial was unveiled in Kolkata at the spot from where the ships left for Suriname (Suriname Ghat).
Now, after almost 150 years, a Hindostani president has entered into a five-year ‘political contract’ in Suriname. The work to be done is heavy, very heavy. In addition, the conditions are miserable, apart from the corona crisis. The big mouth of the previous president and his outdated anti-colonial activism have not brought any progress to the country. On the contrary, mismanagement and blatant corruption have left the country burdened with a huge debt. It is now up to the current government and citizens to work very hard for meagre wages. Those who thought to dismiss the current president as a ‘coolie’ should realise that the previous president, who –mind you- was convicted of multiple murder, declared the whole nation to be coolies, as it were. For it is only through hard work and virtues such as frugality and thrift by which the indentured labourers had worked their way up that the country will be pulled out of the swamp. I hope that in the not too distant future, it will be possible to look back with due pride on the joint efforts.