End of Indentureship (Pt 1)

By Ravi Dev

Some would treat the end of Indentureship as analogous to the Emancipation of enslaved Africans. Nothing could be further from the reality. While the lived experience of the indentured Indians was unquestionably brutal, they were not chattel, and possessed rights even though cribbed by contract and ordinances. Most critically, each indentured had his or her indentureship ended at the end of his or her stipulated indentureship period. Even though many of them might have been misled on several details of indentureship, the indentureds, in almost all cases, were affirmatively attempting to escape the abysmal conditions created by British rule of India. At all times, the indentured had the contractual right to a return passage to India, even though, towards the end, males had to pay one-half and women one-third of the passage.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale

It’s an interesting footnote that the end of Indian Indentureship had its genesis in the politics of India, rather than any struggle in the countries to which Indians had been shipped since 1834. The governments of those colonies were all heavily influenced by their sugar planters, who desperately wanted an uninterrupted supply of indentureds in order to continue giving them depressing wages. In fact, after immigration ended in British Guiana in 1917, the Government and planters sent a delegation of Guianese-Indian leaders to India to solicit support for a new scheme to supply cheap labour.

In India, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been formed in 1885, by British and Indian members of the Theosophical Society, to encourage “dialogue” between “educated” Indians and the Indian Government. According to an 1832 policy enunciated by Macaulay, the “education” promised to create “brown Englishmen”. The graduates assumed they would be treated like white Englishmen individually, and collectively as members of the British Empire. Consequently, they soon argued for “Swaraj” for India along the lines accorded to Australia and South Africa.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak

The gap between the promise and the reality, however, precipitated a split of the INC in 1905, between “Moderates” led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who continued to “believe”, and “Extremists” led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who didn’t. Indentured Indians entered the picture through the back door when Gandhi – a protégé of Gokhale, who had gone as a lawyer to South Africa in 1893 in the employ of some Gujarati merchants — was unceremoniously kicked off a train for believing he could travel first class like whites. In the end, it was his work in South Africa that brought the plight of the indentured in the British colonies to the consciousness of the Indian nationalists in India. Promised that Indians eventually would be British citizens in the British Empire if they cooperated with British rule in India, they were stung when the “free” Indian merchants and professionals were treated like the “coolies”.
This forced the end of indentureship as much to salved their own pride in ending its inequities.