Honour the sanctity of contract on Indian Immigration Fund

Dear Editor,
Reference is made to missives from Dr Tara Singh (Sep 9) and Ravi Dev (Sep 10) on the expropriated Indian Immigration Fund (IIF). No Government has authority to seize money of an organisation even if is for national public purposes (the public good). One would, therefore, expect that the Government will make haste in returning the large amount of money (a couple billions in today’s value) expropriated (confiscated) in 1971 from the Indian Immigration Fund (IIF) established in the 1800s to build the (Forbes Burnham) National Cultural Centre in Georgetown. The Fund was an act of contract and the sanctity of a contract must never be violated. The money must be returned to the IIF.
The Fund was set up by contract between the indentured laborers of India (girmityas) and the White British planters in the 1800s for the repatriation of the indentured Indians who completed their contract to their homeland. It was part of a contract for their servitude labour on the White plantocracy with the girmityas paying a portion of the cost of the return trip from their contracted pay into the Fund. The colonial state was the guarantor of the contract. The money was to be used to pay for passage of those who wished to return to their homeland. The last of the indentured Indians who wanted to return to their motherland did so in 1955. There was surplus in the amount of some $825,000 by 1971 as Dr Tara Singh stated (SN Sep 8). In today’s current US dollar term, it would be some US$14.7M. ($825,000 divided by $1.98 which was the US$ exchange rate in 1971 equivalent of $416,667 compounded annually for inflation at an average 3.96% and an average rate of return of 3%). Two eminent Guyanese economists affirmed the above calculations.
The girmityas laboured on the plantations under horrific conditions. The White planters knew the Indians had a limited life span on the fields for between five and ten years as indentured slaves and as such exploited productivity from them to the hilt. The sugar estates (and their barons) became very profitable, enriching the companies located in the UK. Many of the indentured died on the plantations and therefore their portion of the fund was not utilised. Some two-thirds of the other indentured laborers remained on the plantations and as such also did not access the fund for a planned return journey home. The one-way trip was some 12 British pounds and ideally should have been given to the indentured who remained behind or to the families of those who died. The amount of unused money added up to a handsome amount (noted above) that would make any individual or company be considered very wealthy, the equivalent of a multi-millionaire in American dollar terms. The surplus or unused funds belonged exclusively to the girmityas and their descendants, Indian Guyanese at home and the more than million dispersed in the diaspora. Several girmityas were still alive in 1971, and they were consulted on what should be done with the Fund. A committee comprising of leaders of major Indian cultural organisations met and decided that the Fund would be used to assist surviving girmityas who faced difficulties and for construction of regional cultural centres that would also serve as Indian museums focusing on the lives of the pioneering girmityas. The Fund was budgeted accordingly.
The Fund could not be disbursed as intended and the centres constructed because of the political problems in the country during the 1950s and 1960s. The focus was on socio-economic stability and physical safety. The 1950s saw the polarisation of the nation by race followed by social upheaval (race riots, strikes, arson, looting, Wismar Massacre of Indians, etc) during the 1960s. This was followed by further political instability coming out of the 1968 election rigging; the rigging sealed the fate of the Fund as Burnham became all powerful and lorded over all aspects of society. By the end of 1970, Burnham exercised total control of the society – complete control over cultural institutions, the executive branch, the Parliament, Judiciary, and abolishing the Privy Council; there could be no challenge to him. His eye was on the Indian Immigrant Fund (IIF) at a time when the country was short of money to build facilities for CARIFESTA (1972) to which he had committed to Caribbean Heads years earlier. He announced his intention to confiscate the Fund to build a national cultural centre. The Indian political and cultural leadership opposed the move. Dr Balwant Singh and Mohammed Insanally. Yacoob Ally, Reepudaman Persaud, Jainarine Singh, MGO, Dharmic Sabha, Islamic Org, among other legitimate representatives were very critical of Burnham’s stated intention on the use of the Fund. Some who were with Burnham politically and publicly supported his confiscation of the Fund expressed opposition in private. They were afraid of the consequences of publicly opposing Burnham. The Indian leadership supported the idea of a national cultural centre but opposed the expropriation of the Indian Fund to construct it. They, including Dr Jagan, urged Burnham to use State funds to build his national cultural centre and leave the Indian people money untouched. The leaders of Indian organisations that opposed Burnham’s plan on the Indian Immigration Fund were victimised and terrorised. Some, including the famous Dr Balwant Singh (who was at one time Burnham’s ally), were brought up on contrived criminal charges in the court. A court challenge to Burnham’s use of the fund was out of the question as he used the arms of the State against anyone who opposed him. The unilateral illegal abrogation of judicial appeals to the Privy Council sealed the fate of the Fund as no independent court appeals to be launched against Burnham and his actions.
Expropriation of the Fund was an illegal act. It was, as Balwant Singh and other Indian leaders stated at the time, a criminal act against a people. An act perceived to be criminal or illegal and committed against a group of people, as was the act of confiscation of the Indian Immigration fund, has no statute of limitation in law as has been illustrated in the case of crimes against Jews and other genocidal actions against other people. The UN has no statute of limitation against these kinds of crimes. Crimes against, including confiscation of money from, Jewish people as occurred during the 1930s and 1940s are still being prosecuted till this day and companies, individuals, governments are engaging in reparative justice.
The Indian Immigration Fund should not have been expropriated and the act was a crime against a people. It was done by an authoritarian leader and his Government coercing decision making. The Burnham state could not unilaterally abrogate the contract under intimidation and threat to life in 1971. The sanctity of the contract entered into between the indentured and the planters during the 1800s must be honoured. With the country now in transition to democracy, there must be restorative justice – the total amount in today’s value of the fund must be returned to the Indian people for them to decide on its usage.

Yours sincerely,
Vishnu Bisram