Indians in Guyana, as a subset of indentured Indians who had been shipped to a score of countries starting in 1834, first came to the attention of the Indian public during the tail end of indentureship, at the beginning of the 20th century. Brought to the attention of the leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) by Gandhi, starting in 1901, resolutions to end the exporting of Indian citizens as if they were no different from commodities like rice and wheat found their way into the burgeoning press.
Ironically, what raised the ire of the middle-class members in the INC – many of whom were members of the Legislature of the Indian Government – was that in South Africa, according to Gandhi, even Indians who had arrived as merchants were derided as “coolies”, and treated accordingly.
The calls for abolition resounded first in South Africa, where indentureship was halted in 1911. The Indian Government also sent delegations to the other colonies to investigate the conditions of the Indian emigrants. By 1915, Indian indentureship was dominating the nationalist discourse in the Indian Legislature, public meetings, and their press.
In 1913, the story of Kunti and her narrow escape from being raped by an overseer on the plantations of Fiji seized the popular imagination after it was published in an Indian newspaper, Bhatat Mitra, as “The wails of a woman”. The Sanderson Commission Report of 1909, which included descriptions of indentureship in British Guiana, was published to “allay the rising opposition to oversee emigration which is beginning to manifest itself in India…”
By March 20, 1917, when indentureship was abolished, the issue had faded from the attention of the Indian Legislators. As such, the Mac Neal and Chimanan Lal Report of 1924, which examined living conditions in the Caribbean and Fiji, barely caused a ripple in the Indian press. In Guyana, however, it caused quite a stir, and precipitated several reforms.
One very important newspaper from the Indian Diaspora was interestingly a banned, underground one, “Hindustani Gadar” – Indian Revolution – which was produced in San Francisco and circulated into Guyana by mail.
The other media that caused more substantive changes in Guyana and the Diaspora was the Indian Cinema, which produced its first movie in Bombay in 1913, launching the “Bollywood” phenomenon. The first Indian movie shown in the Caribbean was “Bala Joban”, in 1937. While we need to do the research for Guyana, anecdotal evidence indicates it also started our Bollywood wave, since cinemas were built here since the 1920s. This media influenced local and diasporic culture, practices, sensibilities, and even religious practices. With Bollywood movies being driven with playback songs, the latter moulded musical tastes in that community into the present. But we should know that Indian media was totally unidirectional, with not more than a handful of movies shot in the Caribbean (Right and the Wrong – 1969, and Anmol Bandhan – 1974) by Indian filmmakers.
In terms of press coverage, the Nehru Congress Government had declared that overseas Indians should focus on developing their new countries, and the overseas Indians faded totally from India’s public consciousness. The introduction of television in Guyana in the eighties opened up new vistas with Bollywood’s entry directly into homes, including by the new millennium Indian soap operas.
In the meantime, new emigration – from India to Britain after WWII, and to the US after their change in immigration laws in 1965 – increased exponentially. These highly educated and skilled emigrants, dubbed Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), set apart themselves from the 19th century indentured emigrants – called People of Indian Origin (PIOs). With their quickly accumulated wealth, they received heavy coverage in all Indian media, especially the Bollywood movies, which pandered to their lifestyles. This has reinforced the perception by Indian-Guyanese and other Diasporians that they are not recognised by India on an equal level – just as back in the days of indentureship with the Indian National Congress.
However, with the explosion of social media in the last few years, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an explosion in communication between India and the Diaspora, especially over platforms like Zoom. This has coincided with a new interest in the 19th century diaspora by the BJP Government starting in 1998, and has fed into Indian Academia. One hopes it is as subjects, and not objects.