The first “Indians”

Tonight, the inaugural event kicking off a month-long series of activities to mark the “100th Anniversary of the End of Indian Indentureship” kicks off at the National Cultural Centre at 19:00h (7pm). A historic THIRTEEN groups from the Indian Guyanese Community have come together to host the joint event.
It is reminiscent of the struggle in the Indian Parliament during 1916 to pass a resolution calling upon the British Parliament to end indentureship, when the sparring factions of the Indian National Congress – the “Radicals” and the “Moderates” together with the departed Muslim League – joined hands on the issue. On March 12, 1917, Governor General of India, Hardinge ordered the immediate cessation of all recruitment and shipping of Indian indentured labour. Except for a few hundred returnees over the next four years, when the official end of indentureship ended on January 1, 1920, with all contracts expiring then, that was it for indentured labourers.
Congress had picked up the issue because over in Natal, South Africa, the whites – especially the Afrikaans section – insisted on treating ALL persons from India as second class – indentured and non-indentured – and not having rights accorded to whites. This infuriated professional Indians like Gandhi who had been hired as an attorney by some wealthy Gujarati merchants who had freely emigrated as “citizens” of the British Empire with all the rights and privileges of such status. Or so they thought.
After being thrown off the first-class section of a train in favour of a white, Gandhi began to make common cause with the indentureds of Natal and brought their ill-treatment to the attention of the head of the Moderate faction of  the INC – Gokhale. The status of indentured Indians in the colonies thus helped to awaken the Indian elite to the hypocrisy of British pretences of full citizenship for her colonial subjects, after a period of “tutelage”. The issue also helped to bring together not only the ideological factions of Congress but the regional blocks that were even more entrenched.
In Guyana, on the other hand, by the turn of the century, that lesson had long been imbibed by the immigrants whose indenturship had expired and had decided to remain in Guyana: they were all defined as “Indians” and were treated uniformly with contempt by the authorities and others in the society. The divisions of regions (10 per cent were from Madras Presidency in the South and the remainder from United Provinces in the North); caste (the net cast by recruiters had brought a representative sample of North India) and religion (also representative of North India between Hindu and Muslim) had become attenuated.
The hardships of the two-month long passage from India had combined with the “total institution” of the plantation to create a new identity which was affirmed by the census category of “East Indians. But it was not just an external designation – combined with profound “internal” changes” that served to solidify their “Indian” group identity ahead of an analogous process in India.
Mandirs and Masjids had been built from as early as 1870, but especially with the Hindus who were less uniform and rigorous with their practices, there were many “adaptations” such as weekly “satsanghs” on their one day off on Sundays with a “Pandit” functioning much as Christian priests did. “Creole English”, learnt from the ex-slaves who remained on the plantations, had become the dominant lingua franca. Women had become more equal with men in the home than in India, since they earned wages like the former outside of the home.
Christian proselytisation did not have much success by the end of Indentureship – but a beachhead had been formed that would widen rapidly with the increased exposure to western education which was conducted solely in Church-run schools. That education had produced the first medical doctor and lawyer and while the urban segment was a mere 7000 compared to more than one hundred thousand in the rural areas, at least half of the latter were living outside the “loges” surrounding the sugar factory.
In 1916, members of their incipient elite launched the “British Guiana East Indian Association” to secure their interests. This was the beginning of the use of their new group identity to solidify their place in their new country.