Why commemorate Indian Arrival Day?

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell.
The question has been implicitly and explicitly posed: Why commemorate “Indian Arrival Day?” The word “commemorate” means to mark out something extraordinary from the ordinary, so that it is remembered by society. While commemoration refers to historical events, it is less about history than “remembrance” and “collective memory”, which are part of the narratives of the people. What is important is the meaning we give to events or persons remembered for their impact on society.
The Irish, who are in the midst of a decade of commemorations, advise we should: 1) Start from the historical facts, 2) Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened. And 3) Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist, and show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period.
In a nutshell, such commemorations should be occasions for nation building by providing material for a national narrative. By starting with Indian Arrival Day, the gaze is shifted away from India as the sole focal point of the descendants of Indian Indentureds to the new land in which the decision was made to remain in Guyana. “Arrival” confirms their decision to establish roots in this new land…roots that originated in India, but would be adapted to their new circumstances.
Indian Arrival Day emphasises their new nationalism: “We have arrived at our country and all that it means – equal rights as well as responsibilities”. Indian Arrival Day might have been a reaction to a refusal by some to concede to the Indian Indentured descendants what Trinidad’s National Motto promises: “Where every creed and race MUST HAVE an equal place.” They were brought here to labour on the plantations, and they remained as citizens prepared to build their new country in which they had ARRIVED.
In Guyana, the first post-WWII public calls for recognition of Indian Arrival Day were made in the 1960s, when Dr Balwant Singh, who was a leader in the Gandhi Youth Organization, called for “Rama Khan Day” to be commemorated during the rising ethnic tensions. From the arrival records of the ship Hesperus, that landed the first Indentured Indians at Highbury, East Bank Berbice on May 5th 1838, he pointed out that the first Indian Indentured Immigrants to step onto Guyanese soil were Rama and Khan.
From a commemorative standpoint, Indian Arrival is certainly a historical event that, while some may differ on specifics, all agree that it has had a most extraordinary impact on Guyanese society, not only in in terms of remembrance, but for helping to create a more diverse society. In 1938, the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) had initiated the first commemoration of the event on its CENTENARY with week-long activities in Georgetown and several other locales. This was during the Great Depression, and the Indian presence and ambitions were being questioned by others in the society.
The BGEIA Chairman, Charles Ramkissoon Jacob, offered six reasons for what the organisers unabashedly declared a “celebration”: You will note that, by starting with Arrival, their gaze had shifted away from India as the sole focal point to the new lands in which three quarters of the 239,000 arrivals had decided to remain. After the 1938 celebrations, only 2 ships, with a total of 556 immigrants, returned to India, the last in 1955. It is a matter of historical record that many of them expressed a desire to return to British Guiana, and some actually did.
The six reasons CR Jacob offered were: that Indians had 1) saved the sugar industry from ruin; 2) established a rice industry; 3) “contributed very largely to every phase of industrial activity”; 4) “are found in every walk of life,”; 5) had “made good progress”; and finally and quite pertinently concluded,
6) they “have held our own against all sections of the community.”
Today, there is no need to justify commemorating Indian Arrival Day: their contributions speak for themselves.