Distinguished Guests; New Delhi
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I welcome you all to this Conference on "Changing Identities, Shifting Trends and Roles” which focuses specially on Girmitya countries.
It has been over a century since the indentured or contract labour also called Girmits was officially abolished. The system has its own vivid and trying history rooted in the British colonialism, which took Indians to far away places as indentured labour under the guise of ‘voluntary’ recruitment. This labour contract was dubbed as Girmit and the descendants of such population therefore are popularly called Girmityas. Such descendants who stayed back in those lands became the significant parts of Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Jamaica, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia, South Africa and to a lesser extent in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and a few other countries.
Under the indentured system, which lasted for one hundred years, Indians were exported by ship first somewhere around early nineteenth century, to work as plantation workers in British colonies. The estimates are that about 1.2 million Indians were relocated to 19 colonies, though the numbers vary due to poor documentation. Many recruits were also used in construction industry particularly on the East coast of Africa. The working conditions in plantations and other locations were poor and there was widespread disease and high mortality rate. Indians were also discriminated by the locals and were looked down upon because of their culture and family traditions. Those who survived the journey and five or ten years of contract period, either returned to India or chose to stay back by setting up their own businesses or having a farmland. Because of the inhuman conditions under which these labourers worked, there was much criticism of the indentured system. Mahatma Gandhiji, who had witnessed the plight of these labourers in South Africa, was a vocal critique. The system was officially abolished by British Government in 1917.
However, by then there was sizeable number of erstwhile Indian labourers who had settled in these colonies. This section of the Diaspora had an enormous impact on the local economy, the politics and the socio-cultural makeup of the colonies. Descendants of these migrants have risen to the ranks of Prime Ministers and Presidents, judges, civil servants, prominent business leaders, and are well respected within their adopted countries. They maintain ties with India and proudly identify as descendants of India. Many descendants want to trace their roots with the little information they have from the contracts, many continue to follow Indian customs, traditions and food habits and some countries commemorate the arrival of Indians, celebrate their success and contribution to society, and remember the hardship their forefathers faced, either through a declaration of a public holiday or through monuments – Fiji (Girmit Remembrance Day), Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica (Indian Heritage Day), Mauritius (Arrival of Indentured Labourers), St Lucia (Indian Arrival Day), St Vincent and the Grenadines (Indian Arrival Day), Suriname (Indian Arrival Day), Trinidad and Tobago (Indian Arrival Day).
We engage with the Indian diaspora across the world through the celebration of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and many other programmes and schemes. We also have special programmes for Girmitya countries whereby we engage more intensely with youth through Know India Programme, and with middle-aged and elderly through Pravasi Teerth Darshan Yojana. Our scholarship programme for children called Scholarship Programme for Diaspora Children gives opportunity to the diaspora children to study in Indian universities and institutions. Various conferences under Pravasi Bharatiya Divas as well as special conferences such as this one enable us to engage with the diaspora scholars, thinkers and policy-makers from across the globe. The Ministry also encourages our Missions and gives grants for organising cultural events with the Indian diaspora. I am particularly happy that despite the challenges of Covid pandemic, our Missions are enthusiastically engaged in cultural activities with the diaspora for celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav i.e. 75 years of India’s independence and also organising events specially focussed on Girmitya history as well as their achievements.
It is expected that the Girmitya Conference would entail more contact with the Indian Diaspora in the Girmitya countries. This would result in a more beneficial relationship between India and the respective Girmitya countries in the field of politics, economy and people to people relations. Indian Diaspora forms a substantial percentage of the population among the Girmitya countries and this can be channelized to form a concrete relationship in various fields especially in promoting better and vibrant economic and trade relations, scientific exchanges and assisting in the development of each other.
Today’s Conference, which is organised in collaboration with India Foundation on "Changing Identities, Shifting Trends and Roles” is very topical. The Conference will trace the history of Girmit Diaspora, its evolution and contemporary relevance and importance to the country of its residence as well as to India. The diaspora have been proud torch bearers of Indian culture and traditions and have been instrumental in assimilating the Indian culture to their respective National ethos.
I wish all the participants very successful and productive deliberations in this Conference and look forward to meaningful outcomes.
September 17, 2021