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Valedictory Address by Shri Sanjay Bhattacharyya, Secretary (CPV&OIA) at Girmitiya Conference 2021 (September 17, 2021)

September 18, 2021

Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Namaskar from New Delhi

1. I would like to thank the India Foundation for organizing this Conference on Girmitiyas and for bringing together all the key stakeholders. Girmitiyas and Indian Diaspora are intimately linked to the history of our country and evoke deep feelings, emotions and memories. It gives us immense pleasure to be part of this dialogue that seeks to better understand their situation and strengthen our ties with our brothers and sisters across the world today. I look forward to the publication that will follow.

2. India’s migratory journey to foreign shores is a rich history of amazing accomplishments and many adversities. It stands out for resilience and fortitude and endeavour and success. In ancient times, our ancestors travelled along the west to Southeast Asia and Arabia, as merchants and as monks. Later, they prospered as traders and philosophers along the ancient land routes into Central Asia. During the colonial era, under the indenture system, we witnessed millions of our people crossing the seas again, to work as labour in plantations and projects in faraway lands.

3. Britain had abolished slave trade in 1807 and outlawed slavery in 1833. To address their need for plantation workers, the British devised the system of indenture, whereby workers were made to enter into an agreement, known as Girmit to work on foreign lands, lured by lucrative pay and short tenure of contract. Anxious yet hopeful for a better livelihood, our brothers set off on a journey on ships through the ports of Calcutta and later Madras and Bombay. The first ships left for Mauritius in 1834. It was deemed a great success. Other colonists such as Dutch, French and Spanish also followed soon, taking our brothers and sisters to distant lands. Apart from labourers, even traders and soldiers were on such ships.

4. The British set up an elaborate governance system for this new system. Agents, called Dafadars, did the recruitment mainly from Eastern India. The Emigration Act of 1837, followed by several updates, till the Act of 1882, governed the movement, till its abolition in 1917. The Office of Protector of Emigrants was also set up. British officers wrote fascinating accounts of the system, often romanticised for there was deceit and abuse in many cases.

5. It is in sugar plantations and mines that our Indian brothers and later sisters as well broke their sweat and persevered through the low wages and uncertainties regarding returning home. Records for 1834 to 1920 indicate that more than 1 million Indian indentured labourers were sent to 19 British colonies. They went to Fiji, Guyana, Suriname, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, and under similar arrangements to Malaya, Burma, Ceylon. Almost 60,965 were transported to Fiji, 238,909 to Guyana, 453,063 to Mauritius.

6. The conditions in the new lands were not easy. The indentured labourers had to come to terms with their situation and commence a new life in a new setting. Today, it is the descendants of these Girmitiyas that form a vital part of the diverse Indian diaspora. It gives me, and I am certain, the entire nation, great pride to proclaim that our Indian diaspora is a vibrant community in the new lands.

7. Our diaspora may reside oceans away from their country, but they keep India, and its cultures and values close to their heart. Our Girmitiyas were known to be strong adherents of Indian culture. They were so connected to their land that they brought with them their culture, their religion, their values to their new country of residence. It was said that our labourers carried with them deities and idols and continued their religious practices even though they were frowned upon by fellow indigenous groups and settlers alike.

8. It is this continued attachment with their Indian culture and ethos, that the Indian diaspora has aunique identity today. You have been able to play a significant role in enhancing the stature of India abroad. You have earned a reputation for your hard work, discipline, law-abiding and peaceful habits. Our diaspora is considered as our soft power in the foreign lands as you are rooted in our country’s moral and political philosophy. You are also considered as a catalyst for economic development in India and host countries. You contribute to India’s growth through philanthropy, knowledge transfers, investments in innovation and assistance in other development projects.

9. In fact, the presence of erstwhile Girmitiyas, in the British colonies that practiced indentured labour, has grown over the years, and has become the largest ethnic groups in certain countries. It is this steady presence of our diaspora in foreign lands that has given rise to Indo-Caribbean, Indo-Mauritius, Indo-African, Indo-Fijian, Indo-Malaysian populations. These diaspora groups have gained influence, which is visible. We see the cultural manifestation in languages like Hindi and Bhojpuri that are spoken in Mauritius and are even taught in schools. Religions and social festivals are in practice and popular, even among the local community. Radio and TV programmes on Indian themes are seen and Indian music and dance followed.

10. It is through persistent hardwork and perseverance, that our Indian diaspora has been able to make a name for itself on the global front. They are leading successful businesses, taking part in the local and national level politics of the host countries and bringing accolades for their country in many fields. Many members of Indian Diaspora have also held the highest State and Government positions in the Girmitiya countries and continue to serve the people through pivotal roles. It is due to their consistent and diligent efforts, that today, our expat community is one of the most successful in the entire world.

11. The Government of India values this extended family. We take special care to deepen our connection and take measures to improve the bond. We attend to the needs of PIOs by providing them consular services, and conducting outreach activities to engage better. Recognising the special status and desire for links with India, we provided OCI cards to our diaspora, which gives status and privileges in many areas. Indian Embassies and Consulates are available 24x7 to help those in need. The benefits of the digital world have been brought to the doorstep of our diaspora through long-term visa, E-Visa. We have launched a special portal Rishta, which is aimed at our diaspora to engage in conversations and deepen the links with India.

12. We have a number of schemes and projects for the diaspora. To increase the participation of the diaspora youth and familiarize them with Indian youth and their Indian roots, we started the Know India Programme. We provide priority to PIOs from the Girmitiya countries for the programme, which provides a visit to India to see the developments that have taken place and engage with Indian youth. The Ministry pays for 90% of the international airfare cost and local costs.

13. The government introduced the Scholarship Programme for Diaspora Children (SPDC) for the children of Person of Indian Origin (PIOs) to join Indian universities for higher education. Under the Scheme, students are awarded scholarship up to US$ 4000 per annum for under-graduate courses in several disciplines.

14. The ministry organizes an interesting quiz known as the Bharat Ko Jaaniye Quiz (BKJ) for PIOs and NRIs, between 18-25 years. The quiz seeks to enhance and test the knowledge of the participants about India. The top 3 winners are awarded medals (Gold, Silver and Bronze) during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Conventions.

15. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which is celebrated biannually to reconnect, engage and facilitate our valuable Indian diaspora community abroad is now fairly well known. The PBD is celebrated with much fanfare and enthusiasm every year on 9th of January, which also marks the day when the greatest Pravasi of India, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India after his brief stint in South Africa. The Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards are also conferred on leading members of the diaspora.

16. The Government of India takes immense pride in its Indian diaspora and works to advance and advocate for their growth and benefit under the maxim of 4Cs- Care, Connect, Celebrate and Contribute. We are guided by our principle of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, which tells us that the "world is one family”. Not only do we wish to maintain close relations with all Pravasi Bharatiyas but also wish that all Pravasis feel that their original homeland always welcomes them.

Thank you.

New Delhi
September 17, 2021
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