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Explained: Indian Indentured Labourers


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Indentured labour, Girmitiya

Mains level : Slave trade from India in colonial era

Indentured labourers during colonial period

  • The migration of indentured labour—bonded labour—is a lesser known part of the history of slavery and that of Indian migration.
  • Indentured servitude from India started in 1834 and lasted up till 1922, despite having been officially banned in 1917 by British India’s Imperial Legislative Council after pressure from freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi.

UNESCO recognition

  • In 1998, UNESCO designated August 23 as the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade & Abolition to commemorate “the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples”.
  • UNESCO also established an international, intercultural project called ‘The Slave Route’ to document and conduct an analysis of the interactions to which it has given rise between Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.

What was indentured migrant labour from India?

  • From 1830 to 1860 the British, French and the Portuguese during the colonization of India prohibited slavery that was implemented by several acts under their individual domains.
  • In Europe in the 1820s, there was a new kind of liberal humanism where slavery was considered inhuman.
  • It was following this ideology that the colonizers stopped slavery in India, only to replace it with another form of bonded servitude and euphemistically term it ‘indentured labour’.
  • This practice of indentured labour resulted in the growth of a large diaspora with Indo-Carribean, Indo-African and Indo-Malaysian heritage that continue to live in the Carribean, Fiji, Réunion, Natal, Mauritius, Malaysia, Sri Lanka etc.

The new contract labourers

  • This migration started post the abolition of slavery to run sugar and rubber plantations that the British had set up in the West Indies.
  • The British Empire was expanding to South America, Africa and Asia and they needed new labour, but slavery was considered inhuman. So they developed the concept of contract labour.
  • The British turned to India and China that had a large population and found the surplus labour they needed to run these plantations in the new colonies.

No change in colonial attitude

  • The abolition of slavery failed to change the mindset of the planters which remained that of ‘slave owners’.
  • They were ‘accustomed to a mentality of coerced labour’ and desired ‘an alternative and competitive labour force which would give them same type of labour control that they were accustomed to under slavery.
  • After ruining the agriculture business in India, they exploited the mass unemployment that had hit small farmers the hardest.
  • The worst affected regions were the modern-day states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
  • They were poor farmers and the indenture lasted for 10 years. They were paid monthly wages and were living on the plantations in these colonies.

Family migration

  • Initially, single men were selected for indenture but the British Parliament decided to encourage family migration to provide “stability”.
  • Encouraging family migration hardly arose out of concern for the welfare of these bonded migrants.
  • According to the terms of indentured labour, the migrants had the right to return after finishing their 10 year terms of indenture.
  • The British were not interested in having them return to their homeland because it wouldn’t be a good return on their investment.
  • For every 100 males who were put on board the ships that transported the migrants, 40 were women, in an attempt to maintain the sex ratio.
  • Due to the skewed sex ratios, many men went on to settle permanently in these colonies and have families.

Why indentured labour was called slavery?

  • Indentured labour was definitely a new kind of slavery.
  • The British attempted to disassociate indentured labour from slavery by calling it an “agreement” when recruiting Indians who would be willing to migrate, to try and hide the true nature of the practice.
  • The British recruited young, single men from regions that had witnessed a collapse of the local agriculture business and were facing shortages and severe famine.
  • Widows who faced socio-cultural stigma wanted to migrate to these new lands to live life on their own terms.
  • According to Mishra, many urban women who were single and employed in various professions also chose to travel to get a fresh start.
  • Most aspiring migrants were misled about the work they would have to engage in, the wages they would receive, the living conditions and the places they were travelling to.

Why was sea voyage perilous for indentured Indian migrants?

  • The journey by sea was long and traumatic, with travel taking approximately 160 days to reach the Caribbean colonies.
  • The comfort of the migrants was not even a consideration for the British and the travellers were loaded onto cargo cargo ships that were not meant to carry passengers.
  • Many of these migrants had never even left their small villages, let alone engaged in travel to such distant lands.
  • On board the ships, there were cramped quarters and little space.
  • Many migrants were forced to sit on open decks that left them vulnerable to direct, harsh weather at sea. Sanitation was poor and there was little access to food and medication.
  • These conditions were particularly difficult for small children and there was high mortality. Those who died on board were simply thrown off the ships into the sea.
  • The migrants also faced physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the European ship captains and there was no means of escape except jumping off the ship into the water.
  • The migrants called it ‘crossing the kala pani ’.
  • Indians were not familiar with the sea and the (cultural) association with sea journeys was that crossing the sea would mean breaking free from attachments in the homeland.

What happened once indentured migrants reached far-flung colonies?

  • The migrants took their culture with them through their language, food and music and the meagre belongings that they were permitted to carry.
  • Once they reached these colonies, they created their unique socio-cultural ecosystems while they were limited to living in the confines of these large plantations.
  • Locals in the Mauritius, Suriname and Fiji opposed the presence of these migrants.
  • After their terms of indenture were over, some migrants returned to India while many stayed back.
  • Those who did stay back did so because they had rebuilt their lives and families in these colonies and were poor and had not been able to maintain contact or connections with their families and country.
  • Their families had forgotten them and there was a cultural gap that had resulted due to the years the migrants had spent overseas.
  • For some others, however, the cultural stigma of having a significant amount of time overseas and untouchability associated with the journey, resulted in a denial of acceptance once they returned to India.

How is indentured labour of Indian migrants commemorated around the world?

  • Along with UNESCO designating August 23 as the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade & Abolition, several memorials exist around the world in commemoration of Indian indentured labour.
  • In Mauritius, the Immigration Depot or the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006 to mark its importance in world history.
  • Mauritius was the first British colony to receive indentured migrants and records indicate that approximately half a million indentured Indians arrived at the Immigration Depot between 1849 to 1923.
  • On the banks of the Hooghly near the Port of Kolkata, the Suriname Ghat is named after one of the colonies to where ships would depart from Kolkata.
  • At the Suriname Ghat, the Mai-Baap Memorial is an unassuming metal structure that was unveiled by India’s former Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj in 2015.
  • The statue is a replica of the Baba and Mai monument in Paramaribo , Suriname, that marks the first Indian migrants in Suriname.
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