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  Books   17 Feb 2024  Book Review: A plunge into the grim history of those ‘Little Indias’ around world

Book Review: A plunge into the grim history of those ‘Little Indias’ around world

Published : Feb 17, 2024, 1:52 pm IST
Updated : Feb 17, 2024, 1:52 pm IST

The web of deception that promoted indenture in India had many facets, and many facilitators

Cover image of The Indentured and Their Route: A Relentless Quest for Identity
 Cover image of The Indentured and Their Route: A Relentless Quest for Identity

In the collective memory of our nation, the silent tragedy of the indentured has somehow slipped through the cracks and never really registered. But no longer, I am sure, thanks to this unforgettable book by former ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee, The Indentured and their Route: a Relentless Quest for Identity, which is a tribute to the 1.5 million Indians shipped out between 1834 and 1917 to British plantations across the globe. The writer, Amitav Ghosh, first drew Indians’ attention to this history with his immersive albeit fictional Sea of Poppies, and Mukherjee follows in his footsteps with a well-researched account.

Inveigled by false promises into a lifetime of near-slavery in British plantation colonies in Mauritius, Fiji, the Caribbeans, and elsewhere, these indentured men, and even more so women, nonetheless managed, by sheer resilience, courage and hard work, to surmount unimaginable adversities, helping create the aptly named “rainbow nations” of the Indian Diaspora.

The web of deception that promoted indenture in India had many facets, and many facilitators. The British, forced to abolish slavery in 1833 found themselves without slaves to cultivate the sugar plantations. In India, they had created a wasteland of hunger with taxation levels of 50-60 per cent ruthlessly enforced. Millions of peasants were dispossessed after the 1793 Permanent Settlement reduced them from small landholders to tenants at the mercy of the zamindars. Farmers and small artisans ruined by deliberate de-industrialisation aimed at promoting British exports to India faced destitution. They were perfect candidates for indenture.

The book has chilling details of the horrors of indenture. Overcrowded former slave ships were used to transport the indentured, in wretched, insanitary conditions with inadequate food and drinking water drawn from the cholera infected stream of the Hooghly River (the ship’s crew did not drink that water!). Those who contracted cholera were thrown overboard even before they died, their orphaned children being looked after by the surviving jahaz bhais and jahaz behens.   This was the fate that befell the great grandparents of former Mauritius Cabinet minister Mookhesswur Choonee. There were also many deaths in harsh quarantine after landing.

The Aapravasi Ghat in Mauritius, through which more than half a million of these unfortunates passed, either to plantations there or farther away, was for most a Gate of No Return. In 2006, Unesco inscribed it in the World Heritage List, thanks to the author fighting off British attempts to falsely equate indenture with modern voluntary migration. In 2014, the International Indentured Labour Route was included in the Unesco’s Memory of the World Register. It was a twin of the infamous Slave Route.

The ruthless exploitation of the indentured by the plantation owners is exposed, using extensive, carefully tabulated data. Mauritius, Reunion Island, and Fiji are analyzed as case studies. Despite hard labour, at times for 18 hours a day, unbreakable contracts (agreements, pronounced as girmit) to specific employers, travel being prohibited, double wage cuts for absence from work, corporal punishment, and breaking up of attempts at labour solidarity, the Girmitiyas clung to their language, social and ethnic traditions, and above all, faith. Copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Quran were treasured; Bhojpuri folk culture was lovingly preserved.

The chapter on indentured women is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Single women were especially at risk from predators, even onboard ships. British and Indian misogyny and patriarchal conservatism joined hands to routinely slander indentured women as “immoral”. Hindu and Muslim marriages were not legally recognised. Subjected to both racism and sexism, working in the plantations and at home, bearing children with no maternity support and rearing them, paid less than the men, these incredible women nonetheless helped create traditional Indian family structures and preserve Indian culture in their new homelands. They even accessed education and formed Mahila Mandals to fight oppression, often joining together to beat up the abusive overseers! Sadly, their voices, their contributions and sacrifices, were consistently overlooked.

Over time, the indentured slowly put down roots wherever they were, becoming small farmers and establishing settlements with schools, temples and mosques, and even the age-old panchayat system. Unfortunately, despite this remarkable success story, the hostility between them and the original inhabitants and/or freed slaves — deliberately created by the British, including by strictly enforcing ethnic separation — became a serious source of conflict, especially in Fiji, where it led to a massive Indian exodus.

Indenture eventually ended in 1917, but the quest of the indentured for their identity remained.

Identity is primarily rooted in a sense of belonging. Mother India has embraced these lost children of hers as cherished pravasis. The warmth of this acceptance would surely have healed the fracture in their psyche.

Bhaswati Mukherjee’s book is a trailblazer, opening up a path that I hope many others will tread, and build on this foundation.


The writer is a retired diplomat.


The Indentured and Their Route: A Relentless Quest for Identity

By Bhaswati Mukherjee


pp. 232; Rs 595


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