ReUnion Island : Jean Regis Ramasamy

“Please wake up, Reunion needs India”

The first free workers came to Reunion Island in the 18th century, after a month of sailing, physically and morally depressed. The coolies and between them, those from Reunion is, were the pioneers of the diaspora

Jean Regis Ramasamy

I have titled my article so because it recalls the compensation which Indian migrants were offered at the beginning of the 19th century, if they agreed to leave British India for Reunion Island. In the same sense that Spike Lee, the African American film-maker, had given to his film production company, with elements related to slavery after its abolition.

The first free workers came to Reunion Island in the 18th century, after a month of sailing, physically and morally depressed. I think we do not need to recall painful memories, to acknowledge the coolies and between them, those from Reunion Island, were the pioneers of the Indian diaspora, a diaspora which triumphs worldwide today.

Today we would rather like to subscribe to an interactive logic, which basically consists in saying, following the example of a great American politician, ‘Don’t ask what India can make for you but what you can make for India ?

So that such plan is promoted to a nice future it is first necessary that we speak the same language. We know that we are :

· Not much known in India,
· Talking in foreign language and therefore not always understood.

But let’s focus, where we came from and where we are now leading to. To my idea more than half a century passed, between the end of the indentured labour migration and the attempts of contact, with India after 1950. Besides we must remind of the role of the Mauritians for this period of revival.
That we want it or not, it is a fact that a number of Reunionese are in position of waiting for recognition from India. How can we explain this attitude? No immediate answer, but at the same time not much of Reunionese would like to live in India immediately; it is not their objective, but it is true they want to have more contacts with this country for which they have many real affinities, even after the 50 years of rupture in common history. Few people have interest in our aim to turn towards India, since our country of adoption, France, advocated assimilation. Barely we could claim of Indian forefathers; I even do not speak of the fact that we did not have the right to give an Indian forename to our children not so long ago; but this fact is so absurd it has already exceeded our borders for a long time.

This simple report will be enough to show you the dimension of our problem of reassimilation in India, for us, the children of the Indian migrants: the problem of the PIO card. In Reunion Island barely 10 persons have this card, while PIO represent more than 30 per cent of the 750 000 inhabitants!
It is not the first time that this question is recalled in India. Why not a PIO card adapted to our situation?

Until now the case of the descendants of Indians of Reunion Island and those of the Francophone zone was treated as the other diasporas of the Commonwealth. The same rules are still used, even though it is not exactly the same history.

I give you examples for more clarity. The rule on the PIO card demands that one must go down to the fourth generation of migrants to Reunion Island. But in our place, almost all the families have ancestors to the fifth and even sixth generation.

But more amazing, many of us are requested to bring an old identification proof paper from India, brought by our ancestor (British immigration pass). How were these unhappy workers expected to bring and preserve such papers from India when they arrived in Reunion Island, a French dominion, with totally different rules, even allowing illegal labour and false declaration of profession. Were they provided proper papers or were they simply listed and parked in coolie ships? In these conditions it seems almost uncalled-for today to ask us for Indian papers from those days.

Today, the only markers we still possess are our surnames and our physical appearance, the authenticity of which nobody can question. We the children of the early Indian migrants can only give this ultimate identification proof that we have conserved for two centuries to Mother India. Will she open her arms to us?

I recommend that a legislative measure, concerning the particularity of the Francophone zone Indian origin people come into reality soon, knowing it will also interest our compatriots in Gaud­eloupe, Martinique, Guyana and New Caledonia.

India should not look at the 150,000 Reunionnese of Indian origin as lost children, as blind persons, having no sense of language or communication. We are more than this, we represent a part of the French speaking diaspora. This Indianness of the French-speaking world asks to be heard.

Reunion is one of those rare places, where for more than two centuries so many Indian origin people have been living yet there is not even an Indian cultural centre

Our difficulties also come from the absence of solid archives in Reunion Island. Those concerning Indians have disappeared to a great extent. Our exhibition partner, the Grather Association, reported the fire of a great number of these documents and they are currently engaged in restoration work.
To give you an idea, we have barely a tenth of what exists at the MGI Centre in Mauritius. In Reunion Island less than a dozen registers remains on Indian migrants. For this particular reason we are waiting from the Government of India and from State Chief Ministers a real move to make it easier for descendants of these migrants to visit their country of origin; to facilitate research works of our students with benefit of special access to the archives of India in Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai and other places.

One facility we would like immediately is to have access to the website of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and also that it be more practical to us. In its current version, the website and the database is not adapted to our "French-speaking" needs. We are ready for a partnership to build a database to serve our express and real requirements.

Reunion Island is one of those rare places, where for more than two centuries so many Indian origin people have been living yet there is not even an Indian cultural centre worthy of the name. I remain persuaded that the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will to contribute to it.

With the competent authorities on our side—the Regional Council and the General Council represented by honourable chairwoman Nassimah Dindar, who is here with a delegation—an Indian cultural centre on Reunion Island would be easy to set up.

In order to make our close encounters permanent and sealed with history, we are planning the realisation of a Door of the Migrants or Aapravasi Ghat. Of course, we did not search far for this idea, since it is inspired by symbols which exist in India, and in our neighbouring Mauritius.
Also, the idea of offering a translation of all communications in the French language has already been transmitted, but I renew it, recalling that it would be the means to attract more people of the Francophone zone, into our international event.

Finally, for those who have not seen it yet, we remind you of our exhibition of photographs of the early Indian migrants to Reunion Island, which the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs kindly allowed us to present. Which greater homage could we make to our ancestors than to remind their memory during Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

Our heartfelt thanks to the Government of India.
We came here to persuade you that Reunion Island is not a myth but a future to be built together.

February 2009

click here to enlarge

 >> Cover Story
 >> From the Editor
 >> Tour and Travel
 >> NRI-PIO Section
 >> Mail From Reader
NRI Investments
 >> Education
 >> International Events
 >> NRI Hospitality