The Kolkata Memorial and its Importance

By Vishnu Bisram

Guyanese born educator and pollster from New York

I am elated to learn that the commissioning of a plaque as a memorial to our ancestors is scheduled for Jan 10, 2011 in Kolkota. It will be placed in the area where the indentured immigrants boarded the ship for their journey overseas. The solemn ceremony will be held a day after the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Jan 7 thru 9) and VIPs from around the globe are expected to descend on the city for the occasion. The plaque landmark is expected to be followed with the construction of a monument to honor all those who were shipped off as indentured workers bonded to working on sugar plantation. It will also serve as a pilgrimage point for people of Indian origin (PIOs) around the world, especially those who unfortunately cannot trace their ancestral homes or relatives in India, remembering their ancestors as a mark of respect.

The Kolkota memorial is a very important and significant project for PIOs, especially those (like me) whose ancestors were girmityas. A couple million men, women, boys and girls were “transplanted” to the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific, and Indian Ocean islands as contractual indentured servants. This memorial will stand to the memory of the coolies (a pejorative term for those bound to work the land) captured and stored in Kolkota for weeks or months and taken overseas to grow sugar cane and tobacco.

Monuments, memorials, and museums are put up to pay tribute to a location or a people or to those who contributed to historic events. Kolkata Port is significant in the history of indenturedship of Indians scattered around the globe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is here where the journey of much of the indenturedship experience began. It is here where the ancestors of millions of overseas Indians were kept in prison like conditions until there was a full load of human cargo to make the journey to the Caribbean and other destinations. It is the shipping and re-entry point of indentured laborers. The port has a sad but rich history of almost 100 years of Indian immigration which started at the Hooghly River that flows into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It is the port where most indentured Indians (the other one being Madras, now Chennai) boarded ships for their far flung destinations to meet the colonial world’s shortage of cheap labor. Thus, a memorial at the place of boarding the vessels is most appropriate to remember the Indian pioneers of the indentured system serving to remind the world of the history of Indian indenturedship.

It is strange that India has no institution to remember her people who were shipped away to work as laborers in far away places. These Indians made and continue to make an enormous contribution to the mother land. Yet, there is no single monument dedicated to them, to commemorate the millions recruited (or kidnapped) into indentured servitude – including innocent women and children. People should be taught about the indentured system given the large number of Indians who were shipped into the brutal dehumanizing economic system. The indentured system was a big business. It was used by all the western colonial empires (British, French, Dutch, Spanish) to provide cheap labor for their plantations. It was a very profitable business enriching the planters, ship owners, and rulers who were only interested in profits, not the welfare of the Indians who they contracted. Thus, a memorial on those who made the journey is apt.

The planned memorial plaque should provide the period of time of indenturedship. And the planned museum in Kolkota should consider providing some kind of an educational lesson on why Indians were sent abroad, how they were kept in holding stations, their conditions on the ship, and how they were treated upon their arrival in the colonies. Such a lesson will help people to understand the evil of the indenturedship system. It will be a reminder of the pains suffered by our ancestors who made the journey to work the plantations to enrich Europe.

The Kolkota Memorial and Museum have been proposed as a memorial that would be located on the banks of the Hooghly River. There are many reasons why this memorial is important to India and to PIOs and why I applaud MOIA for committing to it and for Ashok to persist in its fruition. 
Among them are:

1. It will serve to educate future generations so they can be educated about this system of slavery that replaced its earlier version and to make sure people are not held in bondage again. It will educate people about the history of indenturedship so they can understand the cruelty and inhumanity that took place during these one hundred years of oppression began in India by the British and continued to be perpetrated on other soils including by other colonial rulers. As the famous philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

2. It will help PIOs to reconnect with their ancestral homeland, Bharatdesh, cementing ties to their mother land and with Indians.

3. It will help bring healing between PIOs and the colonial masters who oppressed them, burying feelings of anger and hatred.

4. It will help to generate an interest in or motivate PIOs to trace their roots and open up more lines of communication with Mother India.

5. It will help to promote tourism to India and to Kolkota which will house the museum comprising of arts, artifacts, and other exhibits depicting the life of indentured servants and the entire indentured system, thereby enlightening them about the brutality of the indentured system. And in promoting tourism, it will create employment for many in the tourism and hospitality industry thereby boosting the economy.

6. It will serve as a gathering place for students and scholars of indenturedship allowing them to hold free discussions on the subject and giving people a place to gather and discuss important and sometimes controversial issues.

7. It will be a great way to begin looking to the future while still remembering the past. 


December 2010

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