Finally a memorial in India to honor the brave Girmitiyas

By Satish Rai

Sydney based filmmaker, journalist and researcher on Fiji Girmit

In March 2006 I visited Calcutta (now Kolkata) to film footage for my documentary film In Exile at Home. Inclusion of footage and relevance of ports from where some 1.2 million unsuspecting indentured young Indian men, women and children were transported to colonial countries such as Mauritius, British Guiana (Guyana), Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada, St Lucia, South Africa, St Kitts, St Vincent, Reunion, Surinam, Fiji, and Seychelles is an important part of any film or literature on the indentured Indian labourers or girmitiyas, as they are fondly referred to in the Fijian diaspora. 

Earlier I had filmed some footage for my film The Land of South Indian Girmitiyas at the port of Madras (now Chennai), from where the south Indian girmitiyas were transported. They were recruited from remote areas of the Madras Presidency, which included present day Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The main areas of recruitment were the Malabar Hills (Palaghat district) in Kerala, Coimbatore, North and South Arcot, Tanjore, (Thanjuvur) and Chingleput in Tamil Nadu and Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh. After filming in these places I realized the distances these girmitiyas were transported from their homes and barracked in depots in Madras before being shepherded on ships to be transported to even further and distant colonial plantations. I had looked for the depots where these ‘human commodities’ were held in Madras before transportation but could not find any. I was desperate to find any sign or symbol in Madras that would link transportation of Indian citizens away from the birth place. I could not find any and no one I spoke to in Chennai even cared. Apart from these girmitiyas, the port of Madras has transported some three million Indians to former European colonies such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Malaysia and Singapore. There is no memorial for these Indians at Chennai as well. 

As I traveled from Vijaywada to Kolkata I was somewhat heartened by knowledge that I was aware of at least some landmarks where the indentured north Indians were barracked and transported. The Fiji girmitiyas were barracked at Garden Reach depot and transported from one of the jetties near the Garden Reach road area. Girmitiyas to Guyana were transported from the Demerara jetty from the same area of Kolkata. Other transpotation jettys such as Suriname jetty exists in the area as well. 
I travelled across a bridge over the Hooghly river that took me to the Garden Reach area. I asked the driver to stop on the bridge for filming. This was the first time I had seen the river on which some one million North Indian girmitiays had set off on their journeys, first to the open sea at the Bay of Bengal and then to the distant colonial plantations. My grandparents, (aaja, aaji, parnana and parnani) and uncles Girdhari and Banwari had also set sails to Fiji from this historic place. Girdhari was five and Banwari two years old. Banwari had died soon after arriving in Fiji. None of the others ever returned to India. The feeling was overwhelming. Three years earlier I had visited my aaji Gokuldei’s birth place in the village of Galibpur in the District of Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. My 94 years old uncle Dhoke Rai cried when he spoke about the only bua he had never met. He told me that his uncle Uma Rai, my aaji’s father had died a broken man a few years after learning that my aaji had gone to pheejee (Fiji). Had he known about his daughters transportation to Fiji he might have attempted to rescue her. He might have seen her leaving India with her husband and his two little grand children for the last time as Santhia II sailed along the river towards Fiji. He might have lived a little bit longer. My uncle Dhoke died a year later, but not before I had captured his enduring memory in my film Milaap: A Royal Discovery. It is my desire to one day build a memorial for my aaja, aaji and their two girmitiya children on the ground of her home in Galibpur. 

I was eager to find if any traces of depot at Garden Reach still existed in Kidderpore. I drove through the Garden Reach area, the poorer part of Kolkata, to find any traces of the depots where some one million indentured Indians were kept and processed before they were put on the awaiting ships for transportation. I saw many old and dilapidated large building where they could have been barracked. But I could not find any signs that could point to the actual depots. We drove along the Garden Reach Road and reached the Metiabruz Jetty. Metiabruz played an important role in the history of indenture, especially towards the end when the battle to end this despicable system of labour transportation and explotation was being played out internationally. A big issue was suddenly being made in the media, especially Fiji’s media, about the adverse conditions the returned girmitiyas found themselves in when they arrived in India. Thousands of returned girmitiyas supposedly stayed in Metiabruz area, homeless, starving and sick. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia, the major stakeholder of sugar industry in Fiji at that time, and the Colonial Government in Fiji, advertised this as one of the reasons why the girmitiays should not return to India. Eventually majority of them were exiled in Fiji. 
Standing at the Metiabruz Jetty I wondered if that was the Jetty from where the Fiji girmitiyas were transported. I also thought about the approximately one million girmitiyas who were first transported to and barracked in some of the structures in the Garden Reach area before transpotation. The vast majority of the North Indian girmitiyas, known as Calcuttians in Fiji, were recruited in the cities and mela grounds in west Bihar and East Uttar Pradesh regions. However some were from Afghanistan, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well. 

As I stood on the jetty, looking at some ships making their way down Hooghly river, I thought of the hundreds of the ships that had sailed from one of these jetties, carrying thousands of Indians each year to lands they had never heard of. I thought about the fears and panics among them when they realised that they were duped by the cunning arkatis and the sahibs into believing that they were going to work in Calcutta or nearby Burma. I visualized many among them jumping off the ship and their desperate struggles to get to the safety of mother India. Many drowned. Others were engaged by the shipowners and put back on the ship. More than half of those transported from these jetties could never return to India. I imagined their sorrow and bewilderment as they watched their motherland disappear from their horizon as ships sailed along the river and into the vastness of Bay of Bengal. Their cries of desperation were not heard by anyone. There were no one to hear them. 

The bricks and motars of Kolkata, as well as Madras, witnessed the harrowing last few days of these sons and daughters of India before they sailed along the river to vast sea of unknown. The riverbeds of the Hooghly River has skeletal remains of thousands who did not want to leave India. However today, there is no record or monument to mark these historic and tragic events that happned in Kolkata and Madras for more than one hundred and fifty years. There is no monument to mark the sacrifices, sufferings and eventual successes of these brave young men and children. Despite the enourmous emotional and physical sufferings each of them went through for five or ten years, or for rest of their exilic lives in the distant lands, they worked tirelessly to build many nations. They have laid the foundation of the presnet day ten million plus girmit diaspora that has spread throughout the world.
GOPIO International has worked very hard with the Government of India, the Government of West Bengal and several individuals to build the first Monument in the memory of all the 1.2 million girmitiyas. It was with overwhelming sense of relief and pleasure I had received this news a few months ago. Finally a symbol will be erected in mother India itself to remember the pains and sacrifices of the girmitiyas and honour their achievements in the distant lands. I applaud this effort and hope this Monument marks the start of many such monument being built in the memory of the brave girmitiyas throughout India and the girmit diaspora.


December 2010

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