Call for unity at 160th anniversary of Indians' arrival

By Desiree Jodah
Stabroek News
May 4, 1998

The travails of the Indian Immigrants who arrived on these shores 160 years ago were remembered yesterday when the Indian Commemoration Trust Foundation observed the 160th year of the arrival of the indentured labourers.

At a simple ceremony at the Indian Immigration Monument Gardens yesterday, with the notable absence of government and opposition functionaries and members of the diplomatic corps, the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured labourers from India was observed by Guyanese and Indian nationals resident in Guyana.

The ceremony commenced with opening prayers from representatives from the Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities. A bajan performed by a Christian group from Anna Catherina and several other cultural items performed by teachers and members of the Indian Cultural Centre formed part of the commemoration ceremony. Chairman of the Committee responsible for the anniversary activities of the Indian Commemoration Trust Foundation of Guyana, Yesu Persaud in a brief address called for togetherness. He said that there was no earthly reason why the Guyanese people could not succeed if they work together.

The prominent businessman recalled that 160 years ago the first batch of indentured labourers from India arrived in Guyana after enduring the long and arduous 90-day journey from India to replace the freed slaves on plantations. Persaud said the indentured labourers said that they were placed in the very logies that the slaves occupied. He said that reports from several commissions of enquiry revealed that the indentured labourers were treated worse than the slaves.

However, said Persaud, although they were treated shabbily, the indentured labourers through determination and perseverance were able to succeed in the face of every situation. The Guyanese businessman said that the indentured labourers' appreciation of their rich heritage which they brought from India kept them going and held them together. He said like the slaves the labourers could not be seen out of their stipulated areas. But, he said, they practised their culture and religion under mango trees and wherever they could find a spot. Persaud said that the Indian heritage is one that is like a tapestry that is very rich. "It is like a fabric that is multi-talented where Christians, Hindus and Muslims practise their own religion and culture".

He said in the early 40's and 50's Indo-Guyanese were treated as second class citizens and referred to by various derogatory terms. He said that it was only after they started using their savings from the estate to send their children overseas to study to become doctors and lawyers and by starting small businesses and became successful that they were treated with any respect.

Persaud also described as a myth the perception today by some people that all Indo-Guyanese were well off. He said that currently there are still 40,000 to 50,000 Guyanese with the sugar estates. Persaud contended that the majority of Indo-Guyanese live below the poverty line today.

Alluding to the violent street protests of January 12, Persaud said that it was a day he will never forget. According to him, on this day Guyanese of Indian descent who were caught on the streets were beaten for the only reason that they were Indians. He said that the mobs did not care whether the person was a Christian, Hindu or Muslim only that they were of Indian descent. Persaud issued a call for Guyanese to work together and not be segregated.

The Commemoration Committee Chairman paid tribute to Dr Balwant Singh Snr. whom he said was one of the first persons to advocate the celebration of the day the indentured labourers arrived in Guyana. Dr Singh had called on government to declare May 5 a national holiday. Persaud described the committee as a secular group whose goal is to unite and not to segment.

He lauded the committee's achievements, its major one being the establishment of the Indian Immigration Monument Gardens at the corner of Camp and Church Streets with the help of India and other contributors. According to him, the committee has several other plans which would be executed shortly. He revealed that a book entitled "Analogy of Indian works" would be launched on May 9, at the Park Hotel.

Indian High Commissioner to Guyana Dr. Prakash Vinayar Joshi in a short address said that India's link with Guyana did not begin "today or yesterday" but that it dated back to that "fateful day in 1838 when a shipload of our nationals embarked on a voyage to what was then to them a totally unknown land."

According to Dr. Joshi, long before India became independent many of her sons and daughters left her shores and went to distant countries braving all hazards and discomforts of an arduous sea voyage. He said that they settled in different parts of the world and by the dint of their hard work and perseverance brought prosperity and glory to their new homelands.

He said that the ties between Guyana and India were strong and deep. "Guyana while marching towards comprehensive economic development and growth keeps before itself the idea of establishing a new Global Human Order based on equity, social justice and sustainable development. These are values we in India too very much share with our brethren in Guyana," said Dr. Joshi.