Some lessons of migration: the dilemma of identity Viewpoint
By Dr Martin Jagdeo Boodhoo Guyana Chronicle
June 10, 2002

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It is said that migration is as old as man.”
HUMAN migration is an historical phenomenon from time immemorial. The barriers of space, time and physical geography may have inhibited, but never prevented the movement of men and ideas over the ages. These movements have had and continue to have significant impact on the course of human history and behavioural patterns in the political, social, economic and other fields.

Every civilisation has experienced the migration syndrome, in one form or another. The evidence in the literature indicates that the principal motivating factors of migration are economic, political, religious or the vision of a better life in another environment. In the case of East Indian immigration to the Caribbean, for example, the principal factors have been economic and religious. In addition to the basic instinct to surmount difficulties in order to survive, migrants are continually in search of a niche. This driving force has been the “hallmark” of East Indian migration, which has been particularly exemplified in the case of the Caribbean and the Straits Settlement of South East Asia.

In this Viewpoint, I will focus on some of the characteristics which facilitated the survival and success of East Indian migrants; and examine the “lessons” that could be learnt in order to co-exist in a constantly changing New World Order. In a dynamic globalised environment, there is a major dilemma of preserving one’s cultural and historical identity, while at the same time, endeavouring to become a full-fledged loyal citizen in the country of the newly acquired nationality. I am of the view that the impact of cross-cultural forces, which sometimes appear as threats, could be harnessed to formulate viable strategies for peaceful co-existence. Finally, a challenge will be issued to qualified and experienced Indians located overseas - in the professions, business and academia as well as religious and social organisations - to explore avenues of service to enhance socio-economic development in Less Developed Countries (LDCs).

Survival characteristics of East Indian migrants
Without doubt and with only minor exceptions, the most significant survival heritage of East Indian migrants is the deep and sacred attachment to a Divine Creator. This belief and dedication in a Supreme Being who is perceived to possess the power to guide spiritual and material progress in life is underpinned by the observance of a system of values such as truth, honesty, humility, tolerance and mutual respect as expounded in the holy scriptures especially the Ramcharitmanas, the Bhagawat Gita, the Koran and the Bible.

A review of the literature suggests that the single most predominant religious and ethical value was exemplified in the sacred doctrine of the “Law of Retribution” i.e. judgement based on one’s way of life or actions, whether you are a Hindu, Christian or Moslem. This thesis of the major religions was and continues to be the major driving force underpinning what I would suggest as Five-point Thesis of Survival of East Indian immigrants.

Elements of the Five-point Hypothesis of Survival and Growth
In my view, the socio-economic and religious-cultural development of East Indian immigrants has been sustained principally by the following five elements.

An unfailing adherence to a religious conviction in the Almighty - whether the immigrant was Hindu, Moslem or Christian or of another sect. This conviction or belief was demonstrated through regular ritualistic ceremonies and observance of festivals and music, by each religious group in its separate setting; but more importantly respecting each other’s right to do so. The practice fostered social cohesion and mutual respect in spite of the varied forms of religious worship.

The quest to discover one’s self stimulated the religious hankering to achieve spiritual enlightenment and peace as the ultimate goal of human existence while at the same time taking steps to improve one’s physical, mental and intellectual capabilities to cope with the heavy burdens of survival in an adverse environment. The development of one’s skill for higher levels of earnings was a predominant concomitant motivation. Whatever the immigrant’s religion, the liberation of his soul or atma was a powerful driving force for both spiritual and material achievement. The commonality of all religions is in fact reflected in the personal search for inner peace and solace. This unexplained phenomenon has motivated and continues to motivate mankind the world over.

The closely-knit family unit - largely influenced by tradition and the need to stick together for survival - was an equally significant factor among the immigrants. Though the modalities of relationships were seemingly paternalistic, the mother has always played a central role in holding the family together socially, materially and spiritually - more often than not exercising maternal dominance behind the purdah. The historical inheritance of the extended family provided a strict order of hierarchical family relationships but yet flexible enough to take care of each other in spite of competing demands to feed, clothe and educate the family. In this context, elders traditionally were treated with profound respect and as the repository of knowledge and leadership. This is in stark contrast to the ‘nuclear family’ in industrialised societies where, almost invariably, senior members of the family are left to fend for themselves.

The love and care of one’s neighbour is enshrined in oriental civilisations and more particularly among indigenous communities such as the aborigines in the Americas and Australia. The East Indian immigrant cultivated the concept and practice of “Jahaji” during the long-suffering voyage to the Caribbean and elsewhere. This principle was maintained long after the end of the journey and proved to be a viable vehicle to foster “good neighbourly” attitudes not only with fellow East Indians, but the community at large, long after the Indenture System was terminated in 1917. Those who grew up and lived in multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural communities have attested to the value and need for the “Jahaji” principle to enhance social relationships and build lasting bonds of friendship in plural societies. Many of us who were nurtured by these mixed communities know of the importance of mutual respect and teamwork to build stability and peace, which are cardinal prerequisites for socio-economic development. This continues to be a challenge for the ‘new’ stream of Caribbean migrants to North America, Europe and elsewhere.

The final element in the equation is the care of the environment. Poverty is not a necessary inhibitor to healthy living in pleasant surroundings. Though the immigrants lived in logies with mud floors, hygiene was a predominant consideration in their daily lives. They realised and appreciated that without a healthy body they could not have a stable mental state to eke out their existence and take care of their families. On the other hand, to ensure a healthy, regular and dependable workforce the planters provided housing, hospital care and other facilities on the sugar estates to protect and enhance their investments. These were salutary measures for the immigrants and enabled them, later on, to augment their incomes through small-scale farming in rice, cash crops, fishing and cattle rearing on land made available, on a gratuitous basis, by the sugar planters. Involvement in these activities promoted the development of skills and management discipline, which proved in later years to be valuable assets in improving their standard of living largely through their joint family efforts, during their spare time. The dedication of the immigrants to a pleasant and conducive environment is evidenced during and after the re-housing programmes from the logies to new housing settlements. Furthermore, their monetary contributions and voluntary services in enhancing the flora and accommodation in temples, mosques and churches, especially in the rural areas, is testimony to the creation of healthy environment.

Without doubt these five elements were fundamental factors in enhancing the performance capabilities of immigrant workers in an environment that was not conducive to equitable socio-economic development. However, through perseverance and commitment to the principles previously outlined, they survived and grew in stature, as is abundantly visible in the Indian Diaspora today, the world over.

It is accordingly posited that these five elements have provided and can further strengthen a solid platform to energise the process of socio-economic development in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. The lessons engendered in the immigration experience can be steppingstones to the creation of stability and peace for higher levels of welfare in any society. Without doubt, it is not confined to East Indian Immigration. Indeed, in a globalised village, we are all in a melting pot. The world is changing and our historic and traditional identity is simultaneously being influenced in trying to pinpoint the characteristics of being &#x201CIndian”, Swami Ranganathananda stated that: “To me an Indian is one who has got a Vedantic brain which probes deep and soars high; an Islamic body that is valiant and vibrant; a Buddhistic heart overflowing with compassion and kindness; and Christian limbs of service and sacrifice.” (New India Digest; No. 79; Nov-Dec. 2000)

Similarly, in my view, a Guyanese is someone who embodies the silver threads of our six ethnic groups woven into a golden national tapestry. This is an apt reminder of the need for us to work together to maintain “Unity in Diversity”, in spite of the efforts by many to undermine peace in our society.

In conclusion, let me issue a challenge to our colleagues in the Indian Diaspora. Many have achieved distinction in their respective fields of endeavour. The time has come, may be long past, for them to utilise the history, knowledge and experience gained over the years, to enrich the process of development and good governance by rendering some measure of assistance to the developing world - through voluntary service or at a minimal cost. Such services would go a long way in proving that our ancestors did not only survive and grow; but their descendents, now distinguished in many fields, can make a significant contribution to enriching the lives of the less fortunate, especially in the developing world.

(Dr Boodhoo is currently a Management Consultant. He is a former UN Advisor and former Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana.)