The survival of Hindi in Guyana since 1838
By Dr. David Chanderbali
Stabroek News
May 5, 2003

Related Links: Articles on Indian heritage
Letters Menu Archival Menu

(This article is in commemoration of the 165th anniversary of the arrival of East Indians in Guyana being observed today.)

However meagre were the possessions which the Indian immigrants brought from India between 1838 and 1917, their mother tongue was an inevitable and important part of their non-material baggage. This short article seeks to explore the survival of Hindi amidst the competing and discouraging forces prevalent on the sugar plantations in colonial Guyana since the indenture system was introduced.

For this country the majority of Indian indentured labourers were recruited from the eastern regions of Uttar Pradesh, the western parts of Bihar and from various districts of South India. They were speakers of various Indo-Aryan languages and dialects from North India, including mainly Hindi and Bihari, with a few speakers of Bengali and Panjabi. Those who came from South India spoke Dravidian tongues particularly Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Out of this linguistic potpourri arose a homogeneous dialect which became the lingua franca on the plantations, and this dialect became the home language of the Guiana Indians whatever the linguistic background of their forebears. This linguistic unification, which was derived mainly from Hindi, had to compete for its own survival because of various social, economic and political realities in the Guianese society.

Immediately upon the arrival of these immigrants in Guiana they were confronted with an interesting linguistic situation, which forced them to try to comprehend the Creolese of the Blacks and the spoken and written English of the Whites, who ran the plantations on which the Indians were brought to work and live. From the outset, therefore, there was a de-emphasis on Hindi. Nearly everything connected with their work was expressed in English - the labour contract itself, communication with estate officials - including the manager, overseers, field clerks, book-keepers and office staff. Further-more, there were certain sensitive areas that were likely to cause and did cause on a daily basis, controversy and conflict between labourers and management. These included the hours of work; the nature and extent of the task; the rates of pay; penalties for desertion; maturity of the contract; and the conditions for re-indenturing and repatriation.

Disputes arising from any of these terms of the contract were settled on the estate by the manager whose judicial functions were a well established feature. Most managers were Justices of the Peace; they enforced the rules of management and of the labour contract; and also dispensed inter-personal disputes. Under such quasi-court circumstances the Hindi-speaking labourers would be clearly at a disadvantage. They were thus often unable to effectively represent themselves when confronted by a contending party. If after sifting whatever evidence the English-speaking manager could gather from the Hindi-speaking labourer, the issues were not clear-cut, he would warn the parties to "behave themselves". If the issues were serious, the manager could apply any of the powerful sanctions at his command. For example, he could shift a man's residence, he could suspend a labourer from work or levy fines, or in extreme cases, he could expel him from the estate.

Nowhere else was a knowledge of Hindi of little practical use than at the magistrates' courts - recourse to which was sought whenever estate managers advised plaintiffs to take serious cases there. Not only were the immigrants unfamiliar with the English language but they could not have been acquainted with even the basics of the labour laws. If found guilty, immigrants were often considered criminals, even in civil matters. Their efforts to induce fellow immigrants to testify on their behalf were often frustrated by their own ignorance of the English language. It had often occurred that immigrants who were summoned by the courts to testify for fellow labourers were jailed without giving evidence because they did not know that the English-written labour law required them first to obtain a "pass" from the manager.

The immigrants' ignorance of English necessitated the appointment of interpreters. Usually, these were either Hindi or Tamil-speaking headmen (or Sardars) who had acquired a little proficiency in the English language. But as one Magistrate, William De Voeux, once remarked: "These interpreters have but slight idea of the sanctity of oaths and the purity of truths". It was discovered that such interpreters often formed their own opinion of a case and suppressed or enlarged the evidence to coincide with their own conclusion.

From the 1870 onwards, following recommendations from the Royal Commission, a religious revival in Hinduism placed greater emphasis on Hindi. Temples were built and repaired, and stipends and free quarters for priests were provided by estate management, and Hindi schools were established. But with the Hindus having little organizational skills, management in time stepped in to control such activities. It was estate managements that persuaded the Hindus to conduct their religious activities through associations, with subscriptions, elected committees, and parliamentary procedure for the conduct of meetings. Management also helped in keeping accounts and minutes. All of these activities, except the ceremonies and rituals, were conducted not in Hindi but in English.

In 1876, the colonial government, taking authority from the Compulsory Primary Education Act, made it compulsory for all Indian children to attend schools throughout the country. This development effectually discouraged the learning of Hindi and laid greater emphasis on English usage. In order to communicate with their school-going children, parents tried to speak whatever English they knew. When the English-speaking children grew up, they in turn spoke English with their children and so in the process of attrition, Hindi faded as a day-to-day means of communication.

The de-emphasis on Hindi was never at any stage forced by official authorities, yet there was much informal pressure to switch to English. First, in the 20th century, if not earlier, "English" customs had, in the eyes of all Guyanese, a great deal of prestige. The upwardly mobile Indian, whether Hindu, Moslem or Christian, like his Black, Portuguese and Chinese counterpart realized that he had to acquire these customs. Second, there was a growing realization that conformity to 'English' customs, values and benefits brought certain advantages.

For example, jobs as schoolteachers were open mainly to Christians since most schools were controlled by English-speaking Christian missions. Third, on the estates themselves, belonging to a particular stratum in the occupational structure required the use, not of Hindi, but of English. Such occupations included, bookkeepers, clerks, store-keepers, typists, pan boilers, electricians, mill-hands, shift-supervisors, drivers, welfare officers, foremen, mechanics, and sick-nurses and dispensers.

On the other end of the linguistic continuum, there were the labourers who spoke a low-status dialect of English, called "taki-taki" in place of Hindi. With little or no schooling at all, even at the primary level, an unskilled labourer had little control over the technique and skills that ensured high status and power both in the local community and the wider society. English not Hindi, has been the language of the government administration and the medium of communication in the society as a whole. To the extent that an unskilled labourer is not competent in the English language (in its standard form) he is cut off from the sources of information and power. Whether he is bargaining for better wages and conditions, or computing wages, or asserting his rights, he is at a disadvantage by being dependent on others.

The retention by those immigrants of Hindi as their major, if not only, means of communication caused at least three major social problems to emerge in the late 19th century and the early post-indenture period (1920 onwards). First, it was difficult for them to be absorbed in the general life of the wider "English" culture of Guyanese society. Second, with their castes and religion and their different dialects and sometimes "outlandish" dress they became narrow in outlook and less prone to become cosmopolitan. Third, they lacked the cultural characteristics valued in the society, and in return, the society withheld its rights and privileges from them.

Let me conclude this part of the paper by noting this. Historically, considerations of social and economic position overrode cultural considerations and went to the extent of devaluating their own language, which so far, had served as a symbol of ethnic identity. Furthermore, the Indians' lack of knowledge of English was considered the main stumbling block in their rise to social and political power.

Today, in Guyana English and not Hindi is regarded as a superior language for political and economic reasons. Being the language previously of the ruling class i.e. the plantocracy and today of the government, English is looked upon by the East Indian community as a source of power, prestige and wealth. In this process English rose to a supreme position, leaving Hindi behind.

On a happy note, one should recognize that a pre-existing passive knowledge of Hindi, especially among older folks, is constantly being re-informed. This was achieved through religious books in Hindi, distance learning, Hindi movies imported from India, Hindi movie songs broadcast on local radio and television programs, and earlier, radio programs of the neighbouring countries of Suriname and Trinidad. Religious ceremonies and rituals are still in Hindi and often translated into English. A few Hindi classes were conducted up to about the mid-twentieth century by Cana-dian Presbyterian Missionary schools and some secondary schools, and up to this day community-run Hindi classes are held in some rural areas.

Priests, are among the few individuals known to have made a conscious attempt to acquire competence in spoken and written Hindi. The priests' knowledge of Hindi allows them to give a culturally authentic touch to religious ceremonies and to maintain their own status as "learned men". The others who possess active competence in standard Hindi are younger people who learn Hindi at institutions like the Sanskritic Kendra, the Indian Cultural Centre, and until about sixteen years ago at the University of Guyana, and those who have had the opportunity of studying in the Indian sub-continent.

Although these are some sporadic attempts to teach and revive Hindi these days, it seems that they would hardly make any difference unless its actual use its extended to some of the domains of day-to-day life.

In conclusion, it must be noted that despite all the circumstances militating against the more universal use of Hindi in Guyana, the Hindus' ability to preserve their values and to practise their customs must be accorded considerable significance. Considering the pervasive and socially and culturally destructive influence of the plantations during the indenture period, the Hindus have managed to keep intact the central tenets of their cultural values which in present times are given fuller institutional expression.

Site Meter