Africa Speaks Forums Rasta Times US Crusade Trini View Books

167 Years of Indian "Arrival": Are Indians Still Arriving?

Dancers at Indian Arrival Day Celebrations in Plum Mitan 2011
Dancers at Indian Arrival Day Celebrations in Plum Mitan 2011

By Alana Lalman
May 30, 2012

I was well poised to begin writing for an article on Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago when I coincidentally stumbled over Satnarayan Maharaj's commentary about Indian Arrival in the Guardian newspaper that day. Sat Maharaj is the secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) organization which is the major Hindu organization in Trinidad and Tobago. It operates 150 mandirs and over 60 schools. It was formed in 1952 when Bhadase Sagan Maharaj merged the Satanan Dharma Association and the Sanatan Dharma Board of Control.

(Full article:

He very accurately states that,

On May 30, Indian Arrival Day will be celebrated to commemorate the first arrivals from the Indian subcontinent to Trinidad in 1845 aboard the ship SS Fatel Razack. From 1845 to 1917, approximately 130,000 immigrant labourers, the majority Hindus, came from India. This year's celebration marks 167 years since the first arrival of Indians.

One of his major points is that many Indians have not been granted the due respect for many of their contributions to the society. He suggests that as the nation celebrates 50 years as an Independent nation that we must reflect on the progress of the Indian community. He singles out a few names and I will admit as a former school teacher that only Cola Rienzi and Rudranath Capildeo have much mention in Social Studies and History texts. And yes, it is important to highlight the work that Trinidadians have done in the society. He seems to somewhat lean towards the suggestion that the contribution of Indians is different to other groups.

There are many other names of non-Indian descent that deserve due respect that are just as excluded for their contribution. But this reflects a pattern in our colonial history. There are many persons who have contributed to our society but seem to receive very little in the way of recognition. However, a person's experience according to their ethnic identification must be considered.

And I have a suggestion. Since the SDMS operates over 60 schools, can the school not provide this knowledge of those persons who are excluded in their curriculum? The former "cow sheds" that the schools were made in reference to are outstanding in their academic performance. And I laud the fact that the SDMS board has been able to create such a standard. However, is he using the reference to Eric Williams to enhance the success or belittle the situation?

No rouge element will dictate to us how our affairs are to be conducted

Who or what is the rogue element and who is "us". I'm only left to guess if Mr. Maharaj speaks of "us" as all Indians or as Hindus or as the SDMS body.

Today we see the accomplishment of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who has ascended to the highest parliamentary office in T&T

As an East Indian female, this accomplishment goes more beyond the politics of the party to have Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the forefront. For Indian females in the Hindu tradition, their position has oft been relegated to existences as mothers, housewives and caregivers. To see an East Indian woman at the helm of this country is very commendable. So, I am left to wonder how some of the older East Indian male elders have seen this transition from a male to a female leader and a female East Indian leader. On that same note, wasn't Basdeo Panday, a male Indian, already the Prime Minister? Has Mr. Maharaj forgotten or perhaps expressing some other sentiment?

We have achieved as a people and a community despite adversity, discrimination, victimisation and injustice. We have learnt to rely on self and on hard work and progress. This is what has sustained the Indian diaspora, not only in T&T but around the world.

Yes, we all hear the stories in our school classrooms that the Indians brought their culture and traditions. Their dress, languages, religions were all brought to the Caribbean; unlike the Africans who were robbed and stripped of almost everything that reminded the British of their heritage. How startling to see that the British and certain groups were willing to remove all traces of African culture but used the culture of the East Indians to further inculcate some of the poorest concepts of society.

For example, in the late 19th century, the Presbyterian churches used Hindi Bibles and songs as an aid to convert Hindus to Christianity. At the Presbyterian primary school I attended, we were taught to sing hymns in Hindi. Some schools and churches have retained their Hindi name. During the wave of conversion, Indian parents were encouraged to send their children to Christian schools if they were willing to change the child's Hindi name and convert them.

The arrival of the East Indians changed the demography of the Caribbean, notably Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad among other islands In the Caribbean. Indians were brought to replace the labour of Africans. The freed Africans had successfully won their Emancipation in 1834. Sugar was still a viable commodity but the costs of production were high. Africans, after centuries of forced labour without wages, demanded salaries for their work. But as a capitalist monarchy, the British deduced that they could exploit one of their colonies thus further. There were thousands of poor farmers and other workers in lower castes in India that were willing to work for meager wages in the Caribbean.

India was colonised by the British from the mid 19th century. This situation further exacerbated the caste system in India. According to Kevin Hobson: appears that the caste system extant in the late 19th and early 20th century has been altered as a result of British actions so that it increasingly took on the characteristics that were ascribed to by the British. appeared to be a static system of social ordering that allowed the ruling class or Brahmins, to maintain their power over the other classes.

Therefore, for the Hindu, acceptance of present status and the taking of ritual actions to improve status in the next life is not terribly different in theory to the attitudes of the poor in western society.

With the introduction of European and particulary British systems to India, the caste system began to modify. This was a natural reaction of Indians attempting to adjust to the new regime and to make the most of whatever opportunities may have been presented to them. must be remembered that castes were often considered to be divisions based on race. Therefore, it is quite possible that these theories had an affect on the conceptual construct of the British in India with regard to their attitudes toward Indians of various castes.

Therefore, in light of this, the situation in India was changed with the arrival of the British. When Indians arrived in Trinidad, they were already at the mercy of the British empire. Indians were encouraged to keep a separate system to already established groups as the ingrained social caste system encouraged separation of groups.

It is argued consistently that:

Either East Indians are more closely linked to and interwoven in their various religions and cultures in ways that Africans are not; or Indians have deliberately separated themselves from the society because of the particularity of their beliefs; their original location in the country; and the various constraints that prevented them from intermingling with the larger majority group.

But is the situation deliberate? Do Indians make such a conscious effort to keep separate? Or is the wider, successful approach and lasting testimony of our former colonizers?

If Indians have brought all their great high culture, haven't they also brought the low parts of that culture as well? Especially the caste system which has greatly died out, but Indians still make reference to it but don't realize that they are using it as part of the social order. For example, there are concepts of colourism (that I have previously mentioned in Also, the overbearing burdens on East Indian females due to male privilege in Indian society. Some of Hinduism's doctrines are notorious as a means to justify the social order and as an oppressor for women's role in society.

Instead of us rooting out these concepts, the focus is instead on music, dance, clothing and films. For Indian Arrival Day celebrations there will be shows and concerts highlighting the culture of East Indians. And, yes, all of this is very important. But what about all the underlying things we fail to address? When will there be discussions on things that can improve? Where is the discourse going to be held? Is the SDMS going to host a seminar — "Why the Indian population must be a separate one?" While, there is considerable merit in maintaining one's traditions and culture, it does not discount the fact that there are persons unwilling to accept that certain aspects of traditions and culture can be very oppressive.

Moreover, why is the word "arrival" used? Especially, considering the history that indentureship of Indians to the Caribbean by the British was a colonial process, and it connotes control by an imperialistic power. Instead of an Indian Arrival day, it may be more appropriate to have an "Indian Heritage Day". Let the history and contribution of East Indians be highlighted by greater education of such contributions instead of re-enacting Indians coming off the boat. There is too much focus on the "arrival" rather than the "staying." We have already arrived - we haven't all gone back - so what has been done in all the time we have been here? What have our lasting contributions been? What are we going to continue to contribute? What are the legacies being passed on to future generations?

Notwithstanding, it is with great respect that I view how the East Indian population has been able to retain their culture despite adversity. What I want to plainly bring to the forefront is the rest of that culture which East Indian "leaders" fail to address.

Share your views here...

Homepage | News and Views | Trinidad and Tobago News | News Blog