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Raffique Shah


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I arrived by birth

By Raffique Shah
May 30, 2017

There was a minority view back in the 1980s/1990s when the lobby for a holiday to mark the presence of Indians in Trinidad & Tobago was loudest, that the termination of indentureship in 1917, not their arrival in 1845, should be celebrated. If that had prevailed, this year the Indo-Trinidad community would have marked the centennial of end of their semi-slavery. But the very vocal majority had their say and their day, hence the declaration of a public holiday on Arrival Day, May 30, the date when, in 1845, the Fatel Rozack docked in Port of Spain and deposited 200-odd wretched Indian souls on these shores.

Without doubt, it was an historic occasion, the beginning of the mass migration to this British colony (as it then was) of approximately 150,000 Indians, the vast majority of them "indentures", which saw them bound to mainly sugar estates for a minimum of five years, under working and living conditions as punishing as those endured by the recently-emancipated African slaves.

The 72-year transplanting of Indians in the West Indies—Guyana and Trinidad accommodated the bulk of them—structurally altered the social, economic and cultural construct of the two largest recipient-countries in ways that the British architects of the scheme, the migrants themselves, and populations of Guyana and Trinidad, could never have imagined.

What began as an exploitative business venture, the planter class sourcing cheap, bonded labour to fill the void left by the freed slaves, soon degenerated into a society comprising two major ethnic groups, each conditioned to dislike the other, thereby sowing the seeds of distrust and disunity that would linger and haunt Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana almost two centuries later.

In their textbook divide-and-rule colonialism, the British pitted Indians against Africans by branding the Hindu and Muslim Indians pagans, which was poison to the now-Christianised African ex-slaves. And they portrayed the Africans as sub-human savages, which the Indians swallowed and digested. Neither race understood that they were joint victims of two dominant global governance systems, capitalism and colonialism.

So, rather than partner with each other to demand, and if necessary, fight for their rightful space in an alien country they had both built with their blood, sweat and tears, the ex-slaves and indentures fought each other, not physically, but by every other means possible, thereby gifting "Massa" choice chunks of the economic bread, leaving them fighting over the crumbs.

Hundreds of years after slavery and indentureship, look around and see who own and control the real commanding heights of the economy. Sure there are some successful Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians. But their successes pale when compared with the holdings of other ethnicities, the most powerful being the descendants of "Massa", followed by other groups who came to this country long after the blood of slaves and indentures had fertilised its soil.

But I digress. The focus is on Indian Arrival Day, a holiday over which I should be excited, even passionate. After all, my forebears were all "Jahajis", my great grandparents on both sides having made the long journey from India to Trinidad. In fact, an uncle told me that my mother's maternal grandfather arrived here on the Fatel Rozack. He is said to have been instrumental in establishing one of the earliest mosques, in Calcutta, Freeport.

With such lineage, I suppose I should experience some emotion today. Truth be told, if anything, I feel sad. Because wherever there are celebrations, except for a few token Afros, mostly politicians who need to dress accordingly and show their faces, they will be all-Indian affairs. Similarly, on Emancipation Day, the non-Afros will be fewer.

There is nothing wrong with a people showing pride in their ethnicity, their ancestry, their history, especially after colonialism denied them their rights and distorted their history. I am especially happy for my brethren who had been Europeanised at some point, by names, religions and garments, and who belatedly re-discovered their roots.

However, I find these "ethnic holidays" tend to be more divisive than unifying, at a time when our nation needs all hands on one deck, rowing in unison, all of us putting country before selves. While we live in relative harmony, increasingly I find leaders inserting the thin, near invisible wedges of race. Listen carefully to their speeches and messages today, and on other ethnic and religious holidays.

They cannot penetrate my patriotic armour: I am first a citizen of T&T, thankfully a discerning, informed, maybe even educated one. Anything else, any other beliefs or loyalties, falls behind that.

So yes, I am proud of my Indian roots, but I'm happy that my forebears chose (or were coerced) to come to Trinidad, for who knows what my fate might have been had I been born and raised in India?

Indeed, when I arrived by birth 101 years after my great-grandfather came on the Fatel Rozack, the burial of my navel string in this land signalled the severing of ancestral loyalties.

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