Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, from where their forefathers had sailed away as indentured labourers or
girmitiyas, never to return.
After months in cramped ships on the choppy Indian Ocean, they had landed at a 1,640 sq mt spot off the Bay of Trou Fanfaron in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
Now a Unesco heritage site, the spot houses a depot from 1849 that received thousands of labourers from India, east Africa, Madagascar, China and Southeast Asia brought in to work in sugar plantations or for transfer to other British colonies in the Reunion Islands, Australia, Africa or the Caribbean.
This is the point from where the global migration of more than two million labourers began. It’s no surprise the site -known as Aapravasi Ghat – is not just a national monument for Mauritius but also sacred site for thousands of people of Indian origin in Mauritius and several other countries.
The archives of Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius is repository of all records from the Aapravasi Ghat, including names of the labourers or girmitiyas, the ships they arrived on, landing dates and places of origin in India including states and zillas.
“This year, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (from January 21 to 23) is significant for many of us of Indian origin in Mauritius and other countries. Many of our ancestors were from Uttar Pradesh and their descendants can trace their roots to villages and towns near Varanasi.
For others from West Bengal, Gujarat and Bihar too, the city is considered a sacred pilgrimage and is special,” says Vedanand Ramavatar, officer in-charge of the Aapravasi Trust Fund in Saint Louis. Nearly 500 Mauritians have signed up for the convention in Varanasi and Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth will be the chief guest.
“The time-tested ties with India have helped in promoting economic and cultural development in our country,” Mookhesswur Choonee Gosk, a former Mauritian minister, said in an email interview. He too will be in Varanasi next week. While many PIOs have moved to other countries from where their ancestors worked as indentured labourers, their links with UP and Bihar remain strong. Like Khalil Rahman Ali, a writer who moved to the UK from Guyana. The principal characters of his historical novel Sugar’s Sweet Allure are shown as travelling through Varanasi and Allahabad.
“These cities in my novel are symbolic of resilience, deep-rooted philosophy, and cultural strength that the characters gained. These helped them survive through their tough lives as indentured labourers,” he says.
Some Disappointment Too PIOs from Mauritius and other countries value their cultural and linguistic ties with India and usually their participation in PBD has been prominent. However, this year, some are disappointed. The reasons include the subsuming of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs (MOIA) into the ministry of external affairs under the NDA government.
“For many PIOs, especially those who are second or third generation, the engagement with India decreased when MOIA became a department within MEA and the annual PBD became a once-in two-years event,” says Ashook K Ramsaran, a descendent of indentured labourers from Guyana. He now lives in the US and is the founder of Indian Diaspora Council International.
He used to come every year to India for PBD but this year, he won’t. He feels PIO issues from girmitiya countries are likely to be placed on the backburner in this convention and the Indian government may instead highlight internal issues, given general elections are near.
Another issue PIOs have been raising with the Indian government is documents required for them to get Overseas Citizen of India cards, which most of them are unable to provide because their ancestors left India more than 150 years ago.
“Schemes such as Namami Gange to clean up the Ganga have been drawing support from PIOs on emotional grounds because the connect they have with the river. However, if a diaspora platform is used to showcase domestic issues, it may not really strike a chord,” says R Dayakar, a retired diplomat who headed foreign ministry’s NRI/PIO division. There are thousands of PIOs spread across over 30 countries which were former British colonies, and the bond that ties them is the desire to reconnect with their ancestral heritage.
“Unless the government puts in place a system to accept every PIO as an integral part of the tapestry that constitutes the greater outreach of India, we will feel disconnected,” says Cliff Rajkumar, an entrepreneur from Guyana, who now lives in Canada.
He says there should be better outreach towards PIOs through Indian high commissions.