Finding Indo-Caribbean identities

On April 29 to May 1, 2016 (Grenada’s Indian Arrival Day), the first ever International Conference on the Indian Diaspora in Grenada and the Wider Caribbean was held at the St. George’s University Campus, True Blue, Grenada. The first of its kind in Grenada, from the opening ceremony to the closing remarks, the conference highlighted the past and current complicated social, cultural and political-economic relationships existing between India and the population of Indian descendants living in the Caribbean and other places where Indian indentured labour was utilised.

Spearheaded by Dr Kumar Mahabir, the conference was organised by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre, the Indian Cultural Organisation (Grenada) Inc, and the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, with support from the Belmont Estate Group of Companies, and the High Commission of India to Trinidad and Tobago (also servicing Grenada, Montserrat and Dominica). In addition to the Indo-Grenadian community, presenters came from Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, New York, and Guadeloupe. References were made to these and other places with the Indian Diaspora, including Suriname, Martinique, Mauritius and Fiji, true to its claim as being an “international” conference.

Mansraj Ramphal and Dr Kumar Mahabir both presented archival data on the specific ships that brought indentured Indian labour to the Caribbean colonies, particularly to Grenada. They listed the births and deaths occurring on ships and on plantations in the colonies. What I most appreciated in the organisation of the conference was the trajectory of the discussions, from this historical review of how the Indians came to be in the Caribbean to addressing questions of cultural survivals and contemporary Indo-Caribbean identities.

Mr Jean Sahai described the struggle of Indians in the French Antilles for gaining citizenship (in 1923 in Guadeloupe, and later extended to other French regions), up until which point, they had been considered stateless. Even within other Caribbean territories, discourses of the post-colonial Creole nation have erased the “Indian”. A few presentations jostled with these questions of ethnic and national identity, for instance, showing its historic relevance for Indian indentured labourers in Grenada where planters, set in the mentality under which chattel slavery flourished, renamed the Indian workers with their own names, such as Thomas or Adams. This was the beginning of the assimilation of indentured labourers into the post-slavery colonial society. Speakers from the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, such as Wilbur Jawahir Adams, reflected on their sense of loss at not carrying the names of their ancestors who had left India with “Hindustani” names, but left the world bearing the names of white estate owners. They would have stood out with their “different” or different-sounding name, but naming and misnaming as a project of colonialism sought to make them invisible and better integrate them into an invisible position of subjugation.

The conference was a path of discovery and reconciliation, whereby people of Indian descent could find themselves, their histories, their families, their legacies and the legends within their lineages. It was a way of recognising the contribution of people of East Indian descent to the development of social, political, academic and cultural fields, as well as to the flora and fauna. Both Jalaludin Khan as well as the keynote speaker Dr Beverley Steele discussed plants and animals of Indian origin that can be found in Grenada. Khan traced some of this presence back to global trade routes preceding Indentureship and the (forced and voluntary) migration of Indians to the region.

A number of presentations sought to find the cultural survivals and retentions in the region, connecting these to a sense of identity as “Indo-Caribbean”. Ms Mohammed and Mr Jai Sears both explored the Indian cultural presence in Grenada.  In her presentation, Shalima Mohammed noted that Indo-Grenadian migrants to Trinidad first saw certain symbols of Indian culture, like the dhoti and tassa drums, and Hindu religious practice, like flags (jhandi), when they arrived in Trinidad. Dr Visham Bhimull from the Hindi Nidhi Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago investigated the linguistic connections of “plantation Hindi” or what he calls “Caribbean Hindustani,” the Hindi dialects spoken in Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, to regional dialects in north India form where labourers had been recruited/taken. Bhimull’s paper was based on secondary data collected in the 1970s, as living populations speaking these languages are now greatly diminished.

Understanding “Indian” and “Indo-Caribbean” identities in this way also provoked questions about race relations in Grenada and the wider Caribbean: how have Indo-Grenadians been integrated into the larger society? What sort of interactions have they had with other groups in the country, particularly with the formerly enslaved, with whom they most closely experienced subjugation within colonial societies? How do transplanted communities retain cultural practices, while adapting to new socio-political environments, especially as minorities?

The event could have had a greater impact, but was unfortunately not well-attended, being distanced from the community through its being situated on the University campus. Yet for the Indo-Grenadian peoples in attendance who were grappling with alienation or feeling distanced from their histories, the conference represented a symbolic link to community and legacy. It was a forum for gaining visibility as an Indian diasporic population and as Caribbean people.

In the vein of continuities, we must think about the future of events like these. How can we continue these conversations? In what ways can this be most useful to Caribbean peoples of Indian descent? What conversations are needed for the future of Indian descendents in Caribbean and other contexts?