Thursday, December 12, 2013


A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

India after the abolition of Slavery in 1834 became the largest supplier of involuntary labor called the Indenture System. The historians who have worked on this theme in the immediate flush of decolonization found another robust reason to lampoon India: its oppressive "caste system" and the inherent poverty of India forced men and women to immigrate and seek fortunes overseas. This POLLYANNA  view is enshrined in the scholarly writing and a moral equivalence is established between the slaving countries like USA, Britain, France and Portugal with India. The book under review is a welcome departure form these trends. Hugh Tinker even called Indenture a "new kind of slavery". Gaiutra Bahadur, the great grand daughter of a coolie woman from Bihar, Sujaria, has traced the history of Indenture in Guyana the erstwhile British Guinea, and she has done a speendid job

There is a certain duplicity in the way in which India as a society looks upon the descendents of the indentured coolies. V S Naipaul, the great writer is appropriated as a great Indian who has made India proud in spite of the horrendous history of indenture. The recognition given to Pravasi Bharathi, or People of Indian Origin is meant to celebrate the bond with the great "motherland". However, the Indians who worked on the tea plantations of Sri Lanka are denied that recognition and whatever sympathy the Tamils of Sri Lanka enjoy here in India is reserved for the Jaffna Tamils, the high caste Tamils. Gaiutra Bahadur's book is refreshing only because it eschews such contrived identities and is a harrowing narrative of Indenture from the woman's point of view. Sujaria sailed from Calcutta in 1903 when she was foor months pregnent and there is no trace of a man accompanying her and the author's grand father is born on board the HMS Clyde. Sujaria a single woman made good for herself and in the process accumulated around 2 husbands including a high caste Thakur and all the men in her life seemed to have maintained cordial relations both with her and her children born to different men on the Plantation where she worked.

The labour and its discipline on the Plantation  was severe and many of the labour practices institutionalized in the sugar plantations were hold overs from the era of slavery, the Peculiar Institution as the Americans called it; flogging, branding, whipping, jail terms, extra work etc. Given the harsh condition and also the fact that women were relatively scarce, coolie women unlike their Indian counterparts enjoyed a degree of empowerment that came with choice. Sexual jealousies were rampant and "wife murders" were not that unusual.

The book documents in great detail the several instances of violence on the Plantations. The book is written well and is a moving testimony to the horrors of indenture written with rare sensitivity. The author has even traced the Pass issued to Sujaria and this shows that the System of Indenture was based on the bureaucratic principle of rule of records and classification.

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