Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
HVK Archives: Exiled to Sri Ram desh

Exiled to Sri Ram desh - The Hindustan Times

Arvind N. Das ()
24 October 1996

Title : Exiled to Sri Ram desh
Author : Arvind N. Das
Publication : The Hindustan Times
Date : October 24, 1996

This article is from an earlier data. It is being sent to
indicate the thinking of the author at that time.

Surinam hardly ever impinges on the consciousness of
Indians. It is only if there is an aircrash there or a
football hero of Surinamese origin like Ruud Gullit
performs spectacularly that we take notice of a country
located far, far away. And, of course, when businessmen
from Surinam come to India to give evidence about how
they have been cheated by crooked godmen, the country
puts Surinam on the front pages of its newspapers, only
to relegate it to the outer darkness soon thereafter.

This is a bit unfair because 27 per cent of Surinam's
population, the; largest ethnic group there, is of Indian
origin and looks to India with a vague nostalgia which is
touching in these times when "ethnicity" has replaced
"nationalism" in the lexicon of post-modernist social
scientists. The ancestors of the people who call them-
selves Hindustanis were taken as indentured labourers
between 1873 and 1917 and were passed on by British
agents to the Dutch who then ruled over what became
Suriram. The original Hindustanis were poor and illiter-
ate and they carried India with them only in their minds.
There were no texts among such people to enable them to
formulate their discourse of the motherland and yet India
remained alive in their collective memory.

Unlike fellow contratias, contracted labourers, in Brit-
ish Guiana or Trinidad and Tobago who quickly adopted the
English language and manners and consequently threw up
heroes like VS. Naipaul, Chodi Jagan and Rohan Kanhai,
the Hindustanis in Surinam saw no reason to give up their
Bhojpuri-Avadhi dialects in favour of an essentially
provincial language like Dutch and continued to communi-
cate with each other in a language frozen in time. And,
like language, other aspects of culture too remained
largely located ill the late 19th, early 20th century

In particular, the religions of the Hindustanis were
specific to the people. The Hindus carried out their
worship not through the classicised Saskritic texts and
rituals but through elements that were remembered. Thus,
for instance, the Hanuman chase and Ramcharitmanas re-
mained far more immediate for them than the Mahabharata.

The Hindustani Muslims too were, different from Muslims
at "home" or elsewhere. For instance, being both poor
and geographically traumatised, the institution of the
haj had no significance for them after their relocation.
Indeed there was an interesting synthesis of the tradi-
tions of the Hindustani Hindus and Muslims and this was
particularly evident in the enthusiasm which marked the
tazia processions that were taken out jointly.

The explanation that such processions provided the only
opportunity to Hindustani labourers to express their
identity collectively is only one part of the story. The
more significant aspect is that precisely because these
people were poor and illiterate, they interpreted reli-

gions with their least common denominators which are
necessarily syncretic and nonconfrontational. It is not
for nothing that Hindustanis, Hindus and Muslims alike,
used a phonetic similarity with Surinam to call the land
of their exile "Sri Ram desh".

This reference also meant that they were trying to define
themselves vis-a-vis "the other(s)", an essential prereq-
uisite of discovering their own ethnicity. And "the
other(s)" were many; the Dutch called bakras, the upward-
ly mobile Creoles called Ravan jat (Ravan was, after all,
a learned Brahmin), the Bush negroes or Maroons, slaves
who had escaped into the forests, called Rakshasa jat,
the Javanese indentured labourers called Malais (from a
geographical approximation with Malaya), the Chinese
coolies called Shinoi, and the Amerindians called Indies.

This variegated ethnic pattern created a country of many
pluralities and no single majority and, in due course,
led to the political practice of voting for apan jaht, a
practice followed by all ethnicities alike.

It is not that the Hindustanis were no remained homogene-
ous. As early as 1913, Pandits from India arrived in
Surinam and tried to classicise the religion of the
Hindustanis through the performance of various yajnas.
They remained largely unsuccessful but persisted. Even
now the visits of Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad are part of the same process of attempted prose-
lytisation. From the Twenties, maulvis and Arya Samaj
pracharakas also visited Surinam regularly and tried
their best to drive wedge among the Hindustani community.

The biggest change made to the religions of the Hindusta-
nis came several decades later and through a very differ-
ent medium: cinema. The coming of Hindi films and later
video cassettes to Surinam not only added a visual ele-
ment to the remembered image of India but also provided
the Hindustanis with new gods and goddesses to whom they
dedicated new places of worship. After the oil boom in
the Seventies, Islamic missionaries too added new ele-
ments to the religious practices of the Hindustani Mus-

Meanwhile, the communities as a whole also had to cope
with changing economic and political conditions. It was
the ending of slavery earlier that had institutionalised
indenture. But even the system of indentured labour ended
in the second decade of the 20th century. Many "freed"
Hindustanis opted to remain in Surinam where they got
substantial bits of land in an underpopulated country
rather than return to the miserable existence as poor
peasants and labourers in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. they
sanctified the land with the bits of Indian soil that
they had carried with them and began a multi-crop culti-
vation with the seeds they had smuggled in. Over a period
of time they have emerged as some of the most prosperous
rice farmers in the world.

At the same time, Surinam started discovering its immense
wealth in the shape of natural resources: gold, timer,
bauxite, fish and shrimps, and, eventually, oil. All
these created a Surinamese people very different from the
miserable slaves and indentured labourers who have been
taken there. The responses, of the different sections
were, of course, different. While some of the Creoles

turned revolutionary and demanded independence, the
Hindustanis preferred to seek the protection of the Dutch
colonialists. In the event, when independence did come to
Surinam, the Hindustanis in particular received it most

A sign of this process which has been called "the diffi-
cult flowering of Surinam was the mass migration of vast
sections of the Surinams population to the Netherlands
just prior to and following independence. About two
fifths of the country's population voted against indepen-
dence with its feet and today Surinam, a country five
times the size of the Netherlands, has only about 300,000
resident citizens with half or more living in the city of
Paramaribo. This demographic pattern has many interesting

But let us concentrate for the present only on the Hin-
dustanis. The migration to the Netherlands created anoth-
er concept of home for them. The emergence of the United
States, towards which its bauxite and oil economies were
oriented, provided another point of cultural reference.
What about India then? And where does ethnicity relate
for Anderson has called "long distance nationalism"? The
need more detailed consideration than is possible here
but, for the present, led us only pose the questions so
that answers can be sought at some other time.

This Surinamese experiences brings up the problem once
again. Ethnicity and nationalism are not identical,
although they can be conceptualised as process through
the use of similar historiography, both being indebted,
as it were, to a history that can be read backwards and
interpreted in many convenient ways. In fact, ethnicity
often challenges nationalism, in real life politics as
well as in academia.

Even as the brutal and bloody ethnic fragmentation of
countries like Surinam, for instance, is still being
played out, post-modernists in the sylvan groves of
academy are hard at work rejecting the nation, nation
state and nationalism. Their grounds are that these were
seen by the colonial, orientalist and other variants of
the modernist discourse, including the liberal national-
ist one, as the ultimate result of a teleological theory
of evolutionism: the outcome of modernisation that was
itself inevitable.

In discarding the bathwater of Hegelian determinism, they
also throw out the baby of human progress, of the En-
lightenment, of rationalism itself. But is that possible
and is it intellectually consistent? It is important to
seek answers to this because the problem is relevant not
only for Surinam and its Hindustanis but for India it-

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements