A tribute from India to the ‘old diaspora’

By Anindya Rai Verman,IANS,

New Delhi : A diaspora memorial will be inaugurated early next year in Kolkata as a tribute to India’s ‘old diaspora’ – the thousands of indentured labourers who left India during 1834-1920 to work in remote British colonies and whose descendants are now spread across the Caribbean and parts of Africa.

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The memorial at the Kidderpore (Demerara) depot clock tower will be fully funded by the Indian government. It will herald the start of the building of a diaspora museum later.

“Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi is driving the project. He feels that too much focus has been paid to the ‘new diaspora countries’ like the US, Canada, the UK and Australia since the 1950s-60s and not much attention has been paid to the ‘old diaspora nations’ like South Africa, Mauritius, Surinam and Trinidad & Tobago,” G. Gurucharan, joint secretary in the ministry, told IANS.

“The memorial and museum will certainly be the first in India, and perhaps the first in Asia,” he added.

The memorial will be a dream come true for Ashook Ramsaran, a Guyanese of Indian origin and executive vice president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO International), which is playing a prominent role in the project.

“My great grandfather left India in 1853 (through the Kolkata port). It took him over 100 days by ship to reach Guyana (then British Guiana). It took me less than 24 hours by airplane to come to Kolkata,” an emotional Ramsaran said over phone from New York.

Born in Letter Kenny Village in Guyana, Ramsaran emigrated to the US for further studies and settled there with his family. He visited Kolkata last month to scout for sites for the memorial and museum, along with overseas Indian affairs secretary A. Didar Singh and Gurucharan.

Ramsaran said the plan is to inaugurate the memorial plaque on Jan 11, 2011, as part of the first phase of the work. It will be attended by the prime ministers of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius besides top government officials.

According to Gurucharan, no specific date has been set, though the memorial’s inauguration will be around the time of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas next year.

Ramsaran said: “During my journey to Kolkata and my visits to sites and docks there, I thought I was led to that place, doing what has to be done as a lasting tribute to everyone who left those shores.”

“It was a personal quest that was quickly transformed to a universal one,” Ramsaran said, adding: “The Demerara clock tower is intact and in fairly good condition.”

“There were some hurdles: convincing the government of India and the West Bengal government and articulating the need, the obligations and the plan. The overseas Indian affairs ministry has been very supportive,” he said.

The ministry’s team, Ramsaran and prominent Indian historian Leela Sarup travelled down the Hooghly river where British transport ships were docked to receive shiploads of Indian indentured labourers.

They evaluated various depots like Surinam Jetty, the Demerara Depot, and Garden Reach Depot, and land sites in Bhowanipore and Alipore that used to house the labourers before shipment.

“GOPIO International has filed an application in Kolkata to register the Global Indian Diaspora Heritage Society (GIDHS) as an integral unit of GOPIO International Cultural Council. GIDHS will be the organisation to plan, coordinate and manage the museum to be constructed as phase II of the project,” Ramsaran said.

“An international team of GIDHS will be organised in committees with responsibilities for design, layout, acquisition of material, planning and implementation. I estimate work to start in mid-2011 and continue for three years,” he said.

“For funding, we expect some support from the government of India and the West Bengal government, but a significant portion will be contributions from the global Indian diaspora. We will get a clearer picture of the total cost, perhaps in early 2011,” Ramsaran said.

Gurucharan said: “As far as setting up of the memorial is concerned, it will be fully funded by the overseas Indian affairs ministry. No details of costs have been worked out yet for the museum.”

“For the museum, we plan to acquire documents from all sources — originals where possible, but duplicates and copies where originals are not available for acquisition. We plan to have a complete history for viewing, research and posterity,” Ramsaran said, adding he has already drafted the inscription to be placed on the memorial plaque.