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Little India in the Caribbean has an 'Indian' Prime Minister

May 27, 2010 16:51 IST

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in November last year, he would not have had any indication that the country would soon see an "Indian" prime minister, and that too a lady.

People of the island nation surprised all when they elected 58-year-old Kamla Persad Bissesar as the country's prime minister. The political coalition led by her won 29 of the 41 seats in parliament, the results of which were announced on May 26. She heads the United National Congress party.

None of the 148, 000 Indians, who had embarked on a 36,000 kilometer-long-journey on boats to work as labourers in the sugarcane plantations of Trinidad and Tobago between 1845 and 1917, would have ever imagined that a day would come when one of their descendants, and that too a lady, would become the prime minister of the island nation.

Indian labourers, mostly from the present day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, were taken there to replace the Africans when African slavery was abolished.

Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.3 million, over 40 percent of Indian origin and an equal percentage African.

Kamla Bissessar is the second Indo-Trinidadian to become the prime minister of the country. The first Indo-Trinidadian to achieve this distinction was Basdeo Pandey, who was Prime Minister from 1995 to 2001.

The British had taken Indians as labourers to different parts of the world, like Fiji, Mauritius and Guyana. Unlike in many other locations, Indians who went to Trinidad held on to their religion and traditions.

What helped them in their effort were the copies of the Tulsidas Ramayana and Hanuman Chalisa, which were taken in boats to keep them in good humor during the months-long journey.

Here is the personal account of the author:

I had the opportunity of visiting the island nation in 1997 and study how the Indo- Trinidadians have maintained their traditions despite efforts by many missionary organizations to convert them.

I had been entrusted with the task of establishing the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Cultural Cooperation by the then foreign minister IK Gujral.

He told me that he had given an assurance to Basdeo Pandey, then prime minister of Trinidad, that the promise to establish a cultural centre made by Indira Gandhi, when she visited the country in 1968, would be implemented soon.

When I arrived in Port of Spain, Prime Minister Basdeo Pandey offered one of the bungalows in Caroni, in the midst of earlier cane plantations to house the Cultural Centre. It was near the Indian settlements, and adjacent to the University area.

With the active assistance of the local government, I was able to renovate the bungalow, and established a library, and rooms for teaching dancing, tabla and music. Indo-Trinidadians were keen to learn Indian music and dancing, particularly Kathak.

Parts of Trinidad was like a "Little India". Each village had a temple and a mosque. According to estimates, there were 150 temples and 100-odd mosques. Almost every week, as head of the Cultural Centre, I used to get invitations to attend ''services'' at the mosques and temples.

The Indo-Trinidadians had imbibed part of the Christian traditions, in that every temple had a ''Sunday Service''. They would gather at the temples, recite either a chapter of the Tulsidas Ramayana or of the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of the discourse, participants would share a common lunch.

Most of the activities were coordinated by organizations like the National Council of Indian Culture, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and the Hindi Prachar Sabha.

In the centre of the island was located the ''Diwali Nagar'', where Indo-Trinidadians gathered to celebrate Diwali, Dussehra and other festivals every year.

They had their own brand of Indian music, which used to be called ''Chutney'' and ''Pichkari''. The local theatres would screen Indian movies every week, and the television stations had entertainment programmes, which borrowed heavily from Indian films.

Trinidad and Tobago today is a rich country, with oil resources. One of the well-known Indians in Trinidad was Laxmi Mittal, who owned ISPAT, which was an ailing steel plant taken over by him turned into an industrial complex. He is a leading industrialist of international stature today.

Over the years, Indo-Trinidadians have earned a name for themselves, the foremost being VS Naipaul. Many Indo-Trinidadians became doctors and engineers and migrated to the United States and Canada

The University of Trinidad had an active collaboration with Indian educational institutions. I recall having interacted with many visitors from Indian educational establishments like Manipal.

The markets in Trinidad used to stock Indian dress material, spices and items required for worship. There is immense goodwill for India, and it could become a center for promoting trade with Latin America, particularly countries like Brazil.

Reports emanating from Port of Spain say Bissesar is a devout Hindu. I am sure all Indians would like to see her in India, and take pride in her becoming the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

Image: Kamla Persad Bissesar during a celebration in a school at Tunapuna. File picture.

Photograph: Reuters

 

I Ramamohan Rao
Source: ANI