Sushma unveils memorial to indentured workers in Kolkata

Kolkata, Oct 7 (IANS) External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Wednesday unveiled a memorial here to honour thousands of Indian indentured workers forced to work as labourers in sugar plantations in Suriname.

She inaugurated the ‘Suriname Memorial’ in the presence of West Bengal Governor K.N. Tripathi and Suriname envoy to India Aashna Kanhai.

It has been set up at the Suriname Jetty under the Kolkata Port Trust, from where the indentured workers from India set sail in ships to the small country located on the north-east Atlantic coast of South America from 1873 to 1910.

Gifted by the Surinamese government, the memorial is a bust of ‘Baba and Mai’ – a depiction of male and female indentured workers known as father and mother – and a replica of a monument in Suriname capital Parimaribo.

It symbolises the first Indian man and woman to set foot in the Dutch-speaking nation.

“This memorial is not only in the honour of those who went to Suriname but thousands of our forefathers forced to migrate to other countries as indentured workers,” Sushma Swaraj said at the event.

“There are numerous heart-rending stories of Indian indentured workers who faced numerous hardships. It was their endurance, hard work and determination that they not only survived despite all odds, but went on to become successful in all fields. Two of Suriname’s presidents – Ramsewak Shankar and Ramdat Misier – were of Indian origin,” said the minister.

She also lauded the Indian diaspora in foreign countries for preserving Indian culture and values and tradition.

Speaking on the occasion, Kanhai said the memorial would play a big role in strengthening the already cordial bilateral ties with India.

“Around 34,000 Indian indentured workers migrated to Suriname, many of whom perished during the voyage that took more than three months.

“Most carried the Ramayana, Hanuman Chalisa or Quran with them while some carried the Victoria rupee that still is a very desirable gift in Suriname. Even in my family, we have a Victoria rupee,” said Kanhai.

“I represent the fourth generation of those who left this very shore and I am honoured for that,” she added.

“From this jetty several people, in the prime of their youth, left Indian shores as indentured labourers to work in Suriname, to face an uncertain future. The migration spanned between 1870 and early 20th century,” reads the plaque below the memorial, set up jointly by the governments of the two countries.

The first ship named Lalla Rookh, carrying Indian indentured labourers, had arrived in Suriname in June 1873.

Mostly hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the indentured labourers were shipped from the Calcutta port on the Hooghly banks during the 19th and 20th centuries. An estimated 1.5 million bonded Indian labourers were transported to various parts of the world in the service of British colonial masters.

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