PK Balachandran
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PK Balachandran

Migration of Indians across the seas began in the first quarter of the 19th century, when British owned plantations in far-flung areas were looking for Indian labour in the absence of local labour.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2006 12:16 IST

Large-scale migration of Indians across the seas began in the first quarter of the 19th century, when British owned plantations in far-flung areas were looking for Indian labour in the absence of local labour.

Black African slaves in the New World, who had been freed, were refusing to work in the sugar plantations in the West Indies. The indigenous Sinhalas in Sri Lanka were refusing to work in the new tea and rubber plantations.

Labour from India began to fill the gap in these and other parts of the British Empire.

India was a convenient source of labour supply then, because the British had established themselves in several parts of the country and the authorities in London and Calcutta (the capital of India was Calcutta then) were keen on serving British interests across the globe.

Permission was given to planters to recruit workers in India. On the flip side, poverty and frequent famines pushed Indians to seek work overseas.

The new form of Indian labour was designated as "indenture" and was to be better and more humane than "slavery" which had become unpopular in the British Empire. But indenture actually turned out to be a thinly veiled form of slavery.

It was only in 1830 that the government of India started to take any direct interest in the welfare of overseas Indians.

Having come across complaints of forced recruitment and recruitment by fraud, the government made it mandatory for the recruiters to parade the recruits before a magistrate to enable the latter to prevent any fraud and force in the process.

First welfare legislation in 1837

Act V of 1837 was the first legislation related to this new phenomenon. Inspired by the great reformer Macaulay, the act stipulated that both the agent and the recruit would have to appear before an official and prove the existence of a written contract; that the time period of the contract should be for five years though it could be renewed; that at the end of the contract, the recruit should be repatriated to the port of departure and that the vessel carrying the recruits should have adequate food, space and medical facilities.

However, these stipulations were not considered adequate and soon, the contract period was brought down to one year, and it was also said that a recruit should be able to go to the colony to see the conditions of work himself before he agreed to serve.

Planters and Agents flouted law

But the planters and agents flouted the law brazenly. Epidemics on board the "coolie" ships were common, leading to mass deaths. The working conditions in the plantations were abominable.

This made the government of India sit up and appoint a commission of inquiry, which had an Indian, one Russomoy Dutt, as a member.

The committee was highly critical of the system, and by Act XIV, the export of manual labour was banned except for Burma and the Straits Settlements.

But this did not stop the recruitment of labour for export, because the planters' lobby in London was very strong. Under pressure, Lord Auckland allowed the export of labour to Mauritius.

But he stipulated that a Protector be posted in Port Louis to oversee the conditions in which they worked.

Auckland also stipulated that the labourers be given 48 hours after landing to sign the contract and that they be given return fares. But in actuality, the labourers continued to pay at least a part of their passage!

To keep an eye on recruitment, in 1843 the government stipulated that emigration could take place only from Calcutta, the capital city.

Contractors favoured

Eventually, despite all the good intentions of the government of India, the planters kept wangling concessions. Five-year contracts were allowed. The provision for return fare was dispensed with.

No Protector was posted in Mauritius. The indentured labour system was extended to Natal in South Africa and emigration to Ceylon was allowed.

The appalling conditions in the plantations the world over were brought to light by the press.

And in 1859, the government of India for the first time, instituted the system of writing annual reports on the subject. But the reports were of now use because the government of India had no control over the conditions in the plantations overseas.

Meanwhile, regardless of the bad conditions in the British colonies, the government of India took the extraordinary step of allowing the French and the Dutch to recruit from India!

But then, the anti-slavery movement in Britain had gained ground and under its pressure, London decided to appoint Protectors of Immigrants in its Colonies.

However, this had little or no effect because the affected community, the Indians, never protested. The protestors, whether in India or Britain, were Whites.

In 1877, Alan Octavian Hume, a British official who founded the Indian National Congress, suggested to Governor General Lord Lytton that indentured labour be banned because the people of India disliked it.

He warned that an 1857 type of revolt could recur. But Lytton did not stop the practice, though he said that whole families should emigrate to give the immigrants a family life, at least.

Lord Ripon went a step further, and actively encouraged labour migration. In 1896, the government allowed immigration to Uganda to build the railways there, and did away with the stipulation that the recruits should be cleared by the authorities. Karachi on the West coast was made a port of embarkation.

Selfish middle class

The educated and wealthy Indians did not care for the poor migrants because they themselves were not suffering. It was when they began to suffer, that they took up the case of the downtrodden. And it was in South Africa that the Indian middle class felt the impact of racial and colonial arrogance very strongly.

MK Gandhi, an England qualified Barrister, was thrown out of a First Class compartment by a White because he was non-White. Gandhi protested and soon expanded his protest to include indentured labour.

Gandhi protested against the Black Act in South Africa, which required Indians to register and which restricted their trading rights. This was the issue for Gandhi's first Civil Disobedience movement.

Back in India, the new breed of Indian nationalist leaders sought a ban on labour recruitment, as they detested the branding of all Indians as "coolies". But the British authorities saw in the indentured labour system a way of mitigating the problem of poverty in India.

The government of India was afraid of intervening in the Colonies because the Colonies could ban Indian immigration.

The government of India wanted the Colonies to keep those labourers who had finished their contracts, but the Colonies wanted to send them back and even fined the non-returnees heavily.

Governor General Lord Minto's view was that overseas Indian labour was the responsibility of the government in London.

He made no protest when the Home authorities allowed the French to recruit in India for their Colony Reunion, where conditions were known to be appalling.

The Sanderson Committee, which went into the question of Indian labour sitting in London, conveniently concluded that indentured labour was good and should continue.

First Published: Jan 08, 2006 12:29 IST