Memories Of The Diaspora

The Indian Express, 22nd November 1996. Column article by Arvind N. Das. Re-Edited.

Surinam's Little Hinduism

Sometimes it requires a little nation to teach a lesson to Big Brother. The tiny country of Surinam holds the mirror up to all those in India who have concerned themselves with the Hindutva (Hinduness) Campaign - both its votaries who have sought to derive political mileage from invoking it as well as those who have been bothered about its sectarian, divisive and destructive aspects.

Imagine both Indian-origin Hindus and Muslims in a land thousands of kilometers away from India, literally across the seven seas, using a phonetic similarity to call their country Sri Ram Desh. Imagine the president of the Sanatan Dharma Sabha (Orthodox, i.e. Hindu Religious Council) being married to a Muslim. Imagine that the most intense theological debates are conducted not between Hindus and Muslims or between them and Christians but between Sanatan Dharmists and the Arya Samajists. Imagine a people for whom Indian culture does not mean Kathak and Malhar but Natua Naach and Baithak Gana peppered with Calypso.

Imagine a people for whom the Hindi Parishad is more important than the Hindu Parishad. And imagine a polity where VHP is not the acronym of a sectarian and obscurantist political organisation led by ascetics who claim to have renounced the world but, at different times, the abbreviation that denoted the Dutch name for the United Hindustani Party or latter, the Vatan Hitkari Party.

Surinam is a country in South America. It used to be known as Dutch Guyana, which the Dutch got in exchange for New Amsterdam, now New York, USA. After pushing out into the southern forests those aborigines who survived the encounter with Western civilization, the Dutch set up a plantation economy based on slavery.

The slaves were imported from Africa. Those who remained on the plantations and in the few towns that developed were the ancestors of the group that is now know as Creoles. The descendants of those slaves who escaped are known as Bush Negroes or, nowadays with a degree of political correctness, as Maroons.

When slavery was abolished in 1863, the Dutch plantation owners experienced a shortage of labour and decided to substitute the African slaves with Chinese coolies, Javanese and, ultimately, indentured labourers from English India. The Hindustani (Peninsular East Indians) of today are the offspring of those contract workers who were shipped far away from their native land to work in near-slavery.

There is a little monument in Paramaribo commemorating the immigration of the Indians. It depicts a couple, known as Baba and Mai, clad in the typical garments of the rural poor, arriving in Surinam carrying pathetic little bundles containing their worldly wealth. The immigrants also took little bits of India with them: lumps of Indian soil, little pots of water from its rivers, seeds of of various kinds. From some of those seeds, the Surinamese Indians developed substantial rice cultivation and made Surinam into a major rice exporting country.

But the Indians also carried religion and culture - the ways of living that they were familiar with. As in the areas they were drawn from - Bihar and U.P., the Indians consisted of about 80 percent Hindus and 20 percent Muslims. They retained those identities even in Surinam.

However, despite their great journey across the world, in some senses, the Hindus and Muslims of Surinam remained frozen in both space and time. Their primary self-definition as Hindustani rather than as Hindus or Muslims was necessary because they had to construct their ethnicity vis-a-vis the "others," the Dutch poor or Bakra Lok (Goat People), the sophisticated but different Creole Ravana jat and the wild Maroons who were called Rakshas jat (Demon People*), the Chinese known as Shinwa and the Javanese as Malays.

Among themselves, the Indians kept religious boundaries quite open. This was particularly so in the limited political realm. This was helped to a large extent by the very nature of religious practice that the Indians had taken with them. Their religions were rural, folk, remembered and, therefore, non-classical. The Little Traditions were all that they had and such traditions promoted co-existence rather than mutual conflict. Thus, the poor Muslims who migrated to Surinam had no possibility of undertaking Haj either from back home in India or from their new country. And the Hindus constructed their religion on memorised texts like the Hanuman Chalisa rather than on the classicised Puranas.

It is not that attempts were not made in due course to classicise the religions and therefore to divide the people. As early as 1930 a yagna was performed by newly imported Hindu priests and at about the same time, missionary mullahs too arrived to lecture about correct Islamic practices. Interestingly, caste had for all practical purposes disappeared among the Indians and, more than the efforts of the Arya Samajis, it was simply the necessities of the immigrants' lives that had led to this radical development. The Manusmriti was imported in the 1920s along with the Chanakyaniti and Valmiki's Ramayan but they remained esoteric texts; the easily memorisable Ram Charitra Manas remained much more popular that even the voluminous Mahabharat.

Among the Hindus, despite the later importation of Sanskrit texts and high rituals, even the religious practice of the priests remained confined to Karmakand and rural yajmanika. In fact, the impact of Hindi cinema and its popularisation of relatively new gods and goddesses like Satyanarayan, the patron of seafarers and traders, and the miraculous goddess Santoshi was far more than that of classical religion and culture.

The dividers of society, however, did not give up. Ashok Singhal's VHP and the maulavis of Petro-promoted Islam carried on trying to segment the Surinamese, but they have to date, met with little success. Indeed, even the other type of godmen, like Chandraswami, who are more obvious brokers of power and peddlers of commerce under the guise of religion, scored only temporary success in Surinam. The recent visit to India by some prominent Indians to give evidence on how they had been cheated by the vendors of religion put tiny Surinam on the front pages of Indian newspapers. There should have been more, and better, reasons for India to take interest in its diaspora that constitutes the single largest ethnicity in that Caribbean country.
The writer travelled to Surinam in connection with a research project on ethnicity and the diaspora.
*Rakshas and Ravana: the Rakshas are Demons, while Ravana was the Demon king of Ceylon, the abductor of Ram's wife Sita and therefore his main adversary. Ram and Sita are considered deities.
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