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Inder Singh regularly writes and speaks on the Global Indian Diaspora.



Relevance of Kolkata Memorial with Voluntary Indian Emigration
By Inder Singh

[ On January 11, 2011, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi is installing a memorial to over a million indentured workers who were sent to British colonies from the holding depots in Kolkata. This is a significant achievement for the descendents of indentured laborers. The article commemorates the event in Kolkata and is also an appeal to the descendents of voluntary migrants to build a memorial for their ancestors.]

In 1834 slavery was abolished and that ended the supply of free labor for sugar plantations. The British plantation owners could not imagine terminating their primary source of income - sugar plantations - for lack of free or cheap labor. They needed sustained supply of manual workers and came up with a plan to hire poor rural Indians from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to fill that gap. During the 19th and 20th centuries, about 1.2 million Indian citizens were contracted and transported in cramped ships to British colonies in Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean islands. The vast majority were lured by false promises while many did not even know that they were going to faraway lands for hard labor. In the new countries, they worked on starvation wages and lived in unimaginable state of grinding poverty, humiliation and inhuman conditions. Indentured servitude proved no better than the condemned system of slavery. After the end of their initial agreement, several opted out and returned to India while many decided to remain in those colonies with or without renewed agreement.
The economic condition of some Punjabi peasants was no different than that of Indians in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Punjabis too were forced to seek employment overseas. So a small number of Indians from Punjab also went as indentured workers. Per K. L. Gillian, as few as 369 Punjabis out of total of 21,368 indentured laborers went to Fiji from 1879 to 1900. Out of 369 Punjabis, the majority of them went to Fiji during the three year period from 1882-85[i].” In other British colonies, the number of Indians from Punjab was also comparatively small.

In Fiji, Punjabis were disappointed at the low level of wages paid to them. According to Gajraj Singh, “Punjabis refused to obey their labor overseers who were frightened by their physical strength and fiery temper. All of them were repatriated to India as distressed British subjects.[ii]” As a result of this incident, the colonial agents in India were instructed to avoid Punjabi recruitment for plantation work in the colonies. The shipping company agents nevertheless continued enticing Indians from Punjab to change their name and become eligible for free passage as indentured workers or pay their own passage. Several Punjabis volunteered to pay their own passage for jobs and opportunities in the colonies.

In the early twentieth century, the British started recruiting Indians from Punjab for the police, army and security forces for Malaya (as Malaysia was known then) to counter the growing influence of the Chinese. They also recruited Indians from Punjab for Singapore, Hong Kong and China for security forces. Those who could not enlist in the police or army became watchmen to the rich and prosperous. Friends and relatives of some of these Punjabi soldiers and security personnel followed them to the new lands in search of economic opportunities.

The immigrants worked on menial jobs or found work that the locals would not do. However, they sent glowing news about their exaggerated incomes to their village networks, family and friends. Motivated to seek opportunities and get rich quickly, a significant number of Punjabi peasants migrated to British ruled colonies and countries including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, and America as volunteer migrants. There was no passport system in those days so people could travel from one country to another with fewer restrictions.

In Australia, Indians found work as shepherds and helpers at sheep farms during the period of 1840 and 1850. They ran camel trains for the transportation of wool from one part of the country to the other. They also worked as farm laborers, small-time traders and hawkers. In New Zealand, they operated as peddlers, flax workers, drain diggers, brick makers and on road building projects. In urban areas, some worked as bottle collectors and hawkers of fruit and vegetables. After World War I, scrub cutting became their primary form of employment. In the US and Canada, they found work in lumber mills, rail-road construction and as farm workers.

While the number of indentured laborers increased rapidly, the number of voluntary Indian workers remained very small due to restrictions on the immigration of Indians, particularly to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. Australia had closed its doors to immigrants by legislation in 1901 when Indian population was barely a few hundreds, Canada found ways to restrict immigration in 1908 when the count of Indian immigrants ranged between 8000 to 10,000 and the United States imposed immigration restrictions in 1917 when Indian population was about 10,000. However, after India gained independence from the British, Indian emigration started increasing, particularly from the region in turmoil, Punjab which was divided with half going to Pakistan. Coincidentally, majority of the migrants to England, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand had previously also gone from the same region, then undivided Punjab. Today, America has the largest number of people of Indian origin – over 3 million – while the UK and Canada have over one million each.

Whether Indians went as indentured or volunteer unskilled laborers, they did back-breaking work to survive in new, alien lands, faced unimaginable problems and challenges, lived in shanty homes and slept under the open sky. They worked under unforgiving conditions, inhospitable environment, and ruthless masters. Despite these unforeseen challenges, large majority of the migrants withstood the pressures of local customs and religious influences and managed to retain their sense of origin, traditions, culture and religion. They were our forefathers who had come with a dream of a prosperous future for them and their children and had hoped to realize those dreams. They made sacrifices to raise future generations who excelled in all facets of life, contributed to the development of countries of their residence at all levels and reshaped the landscape of the country they called their home.
Currently, many people of Indian Origin, whose ancestors left over 150 years ago as indentured laborers, are occupying prominent positions of authority and responsibility. But they did not forget their pioneers and have built monuments to commemorate the arrival of their ancestors. Some countries celebrate the arrival of first batch of Indians as annual public holiday. The memorial in Calcutta is another such landmark memorial in memory of people who left years ago as contract workers.

Indian voluntary workers also went overseas for job opportunities or business potential. They too have carved a niche for themselves in many countries. Some are also occupying prominent positions of power and influence. But like their brethren whose ancestors went as indentured workers, voluntary Indian migrants or their descendents have not paid attention to building any memorial for their pioneers whose struggles won them privileges. They should learn from the descendents of indentured laborers and build monuments in their new countries to pay tribute to their pioneering ancestors for their struggles, setbacks, triumphs and achievements. Winston Churchill said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” Indians should prove that they do have future.


The installation of the Kolkata Memorial commemorative plaque "in recognition and remembrance of Indian Indentured Labourers of 19th - 20th centuries" will take place at an inaugural ceremony starting at 3:30pm on January 11, 2011 at Kidderpore Depot located at 14 Garden Reach along the Hoogley River in Kolkata. Hon Vayalar Ravi, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), will preside over the inaugural ceremony. GOPIO International Executive Vice President Ashook Ramsaran and Global Indian Diaspora Heritage Society (GIDHS) Secretary Leela Sarup will be active participants as well, having been and continuing to be actively involved in the planning and coordination leading up to this historic moment with the inaugural ceremony.

Also in attendance will be other officials of MOIA, officials of Ministry of Port Trust, officials of West Bengal Government, GOPIO International and representatives of PIO countries as well as historians and academicians, civic leaders and attendees from various countries. GOPIO International, in collaboration with the Global Indian Diaspora Heritage Society (GIDHS), is holding a commemorative luncheon starting at 12:00 Noon on January 11, 2011 at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata preceding the inaugural ceremony.

Demerara Depot, KolkataBoth Ramsaran and Sarup have been at the forefront of this initiative for a commemorative plaque, to be followed by a heritage museum/resource center at a suitably significant site in Kolkata. The planned heritage museum/resource center would house records of Indian indentured laborers' emigration (during the 18th and 19th centuries), literature, works of art, documentaries, films, artifacts, photographs and emigration records relevant to that era and those who left as indentured laborers. (Ref: GOPIO Newsletters of April 1, 2010, August 1, 2010 and October 22, 2010 respectively).


The following are the 2 events to be held:


  • Commemorative Luncheon at 12:00 Noon on Jan 11, 2011 at Oberoi Grand Hotel.
  • Inaugural ceremony at 3:30pm on Jan 11, 2011 at Kidderpore Depot



Inder Singh
regularly writes and speaks on the Global Indian Diaspora. He is Chairman of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). He was president of GOPIO from 2004-2009, president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at