First, how is indenture related to India, historically. Simply speaking, this especially deals with a period, mostly in the nineteenth century when Indians were treated like “exported merchandise” by the British Empire and other empires to provide extremely inexpensive labour to replace slavery. In fact, “The Indian indenture system was a system of indentured servitude by which more than 1.6 million workers from British India were transported…” (Wikipedia)
But what should not be also forgotten is the extensive amount of slavery in British controlled India. “Between 1772 and 1833, debates in the British Parliament recorded the volume of slavery in India. A slave market was noted as operating in Calcutta, and the Company Court House permitted slave ownership to be registered…” (Wikipedia)
This Is all highly pertinent in the serious discussions on colonial reparations “raging” today. It is argued here that compensation should be added to based on the severe degree of exploitation that was experienced by this huge population of indentured Indians, who are likely related to 10s, if not 100s of millions of today’s descendants.
In fact, the UNs former director of its human rights commission, Michele Bachelet, ex President of Chile, highlighted these issues some years ago and to which she gave important momentum. Carrying the leadership torch on this, so-to-speak is Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. Though a number of Indians such as Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General have been highly articulate in criticizing the level of colonial exploitation Britain manifested. And now there is the major UN report on “colonial” reparations delivered by the UN Secretary General who seemingly underscored the legality on the need for such. Antonio Guiterres stated, “Under international human rights law, compensation for any economically assessable damage, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, may also constitute a form of reparations,”
Interestingly, there seems to be some rising solidarity in the Caribbean to include Indian indenture as part of reparations on colonialism. Verenne Shepherd wrote in 2022 in the main newspaper in Jamaica, the Daily Gleaner, “As another Indian Arrival Month is upon us with various celebrations being planned for “Indian Arrival Day” in several Caribbean countries, I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce the concerns that have increasingly been heard among people of Indian descent, who claim that they have been left out of the reparation movement in the Caribbean. In the same article it is reported that 523,657 Indians to Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Suriname, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, with smaller numbers to the Eastern Caribbean islands came in as indentured labor.
Further regarding the Caribbean, Barbados has played a large role in raising the reparation issues, as also indicated by Time Magazine, a main US weekly, having on one of its front covers reflecting this dynamic country Barbados of African diaspora leading the way on colonial reparations, specifically on the transatlantic slave trade. A major irritant to the island nation, a former UK colony which fairly recently abandoned constitutional monarchy to become a republic, has been the issue around a historical plantation.That is one owned by British Member of Parliament, Richard Drax, whose estate was used it seems in its day as a disgusting model from which other slave owners used in spreading such slave employed operations through the Americas. Mr Drax had been highly resistant to the idea of reparations and one might wonder as a Tory MP, the extent to which he contributes to the UK government thinking seemingly being against government reparations. And how many of these government members might have direct to indirect financial interests in not wanting to look fairly at the issue, and likely not to see in favor indenture as deserving compensation for the billions it added to mostly the benefit of the British upper crust. It is at least a question deserving further inquiry, including the whole reparations debacle around Lloyd’s of London, insurance corporation.
What might be the fallout on this if these grievances are not properly addressed? The West, evermore may have more difficulty with the South on many issues possibly even on war as in Ukraine, trade, broader security and multipolarity, if reparations are not substantively dealt with at some point in the not too distant future. This compensation, or whatever certain elite descendants of or affected corporation representatives wish to call it these days, needs to provide more than “loose change” as so far given by Denmark, The Netherlands and the UK through government and various institutions like banks. One includes Lloyd’s, the multi-billion dollar profitable insurance company that benefited commercially, immensely from the transatlantic slave trade, but only recently announced it would make around 70 million dollars available for ‘’reparations”.
in the Netherlands where the anti-immigrant party headed by Geert Wilders very recently won the most seats in the Dutch parliamentary elections, the electoral results may further reinforce this divide between western voters for reparations and those not so interested in them. Will it become a major wedge issue further being of advantage to invasive Russia in Ukraine (if not expansionist China) that have near zero major footprints of European colonialism, is difficult to say?
The West, though should be prudent not to react to all this as mistakenly a shakedown for large sums of money by failed, corrupt states in the South which will abuse any compensation. Such attitudes one might argue could be seen as a reflection of a neo-colonial mind, if not a continued legacy of the British -type, colonial mindset that the Narendra Modi led government is rightfully trying to extinguish. Proper structures can help avoid financial abuses on using reparation funds.
With enlightened discussion in a spirit of and working towards mutual peace, security and prosperity, the Global South and the West can forge a better bond in developing practical solutions to justice and development so required by the horribly suffering poor of hundreds of millions. Therefore, any efforts to dismiss the examination of India slavery, as well as indenture by the West and the impacts they have had on poverty and polarization today are “no goes”. Delaying tactics to grab the relevant issues by the horn will just exacerbate the West’s declining geopolitical position some might argue And any laying one group against the other on reparations should be not part of a Western plan to delay justice. A worldwide campaign on seeking remedies supported by the Washington-led West will breathe extra life into the South, overall including the ever successful fight in India to eliminate poverty but even faster. That should be good for everybody, both North and South. A maintained Modi government is the best bet for this with its constant and courageous determination to represent Indian interests, whatever the pushback be it on reparations or on terrorism from Canada for that matter.
Peter Dash, writes extensively on geopolitics.