Autobiography of an Indian Indentured Labourer: Munshi Rahman Khan (1874-1972)
Pages 271. Rs 495
Large-scale emigration of unskilled labourers from British India took place in the 19th century. These labourers, who were hardly making both ends meet and living in extreme poverty here, found work on much better wages in South America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean (islands situated in the sea between the West Indies and Central and South America). They worked in mines and plantations and were able to help their families back home in India financially, in addition, of course, to meeting their own personal needs of food, clothing and shelter. They led a comparatively happy and contented life in the countries of their adoption.
Between 1832 and 1924, about five lakh Indians left for the Caribbean and started working there, mostly in Trinidad, Jamaica and Surinam. There is almost no written information about the lives and experiences of these indentured labourers, and the vicissitudes through which they passed, particularly in Surinam. The present translated autobiography by Munshi Rahman Khan, written originally in Hindi (Devnagari script), is indeed a very informative and valuable document throwing light on his and his co-workers’ and admirers’ lives in that country. Though a devout Muslim, he was fairly a good scholar of Hindi and the Ramayana, both of which he taught with great zest and devotion. His narration presents a vivid picture of the social intercourse and ethnic relations that existed in a colonial society among the indentured labourers in Surinam. Both subject matter and style of his narration is quite stirring and gripping, as he alternates prose with interesting verses, which shows that he was deeply religious soul.
Munshi Rahman Khan
Though Munshi Rahman Khan was a devout Muslim having unshakable faith in Allah, the Almighty and His Quran, there isn’t a tinge of any communal feeling in his heart or his deeds. He loves to teach Hindi and preach the Ramayana, something unusual for a Muslim. Urdu in his time was not associated with the Muslims only, and they freely and happily used Hindi. Rahman Khan was proud of his liberal education, which put him on the same pedestal as the upper caste educated Hindus. Munshiji was born in a Pathan family. Migrating from the region now known as Afghanistan, his ancestors further travelled into the interior of India and settled down in Bundelkhand in Utter Pradesh. His father, Mohammad Khan, finally made his home in the village of Bharkhari, where Rahman was born and educated. While remaining a staunch Pathan, he had integrated the Hindu pantheon with the Muslim prophet and other revered Muslim saints.
His narration of the history of Hindustan stops with his migration to Surinam in 1898 at the age of 24. He carries the Hindustan of his youth to Surinam with all its fond memories and associations. Clearly the moment he boards the ship in Calcutta to cross the kala pani, Rahman Khan disassociates himself from the history of the people who were so near and dear to him and from a country of which he was so proud. The title of Munshi Rahman Khan’s Autobiography in Hindi is Jeewan Prakash. It has four chapters (which he calls volumes) in addition to an introduction in which he gives the essential events of the History of Hindustan. In the first volume, he narrates his family history and lineage, while the second volume deals with his life and work in Surinam. The third volume continues with so many other interesting experiences. In the fourth volume, Munshiji tells the readers how ultimately he succeeded in building a large house in a place called Dijkveld in 1931, where he lived very comfortably in a joint family along with all his five sons. He also painfully describes the growing rift between the Hindus and the Muslims—the two communities that had lived in perfect harmony till 1929. But now, with the coming to the fore of the hardliners, particularly the Aryasamajists (as he alleges), relationships soured. The old peace, love and harmony evaporated. Naturally, therefore, he was now emotionally a broken man. This was the beginning of the degeneration of communal brotherhood both in India and Surinam that he saw with his own eyes.
The conclusion is that good and well intentioned people can create a heaven on this very planet, whereas the vile and vicious can easily convert it into a hell. Munshiji was indeed a noble soul.
In his foreword, Mr Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid has emphasized the role of the two sisters, Mrs G.A. Wahab and Mrs H.A. Hakam, who faced trials and tribulations in the post-partition period in Calcutta and then in former East Pakistan during the traumatic days of 1970-71.
Justice Zahid pays tributes to them and to the writer Begum Akhter Jahan Khan for their perseverance, dedication and commitment to the cause of Pakistan and humanity.
It is indeed amazing that despite a conservative and conformist background as could have been expected from the Muslim society of pre-partition India, these two ladies demonstrated their scholarly knowledge, intellect, humility and the zest for a cause dear to their hearts.
Both of them were born in British Guiana, South America and were widely known for their simple living without any false starts or pretensions. They lived like dervishes leading an austere life. Their most outstanding qualities were warm affection, helpful sympathy and dedication to the cause of human happiness.
(this is taken from the Pakistani Daily Newspaper, Dawn.)
May 19, 2008
RAYMOND S. CHICKRIE and DEEN AMEERULLAH
This is the first paper to deliberate on the overseas Hindustani Muslims of British Guiana and more significantly, the role they played in the creation of Pakistan in 1947. In doing so, the debate about Muhammad Ali Jinnah the founder of Pakistan has been inescapably revived; a more rational, progressive and non-communal image emerges especially since India’s know communalist, L.K Advani labeled Mr. Jinnah a secularists during a visit to Pakistan in 2005, debunking decades of myths. However, the central focus of this paper is the role that the Hindustani Muslims of British Guiana played in the creation of Pakistan. The bloody division of the subcontinent in 1947 did lead to subtle Hindu/Muslim tension in British Guiana. This paper asserts that the Muslim leadership of the former British Guiana, now Guyana, solidly supported the creation of Pakistan and vilified India. This is apparent because the largest Islamic organisation, the Sad’r Anjuman-E-Islam acquiesced to the two-nation theory, or the division of India along religious lines. However, a smaller Islamic group, the Islamic Association of British Guiana (IABG). Not long after in 1949, the IABG merged with the Sad’r Anjuman-E-Islam and support for Pakistan was greater and more cohesive. From the print media and the rhetoric from all side- Hindus and Muslims, it’s evident that the Sad’r -E-Anjuman not only supported the state of Pakistan but became the voice of Pakistan in British Guiana. Prior to this, Muslims were oriented to the motherland, Hindustan. While the average Muslims saw themselves as Hindustani, they supported the state of Pakistan and began to identify with Pakistan. The legendary Gool Mohammed Khan whose daughter, Husanara became actively involved in the Pakistan movement demonstrate this intricate connection between the founding of the state of Pakistan and the Muslims of Guyana. Mrs. H. A. Hakam was an exemplary citizen for all humanity. Born in obscurity in British Guiana, entered the world stage in India, and actively participated in formation of Pakistan.
The British Guianese Muslim leadership instilled consciousness among local Muslims to look at Pakistan as the motherland, and they referred to Pakistan and its leaders as “our country and our leaders.” Their moral, political and financial support to the state of Pakistan is documented in this paper, and case is made that Pakistan replaced India as the motherland. As well, the state of Pakistan took the responsibility of “mothering” the Muslims in British Guiana by offering theological aid, scholarships, political and moral support.
the history books very little attention has been given to Muslims
whether they were slaves, indentured laborers from
the past decade, there have been attempts by Muslims to publish
articles dealing with the history of Muslims in
1837 - John Gladstone suggests East Indian indentured labour as a solution to the drifting of Africans from the plantations to the towns. Permission is granted to bring 'Coolies' for his two plantations.
1838 - The first indentured labourers drawn from the hill areas of South India, arrive in Guiana. 156 East Indians arrive from Calcutta on the "Hesperus". They are under indenture for a five year period, and for the first part, they are housed and given rations, but are not paid. Great mistreatment of the labourers result in prosecution of some of the planters.
1839 - Four hundred German Rinelanders and Wurtembergers are enticed to British Guiana. (Almost all succumb to tropical diseases).
1843 - The end of the first period of indenture. Many of the labourers return to India.
The 1840's - England suspends the indentured labourer system. Immigrant labour from India, Portugal (mainly Madeira) and China is permitted, under Government control.
1853 - January 12th. The first contract Chinese labourers arrive in British Guiana on the "Glentanner". Most are assigned to Windsor Forest, Pouderoyen and La Jelousie estates.
1856 - February 18th,Georgetown riots - property of Portuguese destroyed.
1860 - March 11th. The first female Chinese labourers arrive on the "Whirlwind".
1874 - The last contract Chinese labourers arrive in Demerara.
1900 - October 18. The Jagans, Cheddi's parents, left Calcutta in the "Elbe". Arrived Demerara on January 5th, 1901.
1917 - The Government of India abolishes the indentured system. No more East Indian labour is allowed to enter Guiana.
1928 - March 19. Cheddi Jagan born.
1948 - The Enmore Tragedy occurs, with an attack against militant sugarcane workers. Workers Lallabagee Kissoon, Pooran, Rambarran, Dookhie, and Harry are killed. Later known as the Enmore Martyrs.
The year 1838 marked a historical time on our calendar because it led to the rebirth of Islam (following the demised of the religion amongst the African Muslims in Guyana). It was in the year 1838 that 94 Hindustani (Indian) Muslims arrived in the colony of British Guiana on board the first two “coolie” ships – the Hesperus and the Whitby. This account debunks the myth that Muslims were not among the first set of indentured immigrants to the colony.
“History and Politicking of Islamic Organizations in Guyana,” is an exploratory attempt to document the history and politics of Islamic organizations in Guyana from the 1930’s and in doing so, it exposes the schism that exists among them. Guyana has a plethora of Islamic organizations for a country with a small Muslim population. These organizations have had antagonistic relationships and organization supremacy supersedes the interest of Islam, it seems. Conflicts between these organizations stem from differences between “traditionalists” and “reformists,” over so called “ancestral practices” brought from the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent where their ancestors originated.
by Raymond Chickrie
© Copyright March 2003
Updated March 2003
Guyana and Suriname are located on the northeast coast of South America, and are two of the three non-Hispanic enclaves that make up the Guianas. Suriname is also one of the most ethnically and culturally mixed countries in the world. In Paramaribo, the capital of this Dutch speaking nation of about 450,000 people architecture graphically reflects this synthesis of peoples. A beautiful Mughal style mosque shares the same street with an imposing nineteenth-century wooden synagogue, several Hindu temples and the Roman Catholic cathedral can be found in the capital as well. Suriname like Guyana are colourful mixtures of African and Asian influences.
Guyana and Suriname's rich cultural mosaic is the legacy of the Dutch and British plantation economy, which after the abolition of slavery brought many indentured workers from British India, Indonesia, and China (see Figure 1). They joined the descendants of African slaves, a large Jewish community, a European and Middle Eastern business and professional élite and the remnants of the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples. Dutch, Hindustani, Hakka, Mandarin, and Javanese are also spoken in Suriname. Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are part of the cultural mosaic. In Guyana English is the medium of exchange. Hindi and Urdu are used only for religious purposes by Hindus and Muslims (see Figure 2). In both countries the majority of the Asian immigrants settled in the fertile farming area near the coast, while the African-descended Creoles tended to move into the cities. Some Surinamese who were former slaves from West Africa escaped the Dutch sugar plantations into the jungle. These runway slaves are called boschnegers.
"Muslims in Guyana: History, Traditions, and Conflict and Change" is a modest attempt to begin recording the history and traditions of Guyanese Muslims. At the time of publication, about a decade ago, nothing was published on this subject. This paper became a source of reference and stimulated others to write on the subject. Unfortunately, after September 9/11 some alarmist groups and individuals have used this paper to sensationalize the world of possible al Qaeda cells in Guyana because they perceived Wahabism to be on the rise in Guyana. This is totally unfounded and wasn’t the emphasis of this paper. The schism that between “traditionalists and reformists,” which has now abated does not make Guyana a fertile ground for radical Islam.
This paper traces the origins of the Muslims, their cultural heritage and their "Indo-Iranian" practices that came under scrutiny after "Arabization" or the orthodox movement, which began in the seventies. "Muslims in Guyana: History, Traditions, Conflicts and Change" brings to light aspects of the "Indo-Iranian" traditions that are controversial and have often divided the Muslims into two camps-- the "Indo-Iranian" and the "Arab." Opponents of "Indo-Iranian" traditions such as Milad-un-Nabi (Melaad-Sharief), Tazim, and the singing of Qasida call these practices Bidah or Innovation.
It is impossible to disconnect Guyanese Muslims from the Sub-Continent since it is their ancestral home. Hence,"Muslims in Guyana: History, Traditions, Conflict and Change," returned to medieval Islamic India in order to understand the cultural and political landscape of this fascinating land of the Mughals who built the famous Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar and the Shalimar Gardens. In light of this, the history of Urdu was incorporated since it is impossible to discuss Islamic India without Urdu. Urdu and Islam "go hand in hand" in the Sub-Continent. In conclusion, the connection between Guyanese Muslims and the Sub-Continent, in particular Pakistan, since 1947 was discussed. The history of Hindustani Muslims began not in Guyana in 1838, but in India since A.D 711. India reached its cultural zenith during the Muslim rule. This great Tahzib (Civilization) is something that every Guyanese Muslim can call his/her own and be proud of.