The Afghan Muslims of Guyana and Suriname

Afghan Resistance – The Story of Mazar Khan

Mazar Khan arrived in British Guiana in 1883 to work as an indentured labourer. He was sent to plantation Caledonian on the Essequibo Coast. His family was nostalgic for the past and in 1998 journeyed to Northern India to retrace his roots. This expedition took them to the village of Somdutt in Meerut. This information was of course taken from his Immigration Certificate. After consultation at a mosque in Somdutt, they were taken to meet the oldest person in the village. With translation and the help of a few members of the mosque the “old man” was reached. With the greatest amazement they learnt that this old man, Hurma Khan who in 1998 was 110 years old is the son of Chand Khan who was the brother of Sujati Hassan Khan father of Mazar Khan. In other words, Hurma Khan is the first cousin of Mazar Khan. 23

It was then learnt that Mazahar Khan was a “freedom fighter” during the 1880’s mutiny against the British. Meerut holds a special place in Indian history as the place where the mutiny started. In an attempt to retaliate, the British rounded up the “trouble makers” and sent them to “kalla-paanie”, black waters.24 The Khans have been known in history for their tenacity to resist tyranny and to fight for izzat, jaan or maal (honour, life and property) and wherever they went they upheld these values not only for themselves but also for all. While in the Guyanas, they advocated for Indians, Hindus, Pathans or Muslims. Mazahar Khan’s resistance had led to his exile from India.

Making History: Munshi Rahman M. Khan

At age 24, Rehman M. Khan (1874-1972), a young Pathan arrived in Suriname in 1898 on the steamship Avon. In his autobiography he discusses his Pathan roots. He came from Hammirpur, a district in Uttar Pradesh, under strange circumstances. He was an educated Pathan Muslim and found employment as a munshi (teacher) in a government middle school at Maudha, a tehsil headquarters (revenue sub-division) of the Hamirpur district. “But after six months of teachership he somehow or other got fed-up and gave it up”.25 After a long contemplation of three months at the depot in Calcutta he sailed for Suriname arriving there on 13 April 1898. In Suriname he was assigned to Plantation Alliance and became known as Munshi (teacher) Rehman M. Khan.

Munshi Rahman Khan

This young Khan knew the Qur’an as well as the Ramayana very well. He soon became popular in his plantation and among the surrounding Indians of the other plantations as a Ramayan specialist. He started propagating the Ramayana ideology and taught Hindi to the children of the Indian community. He was also attached as an interpreter and Sardar (head of the labour force) in a plantation. He wrote many books but only two of his small books were published in India in the 1950s.” According to the interpreter of some of his literary works, Mohan K. Gautham, there are many manuscripts available which he wrote in Suriname dealing with the Muslim problems in Suriname, the language issues and his own biography in four volumes. Coming from a middle class Pathan family, Khan was very educated. His knowledge of Urdu and Hindi helped his literary prose. He was also a poet and could compose poetry in standard Hindi “with a flavour of Braj”.26

Rehman Khan trained Muslims and Hindu priests as well as interpreters. At the end of his five-year contract, he left Plantation Alliance and moved to Dijkveld near the city of Paramaribo along the Suriname River. He used his knowledge to educate the Hindu and Muslim community and to reconstruct the “Indian identity”. Khan kept in touch with India constantly and was also craving for news from his homeland. He continued his correspondence with family and friends in India and remitted money to his parents. He was always eager to know the latest situation in India and for this purpose he not only kept correspondence with friends, but also with many publishing concerns, such as the Venkateshwar press in Bombay. From his autobiography we see how attached he was to Suriname since he decided to remain in the colony after he was a free man. He bought a piece of land, sold vegetables and dairy products. Khan got married and had children. He was rewarded for all his efforts and finally the Queen of the Netherlands honoured him with the highest Order for his literary and social activities. 27

From his autobiography, one gets the story of his life and how he went to Suriname. He narrates how he was recruited for Suriname. Khan went to the parade grounds of Kanpur and was met by two men who were finely dressed. “Thinking them to be sympathetic gentlemen, I greeted them. Because they were wearing clean and fine dresses, they were looking nice”.28 After discovering that Khan was educated, they offered him a job with a great salary that he could not resist. He was offered a job as a “saradara” (headman) with a salary of “12 annas”. A job as a supervisor making a lot of money was an offer that he could not resist.29

Khan was informed about the nature of his job that is to supervise labourers on a sugar plantation. “There you will have to supervise the labourers and you will have to travel on the government’s boat on the expenses of the government”.30 He was told that the plantation was in Sriram Tapu (Suriname) and that the ship from Calcutta takes three months to reach there. Quickly, the men convinced him to get registered in the government office. The fact that this was going to be a government job and that he was going to register with the government further convinced Khan. He was brought to the Calcutta Depot where he saw the labourers he would supervise. The young Pathan was also promised other perks like free food and expenses. “You will not have any sort of problem. Enjoy your drink and food happily, live comfortably and carry on the government work honestly, this is the only way of getting your own promotion”.31 Khan was now convinced. “Hearing such tempting words I became very happy. I just forgot my own self, got separated from my own family and fell into the trap of my luck”.32 He lived in the Depot and thought of changing his mind several times, and at one point he felt like a “trapped bird”. Little did he know that he could have said “no to the Magistrate”. But that was not meant to be “Because the Great Allah had removed my subsistence from India and transported it into Suriname. And he had banished me forever from Hindustan. It was sad and very sad”.33

Khan kept close contact with friends and family in India. He was the only son of his parents and they nagged him constantly to return to India. A letter he received from his family on January 1, 1908 begged him to return to India. His parents were very ill and his mother had become very old and blind. They wrote to him “The money, which you want to send to us, it is the opinion of all people here that with the same money please come for one time (to India) and meet us. Everyone wants to see you”.34 But Suriname was now home and he had to nurture the Indian community there. He was a very pious Muslim like the Pathans and at the same time reached out to the entire community. He was a Muslim at home but also a staunch Indian, proud of his Indian background and the Indian community. According to Gautam, Hindus and Muslims to him were linked by one motherland, Hindustan. Gautam quotes Khan “Dui jati bharata se aye, Hindu Musalmana Kahalaye, Rahi priti donom maim bhari, jaise dui bandhu eka mehatari” (Two communities came from India, They were called as Hindus and Muslims; Between them existed an intense love, As they were two brothers from the same mother).35

The Rose Hall Uprising

The Rose Hall sugar worker strike of 1913 saw Afghans and Muslims resistant to indenturedship. This is nothing new, the Pathans have resisted the British in India and some were sent to the Guyana and Suriname, where they continued the resistance. Some Muslims who challenged the British bore the last name Khan, a typical Pathan (Afghan) name. Moula Bux, Jahangir Khan and Dildar Khan fit the profile of the Pathan. Three other Muslims were also involved Chotey Khan, Aladi, and Amirbaksh. According to Mangru in his text, Indenture and Abolition, “Moula Bux was nicknamed ‘munshiji’ (scribe or writer) was formerly an office worker in a jute factory in India”.36 Dildar Khan according to Mangru was recruited in Kanpur, India.

It would seem from the tenacity of these Khans who were involved in the Rose Hall uprising that they fit the profile of the firebrand Pathans. Pathans never let tyranny to go unpunished. It is part of their “code of honour” to root out injustice and defend the weak from exploitation. And this is exactly what the Pathans did in Guyana.

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