With over 160,000 in the Netherlands, “Hindostanis” — the way Indian Caribbeans of all religions are commonly referred to by themselves and increasingly by others — are an indispensable part of the Dutch population. This Indian-descended group from Suriname have made a long journey, and on June 5, The Netherlands remembers the 150th anniversary of Hindostani migration, known as Prawas Din, or Immigration Day.
It all began in India under the period of British rule, known as the British Raj, which then included territory that is now part of Pakistan and on the border with Afghanistan. Much as it does today, India consisted of many religions, ethnicities and languages.
After the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863, there was a pressing need for labour, and more than 35,000 Hindostanis traveled from British India to Suriname from 1873–1916 to become contract workers on the plantations, some voluntary, some involuntary, and some under false pretences.
Bridge builder 34-year-old Ashwin Ramjiawan elaborates on this:
My ancestors were lured from India to Suriname as young adults with promises of a bright future for them and their families in India. Eventually, they were shipped to Suriname under degrading conditions (in cages, chained and malnourished). People try to gloss over indentured labour, but I think it’s a disguised form of slavery that caused a lot of suffering.
From India …
These contract workers came mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and signed five-year employment contracts: six days a week, Monday to Saturday. After this period, they were entitled to return to British India free of charge. The Surinamese government/Dutch colonial administration, first under British, then under Dutch rule, consented under the immigration agreement of 1870 to see after the well-being of the labourers, but there was widespread abuse and many of the labourers died. The reality was much harsher than many expected.
The economic exchange also saw people from other regions such as Haryana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, resistance fighters, children who did not come home after playing outside, and adults fleeing conflict, shoved onto the boats. Among them was a minority from Afghanistan and Nepal.
Fauzia Mahomed Radja, a 39-year-old consultant at a prominent education institute in the Netherlands, believes this diversity and struggle resulted in strong descendants:
Hindostani genes in all its diversity are in me. The resilience and focus that my ancestors had made me the strong woman I am today. Even during difficult times, the strong shoulders that have been before me make me withstand whatever comes on my path.
… to South Africa …
They crossed the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, before making the last leg across the Atlantic Ocean, to the northern part of South America. The journey initially took about three months; after the introduction of steamships, it was shortened by a month.
The ships often stopped at ports in South Africa, where Hindostanis already lived, to stock up on coal, fresh drinking water and food. The first Indians were enslaved by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company from the end of the 17th century, and put to work on the sugar cane and tea plantations in Natal. After the end of slavery in 1838, by which time South Africa was a British Cape Colony, Indians were employed as indentured servants. Many also migrated to South Africa between 1860 and 1911 to work as contractors on the plantations, some of whom made the further passage to Suriname.
Twenty-six-year-old Dayant Ramkalup, who is studying International Relations at Leiden University, relates that one of his maternal ancestors got off the boat in South Africa:
She traveled at 28 with children — without a husband — and I am not sure why that was, nor why she decided to continue after a while to the Caribbean on the Indus III, but she did. The majority of my ancestors went straight from Calcutta, from the ‘coolie depot’ to Suriname.
… to the Caribbean
The boats that landed in the Caribbean were mostly filled with Hindostanis. Post-arrival, however, no distinctions were made, and even if they mattered at one time, after 150 years these differences are gone. Everyone from that region and time was henceforth a Hindostani. Many of them scattered, settling everywhere from the north of Brazil, Suriname and Guyana, to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands.
The Suriname experience
The conditions on the plantations of Suriname were tough, but there were strict rules to make allowances for religious observances. In addition to Christian and Dutch national holidays, Hindus were given 32 days of leave per year and Muslims 16, in accordance with their religious traditions. In general, Hindus and Muslims coexisted peacefully throughout the contract period, and Suriname still enjoys this level of religious tolerance, with a synagogue, a mosque and a church all lining one street.
The Hindostanis who did not return to India lived frugally, subscribing to the concept of pet khat-khat, or sparing your belly. Any money obtained back then was typically converted into gold coins, which later served as a medium of exchange or dowry. After the contract period, informal organisational forms emerged on the plantations to represent the interests of the immigrant population in the colony.
Ayman Kariman, a 23-year-old law student at Leiden University, shared:
When people ask me about my background I say that I am an Islamic Hindostani whose parents are from Suriname but my roots are in India. People often fail to see that Suriname is a mixture of different origins and that being Hindu is a religion, not our ethnicity. That’s why we use the term Hindostani now, and not Hindustani, to signify all Indian Caribbeans. Our Hindostani family history spans three continents and this is a very special story.
Finally, to the Netherlands
More than 100 years after the arrival of the first immigrant ship, Lalla Rookh, and about three generations later, Suriname gained its independence from The Netherlands on November 26, 1975. Its legacy of colonial rule created the conditions that caused it to be a multicultural society.
However, the various forms of ethnic oppression and divide-and-rule policies practised by colonial rulers resulted in division among Surinamese, causing both political and social unrest among different ethnic groups before, during, and after independence. Concerned that oppression would follow from the nationalism that was already emerging, Hindostanis migrated en masse to the Netherlands in 1975.
By this time, about 30,000 had already migrated to Guyana and Curaçao, and vice versa, coming to Suriname to travel on to the Netherlands. However, despite a progressive Dutch cabinet at the time, which spoke out against colonisation, migration was a thorn in the side of Dutch politics in the pre-Independence years. The state expected that speeding up the Independence process would counteract the migration flow.
In reality, the opposite happened, and migration to the Netherlands increased. Jan Pronk, the labour party minister responsible for development cooperation, argued for a transitional period (1975–1980), during which Surinamese could easily exchange their passport for a Dutch passport, but both Dutch and Surinamese politicians were afraid that the racial tensions between Hindostanis and Blacks (called “Creoles” locally) would get out of hand, as had happened in Guyana.
Because Hindostanis who remained in Suriname after their contracts were terminated were granted land, they began to climb up the economic ladder, forming a large part of the middle class. As early as the 1960s, young people went to the Netherlands to pursue their education with the idea of returning with their knowledge to help improve Suriname, but many stayed in the Netherlands once they had the chance. Labour migration soon followed on the heels of educational migration.
Collections specialist at the Library of Rotterdam, Aarti Bajnath, considers how her own migration history contributed to her identity:
I feel like a Surinamese-Hindostani and Dutch woman. I came to the Netherlands when I was 10 and had no trouble adjusting. I think the mix of all the stops enroute over decades has made me who I am now!
The modern-day Netherlands
Between 1979 and 1992, a second wave of migration to the Netherlands took place, mostly for social security reasons. Now, almost 1.5 percent of the Dutch population is of Hindostani descent. The Hague itself has about 50,000 Hindostani — about 10 percent of the total population.
People, including Hindostani themselves, know little or nothing about this history, and if they do, it is a coloured and narrow one, but more and more, the background of this group is becoming visible, with a new generation of youth in The Netherlands actively telling their stories. However, for a more international audience, the hectic journey and rich heritage of Indian Caribbeans, Hindostani, of Suriname is still invisible.
Meera Nankoe, the 33-year-old founder of Stage and Stories, sums it up this way:
As a Hindostani in the Netherlands, I feel a strong connection to my cultural background, but my identity has become fragmented over time due to a growing awareness of my ancestors’ journey. I struggle to find my home, because I have no clear place in India, Suriname or the Netherlands. Despite the challenges, I realize that my true home is in my heart, where I can be with the people I love.
This post was written with the research support of Maurice Dharampal and Dayant Ramkalup.