March 2013
#Borders , 1774 Views
Going Dutch

Author: Aletta Andre
Photographs: Pooja Pant

For this Indian-origin minority, tracing their roots isn’t as direct as you’d expect.
July 1, 1863

It’s just after sunrise when Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, awakes to 21 thundering cannon blasts. For around 33,000 African slaves in this Dutch colony on the northeastern edge of South America, it is the sound marking the abolition of slavery, although no one’s handing out keys to any shackles just yet.

There is to be a buffer period of 10 years, during which the freed slaves will remain under ‘state supervision’. Essentially, contract labour with minimal pay. But when those 10 years are up, the Dutch colonialists will need to find other such labourers to work on their Surinamese coffee and sugar estates.

The solution arrives courtesy of the British, fellow colonialists who have already abolished slavery in neighbouring British Guiana. But this is mostly a smokescreen. The British are still sending shiploads of their Indian subjects to perform the same hard labour in their New World plantations, and in 1870, the British Empire gives formal permission for the Dutch to recruit, from India, the needed labourers. In return for these rights, the Dutch cede to the British the Dutch Gold Coast in West Africa and also bargain for a cessation to British claims in Sumatra.

The Indian labourers’ indentureship is to last for five years. The British insist that their Indian subjects be provided with a return passage at the end of their term, but it is agreed that they are to be subject to Dutch, not British, law.

Three years later, the first 410 Indian labourers brave the oceans between Calcutta and Paramaribo, packed into a 126-foot, three-masted schooner called the Lalla Rookh, Persian for ‘tulip-cheeked’.

Most of the labourers come from what is today eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, where impoverishment caused by famine, debt and personal feuds lead them to ignore the Hindu caste proscription on crossing kala pani, the black water (although 45 of them are Muslims and have no such reservations). Many have been led to believe that their destination has the familiar, appealing name of ‘Sri Ram’, and that the voyage will take a few short weeks. It takes three-and-a-half months, and 11 die en route.

June 5, 1873

The 399 confused Indians finally arrive in Suriname, just in time to replace the ‘freed’ Africans, whose desertions en masse have already led to the closure of 85 plantations between 1862 and 1872.

So high is the need for workers in Suriname, that over 34,000 Indians will be conscripted and shipped to the Dutch colony until 1916, when a certain Mohandas K Gandhi will put an end to it all with a single “swadeshisatyagraha” battle cry. Disallowing the Dutch into India to swindle out more labourers is one of the concessions made by the British Raj as the Indian independence movement begins.

Over half of these Indian labourers choose to stay on in Suriname beyond the five-year contract, particularly after 1895 when the government introduces the incentive of renting 1 to 1.5 hectares of land, relatively large compared to what would be available in India. After 1916, settlers also received the money that was reserved for their return journey, 100 guilders each, equivalent to about Rs 2 lakh today, depending on the source. In 1927 the approximately 25,000 Indian labourers who had stayed behind officially become Dutch citizens. They are 14,000 kilometres away from their homeland, but they nurture their distant culture as only the exiled can.

January 25, 2013

Fast-forward a little less than a century to a chilly winter’s day in The Hague, the administrative capital of The Netherlands, home of the Dutch royal family, and a large Indian-origin community. Over 160,000 Indo-Surinamese live in The Netherlands—that’s about 10,000 more than currently live in Suriname, and according to the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, the largest Indian-origin minority in continental Europe. About 35,000 live in The Hague, roughly seven percent of the city’s population.

About 40 percent of The Netherlands’ Indo-Surinamese community are first-generation Dutch, and many describe themselves as being simply that, rather than carrying on their parental tradition of saying they’re Indo-Surinamese. Most young Hindoestanen, as they’re called here, speak Dutch at home with their parents, but know at least a bit of what they call Hindoestani or Sarnami Hindustani, a mix of their ancestors’ local dialects, a hint of Dutch, but essentially Bhojpuri. That their prescribed cultural adjective refers to India, or more specifically, the idea of Hindustan, with no reference to Suriname is curious, but also fitting. For many Dutch-born Hindoestanen, India, not Suriname, is the source of their culture, their religion, their traditional clothes, their food, and, their taste in films. In The Hague’s Transvaal neighbourhood, Govinda Jewlal is helping a middle-aged, Indian-looking man choose some Bollywood DVDs.
“What about Dabangg 2?” asks Jewlal.
“Seen it,” says the man, a regular at the eponymous Govinda Video Centre.
Jab Tak Hai Jaan?”
“Perhaps. Show me?”

Twenty minutes later, the customer has chosen five new DVDs. Adjusting his thick coat and woollen shawl, he walks out into the snow-covered street. “Doei!” he says in Dutch—“Bye!”

If there is one place in The Netherlands where romantic Hindi songs, glittering salwars, Ganesha statues and the sharp smell of hair oil mixed with garam masala are not out of place, it’s in Transvaal. Here, there’s Govinda’s DVD shop, sari-wrapped mannequins at Asian Bridal, gold jewellery at Juwelier Laxmie, pressure cookers and peacock feathers at ‘Indian Super Store’ Bharat Kings, desi food at Delhi Darbar Tandoori and Mirch Masala—dozens of South Asian businesses bring all the colour of the subcontinent to the otherwise grey-and-brown streets, with posters announcing the annual Miss India Holland event and the Mega Bollywood Festival.

Cheryl Nankoe in The Hague
Anand Chandrikasingh at Radio Ujala in Amsterdam

Thirty-five years ago, “none of this existed”, says Govinda’s father, Ashok, who runs a travel agency also named after his son, Govinda Tours. These Indian shops and restaurants only began to appear in the late 1990s. “I guess that in the 70s and 80s people were simply too busy settling in, finding jobs and houses,” says Ashok.

Ashok moved to The Netherlands from his native Suriname in 1975—just after the colony became a republic—and finding no culture-specific form of entertainment, he opened one of the country’s first Bollywood video stores, which he would later rename after and pass down to Govinda. It wasn’t easy: the videocassettes had to be imported from the UK and cost up to 250 guilders each—a staggering Rs 20,000 or so in today’s currency. But it didn’t matter. “We were simply addicted to films,” he explains.

Ashok was not the only addict. As more Hindoestanen moved into Transvaal, his business grew quickly, and even with the prohibitive costs of importing new Bollywood films, he turned a profit. These days, with technology having transformed the film and music industries as they have, Govinda’s focus has shifted almost entirely to selling Indian music CDs and film DVDs, many now with the added draw of Dutch subtitles. While the Govinda Video Centre still has 1,500 renting members, it’s a steep fall from the glory days of VCR-video rentals, when he says membership was close to 40,000.

“My parents used to pick up a movie from Govinda’s every Sunday,” says 25-year-old Satish Roopram, while sipping a black coffee in a nearby café. It’s a childhood memory many young Hindoestanen share, and it’s how Satish first learned about India. While Indian cinema reminded Ashok of his youth in Suriname, the movies prepared Satish for his first family holiday to India in 2005. “I almost immediately felt at home,” he says. So much so, that he returned to Delhi a year later to study hotel management.

Satish, as well as many other Hindoestanen born in The Netherlands are looking for their roots not in Suriname, where their parents, grandparents and sometimes even great-grandparents were born, but in India. “Suriname has not shaped me, the way I am and the way I think,” says Satish. “India has.”

November 25, 1975

The Dutch flags around Paramaribo are being taken down. This afternoon in The Hague, Queen Juliana will sign the declaration of Surinamese statehood, and the Dutch government has announced that anyone who migrates to The Netherlands in the next five years can keep their Dutch citizenship.

Around 36,000 Hindoestanen have already made the nearly 8,000-kilometre journey to the land of their former overlords since 1973, when Prime Minister Henck Arron announced that Suriname would become an independent republic. Many Indo-Surinamese fear that if they stay, they’ll be marginalised by the Creoles, the majority Surinamese of European and West African descent, who will dominate the new republic.

This second exodus continues throughout the 1970s and 80s, uninterrupted by a coup d’état in 1980 by 16 sergeants led by Désiré ‘Desi’ Bouterse, who will go on to establish a dictatorship until the return of civilian rule in 1987. But serious damage is done, and Suriname continues to stagger under hyperinflation and unemployment. Meanwhile, the Dutch economy flourishes, and more and more former colonial subjects aim to be a part of it.

Today, at a time when Dutch public discourse is growing increasingly negative towards non-Western immigrants, and Dutch-Turks and Dutch-Moroccans, traditionally the second and fourth largest immigrant groups in The Netherlands, face new hostilities, the Hindoestanen are thought of as being economically successful and well behaved. This is also true in comparison with their fellow Surinamese of other ethnic backgrounds. The image of the hardworking, decent Hindoestani as opposed to the lazy Creole is a colonial stereotype that has survived until now, not least among the Hindoestanen themselves.

“I don’t always like it when I am seen as any other Surinamese immigrant. I am different,” says Satish, who during his teens noticed things like Krishna and the ohm-sign on T-shirts, and began to see India as a rising force in the world. “I would not say proud, but yes, I thought it was cool that India became more visible in a more positive way, rather than some far away and dirty third world country.”

Professor Chan Choenni, who teaches Indo-Surinamese migration at the history department of the Free University of Amsterdam, says that the rise of India’s economy has given the Indian diaspora a new mooring to the motherland, and this impulse might prove most powerful of all for the Hindoestanen, Indians several times removed.

“Hindoestani culture was close to fading out even in Suriname, particularly in the city,” says Choenni, a cheerful, grey-haired man in the final years of his career. Sitting in his office, shelves full of books and magazines stacked to the ceiling, he remembers, “In my youth in Paramaribo, you had to adapt to Creole culture and language if you wanted to be part of society. We had to hide the statues of gods, as it was seen as backward and not modern. Nowadays, they are trendy. It is not necessary to adapt anymore.”

Choenni ponders over a transnational identity in the making, one he calls “the Global Indian”, though he isn’t ready just yet to declare that such a thing exists. Charla Manohar, a 30-year-old journalist who covers Bollywood in The Netherlands and surrounding countries for the online magazine BollySpice, believes it does.

“When I meet up with Indian friends from London, we are both Indians,” says Charla, who works from home in Amersfoort, about 90 kilometres from The Hague, where she lives with her mother. “The fact that I come from an Indo-Surinamese background is irrelevant to the things that connect us, such as food, clothes and movies.”

Professor Chan Choenni

News from India also affects her, she says. Like most Hindoestanen she carefully followed the Delhi gang-rape case of December 2012. Even those from the earlier generations, who consider themselves Surinamese, say that bad news from India hurts them, even as India’s progress makes them proud.

Anand Chandrikasingh, whose grandfather was one of the first indentured labourers to arrive in Suriname, moved to the Netherlands when he was 18. Once he had settled in De Bijlmer, a low-rent, multicultural suburb of Amsterdam, he founded Ujala, a Hindoestani radio station. Broadcasting from his cosy studio since 2002, he says his audience doesn’t just consist of Hindoestanen, but also Pakistanis, Afghans and people of mixed South-Asian backgrounds living in The Netherlands. “It is not a homogenous group,” he says, “but what connects them is a much more important factor.”

Like Ashok Jewlal, Chandrikasingh believes that Indian cinema is this connecting factor. “Particularly the music,” he says, pointing at the stacks of old LPs and CDs around his office. “Because even for those who had no money to go to the cinema, it is what everyone grew up with. Without the music, our bond with India would surely be much weaker.”

The fact that the International Indian Film Academy can host its huge awards shows in England, South Africa, Canada or anywhere else the Indian diaspora lives—the ceremony was held in Amsterdam in 2005—may simply steamroll any cultural nostalgia Suriname might offer this younger generation, but not all Hindoestanen take an active interest in their Indian roots.

Twenty-nine-year-old Cheryl Nankoe, for example, grew up in The Hague without any Hindoestani classmates, without watching Bollywood films, and unlike most Indo-Surinamese homes—she is a child of a mixed Catholic-Arya Samaj marriage—her family kept no altars in their house, and her parents didn’t send her to Hindi classes at the local mandir. “But we did celebrate Diwali every year,” she fondly remembers. Still, despite celebrating the Hindu festival, “I actually never even thought about my roots,” she says.

A pretty, fashionably dressed young woman, Cheryl explains how this changed when her elder sister married an Indo-Surinamese man with a great interest in India. “They would travel to India and come back with a pile of saris for me. I used to hate wearing them, but now I like it. I even might want to go there one day—I got curious myself.”

The same is true for Cheryl’s mother, who regularly visits Suriname but has never been to India. It was her son-in-law who introduced her to Indian TV shows. “Now she is completely addicted and watches [the shows] every day after work,” laughs Cheryl.

Back at Govinda Tours, Ashok Jewlal says that since he began to offer packages to India in 2008, more and more Hindoestanen have been taking their vacations on the subcontinent. “People started to ask me for it,” he says. “I think that 90 percent of Indo-Surinamese want to visit India at least once in a lifetime, and increasingly they have the money to actually do so.”

Nostalgia for ancestral origins isn’t the only reason for this shift in consciousness. PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin) who can legally trace their roots back to India don’t need visas to travel to the subcontinent, and receive limited legal rights, making it possible to live and work there.

“India is a kind of magnet to me,” says Chandrikasingh. “More and more Hindoestanen I know travel to India, and more and more apply for a PIO card… They don’t invest in Suriname anymore. Instead, they buy a house in Goa.”

Simultaneously, the Indian and Dutch governments see the Hindoestanen as potential conduits for big business. In September 2009, for example, the Union Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs held the third annual mini-Pravasi Bharatiya Divas convention in The Hague—following the 2007 and 2008 mini-conferences in New York and Singapore, respectively—to promote business opportunities in India. When the Mayor of The Hague, Jozias van Aartsen, visited India in December 2011, much effort was put into promoting The Hague as the ‘Hindustani capital of the European continent’. In October 2011, the Municipality of The Hague and the Indian Embassy set up the Gandhi Centre, and the following year in November, the city and the Indian Expat Society organised the Diwali Festival Den Haag 2012. The city’s first annual, month-long India Festival is set to kick off this October.

However these new cultural facilities serve the Indo-Surinamese community, they are secondary to the Dutch government’s actual goal.“We do all this purely to attract Indian companies to The Hague,” says Ramon Jaikaran, a policy advisor at the Municipality’s Economic Affairs Department.

Jaikaran began working with The Hague’s India relations a few years ago, when the city’s long focus on its relationship with China began to veer towards India. The Hague’s large Hindoestani community was “a unique selling point towards India,” says Jaikaran. “Economy and culture can go very well hand in hand, as the presence of the Hindoestani community provides a comfortable climate for Indian expats to settle in.”

Views such as these anger Amar Soekhlal, president of the Sarnámi Instituut Nederland, a sociocultural foundation that researches the history of Hindoestanen migration and promotes Hindoestani artists. “Politicians just use the fact that we [Hindoestanen] live here, as if it is something they can take credit for,” he says. “But their focus is on expats, while we, as taxpaying citizens, get nothing.”

Soekhlal says that while the municipality is sponsoring events marking the 150th anniversary of the freeing of the African slaves, his institute has been informed that there is no budget for the 140th anniversary of the migration of Indian labourers to Suriname, though he feels that the two events are two sides of the same coin. Indians in Suriname may not have been slaves, per se, but they were imprisoned for taking a sick day, payment was consistently lower than promised, and their savings were stolen by bank managers.

Literature at the Vrij Universiteit, Amsterdam
Indian DVDs for sale

Nonetheless, Choenni argues that the migration to Suriname is something to be celebrated, whereas slavery is something to be commemorated. “Despite the hardship, they [the Hindoestanen] came out successful,” Choenni explains. “To them it was a chance to escape and improve their fate.”

Soekhlal, on the other hand, refuses to ignore the painful part of Hindoestani history. “What is there to celebrate?” he asks. “Colonialism, a system of exploitation our ancestors were victims of? That’s like celebrating a violent rape because it created a beautiful baby.”

A museum dedicated to the Indo-Surinamese and their migration opened seven years ago in The Hague’s Sarnámihuis, but it was closed on January 1, 2013. Soekhlal calls it “a disqualification of our culture”, adding that with Sarnámihuis gone, not a single museum with its mandate now exists in The Netherlands.

Jaikaran defends the municipality’s decision to pull the plug. “There were hardly any visitors. Among the majority of Hindoestanen, there is much more interest in cultural facilities and events, things that they have in common with the Indians [on the subcontinent].”

Satish, the 25-year-old who studied hotel management and later set up a restaurant with his father in Delhi, never travelled to his great-grandfather’s village of Pipra in north Bihar while he was in India. “I would have liked to visit Bihar, but it was never a priority,” he says. “My Indian cultural roots are more interesting to me than that specific ancestral village.”

In late 2011, Satish was back to his Dutch roots in The Hague. His restaurant in Connaught Place hadn’t been turning an adequate profit.

Satish may or may not fall in line with Professor Choenni’s definition of a ‘Global Indian’, whose connection to India doesn’t have much to do with being in India at all, but one has to ask what the value of this connection really is. Why is Suriname a historical black hole, a period glossed over for so many young Hindoestanen? Perhaps for some who came from there, memories are painful, but whatever explanations about clothes, food and music that the Satishes and the Charlas give for their associations with India over Suriname, Amar Soekhlal isn’t buying it, and he doesn’t hide his disenchantment.

“Young Hindoestanen who are shifting their focus to India are in denial of their own history,” he says. “You can’t just shake off 140 years.”

Perhaps, if he’s right, the next generation of Hindoestanen will have a little more room for Suriname in their personal histories. But for now, Suriname’s role in this centuries-long story that uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, sweeping them across centuries, across oceans and continents, can’t always compete with the need to absorb into the greater Indian identity, or, barring that, to simply go Dutch.