A passage to India: From Guadeloupe, with memories and longing

The India they know exists only in half- remembered stories heard in childhood.  But they are now no longer content with bits and fragments – the French citizens of Indian origin living in a Caribbean island are now determined to make up for lost time and have embarked on their own passage to India.

Gaudeloupeans are French citizens; their small butterfly-shaped islands in the Eastern Caribbean Sea are an overseas department of France. Guadeloupeans of Indian origin are proud to call themselves French. The part of their ancestry that linked them to India was pushed into the background more than a century ago, existing only in stories told by grandparents. But better communications and easier travel facilities from the Caribbean to India have evoked a desire to learn more about their ethnic heritage.

Alexima Mekel is part of a group of visitors from Guadeloupe on a tour to discover India. “We are French citizens,” Alexima has had to explain to many curious Indians during their tour. It is said with gentle pride for it took the Indians a long struggle to be accepted as French nationals in Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe was a French colony in 1854 when Indian indentured workers were taken there to replace the emancipated slaves who had worked on the plantations.

As British subjects, Indian migrants did not have many civil rights in Guadeloupe. Children born to the Indian migrants in Guadeloupe were considered stateless even though all Indians had to assimilate in the French culture. The man who was instrumental in getting Indians their citizenship rights was Henri Sidambarom, whose 150th birth anniversary is being commemorated this year.

Every society needs its heroes and icons, “and for us, the towering iconic figure, who fought for citizenship rights and self-respect of the Indian migrants was Henri Moutou Sidambarom”, says Alexima Mekel. “We need our icons for we have so few of them,” she explains. The Africans have created their icons, “but we want our icons based on reality. Our ancestors were illiterate; they left no written records, so we do not know their life stories. But Sidambarom was an educated person; he wrote many books as he fought for our rights,” she says.

Sidamboram’s father was among the first batches of Indian indentured workers to reach Guadeloupe and Sidaboram was born on July 5, 1863 at Cape Sterre-Belle-Eau. Sidamboram was employed at the immigration office for Indians in Basse-terre in 1884 when he became a councilor. But when he was set to become mayor, he was removed from the position on the grounds that he was a stateless person. He then launched a campaign against the discrimination and later filed a case in court.

Sidamboram called for all non-white communities in Gaudeloupe to be recognised as French citizens with equal rights. He filed his first petition in 1904, with the result that Indians got some political rights. But it took much hard work and long litigation to achieve his goal. The trial ended in 1923 with the French government granting full citizenship and voting rights to the Indians in Guadeloupe. In 1946 when the French government made Guadeloupe is a department, all Guadeloupeans became French citizens.

Guadeloupe is holding a year-long commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Henri Sidambarom, who is often referred to as the Gaudeloupe Gandhi. It is a very special commemoration for the Indian community. “We need to remind our younger generation about the struggles and achievements of our ancestors,” says Alexima. Lectures, seminars and theatrical performances are being held every fortnight by turn in all the towns and larger villages of Guadeloupe to reach out to a wider audience.

“Living thousands of miles away, our ancestors were cut off from India; it was necessary for them to adapt to French culture. Now we are trying to revive our ties and recall our history,” sauys Alexima, who is secretary of Conseil Guadeloupeen pour les Langues Indiennes, an organization for teaching Hindi.

Indians form about 14 per cent of Gaudeloupe’s population of 420,000. They are fourth or fifth generation descendents of the indentured migrants and most of them do not know any Indian language except for a few words incorporated in their French.

Indian films are popular in Guadeloupe after a local Indian-owned television channel began showing Hindi films. Now several TV channels regularly show Indian films dubbed in French. But the songs have generated an interest in learning Hindi and Indian dancing. “Young people want to learn more about India. They are learning Hindi and Tamil, though we have a problem with finding Hindi teachers,” says Alexima.