MANMOHAN SINGH IN THE CARIBBEAN'S 'LITTLE INDIA'; RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMMUNICATOR (Article)

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New Delhi (ANI): The visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean has been long overdue. Trinidad and Tobago is little India in the Caribbean, with around 41 percent of its population of ethnic Indian origin, and an equal percentage of African origin.

They are descendants of immigrants from India who went there when it was a British colony to work in the plantations there after the abolition of African slavery.

Starting from 1845, around 147,600 Indians went to Trinidad over a 70-year period traveling by boats for 36,000 kilometers,. Many died on the way. Most of them went from the present Uttar Pradesh and Bihar States on a 10-year contract but very few could return. What is remarkable is that, unlike other countries like Guyana, ethnic Indians in Trinidad held onto their culture, establishing temples, masjids and a gurudwara, patterned on their Indian replicas.

When they left the shores of India, some carried with them copies of the Tulsidas Ramayana, the Hanuman Chalisa, and the Bhagwad Gita. The Muslims had with them copies of the Quoran in Urdu. These helped them to hold on to their religion.

Hinduism for most of the Trinidadians today is derived from the Tulsidas Ramayana. y association with Trinidad and Tobago commenced when I was offered the assignment of establishing the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Cultural Cooperation in Port of Spain in 1996 after I had finished serving as Information Advisor to the Jammu and Kashmir Government.

The setting up of the center in Trinidad was to fulfill a promise made by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she had visited that country in 1968.

It was something looked forward to by the people of Trinidad and Tobago, a country inhabited by 1.3 million people of whom 41 percent were of Indian origin.

When I arrived in Port of Spain in 1997, the Prime Minister of the country was Basdeo Pandey, an ethnic Indian. He offered an abandoned bungalow in a former cane plantation to house the Cultural Centre.

The bungalow was located at Caroni, in the middle of the island. It was near to the university area and the Indian settlements. I got the same renovated, and established a library, a hall each for teaching dancing, music and tabla, which could also serve as place for holding seminars.

It was very educative for me to study how the Hindus had preserved their culture. Like India, each village in the country had a temple and a mosque. There were over 150 temples and around 100 mosques, many of them located next to each other.

The Hindus of Trinidad had imbibed a great deal from church traditions. All Hindus of a locality used to get together for a 'Sunday Service' when a chapter from the Tulsidas Ramayana or Bhagwad Gita would be read. At the end, there would be a puja and offerings would be made to the deity. The participants normally brought some food along with them from home and shared it with others.

Right in the centre of the country is a sprawling area, which is called Diwali Nagar, where the whole island gathers to celebrate Diwali and other festivals. The island had three FM radio stations playing popular Bollywood tunes round the clock and almost every theatre used to screen Hindi films regularly.

People were fond of music. Those of African origin had the steel band and the Calypso, and those of Indian origin used to sing Indian music or a mixture of Indian and local tunes, called the 'chutney' or the 'pitchkari'.

The Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Cultural Cooperation has been running courses in dance, instrumental music and tabla regularly, besides participating in the activities of local organisations, the most important being the National Council of Indian Culture, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and the Hindi Prachar Sabha.

Indian dance and music are popular in Trinidad. The island has its own brand of Indian music called 'Chutney', which is similar to what has been developed in Bollywood.

The island had around 100 families of non-resident Indians, mostly professionals - doctors, engineers and the like. Ispat, owned by Laxmi Mittal, who is now one of the richest persons across the globe, employed many of them. Laxmi Mittal took over an ailing steel plant around 1990 and has now developed a non-oil industrial complex. Later the Essar group won a contract to build a 1.2 billion steel plant.

Indian goods are popular, but the cost is prohibitive. The complaint, often heard, was that the Government of India did not have any facility to transport them to the Caribbean region. The university in the island is associated with Indian counterparts like Manipal and promotes specialized courses. The people of Trinidad are also keen to come to India for higher studies-including study of religion, to become 'qualified' teachers in religious institutions in the island territory.

Ethnic Indians have earned a name for themselves, the foremost being V.S. Naipaul. Today, many Trinidadians have become doctors and engineers and occupy important positions in the island territory and in the United States and Canada.

Trinidad is an oil-rich country. Many people of Trinidad would like to visit India to see the place of their ancestors. The scope for expanding tourism is enormous, if only there are direct flights from India.

In the Caribbean and South America, there are a number of places where ethnic Indians have settled. India can expand its trade and commerce and promote tourism in the whole of South America and the Caribbean. For this, the country needs ocean liners - only then can trade and tourism be promoted. Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - once Chairman of the South Commission-initiate the process? I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India. e-mail: raoramamohan@hotmail.com . By I. Ramamohan Rao

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