History has unfolded in similar fashion in the island nations of Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago. Both were discovered about the same time (towards the end of the 15th century, and the beginning of the 16th century). Both were colonized by a succession of European powers that fought one another over centuries for territorial supremacy. At the time of their independence in the 1960s, both island nations were British colonies. To these countries were sent a large number of indentured workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, from almost the same regions in India. They were contracted to work the sugarcane fields. Both these erstwhile colonies prospered initially on the back of African slavery until its abolition in 1833, and later on the toil of the East Indian indentured workers.
Modern history of the two nations is unfolding in similar fashion. Indian leadership is firmly in place following elections held in May in both countries. Trinidad and Tobago has Kamla Persad-Bissessar as Prime Minister. She has become the first woman of Indian origin to have become PM anywhere outside India. Navinchandra Ramgoolam, on the other hand, has returned to power as Prime Minister in Mauritius.
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Persad-Bissessar’s victory is critical. It establishes Indian political presence in an emphatic manner in Trinidad and Tobago after a considerable gap. Basdeo Panday who Persad-Bissessar defeated in intra-party elections earlier this year to become Prime Ministerial candidate for the May 24 election, was PM between 1995 and 2001. That was the only time in TnT’s history that a person of East Indian origin had become PM. It is after 9 years that Persad-Bissessar has managed to get the UNC-led coalition back in power, this time riding on a wave of personal popularity and another one of anti-incumbency. The significance of her victory is well encapsulated by Indo-Mauritian author Leela Gujadhur Sarup who has tracked Indian diasporic movements very extensively: “I feel very good about her victory. As someone who has researched indentureship, this result brings tears to my eyes. There are no limits for an Indian woman to prove her worth.”
As the executive vice president of the GOPIO International, Ashook Ramsaran, himself an Indo-Caribbean settled in New York, puts it, “We consider the victory of Kamla Persad-Bissessar and her ascendancy to the position of Prime Minister a prime factor towards improved cultural, academic and business relations with India. We anticipate positive effects due to increased collaboration at both the private and Government levels that would be of mutual benefit to Trinidad and Tobago and to India.”
At between 1.2 to 1.3 million, the two nations are similarly populated, but Mauritius has a larger share of Indians (68 per cent of the population), and that is why Indian leadership has been in place in that country for longer stretches in its independent history. Trinidad and Tobago on the other hand has had an East Indian majority (about 42 per cent East Indian descent) but only just, and, has not seen much Indian leadership. Economically, the oil-rich Caribbean nation has a GDP of USD 28.41 billion (at purchasing power parity) and is well ahead of Mauritius whose GDP is USD 15.9 billion (PPP).
In many countries pushing one’s Indian identity at the cost of that of the adopted country is not seen as very cool. Even within India, there are those that favour the One World, One Family concept based on the ancient Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. But considering that Indians taken to faraway sugar colonies by their colonial masters had to fight extremely hard to protect their Indian identity and to hold on to their culture and customs, the East Indians in these countries are often quite happy talking about their heritage.
India would look at this diaspora now in terms of translating political gains into economic consolidation. That would only help in strengthening bonds