The facts about East Indians: Articulating the East Indian Identity

The below letter is very interesting for one to gain a gist of the East Indian experience in Belize. In my view, the East Indians in Belize can be said to have begun to take new measures to (re)articulate their ethnic and cultural identity in Belize. One can note this in the increasing number of East Indian groups and cultural organizations within the last decade. These are interesting developments; within the next decade more cultural groups are likely to develop measures to document their cultural identities. This attempt to revise our spaces within the historical and national narrative is not simply an academic enterprise but a political one which calls upon the State for adequate representation and redistribution of resources.

We are likely to see the various cultural groups establish national cultural councils. I say this because the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) policy is to distribute funds to national councils. The rationale is that this facilitates the processes of economic distribution. For instance, instead of giving monies to smaller groups (who may always say they need more money or hold grudges against the other), the idea is to give monies to national councils and let them manage their resources. This reduces any claims against the Institution that one culture is being privileged in Belize. This is logical but the development of national councils could also lead to greater ‘othering’ of cultural groups and the ‘Belizean identity’. We will likely have national bodies which claim authority over what a cultural group entails and pursue to situate themselves nationally – Should each culture have their national holiday? -Will we agree upon a ‘multicultural day’ as our Cultural Policy suggests?  – Who gets represented in the tourism board and industry? Is the national flag representative of all the cultures? Are the Mestizo’s and the Central American descendants culturally the same? Should Spanish become our national language?  Some people will articulate very polemical arguments on these issues.

It will be important that we remain committed to highlighting the cultural commonalities and citizenship ideals to our population and especially to cultural activists. It will also benefit us if our ‘national identity’ is not “constructed in ethnic or cultural terms, but rather as a political and institutional concept related to the state and its constitution. Also, the national identity must provide room for the existence of multiple identities, whether they be ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural or whatever. Its definition—which should in any case be considered as flexible and subject to change—should be such that it can include all citizens, making it possible for all to identify with it” (Shoman, 2010, p. 49). A rigid (essentialist) form of identity politics can lead us to undesirable circumstances; alternatively, if we can negotiate a cultural politics with the goal for greater democratization and inclusion, it could be very positive. 

The letter was a response to a letter by Cliton Uh Luna, a columnist in the Amandala Newspaper in which he asked that the East Indian communities in Belize should teach us about who they are. It is also puzzling to know that Luna had such a distorted view of the East Indians presence in Belize despite his frequent writings on Belizean history: 

Dear Sir,

I write in response to “Mr. Clinton Uh Luna”, in reference to his request made in the Amandala Sunday issue 2111, dated January 7th, 2007.

I write to inform and educate Mr. Luna and the Belizean public who are still ignorant of the facts, history and culture of the East Indians. It seems that now we East Indians, being a mere three percent of the Belizean population, have been ignored and neglected as an ethnic group. Many times when the ethnic groups of Belize are mentioned, East Indians are usually the last to be mentioned or not mentioned at all, until recently with the birth of the East Indian Council and with the support of the East Indian community, we have been able to openly and courageously promote the culture of the East Indians. Although compared to the other cultures of Belize, we have no language, but our culture is preserved in our food – Cohune Cabbage, Tacari, Yellow Ginger, Jelabi, Carili, and the surnames and physical appearance of the present descendants.

East Indians came to the Caribbean from India, not Africa, in the 18th century as Indentured Servants and not slaves. They worked as sugar cane farmers. Between 1838 and 1917 it was recorded that 543,434 Indians (or “Coolies”as they were referred to – now a derogatory term, did not mean indentured servant, it meant “unskilled laborer”) had been indentured in the Caribbean. The majority of them resided in Guyana and Trinidad. In 1857, three thousand East Indians migrated from Jamaica to Belize, 382 of which were originally born in India. However, they came here as free East Indians, due to the expiration of their contracts in Jamaica. Therefore, all the East Indians in Belize came from Jamaica.

Another point I wish to make is that all East Indians were not necessarily Hindu: some were Muslims. Therefore East Indians cannot be categorized as Hindu descendants, but rather descendants of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization and a mixture of Aryans (Indo-Europeans). Being a Hindu does not necessarily make you an Indian, and being Indian does not make you Hindu.

There are very few “pure-bred” Indians left in Belize; however, it is hard to find ethnic groups that have not intermarried with other groups. We may all be different in attitudes, religions and our positions in society, but “at the end of each day there is one unifying factor – that fact that we are all East Indians,” said Mr. Gabriel Pate, President of the East Indian Council, in his foreword in the book “Tales from a forgotten place” by Bismark Ranguy, Sr.

This colossal confusion may be the result of hundreds of years of distortion, when Columbus made a mistake landing in the Bahamas and thought it was East India. However, the Caribbean was home to the Caribbeans, and was later referred to as the West Indies, and not East India. This was the name given to it so as not to be confused between the two “Indias.” During their early arrival these Indians were not allowed to intermarry with other ethnic groups, and there was friction between the East Indians and the Africans, so a mixture would not have been likely.

Yes, children were born in the Caribbean, but to Indian parents. Parents who came from a mighty civilization, one that built the Taj Mahal, developed the concept of numbers and the use of the zero, long before the Mayas. Some of the most remarkable faces in the history of humanity were East Indians, such as the Great Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, were “coolies”.

The names of the East Indians were changed, because the Europeans could not pronounce the names and changed then even the spellings, for example:

a.) Ghai – Guy                        
b.) Ravinsingh – Robinson          
c.) Suphala – Supaul
d.) Rhanghai – Ranguy
e.)Pahemran – Parham
f.)Tulsie/Toalsi – Tulcey

These are only some of the conversions. Some employers thought it was better for the servants to adopt their last names, so this resulted in East Indians having names like Borland, Edwards, Jacobs, Coleman, and Jackson. So you might see that due to the lack of knowledge by students about the cultures of Belize, a lot has not been learned and therefore, people cannot be blamed for that unawareness. Nonetheless, it does not permit you to discriminate or reproach the East Indian community for such ignorance.

I hope that my input will help to correct the inexactitudes in your article and has answered some questions regarding the East Indians of Belize. If further information be needed please refer to:

East Indian Folk Culture in Belize by Joan Elizabeth Cardenas
Tales from Forgotten Belize by Bismark Ranguy, Jr.
Towards Understanding Belize's Multi-cultural History and Identity by Joseph Iyo
East Indian Culture by ISCR/NICH

Yours truly
Noel Gomez


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