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A remote French Island reconnects with India

A remote French Island reconnects with IndiaGuadeloupe (Caribbean Sea), May 31 : Tears flowed incessantly down dozens of cheeks as the Indian national anthem echoed for the first time in the history of this small island in the Caribbean Sea.

The occasion was as historic as the playing of the anthem itself. For the first time, an Indian minister had set foot on this island, which, despite its distance, has very historic and very vibrant links with India. Thus, it was hardly surprising that hundreds of Guadeloupeans turned out to greet Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs and Minister of Civil Aviation Vayalar Ravi when he arrived here on a two-day trip earlier this week.

Guadeloupe is a small island of about 1,600 sqkm in the West Caribbean Sea and is home to over 420,000 people. Of them, nearly 50,000 are of Indian origin, whose forefathers were brought to this distant land by the French nearly 158 years ago to work on the plantations. However, their links with India have been entirely cut.

Over the last century and-a-half, the residents of Guadeloupe and its neighbouring French-ruled island of Martinique, which is home to another 10,000 PIOs (people of Indian origin), have had absolutely no contact with India. French laws, at least till very recently, ensured that any cultural or social links that could have been handed down through the generations did not materialize, says Michel Narayaninsamy, a local businessman and president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Guadeloupe.

"For starters, our ancestors, the plantation workers, were all made to adopt Christian names and were literally forced to convert to Christianity. They, of course, had no access to any Indian language training and soon they lost
(knowledge of) all the Indian languages and today we can converse only in French," Narayaninsamy told IANS in Guadeloupe during Ravi's historic visit.

During the visit, which was the outcome of persistent efforts by the PIOs of Guadeloupe for the last two years, assisted by GOPIO Guadeloupe and its parent organization, GOPIO International, Ravi first inaugurated a memorial to the Indian immigration in Guadeloupe. The memorial is set on a farm where the first batch of plantation workers began work. Incidentally, this farm is now owned by a PIO family.

In his address at the inauguration of the memorial, Ravi praised the courage and tenacity of the PIOs of Guadeloupe, who, despite all odds, managed to maintain something of Indian culture and Indianness within themselves.

"I must congratulate all of you for the remarkable courage that you have shown in retaining your links with India, even after the passage of so much time and loss of all contact with India. Your community has also emerged from a very difficult period to a situation today where many of you are doing very well and have made us in India very proud of your achievements, which have come only through your hard work," Ravi told the gathering.

He offered help and assistance of the Indian government, and notably his ministry, to ensure that the PIOs in Guadeloupe can regenerate their links with India and Indian culture.

"I would like to inform you that my ministry organises very focused programmes for the PIO youth all over the world where we take them to India for a complete discovery of India by travelling to various parts, meeting with various social, political and business leaders and this trip, I can say, firmly reconnects them to India. So I would urge GOPIO Guadeloupe to suggest names of such youth who can be part of this programme," Ravi said.

Ravi also addressed a business meeting organised by the local chamber of commerce in collaboration with GOPIO Guadeloupe, where he invited the business community of the island to do more business with India, specifically in sectors such as food processing, agriculture, trading and infrastructure. He also expressed belief that Indian companies would also start investing in Guadeloupe once business ties were firmly established.

Ravi also honoured a notable PIO of the early 20th century, Henry Sidambarom, who devoted his life to fighting for the basic rights for the Indian community. Sidambarom's father had come to Guadeloupe as a farm worker in the first few boats that landed here around 1854-57. Henry Sidambarom was born in Guadeloupe in 1863 and began his fight for the fundamental rights of the Indians in 1904. His battle was focused on the French granting French citizenship and hence voting rights and other fundamental rights for the Indian migrant workers, who had been treated as stateless persons till then in Guadeloupe.

Sidambarom's grandchildren, who had come especially for the event, recounted his battle and how he had to face a court case for 19 years due to this. But finally, he won and the French administration was obliged to recognize the rights of the Indian community.

Ravi praised the courage of Sidambarom and asked his family and others to provide all the relevant information and photographs of his battle so that it can be included in the Museum on Indian Migration that his ministry is setting up. He also declared his support for the demand of the PIOs from Guadeloupe that a memorial in Sidambarom's memory be erected at Karaikal in Puducherry, the native place of his family.

"It will be a proud moment for India when we recognise our sons who have so bravely fought for the rights of their fellow citizens," he told the meeting organised at the place where a statue in memory of Sidambarom has been built.

Ravi also promised the Indian community all assistance in learning Indian languages, dances and cuisine and also access to Indian television channels in order to revive their links with India. He also urged the PIOs of Guadeloupe to turn up in large numbers at the next edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, scheduled to be held in Jaipur in January 2012.(IANS)