Mauritius Indians in search of their roots in Bihar

May 5th, 2008 - 10:00 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Navinchandra Ramgoolam
By Shubha Singh
Patna, May 5 (IANS) The Bihar government has received more than a dozen requests from people in Mauritius to help trace their roots in the rural areas of the state ever since it launched its programme to foster closer cultural ties with the Indian Ocean country. The search for roots received a fillip in Mauritius after Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam visited his ancestral village in Bhojpur district during his February tour of Bihar. His visit to Harigoan attracted a great deal of attention in Mauritius and moved many people of Indian origin to begin a search for their roots.

Indians were taken to Mauritius as indentured workers to work on the sugar plantations during the 1830s- 1890s. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute at Port Louis, which has the records of the indentured workers who came to work in Mauritius, is working on an agreement with the Bihar culture department to help locate the original villages from where the indentured workers left for Mauritius.

It is part of the programme to enhance cultural and economic ties between Mauritius and Bihar launched by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. However, even before the tie-up could be formalised, requests from descendents of the indentured workers have started coming in. People from Mauritius have been writing to the Indian High Commission in Port Louis as well as the state government with copies of the documents and records pertaining to their ancestors who arrived in Mauritius over a century ago.

The culture department of the Bihar government has been assigned the task of identifying the villages named in these personal records. Many people of Indian origin have tried to locate the places from which their ancestors originated on their own.

But most of them have come up against several difficulties in identifying the places. Old districts that are listed in the documents had been bifurcated, the names of districts have changed in the past decades and there are several villages of the same or similar names. Some of them have even hired private detectives to carry out the search for them. Now, Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam’s visit to his ancestral village has sparked off a new interest in tracing one’s roots.

A request for locating the Mauritius prime minister’s ancestral village had been made a few years ago, but things began moving only after Nitish Kumar initiated a special focus on Mauritius which included a visit to the country last year. However, locating Ramgoolam’s ancestral village was also not an easy task. Once it became known that the Bihar government was seeking to locate his village, there were about 20 claimants who asserted that the Mauritius leader’s ancestor had belonged to their village according to popular belief in the region.

One of the claims came from a village in Bhojpur district. The villagers produced the ‘vanchavali’ - the village inheritance record that forms part of the revenue record - to show that one Ramgulam Ojha from that village had gone to Mauritius. Ramgulam Ojha was claimed to be the ancestor of Sir Seewsagar Ramgoolam, the towering leader of Mauritius who led the country to independence and the father of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam.

But the name of Ramgoolam’s ancestor, who went to Mauritius in 1871 was Moheeth and the claim was rejected. The documents stated Arrah district, Bihiya pargana and Harigoan village, fortunately there was only one Harigaon village in that district and the sub-division revenue records listed the name of Moheeth.

Harigaon is to have a new hospital, a school and new roads for which the Mauritius prime minister laid the foundation stone, while the foundation stone of the hospital to be named after Navin Ramgoolam was laid by the chief minister. In order to assuage the feelings of other claimants, Nitish Kumar also announced that similar development would take place at all the villages which had been claimants of the Ramgoolam ancestry.

The Bihar government has decided to mark the birthday of Sir Seewsagar Ramgoolam (prime minister of Mauritius from 1968 to 1982) with a state function every year. A cultural troupe was sent to Mauritius last month for the Mauritius Day celebrations, and a Mauritian cultural troupe had accompanied the prime minister to Bihar.

Faced with a shortage of skilled workmen, Mauritius is looking at Bihar to locate trained workers for the construction industry. A team from Port Louis was in Bihar recently and visited several ITIs and other institutes to get a view of Indian training programmes. Private companies are interested in hiring workmen for their projects.

The majority of the indentured workers were from Bihar and there are plans to connect their descendants with the land of their origin and to preserve the Bhojpuri language which is beginning to lose ground to Hindi and the Creole language.

Though most people of Indian origin speak Bhojpuri in Mauritius, the younger generation is getting more fluent in Hindi because of the influence of the popular Hindi film industry. While the governments of Mauritius and Bihar are keen to strengthen their ties, with Bihar also showing interest in attracting investment from Mauritius, the ordinary people are keen in connecting with their roots. As an official of the Mauiritius High Commission said, “Nazdiki aur ho gayi hai, to zaada interest hai” (there is a sense of closeness so the interest has increased).

(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

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