These French nationals yearn for Indian recognition

September 21st, 2011 - 3:37 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Sep 21 (IANS) Their ancestors were taken to the French territories of Guadeloupe and Reunion Island over a hundred years ago. But these French nationals of Indian descent still value their Indian ancestry and are pained at non-inclusion in the Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) category.

“We are not rejecting our French identity but we want to be officially recognised by India as People of Indian Origin. We are third and fourth generation descendants but we value our links with India,” French banking professional Christelle Gourdine said.

“It is an intensely emotional link and many people long to have their connection with the ancestral land formalised with a PIO card,” she said.

While Guadeloupe is in the Caribbean, Reunion Island is in the Indian Ocean.

“The PIO card has become an emotional issue. Many of the older people believe it would establish their connection with India which was lost because of French colonial policies,” she added.

Gourdine’s parents were part of the 55,000-strong Indian community in Guadeloupe - just over 10 percent of the population - till they moved to mainland France.

However, the Indian government has not accepted French documents as evidence of ethnic Indian ancestry that would make them eligible for PIO cards.

The Indian government gives the card to any person of Indian descent whose parent, grandparent or great grandparent was born in India. The card allows a visit to India without a visa and certain investment facilities on the same lines as are available to non-resident Indians (NRIs).

People of Indian descent living in France and in French overseas territories like Guadeloupe have petitioned the Indian government to recognise them as PIO and grant them cards.

“You cannot imagine the kind of feeling it generates. My mother lives in Paris. She went door-to-door to get the petition signed. She collected over 200 signatures,” said Gourdine.

The petition was handed over to Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi during a visit to Trinidad earlier this year.

The petition stated: “We, French descendants of Indian workers, would like to have the same right to any descendant of Indian workers. We are very keen to be recognised as people of Indian origin; it would connect us to India.”

Requesting India to review their situation with regard to the PIO card, the petition added that their ancestors who left India from 1834 to 1890s were unable to come back despite the contract signed at their departure.

Diaspora historian Leela Sarup wrote to the overseas Indian affairs ministry in May 2010 for the inclusion of PIO in the former French colonies for PIO status.

She requested acceptance of documents such as death certificates and marriage certificates to prove their Indian origin as the original emigration passes had been destroyed.

Sarup wrote: “Virtually no records exist of the (emigration) lists due to neglect, lack of storage space, termites, humidity, vagaries of nature, etc.”

Over 100,000 Indian workers were taken as indentured workers to the new plantation colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific region during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The majority of indentured workers went to the British colonies of Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa but several thousands of workers were taken by the French authorities from Pondicherry to Guadeloupe and Reunion Island.

The indentured workers in the French territories lost touch with their families in India and were made to adopt the French language and way of life.

The British colonies maintained the immigration records - the travel documents of the Indian workers are preserved at the national archives.

The French authorities, on the other hand, did not preserve the documents. Some migration documents were destroyed at different times, with the result that French Indians cannot show any documentary evidence of their arrival from India.

“We are asking that the Indian government accept the municipal records of Guadeloupe to prove ancestry,” said Gourdine.

“India welcomes its diaspora from around the world but the Guadeloupians are a forgotten lot. We continue to yearn for our ethnic identity to be accepted by India,” she added.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

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