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The role of East Indians in nation building

Chunkay, Candice Sobers, 2017

By Dr Sharon Syriac

Today again, I must tackle it, I cautiously brave the heap.
Its long, thick and natural black,
Dark and stubborn like my father’s skin
Long and thick as my Ma’s mane,
Strong as moi’s poiya that she wielded in her years of cutting cane.
I gently strum the strings with my hairbrush
It flows to its own beat, dancing to its own rhythm
It curls to its own rhyme
It defines ‘who I am’

—Kristy Joseph, The Kinks in My Crown Unpublished poem, 2014

A ‘dougla’ student in my Creative Writing class once wrote a poem describing how her hair defined her. Her powerful visuals suggested that her hair had become a symbol of resistance, demonstrating its resilience by forging its own curls, defining its own path through shaping and re-shaping its own identity.

On the eve of the Indian Arrival Day holiday, on Sunday, May 29, Dr Jerome Teelucksingh sought to impart this same lesson.

During Dr Teelucksingh’s address to the Holy Faith Sisters and Associates Nation Building team on ‘The Role of East Indians in Nation Building’ he recalled East Indians’ resistance to the then controlling colonial power.

He emphasised that their acts of resistance, demonstrated during the 1884 Hosay Day Riots, the 1937 Labour riots and the 1970 Black Power Revolution, when both East Indians and Africans united in protest, reflected that our nation’s strength lies in its diversity.

Historical Diversity

Indentureship did not begin with East Indians. Some Africans had also arrived in Trinidad as indentured labourers, as well as small numbers of other ethnic groups like the Syrians, Chinese and Portuguese, who had become failed labour experiments when they were unable to work as efficiently on the sugar cane plantations as the 147,000 indentured East Indians who came after them. Yet unity in diversity had begun, since all worked side by side on the sugar cane plantations.

Under the harsh conditions of the colonial period, many East Indians demonstrated resilience. Many developed an astute economic sense, living frugally to save money to meet their economic goals, some doing so by re-indenturing themselves to other Caribbean islands.

Yet others “fell through the cracks” and developed addictions which seriously affected family life. Nevertheless, of the East Indians who remained in Trinidad and whose descendants became Indo-Trinidadians, they continue to contribute to nation building particularly in agriculture, sports, education, and politics.

Women in Post-Indentureship era

The Presbyterian Canadian Mission which facilitated East Indian access to education helped them to attain social mobility. This organisation uplifted and empowered women through schools like the Naparima Girls’ High School and St Augustine Girls’ High School.

Thus, Indo-Trinidadian women like Anna Mahase (Sr), became the first Indian woman to become a teacher in 1918 and Gema Ramkeesoon, a social worker who also campaigned for women’s rights to education, public office, and divorce, worked as a women’s rights activist to improve the relationship between Afro and Indo-Trinidadian women, who were largely ignored by mainstream feminist groups.

Nation Building

East Indians have sometimes contributed to nation building in ways which are unacknowledged. Most notably, the Indian peasant farmer who has made a significant contribution to market gardening through cultivating fruits and vegetables and tending poultry to serve the community has often remained underappreciated in favour of more elitist occupations.

Indo-Trinidadian sporting legends like footballers Bobby Sookram and Ahamad Charles, cricketer Sonny Ramadhin and runner, Manny Ramjohn, the first athlete to win us a gold medal at a major athletics event have all made us proud to be Trini to the bone.

A nation is built on unity and East Indians who have contributed to national government have been recognised through persons like Dr Rudranath Capildeo, the first leader of the Opposition; Noor Hassanali, the first Muslim to hold the position as President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago; Basdeo Panday, the first East Indian Prime Minister and Kamla Persad-Bissessar who became the first female Prime Minister – yet it is in the politics of power that seeds of divisiveness have been sown and the Afro-Indian unity towards nation building has often been conveniently ignored.

Yet history shows that our richest period of Afro-Indian unity was forged from the love of liberty when during the trade union movement, Afro-Trinidadian Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler and Indo-Trinidadian Adrian Cola Reinzi demonstrated a mutual interdependence, and both played different but essential roles. The divide-and-rule precedence set by a colonial government who feared unity, was then transcended.


Dr Teelucksingh concluded that while it is important to examine the achievements of the many Indo-Trinidadians who have made valuable contributions to our nation, the challenges faced by those who feel unappreciated or discriminated against must also be acknowledged.

Indeed, for those who do not yet fully identify with this nation as a place where “every creed and race find an equal place”, we should choose actions that are more inclusive.

There is strength in diversity and diversity in identity. Nothing stands alone. An East Indian may be Muslim, Christian, Presbyterian, Catholic, Hindu or like Kristy my student-poet, “crowned dougla”.

Her “strands have root in Congo and Calcutta but live under the West Indian weather”. Kristy knows that many permutations of identity are possible. Yes, she wrestles with her hair. Resilience and resistance grow there. These are qualities that build a strong nation.