New evidence of indentured Indians’ mass graves in Suriname

New Delhi, Jan 23: As the Suriname government granted permission in early January to researchers to begin operations to discover the forgotten mass graves of Indian indentured workers killed in police firing in 1902 in the tiny South American nation, where nearly 40 percent of its people are of Indian extraction, new evidence has emerged that could give significant pointers to the location of the graves.

Late last year, Benjamin Mitrasingh, an archaeologist in Suriname, had proposed to use modern technology and aerial surveys to locate the graves of Indian indentured workers killed 110 years ago in Marienburg. The 1902 massacre took place at Marienburg factory and sugarcane plantation when angry agricultural workers protesting against low wages were fired upon by Dutch colonial forces. About 24 workers were killed and their bodies dumped in unmarked mass graves.

As Mitrasingh waited for government permission to commence his investigation, researchers in the Netherlands – Suriname, a country of a little over 500,00 people, gained independence from the Dutch in 1975 – working in the archives located a map that could give indications to the site where the mass graves were located. Sandew Hira and historian Radhinder Bhagwanbali have done considerable research on the subject of Indian immigrants in Suriname.

Bhagwanbhali had been researching on the subject of resistance on the plantations against the indentured labour system. “During his research, Bhagwanbali went into the archives and studied the reports of the Dutch military regarding the uprisings by the workers. He found this map in the military files,” Hira said in an email interview with IANS. A copy of the map was sent to Mitrasingh, he added.

Bhagwanbali is the author of three books on migration and the indenture system in Suriname. Hira has been working on creating a database of all Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Suriname. He has put together a list of all those Indian workers killed in the Mariengburg massacre with their names and details about their home villages in India from immigration sources. Hira is keen to get some recognition in India for those who died in the Marienburg uprising.

“I have written a letter to the Indian government with the names, village addresses of those killed in the uprising so that they get recognition in their homeland. I am still awaiting a response from the Indian government”, he added. Hira’s list was sent to the ministry for overseas Indian affairs in July 2012.

However, Mitrasingh is not very hopeful of getting any real evidence from Bhagwanbali’s map. “It is not an actual military map which gives coordinates and specific locations of the graves,” he said. The map discovered by Radhinder Bhagwanbali looks like a rough sketch that depicts the rail tracks, the roads and other topographical features of the area.

After securing the government’s go-ahead, Mitrasingh has been assured full support by the district commissioner, the surveyor’s office and the Marienburg coordinator for his investigations. The surveyor’s office will provide a detailed map of the disused rail system at Marienburg. According to media reports, a local businessman has offered the use of his company helicopter for an aerial survey of the area.

There were about 10 major incidents of workers protests by Indian indentured labour in Suriname between 1873 and 1902 and the Marienburg agitation was among the largest. Indian indentured workers were taken to Suriname as agricultural labour to work on the sugarcane plantations during colonial times. Suriname was first colonized by the British, and captured by the Dutch in 1667. .Conditions on the plantations were miserable with overwork, poor living conditions and low wages.

The Mareinburg estate and sugar factory was the biggest business enterprise in Suriname at one time. In 1902, Dutch security forces fired on the protesting workers, killing 24, whose bodies were dumped in unidentified mass graves. According to local belief in the region, the bodies were transported on the train that brought the sugarcane to the sugar mill and buried in large pit near the rail tracks.

The plans to locate the mass graves at Marienburg have evoked a good deal of interest in Suriname. An unsuccessful attempt was made in 1983-84 when drilling was undertaken at one site. In 2006 a monument was unveiled to commemorate the workers uprising.

(23.01.2013 – Shubha Singh can be contacted at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

IANS