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How Caribbean Political Activist Walter Rodney Spread the Message of African-Indian Unity Through Children’s Books

The simple narrative of ‘Lakshmi out of India’ brings to focus how poor people everywhere, in this case from India, were forced to immigrate to unknown places due to poverty and exploitation.

Walter Rodney, whose life was cut short by imperialist supported forces 1980 — when he was just 38 years old — is one of most significant radical thinkers from the Caribbean. Born on March 23, 1942 in Georgetown Guyana, Rodney evolved into a prominent thinker and activist right from his student days. Born into a working-class family, he completed his PhD in African Studies from the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1966 at 24 years of age.

His thesis — Slave Trade in Upper Guinea Coast — published by Oxford University Press in 1970 under the title A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 is widely acclaimed for its originality in challenging the conventional wisdom held on this topic. Rodney taught in Tanzania and at the University of West Indies, Mona, where he was declared persona non grata by the Jamaican government for his radical pro-working-class views. He became a Pan-Africanist and took part in the Black Power movement in the Caribbean. Rodney’s magnum opus was published in 1972 under the title How the Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Along with Cheddi Jagan’s The West on Trial and CLR James’s The Black Jacobins’, How the Europe Underdeveloped Africa is considered one of most significant publications exposing Europe’s exploitation of colonised countries. Rodney’s other major publications include A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (1981) and Marx in the Liberation of Africa (1981).

Walter Rodney
Walter Rodney.

Apart from penning theoretical books, Walter Rodney was one of the rare thinkers and revolutionaries who paid attention to writing for children. His two major publications in this field are Kofi Baadu Out of Africa and Lakshmi Out of India. In these exceptional books, Rodney focused on shaping children’s consciousness radically.

Colonial powers like England Spain, Holland and French brought slaves to Caribbean countries and many African countries. After the abolition of slavery, they brought indentured labour for working in fields and factories that belonged to white colonisers. Indentured labour was transported mostly from India and slaves were brought from Africa. After the defeat of the colonisers in these countries, the African and Indian diaspora rose to power. Today, international neo-imperialists use racial divisions between people of African and Indian origin to their advantage. But enlightened radical thinkers try to unite both communities in the fight against the neo-colonial and neo-imperialist regimes. Thus, the Black Power movement in Trinidad and Tobago in the 70s emphasised on African-Indian unity. Yet there are people — like Sat Maharaj, the international Vice-President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Trinidad — who hold on to a racist hatred for people of African origin and refuse to affiliate with them.

Walter Rodney, in Kofi Baadu out of Africa and Lakshmi out of India, underlined the need for exploited Africans and Indians to unite. In fact, African have suffered a fate much worse than Indians in these countries — they went through a horrific phase of slavery, whereas Indians escaped and suffered indentured labour exploitation that had, at least, some legal security. Indian diaspora is in large numbers in Trinidad Tobago, Guyana (Earlier British Guiana), Surinam (Earlier Dutch Guiana), South Africa, Jamaica, Kenya, Mauritius, Fiji and many other countries. And in all of these countries, they live with Africans. In many countries they are part of ruling class as well. Many Indian diasporic leaders have enjoyed and continue to enjoy power in some of these countries. While the African diaspora in many cases has been radical politically, only some Indian leaders have been radical or socialist in their thinking and politics. Among Indians, Cheddi Jagan, Donald Ramoutar in Guyana (Both remained President/Prime Minister of Guyana) and Ahmed Kathrada in South Africa are examples of socialist radicalism — mostly, however, the Indian leadership in these countries follow the rabid Hindutva of the VHP.

Lakshmi out of India is small story of twenty large, illustrated pages in large children book style. The book is dedicated to Shaka, Kanini and Asha Rodney and the children of Guyana. Rodney also wanted to write on children of Chinese and Dutch backgrounds as well, focusing on essential unity among children of Guyanese nationality — a multicultural society.  Illustrations and images in the book include the map of India, Mahatma Gandhi, wall paintings, Durga Puja offerings, Puppetry, Holi colours, Goddess Lakshmi, Ganga Puja, Musical instruments, Indian flag and lastly of Indira Gandhi, the first woman PM of India. The Book begins with Lakshmi’s emigration certificate — born in 1847, Lakshmi reaches British Guiana in 1865 at the age of 18. Daughter of Mohan from the Rajpur village in Patna district, she is married to Prasad as per the certificate. In Guyana, for the Indian labour, “Religious festivals were really holidays”, underlines Rodney, as they would otherwise have to work without breaks. He described Hinduism as “A way of Life”, but not in the sense that it is described in India these days. Indians in Guyana could neither read religious books nor go to temples. For them, Rama, Krishna or Vishnu, were just symbols of Indians. He writes, “These deities were men of India.”

Lakshmi suffered the floods of rivers flowing in Bihar — the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Godavari had seen flood disasters of stunning dimensions. Rodney referred in the book that eleven years after Lakshmi left India in Clarence, one lakh people drowned in Ganges delta within half an hour in 1876. She lost her family in one such flood and Gopaul Babu saved her from drowning, she was now dependent on a distant uncle, to whom she was a burden. Lakshmi enjoyed paying Holi. She observed how the Zamindar women in village did not work, even as she and others had to work hard. She was thirteen at the time of the 1860 flood that destroyed her family. To survive, people had to move to distant places like Mauritius, Jamaica and Demerara (Guiana). Her Aunt’s (Chachi) vicious conduct made her leave for Patna, and then to Calcutta with emigrant agents, who would become vicious if someone refused to take ship to these countries to sign up for indentured labour. Lakshmi met Prasad — whose only possession was a dholak — in the emigration office and she fell for him. Rodney narrated how Lakshmi was practical about a “marriage of convenience” and married Prasad in the emigration office before taking “the voyage to Demerara as No. 314, ex Clarence, 1865” (final words of story).

The simple narrative meant for children brings to focus how poor people everywhere, in this case from India, were forced to immigrate to unknown places due to poverty and exploitation. That is what Rodney showed in stories for children from Africa, India, China or other countries.

Lakshmi out of India, even as a children’s book, describes the socioeconomic and cultural history of India with an objective and pro-people narrative. Why then has this book, which tells the story of indentured labour in so few yet so impactful words, not been published in India?

Patricia Rodney, widow of Walter Rodney is keen to see this book printed in India. She has expressed her desire to this author on behalf of Walter Rodney Foundation. Interestingly the Commission of Enquiry set up by the Guyanese Government to look into the circumstances of Walter Rodney’s death gave its report year 2015, which has still not been made public. D. Patricia gave her testimony to this commission in October 2014.

*Chaman Lal, a retired Professor from JNU, known for his writings on Bhagat Singh, had spent 14 months in The University of the West Indies Trinidad campus and travelled to many Caribbean countries with Indian Diaspora

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