Suriname is a country located on the northeastern coast of South America, nestled between two countries viz. Guyana and French Guiana, overlooking North Atlantic Ocean. The smallest South American nation recently made headlines here in India, after the newly-elected President, Mr. Chandrikapersad Santokhi took the oath of office in Sanskrit while holding Vedas, during the inauguration ceremony.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during one of his monthly “Mann ki Baat” radio addresses, had mentioned Santokhi, which made him a popular figure across India. However, Santokhi upholding the Sanatan Dharma to the highest regard is not a one-off incident. Suriname, in fact, has a considerable Hindu population.
Progressive Reform Party – the party which Santokhi represents, was earlier named as United Hindustani Party (UHP), and the last Hindu leader to become the President was Ramsewak Shankar, who held the post from 1988 to 1990.
A Hindu in name & practice. pic.twitter.com/wpRyYT7EII
— Straight Talk India (@sttalkindia) July 19, 2020
Ethnic composition of Suriname:
The 2012 census reveals that Christianity is the predominant religion in Suriname, accounting for 48.4% of the country’s total population. However, Hinduism is the second-most practiced religion, composing 22.3% of the population.
Meanwhile, Muslims of Suriname trace their origins to South Asia and Indonesia, where they were brought as indentured labourers. Most Muslims in Suriname are Sunnis, while small sections of the population follow Sufism, Javanese Kejawèn, and other syncretic faiths.
How did Indian-Hindus land in Suriname?
Akin to other foreign nations with a sizeable Hindu populace, Suriname was introduced to Indians and the Hindu faith by the colonists. However, unlike Fiji and Mauritius, the two other countries covered in this series so far, it was the Dutch colonists that brought Indians into the South-American nation as indentured labourers.
The Dutch colony was facing an acute shortage of labour on their sugar plantations due to the abolition of slavery in 1863. As a result, the Dutch businessmen running the plantations lobbied the Dutch government to allow the procurement of indentured labourers from British India.
Finally, on September 8, 1870, the Suriname immigration treaty was drafted, and three years later, the immigration of Indian labourers started. The first contingent shipped was from Calcutta with the majority of the labourers coming from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Indians preferred to stay back:
Despite the cruel practice of shipping labourers thousands of miles away from their homelands, the majority of them preferred to stay put in the country. Reportedly, around 34,000 Indians reached Suriname in the five decades after the treaty was first signed. And 65% of them opted to stay on.
Historian Ashutosh Kumar has noted that one of the main reasons for the labourers staying back in Suriname was the presence of a casteless society, and that unlike the Britishers, the Dutch allowed them land-owning rights.
Quoted as saying by the Indian Express, Kumar said, “Unlike the British colonies, the Dutch had a policy through which the indentured labourers were entitled to some amount of land. This was one big reason why a majority of them stayed back,”
He further added, “Most of the people who left India for Suriname were either from lower castes or very poor. Once in Suriname, they were freed from caste oppression,”
Voyages after voyages, the Hindu population arrived and continued to grow and flourish in Suriname. Such was the impact of the Hindu culture, that ‘Sarnami Hindustani’, a product of the combination of Bhojpuri and Awadhi, was born in Suriname and is currently known to be the third most spoken language after Dutch and Sranan Tongo.
Food, temples and the culture:
Bhojpuri and chutney music, as well as folk dance forms from India like Ahirwa Naach, are hugely popular in Suriname, and the locals continue to cherish their ancestor’s roots. Much like the neighbouring Caribbean islands, Suriname has beautiful temples, visited by the locals and tourists alike. Meanwhile, Deepavali and Holi are national holidays in Suriname.
The Indians brought their eating habits and spices to the South American country, and as a result, Roti and pom have found their way amongst the taste palette of the current populace. There is a discernible amalgamation of African, Javanese, Dutch, Jewish and Portuguese with the Indo-Surinamese cuisine as well.
Suriname is truly a melting pot of cultures, and yet Indian-Hindus have managed to create a separate and unique identity for themselves, through their sheer hard work and will, all through the last century and a half.