East Indians of the Caribbean

Alternative names: Indo-Caribbeans, Hindustanis
Location: Caribbean island and rim countries
Population: Trinidad 460,000; Guyana 400,000; Suriname 147,000
% of population: Trinidad 40%; Guyana 51%; Suriname 37%
Religion: Hindu, Muslim, Christian
Language: “Hindustani” (local dialect of Hindi/Urdu), English or Dutch

The “East Indians” of the Caribbean and Caribbean rim countries are the descendants of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent. Despite their name they are no relation to the indigenous aboriginal “Indians” who inhabit or formerly inhabited the area. The East Indians are, along with Black Afro-Caribbeans (“West Indians”), one of the two major ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. There are also East Indian communities in Jamaica (one estimate for 1980 gives the East Indian population as 50,000), Grenada and the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Indians were first brought to the Caribbean from the mid-1840s to work on white-owned sugar plantations as indentured labour to replace newly freed African slaves. The majority of immigrants were young men; later disturbances on the plantations forced the authorities to try and correct the imbalance. Indenture was usually for five years and the labourer was subject to restricting and paternalistic regulations which were sometimes described as “a new system of slavery”. After an initial number of years it was possible for the labourer to return to India but since many were offered land in order to entice them to stay near the estates, most stayed in their new country.

The racial tensions and stereotypes of later years were formed during the colonial period. Indians worked for less than Africans and were regarded as cheap and malleable labour. There were differences of culture between the Hindu and Muslim Indians and the Christian Africans. While the Africans, who were more likely to be literate in English, filled the jobs in the urban and commercial sectors, Indians were most likely to remain labourers and small farmers.

Trinidad and Tobago

The East Indians of Trinidad and Tobago comprise around 40% of the total population; the remainder is mainly of African descent, with other groups of Chinese, Portuguese and Whites. Most East Indians are Hindus, divided into three main sects, most notably the Maha Sabha. About 15% are Muslims, mainly merchants and urban dwellers, and a small group are Christians, who are predominantly professionals and businessmen. Hindus are much more likely to be small farmers. Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962 and is a member of the Commonwealth.

From the mid-1950s politics was dominated by the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Eric Williams. Most Indians saw this as a black nationalist movement and attempted to build Indian parties to counter this, not very successfully. However economic problems and the growth of a “Black Power” movement among Africans led to increasingly authoritarian government which to some extent helped to overcome overt clashes between ethnic groups.

Trinidad, although a small island of a little over 5,000 square kilometres, has rich agricultural land and considerable oil reserves. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century both Indians and Africans worked in agriculture — the Indians in sugar, both on plantations and their own small plots, and the Africans in cocoa. When the market for cocoa collapsed in the 1920s the Africans moved into the oil, manufacturing, construction and service industries. Africans still dominate these sectors while Indians have done well in agriculture, the professions and small commercial enterprises. Indians are however under-represented in government service and economic sectors directly under government influence. The relative lack of economic competition between the two groups has meant that although racial divisions are evident they rarely emerge as overt tensions. In addition, oil income helped to make Trinidad one of the richest states in the Caribbean and Latin America throughout the 1970s.

The collapse of oil prices in the 1980s harmed both groups economically (per capita income fell by one third) and in 1986 the umbrella opposition party, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), decisively defeated the PNM after it had held power for 30 years. The NAR claimed to be a genuine multiracial party; however by 1989 it had split partly on racial and partly on political grounds, three Indian ministers had been sacked and a new Indian-based party had been formed.


The East Indians of Guyana comprise slightly over 50% of the total population while the other main group is of African descent with much smaller groups of Portuguese and Chinese. There is also a small Amerindian community in the interior of the country. Most East Indians are Hindus with smaller groups of Muslims and Christians. Guyana, formerly the colony of British Guiana, became independent in 1966 and is a member of the Commonwealth.

Land shortage and competition for the small amount of land on the alluvial coastal strip, shaped the relationship between the two major ethnic groups in British Guiana. Africans bitterly resented the Indian indentured labour in the plantations and the economic competition that followed. Indians also established small rice farms. Africans worked in the bauxite industry and mining, while minor retailing was dominated by the Portuguese and Chinese. Africans dominated the civil service and police where Indians were, and continue to be, under-represented. As Indians moved into the towns from rural areas, areas of conflict were sharpened. There was widespread rioting and racial violence between East Indians and Africans in 1962-64, in which over 150 died. Indians had initially missed out on educational opportunities, as children were needed in the plantation labour force and they feared the effects of missionary-run schools. They later started establishing their own schools and participated more proportionately in government-run schools. After the value of Western educational qualifications became clear many Indians educated their children outside the country, and as a result Indians are today slightly over-represented in the professions of law and medicine.

The ethnic divide laid the basis for the main divisions with Guyanese politics, although these divisions were consistently exploited by the UK and later the USA, and the ruling party which has become consistently more authoritarian. However in the postwar period the two groups

1In 1987 the NAR government acknowledged the right of Tobago, the much smaller island to the north-east of Trinidad, to full internal self-government under the terms of an act passed in 1980. There were some indications that the islanders might push for further autonomy or even independence.

appeared united against colonial domination with the formation of the pro-independence socialist party the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) with an Indian, Cheddi Jagan, as leader and an Afro-Guyanese, L.F.S. Burnham, as party chairman. The PPP won the first limited elections held under adult suffrage in 1953 but the then Governor, claiming that the PPP was communist, suspended the constitution and revoked adult suffrage, which was not reinstated until 1957. The effect of the suspension was to remove the unity between Afro- and Indian-Guyanese and split the PPP on racial lines. In 1955 Burnham left the PPP to found the mainly Afro-Guyanese-supported People’s National Congress (PNC).

The PPP was returned to power in 1957 and 1961, committed to socialist policies. There was widespread opposition to an attempted financial reform in 1962, which placed extra taxes on the middle class and foreign companies. The opposition to the PPP came from the business community, urban residents and the PNC and was backed by the USA, fearing another Cuba in the region. However the PNP survived in government until 1964, when the UK government abolished the “first-past-the-post” electoral system to one of proportional representation. After the 1964 elections the PPP was unable to obtain an absolute majority and was replaced as the governing party by the PNC in coalition with the business-dominated United Force Party.

The PNC has continued to dominate Guyanese politics since independence, winning every election overwhelmingly. There have been well-documented allegations of continued vote-rigging and deliberate exclusion of potential political opponents, including East Indians, from suffrage, at every election to date. Guyana, now solely ruled by the PNC, became an independent “Co-operative-Republic” in 1970 and instituted a new constitution in 1980, which made constitutional change dependent upon a two-thirds majority in Parliament rather than on a referendum. The PNC government has since been increasingly authoritarian and right-wing. The bauxite and sugar companies which dominated the economy were nationalized; however chronic mismanagement and world economic depression has devastated the Guyanese economy, further — adding to racial tensions. By the mid-1980s Guyana had the second lowest income per capita in the Caribbean, after Haiti.

In the early 1980s there was the emergence of Afro-Guyanese opposition to the government with the formation of the “new left” Working People’s Alliance (WPA), which in 1986 joined with the PPP and other parties in the opposition Patriotic Coalition for Democracy. However most Afro-Guyanese appear to give their support to the PNC, led by President Hoyte after the death of President Burnham in 1985, perhaps because it is still a source of employment in an increasingly depressed economy. However, large numbers of Guyanese of all groups have left the country. Of the total population of 800,000, 100,000 live abroad and in recent years increasing numbers have sought political asylum in Canada. Human rights violations and racial tensions continue; there have been many reports of deliberate police harassment of Indians and the failure of police and government to act against Afro-Guyanese gangs who terrorize Indian communities.


The East Indians of Suriname, known locally as Hindustanis, comprise around 37% of the population of just under 400,000. At the time of independence in 1975 they were probably around half of the population; however large-scale emigration to the Netherlands has lowered their numbers considerably. The other ethnic groups are Afro-Surinamese, known locally as Creoles, Javanese (descendants of immigrants/indentured labourers from the then Dutch East Indies), Maroons (also known as bush-negroes), Chinese, Amerindians and small groups of Middle Eastern or European descent.

Indians first came to Suriname after the abolition of slavery in 1863. The Dutch had established control over the coastal areas in the years after 1667 and attempted to establish a plantation economy by the importation of African slaves. The Africans suffered greatly under slavery and many fled into the jungles of the interior. After slavery was abolished there was an agreement between the UK and the Netherlands for the importation of sub-continental Indians as contract labourers; 34,300 came in the years between 1873 and 1916. A similar number of Javanese were also imported slightly later. Both groups stayed, the Indians often becoming small independent rice farmers, traders and businessmen. Some Creoles also became small farmers while many others settled in the capital city of Paramaribo

2Of course the true level of support is impossible to state because of persistent electoral irregularities. Both the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group and Americas Watch have testified to the use of fraudulent practices.

or worked in mining, forestry, industry or public administration. Indians only started entering this last area after 1950.

Until the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1949, Suriname (called until independence, Surinam) had been ruled by a small wealthy group, mainly European and a few Creoles. Internal autonomy came in 1954 with an Electoral Act based on racially demarcated constituencies. Economic, cultural and linguistic factors already divided the ethnic groups, the Electoral Act encouraged continued ethnic divisions into political organization. Two main parties emerged — the United Reform Party (VHP) and the National Party of Suriname (NPS) — respectively Hindustani and Creole. After 19 years of shared or single-party rule the Party of the National Republic (PNR) won power in 1973 and announced it would seek independence by 1975. The other ethnic groups were generally not in favour of independence as they feared Creole domination (as had happened in Guyana) and the leader of the VHP, J. Lachmon, put forward a plan for phased independence.

The Netherlands government supported plans for Suriname’s independence which was set for November 25, 1975. The Surimanese were, until independence, Dutch citizens and able to move freely between Suriname and the Netherlands. High unemployment in Suriname had caused many people to emigrate but the numbers rose greatly in the two years before independence to 150,000 — about one third of the population. Many of these were Hindustanis and from this time their share in the population began to drop. Those Surinamese who resided in Holland at the time of independence remained Dutch citizens, those in Suriname became Surinamese citizens. The Dutch government also agreed to give 3.2 billion Dutch guilders ($US 4.7 billion) as development aid in the next 10 years.

To a large extent the fears expressed before independence of Creole domination have been fulfilled but, unlike Guyana, the East Indian population has not been the chief target of repression. This is partly because their numbers have dropped because of emigration, partly because of the greater ethnic diversity and also because the worst violations have taken place in a counter-insurgency war in the jungles of the interior with the Maroons and Amerindians as the main victims. In 1980 a military coup overthrew the PNR government of Henck Aaron and there followed over the next seven years, until elections for a new National Assembly in late 1987, a number of attempted coups and killings of political opponents. The elections were contested by a coalition party called the Front for Democracy and Development (FDD), which consisted of the NPS, VNR and the KTPI which represented the Javanese population. It won the elections overwhelmingly by 40 seats to a combined opposition total of 11. The National Assembly elected Mr Ramsewk Shankar, a Hindustani, as President and Mr Henck Arron as Vice President. J. Lachmon became Speaker of the National Assembly. To date the FDD government has survived and has initiated peace talks with rebel forces. However the military still appears to have considerable influence and it is difficult to evaluate the long-term viability of a civilian and multi-racial government in Suriname.

(See also Indian Fijians in Oceania)

3In practice the division has not been as rigid as might appear. Suriname citizens can still enter the Netherlands, although with restrictions, and family reunion and resettlement are relatively easy.