Vice-president of the South American republic since 2015, Adhin was the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) in Bengaluru recently.
He quoted in Sanskrit from the Gita and the Upanishads, and won praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Not so unusual, you would say, in times when restoration of culture and civilisation is an imperative; and not when the person in question was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Except that Michael Ashwin Adhin, 36, is a Surinamer. Like some 30% of his countrymen and women, he is of Indian origin. Vice-president of the South American republic since 2015, Adhin was the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) in Bengaluru recently.
It was almost as if the prime minister took a cue from Adhin’s presence at the PBD when, over the next couple of days, he announced a slew of new procedures to help people of Indian origin (PIOs) in Girmitiya countries (where PIOs are descendents of indentured Indian labourers) obtain overseas citizen of India (OCI) cards even if they had left India four or five generations back.
Along with Surinamers, PIOs from countries like Fiji, the Reunion Island, Guyana and other Caribbean states will benefit from the new norms. The scheme will be first launched in Mauritius.
Outreach to PIOs
The VP of Suriname feels that such an outreach to PIOs is vital. “We have a cultural heritage that we are proud of. In Suriname, we are the fourth and fifth generation of Indian diaspora,” Adhin, whose family traces its roots back to Allahabad, told ET Magazine in an exclusive interview in Delhi. His great-grandfather Ramadhin went to Suriname with many other indentured labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar between 1873 and 1916 to work in Dutch sugar and coffee plantations. Adhin’s first two visits to India were as a swayamsevak for camps at Nashik and Nagpur in 2006 and 2008 .
A member of Suriname’s National Democratic Party and earlier minister of education, Adhin believes that Suriname, a country with rich natural resources such as forests and minerals, and India, with its technological edge, can build strong economic ties based on historical and cultural affinity.
“We don’t want to lose the opportunity to engage economically with India, the land of our ancestors, to get a mutually beneficial advantage.” The younger generation of PIOs in different walks of life such as entrepreneurship, public sector, NGOs and government in his country recognises the need to build economic links with India based on the strong foundation of cultural ties.
Similarly, India too could harness the advantage of having PIOs spread across different countries with shared values to spread its wings not just in the Caribbean and South America, but across the world. A platform such as the PBD makes such engagement possible, says the youthful vice-president, who is comfortable speaking Sarnami, a blend of Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Brajbhasha and Maithili, as well as Hindi.
Adhin and other Surinamese politicians of East Indian descent have been working towards getting young PIOs engaged in public life. “People of Indian descent form about 30% of the population of Suriname and they are doing well in different walks of life, including business, policy and politics,” he says.
Adhin first met Modi on an India visit last year; he met him again on the sidelines of PBD 2017, this time to take forward discussions on concrete projects, lines of credit and foreign direct investment to his country from India. The two leaders spoke about bilateral cooperation in animal husbandry, agriculture, palm oil and wood processing. Adhin also sought India’s support to create an ecosystem for ayurveda in his country.
Like the vice-president, Suriname’s ambassador to India Aashna Kanhai, 40, is of Indian origin.
When she first came to Delhi about five years back she carried with her a lot of family history and heritage. Her greatgrandmother, a widow, went to Suriname as an indentured labourer over 150 years back to work at the sugar and coffee plantations of the Dutch East India Company.
“While she was probably of Bengali origin, her husband was from Uttar Pradesh,” says Kanhai, having picked up anecdotes about the family’s early days in Suriname from her parents and grandparents.
As ambassador in India, she has travelled to various cities across the country, visiting different places of worship in an effort to connect with her roots and heritage.
It was her deep sense of connecting with her roots that took her on an exploratory trip to Kolkata where she discovered the Suriname jetty on the bank of the river Hooghly.
Suriname’s envoy to India Aashna Kanhai, 40, is of Indian origin.
It was from here that Indian indentured labourers left for the Dutch colony, following an agreement between the British and the Dutch governments in 1873. Around 34,000 Indians reached Suriname, of whom 65% opted to stay on in exchange for a piece of land or cash.
While many of them still own land and practise agriculture, others have moved to cities and become professionals such as lawyers and doctors.
“PIOs still live in joint families and have preserved the culture, cuisine, music and wedding traditions from India,” says Kanhai.
She was the moving force behind the building and inauguration of the Suriname Memorial — a statue of Baba & Mai, symbolic of the first PIOs who landed in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo — at Kolkata port’s Netaji Subhas Dock in October 2015. The monument was inaugurated by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Kanhai, a political appointee, is a lawyer and studied in the Netherlands before she was deputed to India as ambassador. She is proud of the multicultural nature of Suriname, of the fact that 99% of women are educated and that the country enjoys 33% representation for women in the parliament.