To be a Bihari, or a person of Bihari descent, may seem a simple concept, free from confusion or distortion. Yet the state of Bihar itself has undergone modifications, whilst the absorption of other minority ethnic groups into the present-day self-defined community of Biharis has been a continuous feature of Mauritian social evolution.
The populous state of Bihar situated in the ‘bhojpuri belt’ of India, with its hill-dwelling tribals and troublesome dacoits was viewed with trepidation and curiosity by the British and has never quite lost its dubious reputation as a backward and lawless region.
Because much of Bihar was subsumed within the larger state of Bengal well into the 19th century, and regional origins were poorly recorded, it is difficult to trace pre-indenture Indian settlers in Mauritius to a specifically Bihari origin. Nevertheless the presence of Dutch and French settlers in Bengal and the evidence of slave trading and free migration of Indians from this region of north-eastern India, points to the likelihood of a sprinkling of Biharis accompanying the slaves and settlers generally known as ‘Bengalis’ into Dutch Mauritius and the Isle of France. This is reinforced by the discovery of Indian slaves given a surname, ‘Patna’, which refers to a district in Bihar where the French possessed a ‘loge’ and from which they may well have originated. Among the convicts who were sent to Mauritius before the abolition of slavery and prior to the mass arrival of Indian labourers under the indenture system, were also a number of male Biharis.
The mass immigration of Biharis to Mauritius occurred under the indenture system – a government regulated flow of migrants who were destined principally for work on the sugar plantations of the island. The bulk of indentured Indians arrived between the 1840s and the 1880s. Their categorisation and classification by the British and Indian officials who supervised their shipment and allocation to estates has left a written record of caste or religious affiliation and regional origin which is invaluable as a guide to their many descendants who continue to identify with such labels to determine group membership and even choice of marriage partners. The continuity of caste demarcations over the century and a half which has elapsed since indentured migrants first arrived is particularly remarkable. Age and marital status was also recorded, whilst the language spoken by most of the Bihari immigrants – Bhojpuri – can be inferred from regional data.
The journey of migrant labour was not simply the physical trudge to the emigration depot in Calcutta and the long sea voyage to Mauritius – it also represented a period of transition. Most of those who embarked on the ships that would take them abroad were seeing the sea for the first time, and the voyage must have been traumatic. The comradeship which developed between fellow travellers, however, gave Bihari migrants a lasting source of strength and brotherhood, known as jehaji bhai, which sustained them through their indentureships. Moreover, the journey overseas entailed a momentous time of change, an embarkation to a new life, and one from which the majority would not return.
Similarly, the role of indenture as an intermediary and crucial form of semi-bonded labour which straddled the uneasy years between the abolition of slavery and the modernisation of the plantation sector in Mauritius, ensured that the contractual years were not easy for the migrants to navigate successfully.
Fortunately regular enquiries made into the conditions of migration, have left us with a number of statements and depositions made by returning labourers, which enable historians to retrace the first hand experiences of participants in the indenture system. The migrants tell of their working lives in Mauritius and provide assessments and insights which are absent from most official accounts of indenture. Hostility to plantation discipline and rules, the petty harrassments of old immigrants and, above all, the dignity and stoicism of those Bihari pioneers shine through their stories.
If, in the early years, Biharis were not always aware of the distance they were travelling, or the duration and terms of their indenture contracts, over time migration to Mauritius became an established feature of life in some areas as villagers returned to collect families and to recruit other labourers. Whilst indentured migration has sometimes been depicted as the last resort of the desperate, recent studies have shown that selection procedures at the emigration depot meant that mostly the young and healthy were recruited, although increasing family migration allowed a relaxation of rules to enable the very elderly to accompany their relatives to Mauritius.
While the majority of indentured labourers were single male migrants, by the mid 19th century, through a combination of imperial directives, financial incentives, and migrants’ own actions in sending for and collecting their families in India, many more Indians were able to live in family and kin-based settings. A kind of marriage migration also took place, with male Biharis already settled in Mauritius competing for the arriving single women at the depot. Family life and the marital relationship naturally underwent stress during the indenture system, as the low levels of civil marriage and birth declarations complicated inheritance rights and traditional power structures. The young age at which children could be indentured and condemned to the juvenile reformatory also diminished the parental rights of immigrants. However as Biharis moved off the plantations and into settlements which were to become new villages in Mauritius, they were able to recreate customary means of celebrating marriages and resolving conjugal and family disputes.
The re-establishment of Biharis in village settlements was just one step in the process of achieving socio- economic mobility in the adopted homeland, and one which coincided with the redrawing of the religious and cultural map of Mauritius. As indentured labourers rose out of the ranks of field workers to become sirdars and job contractors, they also led the way in seizing opportunities offered by the dismantling of the larger sugar estates to establish themselves as landowners, small planters and entrepreneurs. The successful members of the community were at the forefront of a movement to recreate the sacred topography of India with the construction of temples. The emergence of spokesmen and leaders for this new community was not without difficulties. Contesting claims are typified in the disputes that arose at the turn of this century connected with the organisation of the Maha Shivaratree festival. On a more local level, however, the dependence of the immigrants on unsatisfactory state mechanisms of redress was lessened by the re-establishment in the villages of panchayatis and baitkas. These village institutions became the core of the new communities of Biharis which established themselves all over the island. The baitkas and other village meeting places of Biharis also provided the bases from which the sons and grandsons of sirdars and other immigrants were to launch themselves into the political arena over the coming decades.
Both Bihari Hindus and Muslims used land acquisition and parcelling, trading, and other activities to enhance their prestige and status within the community. However, whilst the large numbers of Hindu Biharis arriving in Mauritius enabled the preservation of some forms of caste endogamy, the Bihari Muslims effectively incorporated minorities from the south and west of India into their community. Together those Muslims from different parts of the subcontinent who migrated to Mauritius are today designated as ‘Calcuttyas’. This serves to differentiate the group from those Muslims, principally Gujaratis, who came to Mauritius not as indentured labourers but as free traders.
Elements of the language spoken by Mauritian biharis, and especially their traditional dishes – such as dal puri, are today enmeshed in the island’s culture, as are the plethora of rites, rituals, festivities and traditions which have survived, some in a more modified form than others, into the present day. In this respect, all Mauritians today have some element of bihari culture embedded in their souls!