As the Indian – Origin, Afro- origin, Javanese- origin, and indigenous Amerindians make up the population of the country; its politics is bound to be influenced by the history of the people.
By Amb. Aashna Kanhai with Aparaajita Pandey
Suriname witnessed its national elections this year, as Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi takes his place as the President, the country looks forward to a new era of politics and prosperity. The elections of Suriname cannot be dethatched from the multi-ethnic history and politics of the country. As the Indian – Origin, Afro- origin, Javanese- origin, and indigenous Amerindians make up the population of the country; its politics is bound to be influenced by the history of the people. As Suriname welcomed their new President, it did not go amiss that Chan Santokhi belongs to the Indo- Surinamese community.
When the Prime Minister of India recently mentioned to his countrymen, the oath-taking ceremony of the President of the Republic of Suriname, it is interesting to see how a quite natural and almost unnoticed detail of reciting a hymn from the Rig Veda caught international attention. In Suriname, a country with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population, almost 36 % is of Indian Origin and official ceremonies usually are accompanied by blessings. The official language of this country is Dutch.
After more than 300 years of colonization, Suriname gained independence in 1975 from The Netherlands. The Amerindians are the first inhabitants. Slaves from West Africa were brought as early as 1667. Fleeing the inhumane conditions of slavery, the community of maroons established itself in the interiors and the dense Amazon Rainforest.
After the abolition of slavery, the colonizer introduced ‘indentured laborers’ from British India and between 1873-1914, a total of 34000 Indians were shipped from mainly the U.P. Region to work on the sugar plantations in Suriname, for an initial contract of five years, with an option to return to India. In 1890, the indentured laborers were brought in from Java under similar conditions as the British Indians.
The majority of the Indian Indentured labourers had opted to stay in Suriname and receive one hectare of land. The economic rise of the second generation of the British Indians was caused by high prices of crops during the First World War and resulting in the fact that they could send their children to schools just like the free afro community. Of course, most schools were run by Christian Missionary organizations. The multi-ethnic reality emerged as post World War II, the emergence of Political Parties based on ethnicity and the right to vote was introduced in 1948, for all men, followed by internal independence from the colonizer in 1954.
Like in other parts of the Caribbean with Persons of Indian Origin, post decolonization politics were dominated by ethnicity, yet in Suriname bipolarity in this regard has not been the case, as the Javanese community introduced multi polarity. The PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) and the Persons of Afro Origin, were the major political players. During the independence, a massive exodus took place of PIO’s to The Netherlands, making use of the option to leave, as a fear of the Afro dominance in government, post-independence was there. Fraternization politics were practised by leaders from the Afro- and PIO political parties, attempting to bring these two ethnic groups closer to each other and giving way to a future alliance of their parties for greater electoral gain.
Marking another change was the emergence of nationalist and more ‘beyond ethnicity’ political movements, after the military regime of 1980-1987. Political awareness in the maroon community emerged especially after the war in the interior, in the 1980s and the discovery of large reserves of gold in the late 1990s by multinationals in the interior splurged growth of political parties led by leaders of Maroon descent, prompting the electorate that the Maroon community could no longer see itself as a backward group of Suriname.
In times where left and right are not so far from each other, the phenomenon of coalitions is the rule rather than the exception and exceptional Suriname, is no exception.
The recent elections in Suriname faced not only the challenge of the COVID -19 pandemic, yet the result was showing a massive growth of the party established during the decolonization by the PIO community. The dynamics of the growth of this party is best explained through its changes in name. It started as the United Hindustani Party (Verenigde Hindustaanse Partij, VHP) and transformed today to the United Reform Party (Verenigde Hervormings Partij).
As Suriname sets out to begin a new chapter in their politics, the country is hopeful about progress and prosperity. With the discovery of considerable crude oil reserves off the shore Suriname and an already established presence of ExxonMobil, the Surinamese population is looking towards its new administration to usher in the era of prosperity in the country.
(Amb Aashna Kanhai is the Ambassador of Suriname to India and Aparaajita Pandey is Asst. Professor at Amity University and a Doctoral Candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal).