‘Nobody knows us in Bharat; we are a forgotten diaspora’

Mon 09 Jan 2017

A stall from Réunion Island, at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Bengaluru on Sunday

The sugar plantations on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean were a big draw for many labourers from Pondicherry and parts of Tamil Nadu in the mid-19th century. More than a century later, the People of Indian Origin in this French island are fluent in French and Creole, but not in their native tongue, Tamil. However, now there’s a kind of revival where they are attempting to relearn Tamil in schools and temples in the region.

“Though we have retained traditional food habits, cultural and religious practices, we have lost our language and links with the families in India,” said Jean Regis Ramsamy Nadarassin, a historian and journalist, who was part of the 14-member delegation at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. “We are again learning Tamil. Some priests in temples are helping us understand it,”

The PIOs form about 30 per cent of the island’s nearly 8 lakh population. “The Creole that we speak has a few Tamil words, but it is largely French,” said Latchimy Antoinette Canaguy, who works as a French teacher in the island. Like in many other Gurmitya countries, PIOs in Reunion Island have been facing problems in obtaining Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards due to unavailability of documents. “Our estimate is about 30 people out of about three lakh PIO population has the OCI card. It is difficult to establish ancestry and trace our origin because the archives in the island have been destroyed. There is no document to prove our origin nor do we know anyone in India,” Mr. Nadarassin explained.

Mr. Nadarassin is among the 30-odd OCI card holders in the island, but he said that getting the card was a Herculean task. “Since I am a historian, I managed to dig out details with great difficulty and could trace members of his extended family in Puducherry. Every one cannot afford to do this,” he said.

With a gloomy face, he said, “Nobody knows us in Bharat; we are a forgotten diaspora.”

When MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup was asked how the Ministry could help PIOs relearn their mother tongue, he said the government has been helping communities across the world in their efforts. It is also helping setting up Chairs in universities. “Sending a person from India may not be a viable option. But, there are other ways, including online classes where one can learn a language.”


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