Girmityas are descendents of indentured Indian labourers brought to Fiji to work on sugarcane plantations for the prosperity of the European settlers and save the Fijians from having to work on these plantations and thus to preserve their culture. "Agreement" is the term that has been coined into "Girmit", referring to the "Agreement" of the British Government with the Indian labourers as to the length of stay in Fiji and when they would be allowed to go back to India.
Diaspora is, in some respects, the most characteristically un-Indian; moreover, the reaffirmation of 'Indianness' among diasporic Indian communities should not obscure the critical differences that obtain between them. First, Indians in the Caribbean, and in such places as Mauritius, Malaysia, and Fiji, have scarcely the same relationship to India as do Indians in the U.S., the UK, Canada, or other countries in the post-industrial West. However much India might beckon to Indians in the Caribbean as the fount of their cultural and religious imagination, these Indians remain, almost without exception, citizens of the nation-states to which their ancestors migrated several generations ago. This is patently not true, for example, of Indians in the U.S. The much-feted NRI, the Non-Resident Indian, is a phenomenon entirely of diasporic Indian communities in the West. Indians in Caribbean nations have been settled so long there that they have no living memory of India, and the principal relations that these Indians have is, and perforce must be, with members of other communities, mainly Africans. There is no 'Indian', properly speaking, in Trinidad or Guyana: one can only speak of Trinidadians, Indo-Trinidadians, Indo-Guyanese, and even East Indians. These designations are not without their problem: thus the term "Trinidadians", with its invocation of the unitary nation-state, obscures the racial divide between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, while "East Indians" renders the Indians into parochial figures, implicitly disloyal, at the same time as it makes the Africans the true inheritors of the "West Indian" legacy.
While India's professional elite has left for the West in the latter half of the twentieth century of their own volition, under conditions of relative freedom and in the expectation of substantial economic gains, the Indian excursus to the Caribbean took place under entirely different, and altogether oppressive, conditions. The origins of what came to be known as the system of indentured labor owed everything to the abolition of slavery in 1838. Having been 'emancipated', many African ex-slaves declared their unwillingness to work for the daily wage of one shilling (and often less) that their former employers, the owners of sugar plantations in European (mainly British) colonies in the Caribbean, offered. Since there was no longer an inexhaustible, reliable, and cheap supply of labor, the plantation owners turned, after a flirtative experiment of importing Chinese and Portuguese laborers, to India. By the 1830s, the larger part of India had fallen under British rule, and it is the confluence of British interests, economic and political, in the Caribbean and India that explains the ease with which the British Government of India permitted the transplantation of Indians, drawn entirely from the peasantry, to alien lands thousands of miles away. Indentureship recruitment, the Indo-Trinidadian scholar Kenneth Permasad reminds us, "took place in an India reeling under the yoke of colonial oppression." Colonialism induced massive transformations in Indian economy and society, and the increase in famines under colonial rule, the destruction of indigenous industries, and the proliferation of the unemployed all attest to the heartlessness of colonial rule.
While it is entirely reasonable to expect that a small fraction of the indentured emigrants left 'voluntarily', however one is to construe so absurd a notion considering the extraordinary economic hardships afflicting the vast majority of Indians, and with no other thought than that of escaping the wretchedness of their lives, most others left under duress, as victims of a system of deception and subterfuge. Peasants were lured to the city by agents who promised them relief from the misery of their lives and substantial pecuniary gain; and indubitably many were kidnapped or otherwise tricked. These "girmityas" (a corruption of the word 'agreement') were initially bound to serve five years, it being understood that the planters would pay for their passage, and at the end of this term the indentured laborers were to receive their freedom. If they wished to do so, they could return to India at the expense of their employer, or they could settle in their new homeland, and gain the rights accorded to free men, or at least such rights as colored people could expect. The Europeans almost never adhered to these agreements. From Calcutta and Madras Indian men, and a much smaller number of women, especially in the first few decades of indentured migration, were herded into "coolie" ships, confined to the lower deck, the women subject to the lustful advances of the European crew. Sometimes condemned to eat, sleep, and sit amidst their own waste, the indentureds were just as often without anything but the most elementary form of medical care. Many did not survive the long and brutal "middle passage"; the bodies of the dead were, quite unceremoniously, thrown overboard.
- Gillion, Kenneth (1962). Fiji's Indian migrants : a history of the end of indenture in 1920. Melbourne: Oxford U.P.
- Brij V. Lal and Kate Fortune, ed. (2000). "Girmitiya". The Pacific Islands : an encyclopedia ([Repr.]. ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. pp. 110–111. ISBN 082482265X.
- Lal, Brij V. (2004). Girmitiyas : the origins of the Fiji Indians. Lautoka, Fiji: Fiji Institute of Applied Studies. ISBN 978-0-8248-2265-1.
- Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. The University of Chicago (2014) ISBN 978-0-226-21138-1