Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Girmit – An integral part of Indo-Fijian History: Guest Writer-Rajendra Prasad

Guest Writer, RAJENDRA PRASAD, Former Town Clerk of Ba, and Author of “Tears in Paradise” takes us through a memory lane of our Girmit History. He reiterates that our people need to generate interest and respect in their heritage, and appreciate and understand the hardship, sacrifices and sufferings our people went through in making a better future for their children.
Rajendra Prasad, Guest writer, Author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004.
In this spirit, Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand was formed in Auckland, among other things, to commemorate FIJI GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY which will be marked at Skipton Hall, Mangere, Auckland on Sunday 18 May, 2014 from 1.30 – 5pm. Refreshments and dinner will be served and entry is free. Here is a Girmit journey into memory lane......

Girmit – An integral part of Indo-Fijian History…

By Rajendra Prasad 

It may sound bizarre but it is an unpleasant truth – successive generations of Indo-Fijians have grown or are growing in ignorance about their early history. It is a British legacy and denial of Indo-Fijian history was a discreet British colonial policy. It did not want its iniquities against the community to be revealed. The British left in 1970 when Fiji gained its independence but Indo-Fijians, to this day, remain estranged from learning their own history. It was a British plan then but it cannot continue to be a reason for Indo-Fijians to grow in ignorance of their foundational history. Indo-Fijian leadership and Indo-Fijian academics bear the blame and shame for this situation. Both were in positions of power and influence to reverse the situation but both chose to do nothing, opting to reside in the security and comfort of their positions.

Consequently, Indo-Fijian children had to learn British history, indigenous history and history of other cultures but not their own history. It is now for the community to stand up to reclaim and restore its history. It cannot rely on contemporary politicians because they epitomize betrayal but Indo-Fijian academics can be of assistance in this endeavour, as many now hold positions of power and influence. The dynamics of Indo-Fijian history is embedded in struggle, suffering and sacrifice. Struggle left a legacy of fortitude; suffering left a legacy of endurance and sacrifice left a legacy of generosity, perhaps unmatched. They struggled, they suffered and they sacrificed but did not seek applause or recognition. The debt of accrued gratitude to our Girmitiya forebears is far heavier on the community, as the echo of their cries cannot be muted. It will resonate across generations.

Cover of Rajendra Prasad's historical presentation book: 'Tears in Paradise-Suffering and struggles of Indians in Fiji - 1879-2004' It takes you into tear-jerking tales of untold Girmit stories and anecdotes of exploitation, suffering, and strength of human nature to remain silent even in face of acute injustice.
In my book, “Tears in Paradise,” I captured my deepest sorrows and sentiments as follows –
“I have constantly been drawn into this sorrow and to this solitude. I have grieved in the stillness of the night and, in the deep peal of thunder, I have heard the muffled cries of our ancestors, imploring us, their descendants, to ensure that their pain and suffering during the indenture period (1879-1920) in Fiji, was not lost in the mist of time…”

The unmarked graves of the Girmitiyas are scattered all over Fiji; they may not have spoken about their tragic life but in their silence is a haunting voice that cannot and must not be ignored. They were manipulated, exploited and violated. They were robbed of their adolescence or early adulthood, as most Girmitiyas were relatively young. The fracture of their lives followed when the aarkathis, the ruthless recruiters in India, trapped them in their net of deceit and the rupture of Girmit made them ‘glorified’ slaves. It left them with broken bodies, tormented minds and without the right to seek redress for their sufferings. For all intents and purposes, the Girmitiyas were slaves and instead of being called slaves, they were called ‘indentured labourers – the name changed but the stigma of slavery was contained under the cover of a glorified name. Indentured labour was a contractual agreement for five year period and in Fiji, the indentured labourers called it Girmit and they came to be called Girmitiyas. It is an exclusive name that is tied to Fiji and a name that is entrenched in the history of Indo-Fijians.
Leonidas-the first ship arrived in Levuka on 14 May, 1879. This day of 14 May is now declared internationally as FIJI GIRMIT REMEMBRANCE DAY
Historically, it is claimed that slavery ended in 1834 but the truth is that the wheels of slavery was reinvented and slave trade continued until the indenture system ended on December 31, 1919. A lie perpetuated by the British and other colonial powers of the system of slavery became an uncontested historical truth! Having sapped the mental and physical powers of the Girmitiyas in five years, they were left to dry out for another five years before they qualified for a return trip to India. One would indeed argue as to the reason for this injustice – the Girmitiyas served their five year term and they should have been paid their return passage to India. Return was on everyone’s mind after the trauma of Girmit but the Government had other plans - it wanted the Girmitiyas to re-indenture for another term. 
Hardship of Girmit: a gang of labourers, labouring away and they gave us a better future. At least what we can do is to dedicate a day to remember and pay homage to them. 14 May is such a day.
Very few re-indentured as most opted to engage in subsistence farming for their livelihood, pitching their tents away from the disgusting environs of the coolie lines – the hovels where the Girmitiyas lived for five years. The Government knew that the majority would not have saved enough in five years to pay their return passage to India and would be de-rooted and settled in Fiji, providing for the labour needs of the Colony. This plan succeeded. In ten difficult years, most of the Girmitiyas had become detached from India and settled in Fiji. Subsequently, many engaged in sugarcane farming and became the backbone of the sugar industry in Fiji. The sufferings of the Girmit era eased but the rewards for their toil would eluded, as the Government and the dominant sugar miller the CSR Company, colluded in systemically robbing the illiterate farmers in the post-indenture period. As if this were not enough, the Government devised another sinister plan to keep the Girmitiyas and their descendants a labouring class. 

Education was denied to them, ensuring that they remained a labouring class and never became a threat to European dominance. It did not encourage nor did it make provision for schools for Indo-Fijian children. With widespread illiteracy among the Indo-Fijians, the Government was sure that it would succeed in this endeavour. However, this plan failed. It was a miscalculation, as the Girmitiyas united in their resolve to invest in the education of their children. They held a collective view that only education would liberate their children from a conspiring and conniving Government and the ruthless CSR Company. They did not want their children to continue to be menial servants, serving their white masters. This view became a communal obsession, as schools began to sprout in villages wherever Indo-Fijians lived. They did not wait for Government funding or support but established them out of their own poverty.
Girmitiya priority on education has  landed Indo-Fijian Diaspora into prosperity in the countries they have settled into. While themselves being uneducated, they wished a better future for their children-and we are thankful for that.
Unable to restrain Indo-Fijian advance, the Government, upon pressure from India, began to invest in schools established in the villages. The small spark of education, ignited by our Girmitiya forebears, liberated our community from servitude and, much to the annoyance of Europeans, their dominance was challenged. Appropriately, KL Gillion, entitled his book, “The Fiji Indians – A Challenge to European Dominance 1920-1946.” By any measure, it was a remarkable transformation of a community from being slaves to challenging their masters in areas that was the colonial preserve. However, in pursuit of their liberation, the Girmitiyas were not bitter or vindictive but remained true to their religious and cultural heritage. The Girmitiyas went to their graves with physical scars of whips, kicks and sticks – emblems of a decadent era. They were the warriors of toil – driven by indomitable spirit to strive, achieve and succeed. They retained a morbid silence on the injustices and indignities visited on their lives by their white masters. Illiteracy did not limit them, poverty challenged them and the world abandoned them. Even their descendants have forgotten to honour the debt of gratitude bequeathed to them through their sacrifices. Indeed, one would have expected that successive generations of Indo-Fijians would have stood up to demand justice for the Girmitiyas from the British and the CSR Company. It did not occur, as the might of the British prevailed and injustices it perpetrated got buried in the toxic debris of its injustices. 

Unfortunately, history is not always a true record, as it is always manipulated by the oppressors, rich and powerful. The voice of the oppressed and suppressed are snuffed, as the world accepts and learns the sanitized version of history. Indo-Fijians don’t even have a sanitized version but blank pages left by the British are now being filled by Indo-Fijian writers. Sadly, it is not being embraced by Indo-Fijians as many imprudently seem to think that they can simply ignore and forget it. No community can grow in the ignorance of its past, as it is a legacy that must nourish successive generations. Any generation that terminates this legacy will be guilty of failing in its duties and obligations to their own children. Our early history cannot be delinked. History has given us our own Indo-Fijian culture, language and identity and all of it is inseparably linked to Girmit in Fiji.


[About the Author:*Rajendra Prasad’s Girmitiya grandparents went to Fiji in the ship Sangola II in 1908. He is the author of “Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004.”]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When Media becomes a threat to democracy: Controls essential to stop loose media cannons in Fiji

When Media becomes a threat to democracy: Controls essential to stop loose media cannons in Fiji

Thakur Ranjit Singh

What we learn from History is that we do not learn from History. Action taken by Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA) on Ratu Timoci Vesikula’s reported “hate-speech” and punishment meted by MIDA need to be viewed from a Historical rationale and perspective. We need to appreciate how a Western type free and partisan media in the past contributed to fall of democracy and Fiji’s political instability.

Any democracy that does not grant equality, fairness and social justice to all its citizens is not worth defending – that is what I proclaimed in a seminar held in Auckland in the aftermath of Bainimarama takeover of Qarase government in December, 2006. I have held that view since, and feel honoured to be branded supporter of Bainimarama.

The latest one to do that is Wadan Narsey, who named me as a cheerleader of Bainimarama. Response to that later, but he has been critical of the decision of Fiji Media Industry Development Authority (MIDA), and its Chairperson, Ashwin Raj. MIDA has slated and punished FIJI TV for breaching strict laws that have been put in place subsequent to past upheavals where media have been seen indulging in mischief-making. I know this - as a former publisher of Daily Post, I was removed by Qarase for being too nosey.  I have conducted a research on Fiji media. Perhaps Wadan needs to have a read of that thesis and appreciate how a partisan media can be a threat to democracy. [Electronic version available at: http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/2554]
You be the judge to determine whether Fiji's staggering and fragile democracy needed this model of free media which helped in shaking the foundation of a democratically elected government. Other articles below will help you decide whether a body like MIDA may have saved Peoples Coalition Government 

Perhaps this illustration will help bring to reality those who think the Western concept of media freedom is some religious mantra essential for Fiji:
Nationalists plan protest march
NATIONALISTS around the country are ready to support their leaders and plans to overthrow the government.
The statement promised a blood pledge in honour of Fijian ancestors to:
·        Overthrow the Chaudhry Government
·        Establish a 100 per cent vanua based Fijian parliament and ban any non-indigenous person from parliament.
·        Declare Fiji a Christian state
·        Establish a programme of Fijianisation in education, business and the economy.
Mr Butadroka fuelled the crowd’s enthusiasm with remarks aimed at the Indian race.” (My emphasis)

This journalistic miracle appeared in The Fiji Times on 22 May, 1999 - three days after Chaudhry’s Peoples Coalition Government was sworn in. It was reported by an I-Taukei journalist, Dionesia Tabureguci, and must have passed along the great legends at the Fiji Times that time, Editor, Samisoni Kakaivalu, Editor- in-Chief Russell Hunter; and Netani Rika and Margaret Wise may also have been around in the newsroom. My research and thesis which was a partial fulfilment of the requirements for degree of Masters in Communications Studies (MCS) at Auckland University of Technology’s (AUT’s) Journalism School showed some starling results. Media, as the fourth estate, is supposed to be the last bastion of democracy. However, in case of Fiji, ironically, the most influential press, Rupert Murdock’s The Fiji Times, appear to have contributed to the fall of democracy, and we are paying the price for it now.

One year rule of People’s Coalition Government was led by an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry between May 19, 1999 and May 19, 2000 when Speight’s putsch – attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government took place. During that period, sensational headlines in The Fiji Times, penned by I-Taukei journalist screamed aloud: Rabuka warns on race bomb, Chiefs warn on Bills, Threats on MPs,  State under fire, NLTB boss warns Chaudhry, Church leader warns Chaudhry, Chief’s paper wants to oust Chaudhry, Landowners take over school, PM under fire, PM should quit, says Rewa MP, Taukei workers threaten action, Holy land, Stand up, Qarikau urges Ra, Landowners shut offices, Taukei vow to remove PM, Chief warns of war, Eviction time, Racist group in land talks, Tora warns Chaudhry, Bau chiefs warn Chaudhry, Closure threat on airport, Adi Senimili warns Chaudhry.......and so on shocking display of sensational and divisive reporting.

It appears that in one year, every form of a Fijian leader warned and threatened Fiji’s Prime Minister, just because he happened to be an “Indian”. The Fiji Times and   freedom of press gave ample opportunity for hatred and sensation to be amplified throughout the nation by the largest and most influential newspaper.

During that time, new groups of militant and nationalist make-shift organisations sprang up overnight to oppose government’s initiative. Their little known leaders with suspect following were given undeserved exposure by the press under the guise of media freedom despite such utterances bordering on sedition and hate-speeches. These were also in clear breach of Media Code of Conduct, and out of reach of self-regulatory and hardly effective toothless tiger, Fiji Media Council.

Media in general and The Fiji Times in particular provided ample opportunity for anybody who wished to take a pot-shot at the highest seat of the country- the President and the Prime Minister. A responsible media, especially in a developing country, divided on racial lines would be expected to exercise caution in allowing such dereliction of ethics and duties to allow such show of disrespect to the leaders of a developing nation under the guise of media freedom.

In a multiracial developing country where the makeup of the newsroom does not reflect the population of the country, we can have very partisan reporting. The Fiji Times, with a majority I-Taukei gatekeepers and news reporters fell in that category. I suppose FIJI TV also falls in that category now. In my research, it showed that those writing sensational and “negative” articles on Indo-Fijians and Chaudhry government were I-Taukei, who comprised over seventy-five percent or three quarters of those penning those news items that showed by lines. Media researchers have established that journalists’ race and own political views crept into newsrooms. Politics in Fiji is so often mixed with issues like culture loyalties that it could become difficult for reporters to maintain impartiality and direction, especially if they come from same racial and cultural groups as those reported on. In a country like Fiji battling with racial issues, environmental factors encourage an atmosphere of ethnocentrism and racial feelings within journalism.
While research already shows dereliction of duties of print media, no research appears to have been done for TV in general and FIJI TV in particular. However its ownership and gatekeeper profile, points to something to be worried about. Therefore, it was timely for MIDA to pull it up, bring into notice, nip in the bud and even punish it for the irresponsible and sensational reporting camouflaged as news item.

It is nonsensical to say that items said in vernacular and directly translated did not carry hate-speech. More than the spoken words, the tone, the body language, hidden idioms and mannerism of mother tongue may speak a lot more than the English translated version. If MIDA or a similar regulatory body with initiative, teeth, interest in national welfare and national development existed in 1999/2000 when media became a threat to democracy in Fiji, perhaps Fiji may have seen a more stable politics. That is why media schools in Fiji have to appreciate understand and value the concept of Development Journalism, more popular and socially and economically beneficial in multi-racial Developing nations. (That, maybe later, or perhaps Media Maestro Mark Edge can add his Canadian bit)

Fiji is not ready for the Western type of cut-and–paste democracy. Neither is it ready for the Western concept of First World unfettered and uncontrolled media freedom. Western Democracy and Western Media Freedom concepts have failed Fiji in the past.

We need home-grown solutions for both, and Fiji’s move in this direction needs better appreciation through an informed historical perspective and understanding of rationale for such decisions.


[Thakur Ranjit Singh is a media commentator and post graduate scholar in communication studies from Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Electronic link of his research thesis on Fiji media is available on: