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.

PLEASE REMEMEMBER THEM ON MAY 14 - THE FIRST SHIP LEONIDAS ARRIVED IN FIJI ON MAY 14, 1879 WITH 479 GIRMITIYAS.



[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.”]