Monday, July 7, 2014

Fiji Girmitiyas: Ordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances.

Fiji Girmitiyas: Ordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances.

Professor Brij V. Lal

[Transcript and translation from Hindi by Thakur Ranjit Singh]

Professor Brij Lal clarifies our history, removes misconceptions, and implores Indo-Fijians to record their current history. He addresses audience at Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day in Auckland on 17 May, 2014.

Professor Brij Lal addressing audience at Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church during Girmit Remembrance Day on 17 May, 2014. Single-handedly, this proud son of Fiji from Tabia, Labasa, placed Fiji on the world map, and coined the word "Girmitiya" which is now recognized worldwide as referring to Indo-Fijian indentured laborers. His research cleared many misconceptions about Girmitiyas from India. 
This evening I am happy as well as pleasantly amazed to see so many of you. Happy because you have all come here and started a new life, which appears to be quite prosperous. Amazed because some two decades ago, such an occasion would have been impossible because of our fewer numbers then.

We have come from humble beginning, I, hailing from Tabia, Labasa, being a poor cane-farmer’s son, whose parents were not formally educated. My father had 10 acres of farmland, which now has been reserved and taken away. We came from a so-called era of “darkness”, without internet, IPad, e-mail or mobiles. We did not have Facebook or Twitter. Youngsters nowadays equate that with days of darkness, as they cannot live without these modern inventions and gadgets. Therefore, we the generation of Fiji Girmit descendants should be thankful for what we are today.

Church members enacting a wedding  song, as done during the days of Girmit, to seek some happiness and escape from a difficult life.

In 1987, we celebrated the 108th anniversary of girmit in Fiji. Then, our Indo-Fijian population was 50%, today it is a mere 34% and getting smaller. Now, magnets and our center of gravity have changed, they are now Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Calgary, Brisbane, Vancouver, Sacramento and so on. The irony is that between 1879 and 1916, some 60,000 Girmitiyas came to Fiji, but from 1987 to now, some 120,000 people have left the country – twice the number. This demographic transformation is a fundamental development - exodus of our people from Fiji. But to see all these people doing so well overseas is very pleasing and a wonderful thing. We need to appreciate that we went into Fiji through immigration, and came out through emigration. So, the history of our people will have a theme: from immigration to emigration: the history of Fiji Indians. Many people in decades to come may find it hard to believe that in the recent past, Indo-Fijians comprised 50% of Fiji’s population.

I recall my days in rural Labasa in the 1960s. My girmitiya grandfather used to socialise on a regular basis with other girmitiyas at our place. As a kid, I wondered, who these funnily-dressed, strange and unusual people were, speaking in a language that we did not understand. I wondered who they were and how they ended up in Fiji. Then, in 1970 I went to University of the South Pacific (USP) and later in 1977 when I went to do my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU), I had not forgotten these people. Then I decided to do a research on girmitiyas and find out: who they were, how and why they came to Fiji, under what condition and how they maintained their tradition, culture, language, religion and way of life.

Members of Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church  depicting Girmit attire.

You may appreciate that during the 1970s and before, there was very little written on girmitiyas or on Fiji. All the material was there in the archives, but there was little research. All the information about the girmitiyas was there in the Emigration Passes: next of kin, caste, where the immigrants were registered, what their districts of origin were, their age. Sixty thousand people came- 45,000 were from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Calcutta and nearby areas and 15,000 people after 1903 from Madras. In six months, I analysed the 45,000 Passes in a dark room at the National Library of Australia, 12 hours a day, viewing microfiche in a dark room, coded them and analysed through the computer. That was a novel experience then. Computers were giant, humming machines; there were no PCs. In those days there was an impression abroad and we were made to believe that the girmitiyas were like the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, people from the lowest strata of society. The British system made us believe this lie, the underpinning of colonial thinking was that since we were from the lowest caste, we did not deserve equal rights, we deserved the lower treatment, and whatever crumbs we got we should be thankful for that.

However my research showed that Indians who came to Fiji represented a fair cross-section of rural Indian society- people who came from Indo- Gangetic plains, from Bihar and nearby areas. People who came were of all caste: upper, middle, lower and so on. Because of that research, wherever you go in Indian Indenture Diaspora, people cite this research by an Indo-Fijian Professor Brij Lal, to show that they deserve better. Hence the mind-set of the people changed.

Master Shiu Charan, (left), a community leader , former Fiji Parliamentarian, and a Trustee and Executive of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ seen with Professor Brij Lal
And then, finding out where they were from. I spent one year in India and visited places where our people were from: Baharaich, Faizabaad, Gonda, Gorakhpur, Sultanpur, Azamgarh, Balia, Ghazipur, I have been to all these areas. I wanted to know why they left India. We are told that people were tricked and misled into coming to Fiji. This is true to some extent. But after living with the people, talking to them at length, I found out that Indians were on the move, in search of employment, within India, going to big cities with industries like Assam, Calcutta, Mumbai etc. Hence the idea of moving out to seek employment was nothing new to people from this part of the world. The people who moved out of India formed this mass of humanity who were out to seek employment.  They thought Fiji was somewhere near Calcutta and they could easily come back after earning for five years. The idea of our people migrating permanently was not in their heads. But once they had been out, they developed attachments to people and place, and were wondering what the reception would be if they returned to their villages. These were among some of the reasons why our people stayed back in Fiji.

Suicide

There were other subjects on which I did research and wrote short articles. One of them was “suicide”. In 1900, suicide rate among the Indian immigrants in Fiji was among the highest in the world, certainly compared to all the places where Indian indentured labourers went.

A tear-jerker, and emotional act, depicting hardship on plantation to child-bearing women, who were never given opportunity to take care of children, many of who die because of lack of care. In this enactment, the baby dies and the wailing of women left everybody in tears in the Church Hall, revealing the harsh reality of hardship for those pioneers who paved a better future for us through their suffering. They deserved to be remembered at least on Girmit Remembrance Day, day earmarked for their memory.
We were made to believe that women were the main cause of this, as there were fewer in number, and they changed their partners for gold jewellery. They were like mercenaries. Knowing Indian women, I found this hard to believe. Hence I did further research and sought information from a Suicide Register kept at National Archives in Fiji. These recorded, among others, when the people who committed suicide came to Fiji, at what age, when they were married, and how they died - things of that sort. There were some 200 cases of suicide between 1884 and 1920, and my research showed conclusively that blaming women was a gross misconception. What I found out was that the major cause was their disillusionment and despair with life on the plantations. They had come with high hopes of earning money, and the environment they found themselves in became unbearable, and hence they decided to end their lives.

My other paper was “Kunti’s cry”, the experience of Indian women on the plantations.  The other topics I studied were strikes and resistance, disease, death and so on. They are all there in my 400 page book “Chalo Jahaji” which I am leaving behind in your library for people to read.

"Chalo Jahaji" - the mammoth 400-page book by Professor Brij Lal, (right) being autographed before being gifted to Pastor Andrew Pratap (left) of  Calvary Indian Assembly of God Church. Looking on, in the center is author of "Tears in Paradise" Rajendra Prasad, who is also a Trustee and Executive of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ, which was behind getting Professor Brij Lal to Auckland. 

One of my life’s ambition has been to remember what others have forgotten or chosen to forget – to give our people a voice and a modicum of humanity, to give them a place at the table of history. We need to remind the new generation about our history: history doesn't only belong to the victors but to the vanquished as well. One thing I have done in life before I go is to give these voiceless people a voice-a sense of place, a sense of purpose. People will remember this aspect by history. I do not celebrate struggles and sacrifices and sufferings of our people. What I marvel at is how ordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. We, their descendants, have inherited those traits and legacy of our forebears. And that is that even in difficult circumstances, we never give up and we never compromise. There is a kind of dignity within us, where did it come from? It comes from people who travelled thousands of miles in difficult circumstances, but never gave up. This is the legacy of Girmit that I think we are celebrating, not those horrible things we read in books many years ago.

Now, to my final point - our Girmit. In a sense this is our Girmit, really we are new Girmitiyas in the Indian Diaspora. The difference is that instead of coming in sailing and later steamships, we came via aeroplanes, but we are also starting afresh in a new country in new circumstances.

In my schooldays, we were discouraged from doing history. My teacher said History was for “no-hopers’. Good people do science, so we never bothered to ask the old timers about our past, we were embarrassed about our past, we did not want to be reminded of our long journey. Now when we want to know, they are gone. Now you are here, we will need to answer to our new generation about our story. That is why I implore you to put your thoughts down on paper, on videos. Our people are very resourceful, we are rich, earn money, have big houses, but we are poor because we do not preserve our history, and have that hollowness within us. Preserve your memories, write your own stories, even do it on video if you are not a writer; without memories, we are nothing. You, the elders of the community, have a responsibility to yourselves, to your children and grandchildren - to preserve the memories of our stories, Girmit is over, but your stories and memories have to be preserved.

Secretary and a Trustee of Fiji Girmit Foundation of NZ, Thakur Ranjit Singh (left) with Chief Guest for Fiji Girmit events in Auckland ( 17th and 18th May, 2014), Professor Brij Lal, who accepted the invitation to grace the occasion at his own cost.
The final point is: If we do not do this, who will? Thank you very much.

[This is English translation of Hindi speech by Professor Brij Lal at Calvary Indian Assembly of Church, Otahuhu, Auckland , New Zealand on 17 May, 2014 during occasion of marking Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day. Transcribed and translated from digital voice recording for FIJI PUNDIT blog site, by Thakur Ranjit Singh.]