Thakur Ranjit Singh
Auckland, May 27, 2023
Saturday, 20 May 2023 evening bore a gloomy note with overcast skies, blustery winds and pelting rain. There was no secure place except indoors.
And it immensely worried the Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand members who had organised the Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day at the Malaeola Community Centre in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere from 5 pm. They feared that the spacious hall with a capacity to hold 1500 people would be empty.
When I arrived, the stormy conditions had not eased but intensified and with consistent red alerts on the Auckland weather, I feared sitting in an empty hall.
I was wrong.
By 5.30 pm, the Hall was filled to capacity with hardly any space to move.
Ultimately, it turned out to be a memorable evening of superb tribute to the memories of Girmityas, Fiji’s Indian indentured workers, through songs and a variety programme. To top it all, the keynote address delivered by Rajendra Prasad (author of, Tears in Paradise and Enslaved in Paradise), a descendant of the Girmityas, stirred minds and touched hearts in a way that made the audience flail in its mesmeric presentation.
Mr Prasad is a former Town Clerk of Ba, Fiji, an opinion writer and a respected commentator on Girmit history and a founding Trustee of the Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand. He has the gift of writing that captures not only the minds but also the hearts of readers. He is equally adept at doing the same when conveying his message to a live audience but such occasions are extremely rare as he shuns the limelight and prefers writing to speaking in public.
However, after declining years of persuasion to speak at the Foundation event, he finally agreed and did not disappoint the audience.
He awakened them with his opening sentence which hit at the heart of the identity of Fiji Indians, the descendants of Girmityas.
The Identity Crisis
He said that he stood before them with a certain degree of apprehension, unaware as to whom they thought he was, stressing that even after 144 years, the identity crisis had become part of the lives of the Fiji Indians.
He amplified, “Even after 144 years since our Girmitya ancestors landed in Fiji, their descendants have had an acute identity crisis. We are variously referred to as Indians, Fiji Indians, Indo-Fijians, and Fijians and at worst, have, from time to time, also been humiliated and referred to as the vulagis or the visitors in Fiji.”
He said that successive governments in New Zealand humiliated them by denying them the recognition that they are a part of the Pacific Peoples.
He lamented, “In essence, we have become the driftwood of the Pacific. Seemingly, we do not have anchor but we are anchored to our Fiji Indian culture to which we are beholden from which no power on earth can separate us.”
Referring to the missing Girmit history, he said that during the Girmit period (1879-1920), Fiji, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, had gained the distinction of being a country that had the highest rate of suicide in the world.
“To many, death was a better option to being a Girmitya in Fiji. It was an era when productivity in the farms and profits for the Australia-based CSR Company, the largest and cruellest employer of the Girmityas, degenerated to ruthless exploitation of their labour and their lives” he said.
No mercy to mourn
The kicks, sticks and whips that they ritually bore from the Kulambars, (the Overseers) included denials to mourn the dead or hold proper funerary rites, resulting in the Girmityas being buried where they worked.
Their graves were scattered across the sugarcane fields of Fiji and the residue of their pain and lament had cascaded down generations.
Mr Prasad movingly recounted the heart-breaking fate of the nursing mothers who lost their babies whilst working in the farms unable to tend to them when required or feed them except at the appointed times. The dead babies were hastily buried to ensure that work on the farms continued and the mothers had to endure horrific memories.
He said, “Less is known and more is hidden in the grave of Fiji’s Girmit history, which needs to be recovered and restored for posterity.”
He said that humiliation was used as a weapon to deter them from sharing their pain and suffering even with their children. Their lips were sealed, fated to endure the horrific memories – memories that they took to their graves.
In his presentation, he said that the historians of the colonial era played a dominant role in hiding the atrocities of Girmit through the wilful exclusion of our Girmit history.
“Yes, Fiji’s Girmit history is missing. It was not by accident but through a conspiracy to protect those who could have and should have been charged for the commission of crimes against humanity,” he said.
The Voice of Oppressors
Mr Prasad claimed that history almost always carried the voice of the oppressors where the voice of the oppressed was silenced.
“Whilst the Methodist Church in Fiji has admitted to its failings and held a ceremony seeking forgiveness from the descendants of the Girmityas, expect no such gesture from the British government, as history has proven that it is a great preacher but a poor practitioner,” he said.
He likened Fiji Indians to orphans because every culture had its history but theirs was missing and he challenged Fiji Indians to reclaim and restore their stolen history.
He said that the event to commemorate the sufferings and sacrifices of the Girmityas also called for the celebration of their achievements and appreciation of the rich bequest they left behind, which continued to nourish and enrich successive generations.
He urged Fiji Indians to assert themselves and claim their rightful place among the cultures that gave diversity to New Zealand and lamented that it was harsh for the New Zealand government to push Fiji Indians into the Asian block, cruelly defying their historical and inseparable links to Fiji.
In conclusion, he said, “We do not crave for favour or mercy but seek truth, justice and acceptance that our Fiji Indian culture is rooted in Fiji, we are Fiji’s children, Fiji is a part of the Pacific and we are part of the Pacific peoples.”
It is earnestly hoped that New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, Leader of the Opposition Christopher Luxon, and other Ministers who were present on stage with MPs will carry this message to the government in general and to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, in particular, to grant rightful recognition to this driftwood of the Pacific in New Zealand – the Pacifica Fiji Indians.
Thakur Ranjit Singh is a journalist, a media commentator and a blogger based in Auckland. The views expressed above are his and not necessarily that of Indian Newslink.