Professor Brij Lal, a vanguard of democracy, dies, away from homeland

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Funeral Service in Brisbane, Australia on December 30, 2021

Professor Brij Vilash Lal: A Champion of Democracy (INL File Photo)

Venkat Raman
Auckland, December 28, 2021

There are a few countries in the world that should realise the importance of academic freedom and conscientious promotion of free thoughts, however critical they may be.

Fiji is one of them and Professor Brij Vilash Lal, who died on Christmas Day at his home in Brisbane, Australia, as a frail, ailing and disappointed, 69-years-old man, was a great person whose patriotism was beyond question.

That he was asked to leave the country on November 4, 2009, “within 24 hours or face the consequences,’ was a pity. It was in every way democracy betrayed.

It took me three days to reconcile to the fact that Professor Lal is no more, for my family and I were mourning our own loss. Besides, writing about Professor Lal has not been easy.

Expulsion from homeland

I have known him since the inception of this newspaper in 1999 and have met and spoken with him on many occasions. I have had long conversations with him during his visits to our offices in 2003 and 2004 and at events held in Wellington in 2008 and 2009. His penchant for democracy and fearless opinions on people in government in Fiji after the December 6, 2006 coup earned him their wrath and the result was his expulsion from Fiji in 2009.

He longed to return to his motherland but could not do so. He was stated to have become ill with his vision impaired and according to Iva Tora in Fiji Times (December 28, 2021), “In retrospect, it seems he may well have accepted the discomfiting likelihood that he might not be welcoming in 2022.”

Professor Brij Lal with his wife Dr Padma Lal, son Niraj and daughter Yogi (NFP Facebook)

A likeable, accomplished man

Despite his strong views on a variety of issues including the Bainimarama government, politicians in general, the Indian Diaspora, the Girmityas and the ‘culture at cross-roads,’ Professor Lal was a likeable man.

Born on August 21, 1952 in Tabia, Labasa in Fiji, he was an accomplished academic, historian and pro-democracy activist. He was the grandson of a Girmitya who arrived in Fiji from India under the Indentured system in 1908.

Professor Lal was a recipient of many honours and awards, the most significant of which is the appointment made by Queen Elizabeth II, making him a ‘Member of the Order of Australia’ in her Birthday Honours List in 2015. He was recognised in many parts of the world for his contributions to education and Pacific history, except his homeland.

He was the Professor of Pacific and Asian History at the Canberra based Australian National University (ANU), prior to which he taught at the Universities of the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

He wrote more than 40 books and is considered an authority on Fijian history and politics and the history of the culture of the Indian Diaspora.

He wrote both fiction and non-fiction, notable among which are ‘Mr Tulsi’s Store’ and ‘Turnings: Fiji Factions.’ Among his books on indenture are ‘Girmityas: The Origins of the Fiji Indians,’ and ‘Chalk Jihadi: On a Journey through Indenture in Fiji.’

Married to Padma, an Environmental and Resource Economist, the couple have son two children Niraj (son) and Yogi (daughter) and five grandchildren.

At the Girmit Foundation of New Zealand Annual Meeting 2014 in Auckland: Professor Brij Lal with his wife Padma and Sukh Deo of Hamilton. Standing (from left) Krish Naidu, Subhag and Judge Ajit Swaran Singh and Thakur Ranjit Singh (Photo from Fiji Pundit)Restoration of Girmitya history

In an article written for Indian Newslink (May 22, 2021), Veteran Journalist Thakur Ranjit Singh and a Founder-Trustee of the Auckland based Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand, credited Professor Lal of having retrieved and restored the foundational history of Girmityas, which was in danger of being lost.

“He removed the stain linked to the words ‘Girmit’ and “Girmitya’ and turned them into jewels of our history that we have come to treasure and embrace,” he said.

Mr Singh said that Professor Lal’s work spanned various disciplines – from history, biography to political commentaries and compiling an Encyclopaedia.

Professor Brij Lal with Thakur Ranjit Singh in Auckland on May 18, 2014 (Photo from Fiji Pundit)

“He is regarded by his peers as the most eminent scholar in the school of humanities and social sciences Fiji has ever produced and remains one of the most highly acclaimed intellectuals of Fiji – a proud descendant of the Girmityas. He makes us, the descendants of Girmityas, very proud through his achievements,” he said.

Professor Lal’s most memorable quip, which is fondly quoted is: “The Girmityas were ordinary people, who achieved extraordinary feats in extraordinary circumstances.”

Fiji Girmit Foundation New Zealand honoured Professor Lal with its ‘Girmit Legacy Award,’ called the ‘Girmit Sahitya Ratan,’ (Literature Category) at its 140th Girmit Anniversary held in Auckland on May 10, 2019.

The Citation accompanying the Award said, “Girmit is our foundational history, which was gradually being lost with the passage of time. However, had it not been for Professor Brij Vilash Lal, a descendant of the Girmityas – the very words ‘Girmit’ and ‘Girmitya’ would have been lost forever.”

Dr Biman Prasad, Leader, National Federation Party (Fiji Parliament)

Funeral Service

The funeral service for Professor Lal will be held in Brisbane, Australia on Thursday, December 30, 2021 and will be streamed live.

Professor Biman Prasad, Member of Parliament in Fiji and Leader of the National Federation Party (he was also Professor Lal’s colleague at the University of South Pacific), said that a condolence meeting will held in his memory on Thursday, December 30, 2021 between 10 am and 3 pm at Jai Narayan College Hall, 161 Rewa Street, Suva, Fiji.

Among the speakers at the condolence meeting will be former Prime Minister and People’s Alliance Leader Sitiveni Rabuka, Dr Biman Prasad, Professor Lal’s teacher (at the then Labasa Secondary School) Krishna Datt, prominent lawyer Richard Naidu and Professor Vijay Naidu.

“Professor Brij Lal was an accomplished Pacific historian, author, a passionate pro-democracy activist for the most part of his life and remained so until the end,” Dr Prasad said.

The meeting will also witness the Funeral Service that will be held for Professor Lal in Brisbane, Australia from 11 am (1 pm Fiji Time).

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