14 October 2016: Media Release – Government’s plan an insult to the Girmitiya
Government’s decision to only lukewarmly observe the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the last ship carrying indentured labourers or Girmitiya to Fiji at only local government level next month is an insult to the descendants of 60,553 Girmitiya who have made Fiji their home and vastly contributed towards the social, political and economic advancement of our nation.
The Fiji First Government has therefore reduced the significance of this milestone event and the struggles and sacrifice of our Girmitiya to local municipal level and left it to the Councils to fund the event themselves. This is deplorable.
Government is paying lip-service to the Girmitiya and adding salt to their injury by asking the municipal councils throughout the country to fund the event themselves next month, moreso when the Prime Minister rejected a parliamentary motion by way of an end of week statement on 29th April 2016 by the National Federation Party calling on Government to declare a one-off public holiday and organise major national celebrations in a bipartisan manner with the Opposition on 11th November 2016.
He had described our motion as a political stunt. Nothing can be further from the truth. If anything details uncovered by the NFP on how Government intends to treat this historic event, as a cosmetic exercise is indeed a political stunt to solely benefit Government members who will officiate as chief guests and be in the limelight while the struggles of our forefathers will be put on the backburner. We have established that the programme will be launched in Suva by the Prime Minister and Attorney General, to be funded and organised by Suva City Council on 9th November.
We can confirm that the Ministry of Local Government has directed the town and city councils to organise celebrations in their respective municipalities that will involve an interfaith service, photographic exhibition and a documentary film.
Worse still Government is not funding the events with municipal councils and the ratepayers and citizens being asked to fork out finance. Government will only provide the photographic exhibition, interfaith prayer and the documentary film. The contribution of Government will be negligible.
All Councils have been directed by the Local Government Ministry to gather a group of prominent ratepayers and citizens in their respective municipalities to organise each event, with no involvement from Government.
And in a case of discrimination purely based on political affiliation of individuals, an executive member of the Fiji Girmit Council was told by the municipal organisers that the Minister did not want him as an organising committee member. Personalities of the Fiji Girmit Council may have their political affiliations but they are executives of the Council on merit as members of different Indo-Fijian religious and cultural organisations in the country. They are appointed to the Council not as representatives of political parties.
One hundred years ago, 11th November 1916 saw the arrival of the 87th and last ship, the Sutlej V from India, marking the beginning of the end of the indenture system that started on 14th May 1879 and resulted in the arrival of some 60,553 Indians from India to work as indentured labourers in our sugar plantations.
They laid the foundation for an industry that for more than a 100 years was the mainstay of our economy. Despite the sharp decline of the industry by 44% from pre coup levels, under both the military and Bainimarama governments of the last ten years, the industry directly and indirectly supports 200,000people or more than 25% of Fiji’s population.
And it is a matter of great disappointment that representatives of cane growers’ organisations, apart from the Government controlled Sugar Cane Growers Council, have not been invited to be part of events planned by municipalities in the cane belts.
Why we should commemorate the Girmitiya nationally and have a one-off public holiday The indentured labourers and their descendants over the past 100 years have significantly contributed to the social, economic and political development and advancement of Fiji. This is well recognised.
They have lived peacefully and harmoniously, side by side with other races, especially with our original inhabitants of these beautiful islands, the indigenous community or the i-Taukei at all times with a few exceptions, since the start of the coup culture in 1987.
But overwhelmingly this peaceful co-existence and co-operation, the willingness of our landowners to share their resources and land and the freedom for the descendants of our Indentured labourers to put into practice, their language, culture, tradition — an integral part of the Indian civilisation, together with the blood, sweat, toil, tears and lives sacrificed by our forefathers, as well as the immense contributions of other races — has made Fiji what it has been for decades — the hub of the South Pacific.
After 100 years since the last arrival of Girmitiya, the time is right, not only for the celebration of our rich history in this multicultural society, but for a reflection of the freedoms gained, and lost, on the journey.
The forefathers of the Indo-Fijian community operated on the basis of freedom, human rights, dignity and a virtuous living — the values that, over a period of time, guided our fight against the vices of the indentured system.
Today however, we seem to have forgotten and some would have us forget, those hard fought for virtues and principles in support of those who have taken our freedoms in the past. But we have the perfect opportunity to put this right.
This should be a celebration as well as a commemoration of that single momentous event that forever changed the destiny and the landscape of Fijian society. While the atrocities, trials and tribulations of the indenture system in Fiji have been well documented, the descendants of girmitiyas have moved on.
This is evident in the way the third and fourth generation Indo-Fijians have integrated themselves into Fiji’s landscape. As such, they have tied their own personal circumstances to the destiny of this country.
We need a new culture of dialogue, unity, and co-operation with political leaders of other ethnic groups to forge a new approach to politics in this country. This dialogue should never include coercion or support for coercive activities.
Moreover, the dialogue must incorporate diverse opinions from a broad spectrum of the ethnic groups that make up this nation. As such celebrations like these, highlighting a specific group of people in all their diversity, must be the cornerstones of processes of nation building.
We need to remember the struggles and sacrifices of our forefathers for equality, dignity and justice for all our people.
In 1979, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers with a one-off public holiday. The 50 cents coin was minted with sugarcane on one side to mark this occasion.
Surely, this Government, which prides itself about common and equal citizenry and true democracy, can at least replicate, if not do better than the commemoration of 37 years ago, instead of simply saying no based on warped logic.
Lastly, two weeks ago Parliament voted for themselves a massive increases in allowances payable to the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament. Exorbitant increases have also been approved for Cabinet Ministers as well sitting allowances of backbenchers in a vote that tore apart every fibre of transparency and accountability.
On the face of this most non transparent act, the rejection of our genuine motion for a bipartisan national commemoration and a one-off public holiday to honour our girmitiya on the historic 100th anniversary of their last arrival on 11th November leads us to ask again whether Government is at all serious about common and equal citizenry and inculcating national pride and patriotism.
The Prime Minister has, time and time again, both in Parliament and during his speaking tours to former Indo-Fijians abroad who left Fiji following the first coup on May 14 1987, reminded them of the dark days of 1987, describing the coup as a racist act. The date of the first coup May 14, ironically is the same as the arrival of the first ship Leonidas carrying indentured labourers to Fiji in 1879.
If the Prime Minister is genuine about going some way to correct what he terms as a racist act and erase the painful memories of the 14th May coup, it is still not too late to accept our request and have a meaningful national celebration with a one-off public holiday to signal the end of slavery of our Girmitiya. Hon Prof Biman Prasad NFP Leader