May 13, 2022
On May 14, 1879, the first batch of Girmitiya or Indentured labourers numbering 463 arrived from India onboard the ship Leonidas.
They were the first of a total of 60,553 Indians brought from the sub-continent between 14th May 1879 and 11th November 1916, with the arrival of the SS Sutlej carrying 888 Girmitiya.
They were brought to Fiji by the British Colonial government to turn the sugar industry into the backbone of Fiji's economy.
Most of the labourers did not take the option of returning to India upon completion of their indenture period and decided to make Fiji their home and start their livelihood.
They primarily continued strengthening the sugar industry into Fiji's largest foreign exchange earner for more than a 100 years until the turn of the century when tourism and later, remittances overtook it.
The Indentured labourers and their descendants over the last 143 years have contributed significantly 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.
Overwhelmingly, this peaceful co-existence and cooperation, 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.
Honourable Justice Jai Ram Reddy, whose speech as a grandson of an Indentured labourer and as the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the NFP to the Great Council of Chiefs on 6th June 1997 will go down as a defining moment in Fiji’s history, rightly said and I quote: -
“The Indians of Fiji, brought to these shores as labourers, did not come to conquer or colonize…Our ancestors came to this land in search of a better life, in search of a future they dreamed of for their children and their children’s children. Though they travelled to these Islands long after your ancestors, surely the dreams and hopes of those who landed from the Leonidas were not that different from those who came ashore after the epic earlier voyage from the West”.
After 143 years since the beginning of the Indenture in Fiji, 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.
Without fear and inclusivity
Our forefathers operated on the basis of freedom, human rights, dignity and a virtuous living without fear and threats or intimidation – 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 battles for virtues and principles. There is an environment of fear amongst people of Indian origin created by some to serve their political interests.
Time and time again, we have been urged to support those who have taken our freedoms in the past for granted. But we have the perfect opportunity to put this right.
We need to re-assert and re-affirm our need, as diverse communities of a great nation, to work together for our collective free and secure future.
While the atrocities, trials and tribulations of the indenture system in Fiji have been well documented, the descendants of Girmitiya 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.
However, there needs to be a paradigm shift, that is, we should move away from the rhetoric of the past.
We need a new culture of dialogue, unity, and cooperation 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 commemorations like these, highlighting a specific group of people in all their diversity, must be the cornerstones of processes of nation building.
We therefore, should remember and reflect upon the struggles and sacrifices of our forefathers for equality, dignity and justice without fear for all our people.
Bringing Professor Brij Lal home
As we commemorate the 143rd anniversary of Girmit, let us not forget the immeasurable contribution of the pre-eminent historian on Girmit, the late Professor Brij Vilash Lal, who suddenly departed from amongst our midst on 25th December 2021.
Professor Lal was regarded as Fiji’s most famous academic, whose contribution to the restoration of rights, dignity and justice of the descendants of the Girmitiya through the Reeves Constitutional Commission, resulting in the enactment of the 1997 Constitution, will never be forgotten.
He was banished from Fiji and banned from entering the land of his birth in November 2009 by the then military government headed by Voreqe Bainimarama. Two months later, in January 2010, his wife Dr Padma Narsey Lal was also banned from returning to their Suva Point home while arriving at Nadi Airport after a short holiday with her banished husband.
Professor Lal died in exile. A descendant of the Girmitiya or known as the man from Tabia (Labasa in Vanua Levu), he was not allowed to set foot on his motherland by the current Fiji First government.
His wife Dr Padma and their two children are determined to bring him home to Tabia for interment and eternal rest in accordance with his wishes.
It becomes our role, just as our forefathers did, to ensure Dr Padma Lal the family honour the wishes of Professor Brij Vilash Lal and return him home to his final resting place.
Let us all make this pledge in conformity to the struggles and legacy of our forefathers.
May our forefathers’ and ancestors’ blessings be upon all of us.