The Legacy of Rajasthani Girmitiya- Thakur Bansi Chauhan
By Thakur Ranjit
Singh, Auckland, New Zealand (appeared
in National Farmer's Union magazine, "Girmitiya")
Karauli is a town in the stony and relatively
dry Rajasthan State. This town sits closely to Agra’s Taj Mahal
and also close to Mathura and Vrindaban, Lord Krishna’s playing
ground on the banks of Yamuna River. This town sits close to
border of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh states.
It is in this town that in early 1915, some
“araakatis” or recruiting agents for indentured labourers got
hold of a Thakur (worrier/protector race) who was from the
muhalla (street) of Phuto Kot where he just had a row with his
sister –in- law and had run away from home, fearing the wrath of
He was very vulnerable, and he was easy meat
for the araakatis. He was taken by road to Calcutta where he was
placed at depot number 866 before departure to Fiji. He was
registered on 23 April, 1915, checked by doctor on 14 May and
permitted to sail for Fiji on 17 May, 1915. The ship was SS
Ganges. He was made to believe that Fiji was just a few hundred
kilometers away and they were going there to clean, sift and
pack sugar. That was far from what they had to face back in
He was not prepared for what he encountered,
as has already been recorded in many other publications where
the higher caste people were placed together with the lower or
The departure from India was very emotional.
There were no parents, brothers, sisters and others to farewell
them. It was a very lonely departure.
In the ship, Bansi and others were handed
shirt, cap and trousers that were normally given to people in
jail. They were also handed “lota” or drinking cup and eating
plate made of tin.
In the ship they were allocated 1 ½ ft x 6 ft
space and were given hard biscuit that were not even considered
suitable for dogs.
It took over 3 months for the ship to reach
Fiji via Singapore, Borneo and other parts that were not known
to Bansi. In Fiji they were subjected to quarantine at Nukulau
and then taken by estate agents.
Bansi was taken by a sahib called Wilkins who
paid equivalent of 200 rupees or say, five pounds to immigration
department for each coolie as girmitiya’s (indentured labourers
on five year work bondage) were referred to as. Bansi with his
shipmate, Bholai was taken to an estate called Sigave in Ba.
Condition in Estate
Coolies were given a room 12 foot by 8 foot.
If there was a married couple, then this room was give to them.
In case of single man or women, 3 were supposed to stay in one.
This posed a great deal of problem for those who came from a
country with very stratified caste system. Especially where a
Brahmin or pundit (preacher) was supposed to stay with chamaar
(scheduled lower caste). After some three months of similar
forced assimilation on the vessel SS Ganges, Bansi to some
extent started to mellow in his strong views about the caste
There were many hardships and atrocities by
estate owners where penalties were imposed for a slightest
excuse and money was deducted from the task performed.
Hard Work & Atrocities
Bansi and his gang were supposed to wake up at
4am, do their cooking and be in the farm at 5am. Those women
with children had to take them to the farm. Each of them was
given task to clean and hoe an area about 1200 feet long and 6
feet wide (370m x 2m). Those who were unable to complete this
task had money deducted and task was such that it was impossible
to complete it on a daily basis. Hence only meager sum was
received which was barely enough to sustain a good living and
being able to get enough food to last for the month.
The attitude of overseers left a great deal to
be desired. There were many cases of suicides where coolies were
not able to bear the hardship and cruelty imposed by the
overseers. People were afraid to report them because they knew
that they had to spend five years under that overseer, hence
Bansi and others were forced to endure the hardship by the
overseers who also sexually attacked and exploited the women in
coolie lines. There was little remedy in light of poor judicial
system and lack of witnesses because of fear of overseers.
The atrocities committed on girmitiyas were
widespread and continuous and it was endured for five years till
late 1920 when at last Bansi finished his girmit. He had a
choice to go back to India but the stories floating in suggested
that after crossing “Kala Pani” or the ocean, Bansi would be
ostracized by his people back in Karauli. Furthermore, in the
five years, the kinship built with people of all castes was
strong enough to change Bansi’s mind not to return to India. He
settled near sugar mill in Rarawai, where later, a golf course
was built for white Europeans who worked in CSR Company.
While at Sigave, Bansi had met a woman named
Bhuri and later married her and settled in his farm at Rarawai
on a scheme whereby CSR Company gave its land to ‘free’ farmers
to farm and supply cane to sugar mills in small allotments.
Education a Priority
One of the most important matters affecting
new settlers at that time was education. It was British policy
to keep the farmers in bondage and the best way of doing this
was to keep them uneducated and ignorant. However, after their
long suffering in Fiji, the girmitiyas realised the value of
education and salvation via such means. They swore that never
again would anybody subject their children and new generation to
the indignity that they went through.
It is from such thoughts and views that
various religious groupings decided to establish schools for
their communities. Hence started schools like Rarawai Muslim
School, Vaqia (Methodist) Indian School, Vunisamaloa Sangam
School, DAV College, Khalsa College, Koronubu Indian School,
Veisaru Indian School and many rural community and religious
based schools throughout Fiji. These schools were started with
great deal of personal sacrifice and contributions. Some farmer
gave his share of land, while others assigned certain tonnage to
go towards the school while others toiled to build the school.
This was very unlike the schools set up by government for
indigenous Fijians where the full contribution was from the
It is because of this legacy that today, over
90% of Fiji’s students go to non-government schools and it is
because of such vision that today’s third generation girmitiyas
are sought after professionals and skilled people in Fiji, New
Zealand, Australia and other parts of the world.
Girmitiyas – Buffer for Indigenous
During this 125th Anniversary of the first
arrival of indentured labourers, it is important to note that
while generally, things have improved for the descendants of
girmitiyas, the equal rights as mooted via Salisbury dispatch is
still some distance away because of obviously racist policies of
The suffering that the girmitiyas went through
has begun in another form for those farmers who lose land
because of expiring leases. Therefore the pain and suffering may
have lessened but it has not completely gone.
The other important aspect of colonization in
Fiji is that unlike other British colonies, the natives in Fiji
were spared the suffering, genocide, ethnic cleansing and
indignity that natives in other British Colonies, including
Australia and New Zealand, went through. In Fiji, the girmitiyas
were surrogates for the suffering of the natives.
While the girmitiyas were scolded, punched,
whipped and raped and forced to clear Fiji and build its
economic base, the indigenous population was still kept in their
natural habitat and environment of their villages to preserve
their way of life. They certainly cannot blame the girmitiyas
The girmitiyas are accused of being disloyal
to Fiji for refusing to join the army. However, history should
realize that while the Fijian soldiers were ducking Japanese
bullets in jungles of Solomon Islands, Indians kept the economy
of Fiji running, so that when the Fijian soldiers returned to
their homeland, they would return to an economically flourishing
country rather than a bankrupt one. History should salute the
Indians who were the economic soldiers fighting for Fiji in the
history of Fiji and the indigenous population fail to
acknowledge this important historical fact. That is perhaps the
biggest tragedy for the descendants of the girmitiyas in Fiji.
Bansi Clan Today
Bansi reared his family at Rarawai Golf links,
Ba and had 6 sons and 4 daughters. He has 4 surviving children
today. Budh Ram Singh, who normally resides in Calgary, Canada
with his sons, frequently visits Fiji and is currently here.
Moti Lal, another son of Bansi resides in Vancouver Canada while
his youngest daughter, Mrs Chandar Bali of, formerly of Varadoli,
Ba now resides in Edmonton, Canada.
Bansi’s youngest son, Mani Lal still resides
at the old Bansi basti at Rarawai, Golflinks, Ba.
It is through his second eldest son, Hans Raj
Singh, that he had his grandson, Thakur Ranjit Singh, who was
able to recollect and piece together the difficulties and
problems on girmit through this article. Through Bansi’s 4th
son, Budh Ram Singh was born Satendra Singh who is Member of
Parliament representing Fiji Labour Party in Ba East Indian
Through Bansi’s eldest daughter and
son-in-law, late Gauri Shankar of Wailailai Ba, we have one of
the most gifted legal sons of Fiji. Mr. Ganga Prasad Shankar, a
grandchild of Bansi (Naati) started as a simple court clerk in
Ba and today is a London - educated renowned lawyer of Ba,
commonly known as GP or GP Shankar.
Over 30 of Bansi’s grandchildren are now
scattered throughout the cities of Vancouver, Kitimat, Surrey,
Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto (Canada) Sacramento, Sydney, Brisbane
Melbourne, Auckland, Christchurch and London. This reflects the
movement capability and mobility of generations of girmitiya
descendants. They are all successful, hardworking and loyal –
the attributes passed on by experience suffered during girmit.
It is significant that on 14 May, 2004,
exactly 125 years of arrival of first girmitiya in Fiji, many
descendants have reached the pinnacle of success. 90 years after
arrival of Bansi in Fiji, on this historic day of 14 May 2004,
his great grand daughter, Ragni Ranjeeta Singh, daughter of this
author, a fourth generation girmitiya will enter the bar as a
barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand with
LLB and LLM at Waikato University.
This signifies the continuous progress of the
off springs of girmitiyas and the salvation they saw in higher
education. The silent oath that they took in their suffering was
that they will never again allow their descendants to be
subjected to the same level of indignity, inhumanity and cruelty
that they went through in girmit. And through migration and
vision for higher education, this is being slowly achieved.
A Parting Gift
Descendants of girmitiyas, like their
forefathers, are like gold – the more you subject them to fire
and heat, the brighter and purer it gets. Similarly, the greater
the degree of injustice and atrocities they suffer through hands
of colonialists and now modern “sahibs” in form of current
government’s institutionalized racial policies, the better they
excel in life. We as children of girmit, like our forefathers
have learnt to better ourselves when passing through adversity.
This article is dedicated by the children of
girmit to the other 60,000 Bansis and Bholais who transformed
Fiji from a cannibalistic tribalism and jungle to a flourishing
democratic country which is referred to as crown jewel of
Pacific through sacrifices and suffering of girmitiyas.
Unfortunately, history fails to recognize or
acknowledge this. This article was meant as a wreath on the
graves of girmitiyas to whom the whole of Fiji owes its
gratitude and an attempt to correct the history.
May the soul of Bansi and those of all our
ancestors rest in peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thakur Ranjit Singh is a third generation
descendant of girmtiya (indentured labourer) Bansi about whom he
has written above. He was in India IN October, 2003, to trace
his roots and intend to go there again for this.
He is former Director Administration and
Operations of Suva City Council and former Publisher of Daily
Post newspaper in Fiji.
He is a human rights activist and a regular
contributor to open columns of newspapers and raises issues
affecting Indian community without fear or favour, and is an
ardent critic of the racist administration in Fiji. He is an
advocate of good governance.
Currently he reside in Auckland, New