Contribution to the discourse at the 'Girmit Divas' 125th anniversary

by Jone Dakuvula
Thursday, 13th May 2004, Suva Civic Centre, 8pm

I am deeply honoured to be invited to participate in tonight's discourse on the 125th Anniversary of the arrival of the first Indian labourers under the Girmit in the boat Leonidas. It is right that we should commemorate or celebrate this significant event in the Fiji Islands history because its' impact in influencing and shaping this country's future has been thoroughly profound. I was told I am here to give a Fijian perspective but what I say is more an individual view. The Fijian view will probably be better given by a Government Minister, like Simione Kaitani for example, 'because these are people who claim to represent the majority of Fijian opinion, not me.

I am basing my comments mainly from notes I wrote while flying from Tuvalu to Fiji late this afternoon where I had attended a three days meeting of the University of South Pacific Council. At this Council meeting I met two Indo Fijians and a Fijian Member who had been to India recently on separate visits. In fact I have met five people (including these three) who had related to me similar experiences. Each of them met a beggar, a hotel porter, a hotel receptionist and two taxi drivers. On each occasion, the Indians asked: where do you come from and when they said Fiji, the Indians said excitedly: "Oh Mahendra Chaudhry!" One of them, a hotel porter, was so excited he said: "He was standing right there and I was here and I touched his arm. Our great warrior from Haryana State!".

I think the great Warrior's experience here symbolizes the experience of the descendants of the Girmit. One hundred and twenty five years of toil, suffering, dedication and outstanding accomplishments, and still rejected by the extreme indigenous Fijian nationalists. I take my hat off to my good friend, Hon. Mahendra Chaudhry, who had been through so much - the 1987 Coups, the 2000 coup and its indignities, extreme stress -gross injustices and - came out of all that still the same man and leader of courage, committed to fight for his principles and beliefs for a multicultural, democratic, tolerant, law abiding and united Fiji. Like the CCF Logo says : "One nation, diverse people".

I was reading one of Fiji's outstanding historians, Dr Ahmed Ali, his interview in the Daily Post last Saturday about the Girmit experience and I was interested in what he said and I quote:

"Labourers were beaten; there was no recourse to real justice for them. They were working in an environment of violence, but on the other hand they managed to work, survive and they tell you that one of the reasons they survived were because of the strength of their cultural and religious values…….they had come out of two great civilizations, Hindustan and Islam..... These were strong willed people. The spirit of Hindustan and the spirit of Islam are deeply entrenched in their followers".

There is a great gulf of ignorance between our people - the indigenous Fijian and the Indo Fijians, about each other's culture and religions. I was brought up in the Methodist Church in Natewa village in Natewa Bay, a part of the country where there were very few isolated Indian settlements; I was brought up to believe that Christianity, or rather the Methodist version of it, was the only true religion. Other Christian denominations were not quite right, leave alone Hindus and Muslims. When I went to Niusawa Methodist School in Taveuni, I learnt from some of my school mates and teachers that Hindus do not worship the real God Jehovah, but just idols.

In the rudimentary history of Fiji that I learnt, even at USP, I did not strive to understand the Hindus and Islam, nor did I get a sense of the wounded history of the Girmityas. May be I should have done Dr Ahmed Ali's history course. My ignorance and lack of desire to understand at a deeper level the religions of the Indo Fijian is typical. And this unabridged gulf is one of the reasons ethnic expressions of difference and conflict, on the indigenous Fijian side, is motivated by a belief that the Hindu and Islam are not true religions and not deserving of respect. We have seen these in the desecration of Hindu places of worship during times of ethnic tension.

But at USP, in the early 70s, I did buy some books about Mahatma Ghandhi and Eastern religions that opened my mind to what I would call "The Indian enlightenment". I read about Mahatma Ghandi and the book of the great Scholar and Philosopher of Religion and Ethics, Sir Saverpalli Radharkrishnan, a former President of the Republic of India. For our purpose this evening, I will quote the high minded statements about the Hindu religion that impressed me. Ghandi said:

"If I were asked to define a Hindu creed I should simply say: Search after the truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known…..I believe in the bible as I believe in the Gita. I regard all the great faiths in the world as equally true with my own….."

And Sir Saverpalli Radharkrishnan wrote:

"The Hindu attitude is not the outcome of skepticism which despairs of ever reaching any stable truth. If the most we can hope for is relative truth, a provisional hypothesis, we cannot claim finality or absoluteness for any view. Where nothing is certain, nothing matters. Where there is no depth of conviction, toleration is easy to attain. The attitude of the cultivated Hindu is sympathy and respect and not criticism and contempt for its won sake. Faith for the Hindu does not mean dogmatism…… while full of unquestioning belief, the Hindu is at the same time devoid of harsh judgment".

These are impressive statements of religious philosophy from two high minded Hindu leaders that I think are relevant for all times and especially for us in Fiji today. They are statements of the right attitude required of us as citizens, whatever our religions, to hold fast to, if Constitutional democracy is to be deeply rooted in our political culture. It is stated in Article 35 of our Bill of Rights that every person has freedom of conscience, religion and belief and that we have the right individually and in community with others to manifest our religion and belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Yet we do still have some leading Christian leaders who demand that Fiji should be a "Christian State". They do not define clearly what that means in practice. It arises out of a dogmatic belief that Christianity is the one true path of relationship with God and that other religions (some older than Protestant Christianity) are false and illegitimate.

This belief that had been dormant for a long time, combined with militant indigenous nationalism, surfaced with the Military Coups of 1987. They then called for the conversion of Hindus to Christianity but since then the leader of the 1987 Coups has probably distanced himself from that element of nationalist Christianity. The preamble of our Constitution already recognizes the importance of Christianity in converting Fijians from heathenism and its continuing importance in the spiritual life of this country.

Hinduism teaches us that religion is a matter of personal realization and that creed and dogmas are merely of instrumental value - their function is merely to aid the growth of spirituality as a free being that cannot be expressed in human words.

It is to the credit of those citizens of Fiji who are of Hindus and Islamic faiths that they have been true to the tolerant teaching of their religion and that they have not actively proselytized their creeds. They have respected Christianity as another path to the almighty which is as true as theirs. The history of this country would have been different had Hindus and Muslims been as militant about their faiths as some elements of Christianity.

Yet there are people in Fiji, backed by some academic writers outside the country, who are critical of the enduring strength of the descendants of the Girmitiyas religions and culture. They say it has prevented Indo Fijians from learning about indigenous Fijian culture, languages and attitude, or approach to life.

They say that if Indo Fijians want to be accepted as belonging to Fiji then they should acculturate to being more like indigenous Fijians. One solution offered by the nationalist is for Indo Fijians to convert to Christianity. For the individuals, well, this is easier said than done. I think there has been a lot of cross cultural exchange that are obvious and we have come to accept as normal. Inter marriage is getting more common and accepted. This is a long process that will take generations.

We have rightly regarded ourselves as a multicultural society - which is a society, or country composed of people who belong to different cultures. As we celebrate the history of the Girmityas, we are also celebrating multiculturalism in the sense that we accept the different cultures we have. The endorsement of this by the Constitution of the State of Fiji, is an expression of the principle of liberal tolerance of differences. By affirming the validity of different cultures, we also affirm our common citizenship as members of different cultural groups.

The Constitution however, is yet to develop a real common sense of identity. We are probably the only county in the world that does not have a common national name. Well, in fact we do have one in the Constitution - Fiji Islanders - but no one seems to use it. The Fijian nationalists insist on Fijian as their own and they also will not let anyone else be called "Taukei" because that is theirs as well. They object to Vijay Singh being called a Fijian because they allege that it is evidence of a deliberate attempt to steal the name and identity of the indigenous Fijians. What can they do about the international news media constantly identifying him as a Fijian? Even the use of the word Indo-Fijian is considered dishonest and objectionable by the Nationalists.

Last year the Viti Landowners Association and some well known Nationalist writers in the Media, like Tavenisa Diri and Mere Samisoni, accused Dr Ganesh Chand of stealing their identity and committing ethnic genocide on the Fijian people by naming his publication Journal of Fijian Studies! At that time, the late Savenaca Siwatibau, myself and Dr Ropate Qalo were on the Editorial Board of this excellent Journal. You are reading more about this concept of genocide of the Fijian people as some indigenous nationalists try desperately to portray the Fijian people as an oppressed group like other minority indigenous groups in other countries.

This is symptomatic of the other gulf between our major communities - the gulf of insecurity. Our inability to agree on a common name reveals the insecurity of the major and minority communities in Fiji. I do not have the time or the knowledge to give a deep analysis of the causes of communal insecurities in Fiji. I only make some cursory observations.

For the Indo Fijian, their insecurity began with their conditions of work and settlement here. They have never owned much land, nor had secure access to land for the last 125 years. During the Colonial period it was the Colonial Government that they blamed for the insecurity and poverty of the Indo Fijians. Since independence, it has been the Fijian dominated governments and the NLTB that have been blamed. I would say much of this blames was or is justified because I think post Independence Fijian governments have not behaved differently - probably much worse - from the British Colonial government in dealing with the interests of the descendants of the Girmityas in land for example. So it seems for long time Indo Fijians - a large number of them have dreamed and planned to emigrate to other countries when the opportunities arose. Reading a Submission of the Kisan Sangh in 1964 to the Colonial Government, published in one of Dr Chands' Fijian Studies Journal, I noted that it said that of the 200,000, Indo Fijian population at that time, 80,000 wanted to emigrate Indigenous Fijians from that time up to now, have not been concerned about this - the continuing loss to other countries of skilled professional people, entrepreneurs, farmers, technicians and many other good people who are descendants of the Girmitiyas.

With regard to the insecurity of the indigenous Fijians, a study of this Government's statements and policies orientation illustrates their dependence on encouraging the Fijian's insecurity as a basis of political support. They tell Fijians that they are poor because earlier Governments have done little for them. So their Blueprint plan is the answer. The new urban based Fijian nationalists say Indo-Fijian monopoly of the sugar industry and their perceived dominance of the private sector has prevented them from becoming rich. Hence do not renew farm leases, transfer Schedule A and B Lands to the NLTB and, support the Blueprint I mentioned earlier. Because of the limited period of 5 years in power, this Government has not been able to divorce the Blueprint from vote buying in the villages through building churches, giving free brush cutters, sewing machines, desks and even cash donations. It has done nothing to prepare Fijian landowners to properly replace Indo-Fijian farmers they have evicted. So much formerly productive land have reverted to bush.

This shows another cultural gulf of misunderstanding. The Indo Fijian farmer views land as a productive asset to earn income through farming or resale of the leases at a profit, therefore they want secure long term leases. The Fijian landowner does not see it that way. Many feel secure just because the land has returned to their ownership and it does not really matter to them if it just lies idle and unused.

This difference of perception about land obscures for the Fijians the reality of our interdependence. There is still no recognition, even amongst the present Fijian leaders, that their lack of, or refusal to recognize that it is the hard work, professionalism and entrepreneurship of the Indo Fijian that is responsible for what had made Fiji what it is today. And this lack of recognition and respect for the Indian contribution that may lead to the ruination of this country. Indo-Fijians seem to have lost interest in land, and that is understandable given the history of insecurity. But this is dangerous for the sugar industry and the future well being of this country.

The Indo Fijians believe they are the victims of history. The indigenous Fijians are being constantly told by the new Nationalists that they are victims too, of Indo Fijians economic dominance and discrimination. If our leaders do not honestly acknowledge the facts of our interdependence and therefore the need to work together towards a common understanding and co-operation in resolving the problems that face our country, then we may soon face a stark future. That could lead to intolerance; tension and deterioration of inter ethnic relations. It is time for the formation of a genuine Government of National Unity.

Ladies and Gentlemen: THANK YOU VERY MUCH