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Fiji Indian Social And Cultural Association Of Australia Girmit Celebration.

Corrected Copy NSW Legislative Assembly Hansard Article No.33 of 22/06/1999.

Mr LYNCH (Liverpool) [5.33 p.m.]: I draw to the attention of honourable members a function I attended on Saturday 15 May. This was a Girmit celebration organised by the Fiji Indian Social and Cultural Association of Australia [FISCAA]. I was invited to the function by the secretary of FISCAA, Vijendra Prasad. FISCAA is a very active organisation with many members and supporters in my electorate and in south-west Sydney generally. The master of ceremonies at the Girmit celebration was the President of FISCAA, Govind Sami, who is a friend and colleague of mine. As with most of the Fijian Indian community in my region, Govind left Fiji after Rabuka's coups in 1987. That followed the historic election of the Labour Government of Timoci Bavadra in coalition with the National Federation Party.

Govind was a member of the Fijian Labour Party, as were quite a number of constituents in my electorate. Indeed, Govind was elected to Parliament
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in 1987, at the time of Bavadra's victory. Following the racist coups of Rabuka, the activities of the Taukei movement and the subsequent racist constitution, it is not surprising that so many of the Fijian Indian community left Fiji. Fiji's loss is south-west Sydney's gain. The function I attended was a commemoration of what is called Girmit. The word "Girmit" is a mispronounced version of the word for agreement. The agreement referred to is the one that Indian labourers signed before they were shipped from India to Fiji as indentured labourers. In the FISCAA publication entitled "Remembering Girmit" Govind Sami stated:

The Leonidas sailed from Calcutta on March 3rd and arrived in Fiji on 15 May 1897. It carried 463 migrants, the first of India's indentured labourers to reach Fiji. Cholera and smallpox were also aboard the ship. Seventeen had already died. The majority of them were from Basti, Sultanpur, Lucknow and other districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Altogether, there were 87 journeys from India with labourers bound for Girmit in Fiji between 15 May 1897 and November 1916. That brought 60,653 indentured labourers who were called "coolies" by Europeans. 85% of these were Hindus, 14% Muslims and the rest mainly Christians and Sikhs. Girmityas lived in miserable conditions in "coolies lines" or barracks with each room measuring 10 feet by 7 feet. Each line usually had eight rooms on each side. In this small room they kept their tools, clothes, utensils and firewood. Cooking was done in the same room. Three single men and a married couple with no more than two children lived in each room.

Simple, banal language sometimes understates the reality. The words "agreement" and "indenture" do not provide a proper understanding of the system. Some historians describe it only too accurately as institutional slavery; others describe indentured life as akin to a living hell. The enormity of this is emphasised by the fact that more than one million Indians sailed as indentured labourers not only to Fiji but also to Mauritius, Trinidad and Guyana, among other places. Having started only 100 years ago, the Girmit experience is central to the self-identification of the Fijian Indian community.

FISCAA must be congratulated on this commemoration function, which attracted several hundred people. The function involved cultural items and dances, and it featured a lecture, which it is proposed will become an annual event. There is also consideration of a library of Girmit publications. Fiji was proclaimed a British Crown colony after the signing of a deed of cession in 1874. According to Robertson and Tamanisau in Shattered Coups, by 1986 the Indian population in Fiji had grown to 48.6 per cent of the total population; Fijians constituted 46.2 per cent of the population.

The coups in 1987 and the subsequent 1990 racist constitution led many Fijian Indians to leave. The point that forcibly struck me is that this reminds the community strongly of the Girmit experience brought to Fiji by colonialism; conservative forces within that country seem determined to deny them legitimacy within Fiji. This led to a second mass migration, a further development of the diaspora of Indians, this time from Fiji to Australia and to other countries such as New Zealand. In this context it is totally appropriate that FISCAA's function was held at the beginning of the Fijian election period. At the function a prediction was made to me that the Fijian Labour Party would be victorious in those elections. Indeed, it was victorious and Fiji now has a Labour Prime Minister.

It seems to me, as an interested but non-Indian and non-Fijian observer, that the Girmit experience is still central to Fiji. If democratic and constitutional procedures continue to be followed in Fiji, a significant step in reconciling the Girmit experience will have occurred. Those points struck me forcibly on the night of this function. FISCAA is not the only Fijian Indian organisation that is active in my electorate. On 12 June I had the pleasure of attending a Hindu function arranged by Shree Sanatan Dharm Sabha, which has a temple located in a unit in Lyn Parade, Prestons. On that occasion I listened to Pandit Kashyap and Sri Gyan Singh. I know Sri Gyan Singh well; he lives two streets away from me. I attended the opening of that temple. Shree Sanatan Dharm Sabha is doing some impressive work in the community.