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Mr Satish Rai's reaction to virtual interview with Dr. Ganesh Chand

From a letter to Indes réunionnaises webmaster
(we received the e-mail copy on 3rd July 2004)

Dear Philippe,

I am a film maker and researcher with girmitiya ancestry now based in Sydney. I have been involved in Discovering Your India Roots Project since 1994 and have produced two films on this subject so far. I am the general secretary of the International Girmit Congress Inc. Presently I am engaged in Doctor in Creative Arts research on the issue of Identity among the Indo-Fijians living in Fiji and in the Indo-Fijian Diaspora.

Firstly let me thank you for taking an interest in people of Indian origin of Fiji and congratulate you for adding a virtual interview with Dr Ganesh Chand on you wedsite. The interview is very well conducted and will provide a better understanding of the Indo-Fijians in Fiji to your readership.

However there are certain information provided in the interview which I consider incorrect or misleading. In my view if they remain so then wrong or misleading views about the Indo-Fijian community my be perpetuated indefinitely. I hope you will be able to inform your readership about my thoughts on the subject.

I do not support Dr Ganesh's view that "Indenture' is now absent not only from official educational record, but also from the memory of present day Indian Fijians". I have been researching on Discover Your Indian Roots Project for some 10 years now. In this capacity I attended the Indian Week held last year in Fiji-during which I held information sessions on Milaap-Discover Your India Roots in Suva. Despite only a few days publicity some 900 people came to see us over the week long sessions. Additionally I have had great response to my Milaap project from whoever I met during my travels in Fiji. This demonstrates that even now, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation Indo-Fijians still remember Girmit and girmityas and are very keen to discover their ancestral roots,

During the same period I managed to assist some 100 of these people extract the Girmit passes of their ancestors from the national achieves in Fiji. Since information about Milaap Project appeared on this website I had constant flow of correspondence from Indo-Fijians from all over the world about tracing their roots in India. Over the years I have met a number of people from Fiji who have already traced their roots in India or are in the process of doing so. So far only a very small percentage of the Indo-Fijians who I have spoken to-numbering in several thousands, not even 5% categorically stated that they did not want to discover their roots in India. From my experience of living in Fiji since childhood to age of 23yrs and as the originator of Milaap project, almost every Indo-Fijian in Fiji has a desire to trace their roots back in India. It is just that no one in Fiji has brought up this subject or provided assistance to anyone wishing to trace their roots in India. I would like to bring to your attention a letter written to the website and its reply :

"Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a british born Indian of Fijian Indian parentage. It is my sincere wish to relocate to India and be able to claim my heritage. Unfortunately, I will be unable to do so until I can offer proof of passage of one of my great grandparents. I have been seeking this information a long time and only fell upon your site this evening. please kindly let me know if you can help me as I am unaware of what records you hold or where I should be looking.

In kind anticipation

Lata Lakhan

"Sorry, we can't help you with this. Our organisation has no funding (yet). Your task is not impossible but it definitely takes time. This is what Dr. Brij Lal's new book says about this emigration passes to India :"Subsequently they were transferred to the National Archives of Fiji where a full set of 60,965 of the originals is available in some 240 large folios. The National Library of Australia has a copy of all the Passes on microfilm and these were used in my research." So you would have to travel to Fiji to search for yourself. Sorry for not being able of more help."

In my opinion the reply was most unhelpful - to say the least. Suggesting to someone to travel from the other side of the world to carry out a search, which takes at most half an hour (with sufficient information in hand), in my opinion, shows lack of knowledge or committment or both. I have been able to assist people to extract immigration passes of their ancestors from my office in Sydney!

To one question Dr Ganesh states: "Other than this category, the vast majority of Indian Fijians have lost all ties with their relatives in India. For them, Fiji is their home, and their complete allegiance is to Fiji. As such, their significance to the country's social and political landscape is immense."

I think Dr Ganesh has got this wrong. This is demonstrated by the undeniable fact that nearly 100,000 Indo-Fijians have fled Fiji since the first coups of 1978 in Fiji. Today for the vast majority of the descendants of the Fiji girmityas the priority is to leave Fiji permanently. During the India week last year I saw it for myself that even school children had greater feelings for India than Fiji - seen clearly during India Week cultural programs. Most people believe that almost all of the remaining Indo-Fijians will leave Fiji permanently, if given slightest of chance to do so.

To your question "What could you tell about the relations with other ethnic groups in the country ?" unlike Dr Ganesh, I believe that there is rampant racism against the Indo-Fijians by the native Fijians in all spheres of life. The fact thatIndo-Fijians are denied the right to purchase land in the country where they are born in and are citizens of is a form of apartheid similar to that existed in South Africa. This fact is known to every Indo-Fijian and it is about time that the whole world knows about it. Below is one of the articles by the former PM of Fiji, Mr Chaudhary, whose views are nearer to the truth. There are more of his articles on the Labour Party website http://www.flp.org.fj/. I believe that shielding the whole truth in favour of political correctness or for some other motives will not assist the cause of the descendants of Fiji's grimityas!

This is one of the articles:

"Former Prime Minister and National Farmers Union general secretary Mahendra Chaudhry lashed out at traitors who tried to ingratiate themselves with the oppressors to serve their own interests at the expense of the community.

He made the comments during the official launching of the magazine titled Children of the Indus as part of the celebrations of the arrival of the girmityas to Fiji, which was held at the Fiji Teachers Union Hall yesterday.

"We strive for acceptance from others yet some of our own stab us in the back which is a sad part of our history that we as a community must recognise," he said. "One has to look at what happened to the Agricultural Land Tenure Act in 1976, the Coalition Government in 1987 and to the People's Coalition Government in 2000, where the spoilers in all these cases were the self-serving in the Indo- Fijian community," he said.

Mr Chaudhry said it was also the rich and the powerful working against the interests of the farmers, the workers and the poor.

"At the time of each coup, these people from within our own ranks were behind-the-scene instigators, the financiers of the coup and the destabilisation campaigns," he said.

"The history of the Indo-Fijian people in Fiji have no dull moment. If we are not oppressed by others, we fight among ourselves which keeps the story line moving and the excitement and tension remain vibrant throughout."

"Even today, we are denied our political rights in the land of our birth, we are still fighting against racially motivated statutory discrimination in all aspects of life despite a very liberal constitution that guarantees us equal citizenship rights and equal opportunities."

"Our people have been subjected to three racially instigated coups that have deprived them of their legitimate constitutional rights to participate in the formation of a government and to help formulate national policies."

To your question "Do you think it would be possible and useful that Indian people in Fiji and Reunion Island start cultural (and other) exchanges ?" I have this to say: I am attaching an article I sent to a number of individuals last year: Dr Ganesh also sent his opinion about this but as I recall it, he was not supportive of the idea. As is clear from our proposal of International Girmit Sammelan/as and formation of International Girmit Congress Inc in Sydney, we firmly believe that there is need of far greater interactions amongst the Global Girmit community. (In absence of any other single unifying name for the global descendants of indentured Indians, we are putting forward "Girmit" as the universal word until such time when a replacement can be agreed upon).


('Girmit' refers to the descendents of indentured Indian labourers)

The Background

I have been promoting the idea of collaboration between India and the international girmit community for some ten years now. During this period I have written papers, travelled to India three times, produced three documentaries and worked with the government of India Tourist Office in Sydney on promoting travel to India.

Today there are up to ten million descendents of Indian indentured Indians (fondly referred as 'Girmityas') living away from India. The term girmit and hence girmityas arose because the indentured Indians could not pronounce the word agreement which they signed to become indentured labourers. They called it 'girmit'. The word stuck and now has become an important part of vocabulary when discussing the indentured Indians. They are now fondly referred as girmityas and their descendents are now referred as children of girmityas.

Initially some one million girmityas were taken mainly by the British Raj to work on their sugar cane plantations. Now numbering some ten million the majority of the descendents of girmityas still live in the countries where the girmityas were takento. They include Mauritius, South Africa, Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad & Tobago and Fiji. However a fair proportion million live in the western world including the UK, Holland, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
One important part of my ten year long work has been DISCOVER YOUR INDIAN ROOTS. The aim of the project is two fold. Firstly, it seeks to unite the children of girmityas with their ancestral land and relatives in India. Secondly, it is designed to financially benefit India through increased tourism and financial and skills investment by the children of girmityas.

Upon learning about Up Government's Discover Your Roots project, in 2000-2001 I visited Uttar Pradesh Tourist Office in Lucknow and met Mr Desh Deepak Verma, the person who claims to have started Discover Your Roots project in UP. He spoke about the project and I shot some footage with him and his officers for my documentary 'Milaap-Discover Your Indian Roots'.

A Proposal

During our conversation I mentioned to Mr Verma some of my thoughts on organising an International Girmit Sammelan in Uttar Pradesh. Mr Verma agreed that such event should take place but unfortunately no further discussion took place between us since then.

There are several reasons why such event should be held, maybe in Uttar Pradesh:

  • The majority of girmityas were either from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Maybe a joint UP and Bihar venture is called for. I believe Lucknow has the infrastructure to organise and host such event.
  • The international girmitya community has some specific needs and aspirations which are different from the rest of the Diasporic Indian community. This fact was amply demonstrated during the recently concluded Pravasi Bharatiya as. It is felt by many that the Pravasi Bharatiya as was more Non resident Indian (NRI) focussed rather than PIO focussed, the girmitya community falling into the People of Indian Origin (PIO) category.
  • I also mentioned to Mr Verma that migrants from Indian states such as Punjab and Gujarat were contributing enormously towards the economical growth of their respective states. Same can be done by the PIO's for the economy of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
  • The leadership of Indian states such as Punjab and Gujarat are actively engaged in dialogue with their overseas migrants. In return they are benefiting from the contributions of those migrants.
  • By holding the event in UP/Bihar, the leadership of these states will be engaging in direct dialogue with the children of migrants from these states. (A similar event can be organised in Madras for girmitya migrants from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh).
  • The Pravasi Bharatiya as had Bollywood and music as major draw factor. I believe the Girmit Sammelan should draw upon the sporting success of the girmitya community, specially in cricket and Golf. Vijay Singh and Dinesh Chand of Fiji have put the girmityas firmly on international golf scene. The success of the girmitya community is well known in cricket with international cricketers such as Alvin Kallicharan, Shiv Narayan Chanderpaul et all. If events can be organised around these international girmitya sports people in Uttar Pradesh/Bihar, I am sure it will attract massive interest from the international girmitya community, local Indian people and the international media. This can be complemented by girmitya music and by presence of Bollywood personalities originating from UP/Bihar-Amitabh Bachchan and Shatruhan Sinha.
  • This event can also target the girmitya business people, with view to offering them opportunities to invest in UP/Bihar or to import from these estates. It can also target people who wish to carry out social projects in these states.
  • I believe that just by attracting girmitya tourists to their ancestral land will generate substantial revenue in form of transport, accommodation, food and entertainment.
  • Although Pravasi Bharatiya as had many plusses, it did not provide opportunities as listed above.
  • The Girmit Sammelan should be over a week or two, allowing for all the activities, including special sightseeing tours to the state's icons and visits to some of the villages where roots of the girmityas have been discovered.
  • A video documentation should be made of the whole event for subsequent promotion of the theme in the international girmitya community.

I believe an international event such as International Girmit Sammelan on the footsteps of Pravasi Bharatiya as will be very beneficial for India as well as the international girmitya community.

Compiled by Satish Rai (BA Hons, MA)

As I have mentioned before the above critique is designed to provide an alternate view about plights and situation of the Indo-Fijian community. I understand others may have different views to mine and would welcome their views if they are put forward to further the cause of the Indo-Fijian community or the Girmit community.

Satish Rai