Virtual interview with Dr. Ganesh Chand, fijigirmit.org committee member

This "virtual interview" was conducted through e-mail early May 2003. It was initiated by Philip Pratx of the La Réunion portal website

The translated French version can be seen by clicking here.

Please could you first introduce yourself to our visitors ?

Ganesh Chand, a Trustee of the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, Editor of Fijian Studies: A Journal of Contemporary Fiji, and since 1999, a Member of Parliament in Fiji.

When, why and how did Indian immigration start in Fiji ?

Fiji became a British colony in 1874. Given that there were numerous wars between various tribes in Fiji during much of the 1800's, the first colonial Governor of Fiji, Arthur Gordon, introduced a policy of indirect rule. Through this, inter alia, land alienation was banned, and each tribe was encouraged to remain internally self-sufficient. This created a severe shortage of labour for the European owned plantations. People from neighbouring Pacific Island Nations, particularly New Hebrides (now called New Caledonia) and Solomon Islands, were taken by European traders, under what is known as the 'blackbirding system' to work the plantations in Fiji. But blackbirding was illegal, as well as didn't produce the necessary quantity of workers. The colonial government then resorted to India for workers. Indentured workers from India were already used by the British colonial government in Mauritius, West Indies and South Africa. The first ship carrying Indian indentured workers, the Leonidas, arrived in Fiji on 15 May 1879. Between then, and 1916, when further recruitment of indentured workers was stopped, 60,965 workers were brought to Fiji.

Did the history of this early Indian indentured workers leave any painful memories - as it did elsewhere ?

The story of the indentured workers in Fiji has been painful. Numerous people have documented the abuse and violence of indenture in the country. The colonial government in India had also commissioned official investigations into these, and found that there was systematic violence and oppression of the indentured workers. An indentured worker, Totaram Sanadhya documented the happenings in a report published in India titled Fiji Dweep mein mere Ikees Varsh (My 21 years in Fiji - now published in English as 'The Story of Haunted Lanes'), which publicly highlighted the plight of the system. In more recent times, researches have documented the violence of indenture in the country. They all paint a grisly picture of the system.

Do people in Fiji keep in mind anecdotes or famous characters from this period ?

People of Indian origin in Fiji still maintain Hindi as their spoken language. But other than language and food, the memories of indenture is almost absent in present day Fiji. The education curriculum does not contain any history of the system. The 'purging' of indenture history from the school curriculum by the colonial regime seems to be a deliberate measure adopted by the colonial regime - which ruled Fiji until 1970 - to destroy, from the psyche of Indian Fijians, the 'roots' of Fiji's Indian people, as well as to deprive them from seeking inspirations from those who struggled for freedom in Fiji. The post-independence governments have continued with the trend. 'Indenture' is now absent not only from official educational record, but also from the memory of present day Indian Fijians.

Nowadays what is the demographic, social, political... importance of Indian people in Fiji ?

Over 95% of present day people of Indian origin in Fiji are descendants of the indentured workers. The rest of the people of Indian origin are descendants of 'free migrants', who largely came in search of business opportunities during the early part of the 1900's. Indian Fijians presently number about 380,000, which is about 43% of the total population of the country.

The descendants of the free migrants maintained their ties with India; in most cases, they still maintain properties in India and often marry their children in India.

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.

What could you tell about the relations with other ethnic groups in the
country ?

About 52% of Fiji's population is ethnic Fijian. A majority of ethnic Fijians are of Melanesian descent, while a significant number, particularly from the Eastern islands, are of Polynesian descent. About 5% of the population is of various other ethnic groups, including those of mixed ancestry.

The relationship between the main ethnic groups in Fiji has oscillated between harmony and tension. While social intermixing has been significant in the agricultural and urban areas, about a quarter of the ethnic Fijians - mostly those living on about 80 or so inhabited islands other than the 2 main islands - hardly meet ethnic Indians. Their attitude towards Indian Fijians tends to be relatively more hostile than those with whom the Indian Fijians share commonalities as farmers or workers. Since 1987 (when a military coup deposed a democratically elected government), the state has deliberately and systematically put in place measures which divide the two major ethnic groups socially, politically and economically. This has not augured well for building a harmonious Fiji.

Do people of Indian descent in Fiji still keep alive religious, linguistic, cultural traditions from the time of their ancestors ?

Indian Fijians still maintain Hindi as the language of daily use. While conversion to Christianity increased rapidly over the past 30 years, a majority of the Indian Fijians still maintain their religious roots in either Hinduism or Islam. Culturally, there is also a significant 'Indianness' in most Indian Fijians. Functions like Holi, Diwali, Eid, etc., are still celebrated with enthusiasm, while dress and food habits are similar to what they are in India now. The 'Bollywood' impact on Fiji is also significant.

Is there any particularity in Hinduism in Fiji ?

Hinduism in Fiji is, in one respect, unique. The followers of Puranic rituals, which comprise a majority of Hindu's, have developed a unique form of Ramayan recital, which is not found in India or in other places where Hinduism is practiced. Hundreds of 'mandalis' (small clubs) have been established which on Tuesday (and sometimes on Friday) evenings recite the epic Ramayana with music. Other than this uniqueness, most other aspects of Hindu practices - like Gita recital, hawan, etc., are of the universal form.

Could you tell us about Muslims of Indian descent, especially about their culture ?

There are numerous mosques and 'marqaz's' in Fiji. Like the people of other faith, Muslims are also very passionate about Islam. Eid and Prophet Mohammed's birthdays are popular functions in Fiji's calendar; the latter (together with Diwali, Easter and Christmas) is also marked as a public holiday. Other than for religion, in all other respects, the Muslims are like the non-Muslim Indian Fijians in Fiji.

Nowadays, what are the relations between Fiji (Indian community especially) and India ? Between Fiji and the Indian diaspora around the world ?

Other than for the descendants of free migrants, there is insignificant relationship between Indian Fijians and India. Strangely, Bollywood - films, music, and occasion visits of actors and musicians from India - seems to be the only tie which is well known, and in fact cherished. During the more recent years, some religious 'gurus' have been coming to Fiji and preaching Gita, Ramayan or Sai Baba's virtues. The Indian High Commission provides some scholarships to Fijians of all races for studies in India. Other than this, the interface between 'official India' and the average Indian Fijian in the country is non-existent.

In 1989 - which was two years after a military coup in the country - Indian Fijians began building links with the Indian diaspora. They became co-founders of GOPIO, and have remained a strong voice in this organization. They also actively participated in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2003 and in 2004. The links with Indians in countries other than India is also being gradually strengthened. On individual or organizational basis, Indian Fijians they have built strong links with people in Guyana, Trinidad and Mauritius. But links with other countries are largely absent, or not widely known.

Do you think it would be possible and useful that Indian people in Fiji
and Reunion Island start cultural (and other) exchanges ?

It is certainly possible, and in fact desirable for Indian Fijians and people in Reunion Island to start cultural and other exchanges. It has been most unfortunate that so far there has been no communication between individuals or groups in these places. But with a much better communication technology now widely available, there is no excuse for communication, exchange, and travel between the two countries.

Could you tell us more about your website ?

Fijigirmit.org was established in 2004 to mark the 125th anniversary of the first arrival of Indian indentured workers in Fiji. The site is a project of the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, an independent academic research and publishing house in the country. It is managed by a special project committee comprising professionals. The reception to the site has been overwhelming, with people from throughout the world, particularly Indian Fijians who have left Fiji, visiting the site and taking inspiration from it. In addition, fijigirmit.org is perhaps the only site exclusively dedicated to indentured workers anywhere in the world. It is unique in this respect as well. We intend to enhance it further, and if adequate interest were shown from the descendents of indentured workers in other countries, work towards greater collaboration between fijigirmit.org and others outside Fiji, particularly those who are descendents of indentured workers elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

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Last modified 20 May 2008
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