Virtual interview with Dr. Ganesh Chand, fijigirmit.org
This "virtual interview" was
conducted through e-mail early May 2003. It was initiated by
Philip Pratx of the
Réunion portal website
The translated French version can be seen by
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
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
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
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
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
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.