JD, 13 May 2004
'Children of the Indus'
NFU Youth Night
'Girmitiya' magazine
Fijigirmit.org launch

Welcome Address by Mahendra Chaudhry, NFU General Secretary

at the official launching of the book "Children of the Indus", FTU Hall, Suva
14 May 2004

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of the National Farmers Union, I thank you for your presence here today at the launching of NFU's Children of the Indus.

You have just viewed a profoundly moving television documentary on the displacement of Indian tenant farmers from land many of them have farmed for generations. You have witnessed on screen the tears, the fears, the insecurity, the utter helplessness of these unfortunate farmers and their families.

That is what this book Children of the Indus is largely about. We decided to screen this video documentary to provide a brief, but heart rending introduction, to the plight of the helpless Indian cane farmer in Fiji.

This half an hour documentary by Michael Holbrooke of Dateline SBS in Australia captures the spirit, and I would say the pathos, of the struggle of the ordinary Indian in Fiji over the past 125 years.

It is a pity that despite 125 years of our presence here in Fiji, despite the tremendous sacrifices our Girmitya forefathers have made for the development of Fiji, the sugar industry in particular; despite the contribution we continue to make to the prosperity of this nation, we are still, by and large, regarded today as foreigners or vulagis.

Even today we are denied our political rights in the land of our birth; we are still fighting against racially motivated statutory discrimination in practically 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 right to participate in the formation of a government and to help formulate national policies.

At each of these three coups, helpless and unarmed ordinary Indian men, women and children have been subjected to physical and mental torture; they have been terrorised, driven out of their homes, and have had their crops and properties pillaged and plundered, or even torched.

We are entitled to ask today, after 125 years of our stay here: why?

Why is the Indian, as a community, still regarded as a foreigner in Fiji? We were brought here as indentured labourers, often against our will, lured to recruiting depots through fraud and deceit, to work in European owned plantations under conditions that were humiliating and de-humanising.

Much is made of the push factors from India that led to the migration of labourers, that is grinding poverty in rural India: yet it is a fact, that if the majority of these labourers were told they had to cross thousands of miles of ocean to come to Fiji, they would not have come.

Gillion in his book Fiji's Indian Migrants provides figures to show that the vast majority of those who came were governed by one burning determination and that was to return to India immediately after they had served their five or 10-year contracts under indenture.

This they did. But, sadly, many on return to India found they were socially ostracised because of their loss of caste and were forced to return.

Victims of circumstances, and British colonial and mercantile policies and interests, our helpless forefathers had no choice, then, but to make a future for themselves in Fiji. It is important to remember that Indian indentured labour was introduced in Fiji as a deliberate policy of Fiji's first Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon.

Determined to preserve the indigenous Fijian traditional social structures and village way of life, he refused to allow Fijians to be recruited to work on estates and plantations owned by European settlers. Fiji had to meet this shortage of labour from elsewhere.
The arrival of Indian indentured labourers to Fiji therefore played a key role in ensuring that indigenous Fijian traditions and cultures were kept intact and not disrupted by plantation life.

It is fair comment that had it not been for the presence of Indians in Fiji, the native Fijians would have suffered a similar fate to that of the Aboriginals in Australia, the American Indians and other indigenous populations elsewhere.

It is a pity that extremist nationalist Fijian leaders tend to forget this legacy of debt they owe to the Girmityas and their descendents. They consider us pariahs in the land of our birth.

Our entire history from 1920s onwards has been a search for acceptance and to regain the samman and izzat or dignity that we lost through the demeaning experience of indenture.

Children of the Indus is a portrayal of this struggle of the Indian community in Fiji to carve a niche for themselves in Fiji society from the time they were freed as indentured labourers to present day.

From 1879 to 2004, it has been a long and difficult journey in search of acceptance, equality and dignity in the land of our birth.

As a community, we have made mistakes as we trudged along the path striving for justice, equality and recognition and the book acknowledges this.

We have been grossly wronged, as a community, on many occasions - the book has recorded this as well. We have been betrayed along the way by members of our own community, and the book has not spared these people either.

As in all societies, we have had our own traitors - they have surfaced from time to time throughout our history - people who have tried to ingratiate themselves with our oppressors in order to serve their own interests at the expense of that of their community.

In the more recent times, one has only to look at what happened to ALTA in 1976, to SM Koya in 1977, to the Coalition Government in 1987, to the People's Coalition Government in 2000 - the spoilers in all these cases were the self-serving in the Indian community: the rich and the powerful working against the interests of the farmers, the workers and the poor.

At the time of each of the coups, these people from within our own ranks have been the behind-the-scenes instigators, the financiers of the coups and the destabilisation campaigns.

This is a sad aspect of our history in Fiji that we as a community must recognise and do something about. We strive for acceptance from others yet some of our own stab us in the back!

How can we ever forget the 2000 incident when the Girmit Council spurned its own desperate people who were facing a period of severe crisis. I refer to the incidence in 2000 when scores of terrorised families fled their homes in the Muaniweni and Tailevu areas at the height of the coup, seeking refuge in the trouble-free West.

But the executives of the Girmit Council refused to open its doors to these terrified refugees. They eventually had to be forced to do so.

Their gross insensitivity to the plight of those desperate rural families has left a blight on the record of the Girmit Council, a record which has been pretty questionable in any case.

Right from its inception in 1982, the Council has failed to fulfil its aims and objectives to promote the cultural interests of the Indian community among other noble tasks it has been entrusted to perform.

The Council today is a closed shop of just a few who use it from time to time as a vehicle to create a political forum for themselves.

In the past weeks some have asked why there are two separate groups celebrating the Girmit anniversary. The reason for this is simple: initially the Girmit Council had done nothing to initiate plans to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the first Girmityas in Fiji. So members of the NFU called on the Union to planactivities. It was after the NFU had made public through the Media our plans to commemorate this defining event in our history, that the Girmit Council suddenly woke up and realised it should be doing something.

I understand a group of culturally conscious Indians from Suva are helping to organise the function at the Suva Civic Centre tonight on behalf of the Girmit Council.

My advice to them is to take over the running of the Council, restore its lost credibility, raise it from its current virtually dormant state and ensure that it meets its noble objectives.

We need people in there who are genuinely interested in promoting Indian culture, people who can undertake activities to foster better relations between our different ethnic groups - an integral part of the functions the Girmit Council is expected to undertake.

Ladies and gentlemen, when NFU decided to commemorate Girmit Divas, we took the decision to compile a book that would chronicle the history of Fiji Indians, in as simple a form as possible with appeal to the average reader.

The motive was not only to remind our people of the agony and the anguish of Girmit but also to acquaint him with other important facets of our history over the past 125 years.

The book Children of the Indus is a result of this decision. In recognition that indentured labourers came from all parts of India, although the majority were from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the title of the book was deliberately chosen to provide a common link - our roots and heritage going back to the ancient Indus Civilisation which pre-dates the Aryan culture.

Children of the Indus provides a panoramic view, so to speak, of Indian history in Fiji from 1879 to 2004 between the covers of one book, a feat not accomplished hitherto.

The book opens with the arrival of the coolie ship the Leonidas bringing the first batch of Indian indentured labourers to Fiji in 1879. The next chapter provides a glimpse of the evils and inhumanity of the indenture system derived largely from interviews with Girmityas for which we would like to express our indebtedness to local historian Dr. Ahmed Ali.

It goes on to trace the events and personalities responsible for bringing the iniquitous system of indenture to an end and then looks at the trials and tribulations of the freed Indian in his attempt to carve a life for himself in Fiji.

Much of this material, on the pioneering Indian, is taken from work done by KD Gillion in his book Fiji's Indian Migrants, Adrian Mayer's Indians in Fiji and AG Anderson's Indo-Fijian Small Farming.

We have devoted a specific chapter to the atrocities committed against the Indian community following the 1920 strike in the Suva-Nausori area. Indian eye-witness accounts of the incident as given by Banarsidas Chaturvedi in his book Fiji ki Samasya differ markedly from the official account of the incidents reported by the colonial government.

It was a horrific event when machine guns were used to intimidate unarmed Indians, several were shot dead, many wounded and scores were arrested and jailed. The assault prompted nationalist leaders in India to liken the event to the Jalianwala Baag incident in Punjab the year before.

Regrettably accounts in current history books have accepted the watered down official version of the colonial government which undoubtedly attempted to hide the truth about what had actually happened.

Following the immediate post indenture period, the book gives specific focus to the struggles of the Indian cane farmer for justice and equity and his attempts from 1920 onwards to fight the suppression and exploitation he suffered under the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia. The CSR made enormous profits in Fiji at the expense of the illiterate Indian cane farmer.

As long as CSR remained in Fiji, the Indian cane farmer remained in abject subjugation to the "company" - grossly exploited, living a hand to mouth existence and denied a fair return for his cane.

For close on a century, the CSR lorded it over the Indian tenant farmer. Justice finally came to him in 1970 from eminent British jurist, Lord Denning who handed down a cane contract that was finally considered fair and equitable.

It forced the CSR to abandon its operations in Fiji and led to the nationalisation of the sugar industry in an independent Fiji.

At about the same time, problems regarding land tenure received some relief with the enactment of the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Ordinance of 1966 which was later turned into ALTA under Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara's government.

The book explores the drama and controversy that surrounded the legislation and the deep schism created within the National Federation Party by the issue.

With a degree of stability provided to the cane farmer under the Denning contract and the ALTA legislation, the tale turns to the Indian community's aspirations for voting rights and political equality, tracing developments through the 60s to independence, the rise of the Fiji Labour Party and the first coup in 1987.

We again break virtually new ground from here onwards covering the two coups of 1987, the events leading to the 1997 constitution, the phenomenal victory of the Fiji Labour Party under the new Constitution in 1999, the People's Coalition Government and its overthrow in May 2000.

The year 2000 saw further assaults on the rights of the Fiji Indian with the overthrow of an Indian Prime Minister and the atrocities committed against the Indian community, particularly in isolated rural areas.

Of course, the plot broadened and deepened with the removal of the President Ratu Sir Kamisese and the infighting that ensued within the Fijian community culminating in the army mutiny of November 2000.

The release of government hostages and the subsequent conspiracy by the post coup authorities to keep the Labour government from returning to office, the 2001 general elections and subsequently, the attempts to deny the Fiji Labour Party and 44% of Fiji's Indian population its constitutional right to participate in the government of the day, ensure there is no anticlimax in the tale.

Indeed, the history of the Indian people in Fiji has no dull moment. If we are not being oppressed by others, we fight amongst ourselves. It keeps the storyline moving and the excitement and tension remain vibrant throughout.

Ours is a colourful tale of 125 years - full of drama and action. I believe, the book takes full advantage of the unfolding drama, heavily peopled with personalities who played leading roles and keeping the reader interested to the end. I recommend it as a good read as well as a historical account of 125 years of the Indian sojourn in Fiji.

As a further bonus, Children of the Indus is beautifully illustrated with more than 70 pictures - from rare black and white reproductions of the Girmit era to some coloured photographs of more recent times.

I would like to take this opportunity to say a special thank you to Asaeli Lave chief photographer of the Fiji Times who readily made available some historical pictures for use in the book, William Copeland of the Fiji Museum and Arieta from the Ministry of Information for their invaluable assistance in providing photographs.

A word on the cover design: the concept is to link the past with the present and the future: the Leonidas in the background with the picture of a Girmitya taken at the Girmit centenary celebrations in 1979 along side that of myself with my grand-daughter, taken on the day I was released after spending 56 days as a hostage in Parliament.

Before I end, I would like to make some special commendations on behalf of the members of the National Farmers Union and the Indian people of Fiji:

First of all, we express our deep appreciation to the Christian missionaries, in particular, Hannah Dudley and CF Andrews who in their own ways contributed much to bring the iniquitous indenture system to a close.

In the preface to the book we have featured a letter that was written by Hannah Dudley in protest at the social evils of the Indenture System. It is a powerful letter of protest in which she vents her anger at the fraud, deceit and violence inherent in the system and its debasing effect on the morals of Indian women at the time.

In more recent times, the Fiji Council of Churches has been quite vocal in denouncing atrocities committed against the Indian community and the denial of their political rights.

We make special mention of Father McEvoy, who unfortunately is in Ireland and could not attend today's function, for the courageous work he did in 2000 in visiting the terrorised Indian communities in Muaniweni and other areas of Tailevu and in the North and exposed to the world outside the horrors of what was happening to innocent Indians in these isolated rural areas.

We also express our appreciation to the CCF which has consistently since its inception voiced its concern against the violation of human rights of the Indian community and the institutionalised practice of racial discrimination by the SDL Government.

Last but not least, we wish to express our gratitude to the late Tui Nayau, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who during his time as Prime Minister did much to foster multiracial harmony and to ensure justice and prosperity to the cane farmer through a stable and expanded sugar industry.

This is not the time to go into full details on all that Ratu Mara did to give recognition to the Indian as an integral part of Fiji society and this nation. But we, as a community, acknowledge our debt to him.

Finally, I have great pleasure in recommending the book to you.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards NFU's educational fund for the needy children of the descendents of Girmityas and other disadvantaged children. The National Farmers Union has so far spent close to $70,000 on providing educational assistance to children of all races, in particular those from families of displaced farmers. Funds that have been raised through carnivals and other fund raising activities.

Thank you.