Welcome Address by Mahendra Chaudhry, NFU General
at the official launching of the book "Children of the Indus",
FTU Hall, Suva
14 May 2004
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.