Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Constitutional Considerations

Published in the Fiji Times - "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan," Wednesday 13th March 2012

Picture: Fiji Times
As I heard the news of the impending constitutional consultations to take place in Fiji, I wondered how those Fijians living abroad would be able to participate. As I read and listened to the responses to the announcement, I wondered just how many Fijians in the country will involve themselves in this process.

The new constitution will not be the first in our nation’s history to be promulgated by decree. I recall hearing the emotion in the voice of the Late Tui Cakau and President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau when he announced to the nation the adoption by decree of the 1990 constitution.

I remember the 1995 “Reeves” Constitutional Review Commission’s consultations and following the parliamentary and senate debate and passing and the signing into law in 1997 by the late former President and Tui Nayau, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

In late 2000, the then interim government appointed a commission to review the 1997 constitution. This commission was decommissioned after the Chandrika Prasad case ruling that the 1997 constitution was still valid, but was then reappointed. The response that commission received was vastly different to the Reeves Commission.

My late father, Benjamin (known to many simply as Ben) Bhagwan was one of the few Indo-Fijians who accepted a position on this particular constitution review commission. He received a lot of criticism from political parties, ethnic and religious interest groups and even from some members of his own extended family. But he remained steadfast in his decision to accept this position.

As I was abroad at the time, it was only when we spoke on the phone that he was able to tell me about his decision. He spoke of his love for and loyalty to Fiji and that, like all the community work he had been involved in, this was, he felt, another call from God to serve. I supported him, understanding that he knew the risks and that it could mean being ostracised by the Indo-Fijian community in the highly racially-charge atmosphere in Fiji at that time.

Later, when I came home, he shared more about his work in the commission and his reasons for taking up the role.
My father told me that when he was asked about being called a traitor, outcast and opportunist by some politicians he had replied, "I am exercising my democratic right as a citizen of this country to do justice and to help with reconciliation and democracy in this country." After receiving his appointment he was approached by an Indo-Fijian who said that he, “hoped my father would do something for our race.” My father responded that he did, “intend to do something for his race – the human race.”

He went on to share some of his experiences – especially with those pushing racist agendas by using selected bible verses (proof-texting) to promote their cause. My father would pull out his bible and challenge them to take the verse in the context of the whole scripture. He would ask questions and respond to them in English, i-Taukei or Hindi.

As disappointed as he was with the naive comments and statements made out of hate or fear, my father believed that listening the views of the people was the only way to understand what people in the country were thinking and feeling and was key in understanding why they felt that way. He hoped that there could be away that these fears, prejudice could not just be recorded and used as an excuse to create a new biased constitution but to create something that would address and resolve the visible and invisible conflict that the nation was engulfed in.

Ultimately though, his views and refusal to endorse the final and racially biased report meant that he was excluded from the final team that presented the review to the president.

After he died, as we were packing our things for one of the many moves my family has made in the last decade (8 times in the last 8 years!), I came across some of his notes and records of the submissions made in the review.

As I read through them, I could not help but cry – not just in memory of my father – but as I realised that our nation is made of many communities whose cries of pain for injustices, both real and imagined need to be heard and attended to, not with political rhetoric but with genuine care and healing.

Whether we support the current government or not or are fans of its leadership or not, it is our responsibility as Fiji citizens, as Fijians (whether we agree with the change in citizenship name or not) and as parents or future parents of Fijians, to embrace every opportunity to have a say, no matter how little, how much or even whether or not it is heard and accepted, in the future shape of Fiji.

Every voice needs to speak up now. Every interest group: political, community and religious group needs to ensure that these consultations are completely inclusive – by including themselves within the dialogue, not just commenting from the sidelines.

As we come to these crucial markers in the history of our country, what we say, and, perhaps more importantly, what we do, will either be a brick in a solid house in which we can all live or be a proverbial “brick in the wall.”

What home are we building for our children? Are we helping to build it, or will we merely wait for it to be built, move in and complain about it?

Many of us are caught up simply trying to survive. We keep away from anything to do with governance or politics. That is understandable. We need to feed, clothe, shelter and protect our families.

However, one day, when our children or their children read about this time in our nation’s history; they may ask us: “what did you do?”

How will we answer?

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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