Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Girmit: Development vs Dignity

Published in the Fiji Times as Off The Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, May 04, 2016

I have followed recent discussions regarding the pros and cons on commemorating the 100th anniversary of the last Indian labourers to be brought to Fiji under the “Girmit” or Indenture system in 1916.

As much as I do not desire to join a debate which has already become politicized with the pro being voiced by the opposition and the con being voiced by government, I would seem an important point has been left out.

I remember reading and learning about “Girmit” in primary school, as how the Indian labourers were brought / or came (depending on the book and the teacher) came to Fiji to work on sugar cane plantations. Extolling the contribution to the economic development of Fiji by “Girimitiyas” and their descendants is a generic response which seems to be well recognised and well quoted. In fact that common recognition was one of the reasons why government did not support this particular motion in parliament.

A macro-economic perspective looks at Girmit as a source of labour and the creation of industry. Another perspective may see Girmit as migration, or the development of a rich pluralistic society, or even the encroachment by strangers into their own place.

What seems to be neglected in this debate is why the actual end of Girmit was important.

For all its economic and social contributions to Fiji’s development, Girmit – the Indenture System – was ended because it was an unethical, unjust and inhumane system.

In the Preface to the republication of his book “The Violence of Indenture in Fiji,” Professor Vijay Naidu writes:

“The total institution of the plantation was prison-like and gave those in power considerable scope to openly coerce the labourers in their charge. Overtasking, sexual abuse and violence, including rape and murder, violent assaults and killings as well as suicides, were common. For breaches of the labour contract, such as the failure to complete tasks, Indian labourers were prosecuted, convicted, jailed and their contracts extended.”

In “Indians in Mauritius and Fiji,” Christine Smart writes that in Fiji, “the burden of work on female workers was heavy. They not only had to work on the cane fields from the early morning to evening but also had the added responsibility of taking care of the children and preparing the family meals.”

“Endless work was not the only problem facing these women. The fact that women were so outnumbered in both colonies put a premium on a woman's body. Many were forced into situations not of their choosing, serving as "kept women".”

She quotes Sir Arthur Gordon, writing when he was the Governor of Mauritius in 1870, who noted that:

“Too generally the planters had mistresses, usually half-castes, while the overseers and managers almost invariably lived with Indian women; and I was assured that the provision of pretty girls was almost a recognized form of hospitality on a plantation when the visitors were young men. The traditions of the time of slavery were retained. The chaotic effect of this arrangement proved to be a dangerous one for women. This type of relationship sometimes provoked plantation riots. On a more personal level, the argument that women on plantations could explore sexual freedom for the first time in their lives must be tempered with the Hindu male's tradition of murder for the sake of honour. It was not unknown for a husband to “chop,” or brutally murder, a wife whom he believed to be unfaithful.”

In 1909, in a small book titled Our Indian Work in Fiji, missionary Rev. John Wear Burton, wrote plainly about the indenture system:

“The life on the plantation as an indentured labourer is not of a very inviting character. The difference between this state and absolute slavery is merely in the name and the term of years. The coolies themselves ... frankly call it (narak) hell. The wages are low and the cost of living is comparatively high … The accommodation appears to us very wretched … there are some (lines) where the coolies are herded together like so many penned cattle amid the most insanitary conditions and indescribable filth”

He restated this observation in his more widely read 1910 book “Fiji of Today.” Historian Christine Weir writes that Burton’s criticism of the indenture system was influential in other quarters.

“The Fiji of Today was read in India and formed part of the growing call there to abolish the system. Burton’s role was acknowledged by others. Before leaving India for Fiji in 1915, Gandhi’s emissary, the English Anglican clergyman C.F. Andrews had read and been impressed by the book. Once it was clear that indenture was to be abolished, he wrote to Burton:

I know what an intense joy to you it will be that the indenture system is to be utterly abolished … I do feel very strongly that your book (the ‘Fiji of Today’) was the pioneer and did the pioneer work, and it is due to that book perhaps more than to any other single cause that the whole indenture system was shown up in its proper light.”

While 2016 marks the arrival of the last victims of neo-slavery under the Indenture System, the formal abolishment of the system took place on 1st January 1920, conveniently towards the end of the last 5-year indenture contract.

Beyond the political debate, lies the ethical tension between whether ‘the ends justifies the means’ acknowledgement of the contribution of the Girimitiyas to Fiji’s development is what we remember as our collective history or whether there needs to be a deeper understanding and broader acknowledgement of the injustice and dehumanising practices inflicted on people for commercial gain. 

We don’t have to look in our history to see this. We merely have to glance over at our sister and brothers in West Papua to see the injustice and dehumanising exploitation they experience on a daily basis for the benefit of others as recorded in “We Will Lose Everything: A Report On A Human Rights Fact Finding Mission To West Papua” conducted by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane and released this week. Perhaps this will be the report that will galvanise the world about the suffering of West Papua, just as JW Burton, Totaram Sandhya and CF Andrews writings were on indenture in Fiji.

Perhaps it comes down to what we value more, economic development or justice and dignity, because there are times we have to choose between them.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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