Saturday, February 24, 2018

When Life Was Cheap

Published in the Fiji Time as Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, November 02, 2016

A FEW weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter and her classmates on a school excursion to the Western Division. I was part of the parental support team, either following the bus, or going ahead of it depending on the needs of the teacher and the class.

It was the usual type of tour: visiting the Sigatoka Sand Dunes, Momi Bay Gun Site, CAAF compound in Nadi — along with the airport fire station, and the Lautoka sugar mill.

Having a mother born in Lautoka and a father who spent his childhood there, my daughter was familiar with a number of the landmarks of national, local and familial significance. There was daddy's first kindergarten, next to the sugar mill (FSC Kindergarten). There was the FSC compound where mummy grew up. There was daddy's old primary school (Drasa Avenue School). The government quarters in Verona St that was grandpa and grandma's home for many years and daddy's two favourite places for afterschool: the Northern Club for swimming and Churchill Park for every other activity that little boys get up to.

As we drove along Drasa Ave, we passed the Girmit Centre, a place not only of national historical significance, but personal historical significance. In 1978, as part of preparations for the centennial of the arrival of the Leonidas carrying the first of many indentured labourers from India to Fiji, the Fiji Council of Centenary Celebrations (later known as the Fiji Girmit Council) was authorised by the Fijian Government to collect funds from the public to build a fitting memorial to the girmitya.

The land that was selected as the site of the Girmit Centre and presented to the Girmit Council, by the Government was actually land given for this purpose by the Methodist Church in Fiji, under the leadership of church presidents Rev. Daniel Mastapha and Rev. Inoke Nabulivou, who was present at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1980.

In 1981, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Fiji and officiated at the opening of the Girmit Centre. For me, it was a very special day, as I was part of the group from my primary school chosen to perform a meke in honour of the occasion and the important guest. It was also special in another way. As I performed the meke, "Drau Ni Uto Butatoka," well known to many schoolchildren, I performed so enthusiastically that my leaf costume came undone and ended up on the floor. Thank goodness for black sports shorts.

As I recounted the events to the laughter of my daughter, a classmate and her father, I added, "At least I put on a show for the then Indian prime minister," wondering if current Prime Minister Mr Modhi would have tweeted it or taken a "selfie" with that cheeky young boy.

As we heard the announcement of the celebrations that would be held from the end of next week, I shifted my reflections from the not so distant past of the Girmit Centre and what the significance of the end of the girmit or indenture system meant.

It is significant that the celebrations begin on November 11, 2016, marking a century since the arrival of the S.S. Sutlej V, the last ship carrying indentured labourers from India and culminate on March 18-26, 2017, to commemorate the abolition of the Indenture System, when the British Government prohibited the transportation of debtors from India as servants. However, it must be remembered that those who came on the Sutlej V would have had to work off their five-year contract until January 1, 1920 when all remaining contracts were cancelled.

It's important that the harsh reality of the girmit experience and the indenture system itself not be glossed over or whitewashed to simply a story of how a group of people contributed to the development of our country.

The hellish experience of British colonialism as understood through the lens of the girmit was to impact almost every decision made by girmitiya and first generation of Indo-Fijians in relation their civic rights and responsibilities. This was ignored by those who used the divide and conquer concept of leadership and political control. The other side of the story is that in this day and age of global capitalism — where success and development are expressed in terms of dollars and cent. In an article published in January, 2015 in the Himal Southasian, Rajendra Prasad writes:

"In 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire. Though billed as a revolutionary moment in world history, the wheels of slavery were reinvented and renamed, and the indentured labour system was instituted throughout the Empire. Under the indenture system, which lasted from 1834-1917, the British employed Indian labour for five-year terms, with some 1.2 million Indians servings we would do well to remember that the Indenture System was a replacement for slavery."

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

"It is vital that those who have been born in an era when social circumstances have been kinder to them, read about Fiji's past to appreciate the nature of colonialism and the place of immigrant labour within it. The exploitation of Melanesian and Indian labourers for sugar profits was the life blood of the colonial economyĆ¢€¦ Without an understanding of this history that contributed to the enormous transformation of Fiji society, we would not be able to begin to comprehend the inter-dependence of Fiji's people."

As we mark the end of the Girmit, let us remember that this is a story of people brought, not of people who came. Let us remember that this is a story of people used as cogs in the machinery of industry, treated as labour worth less than animals.

Let us acknowledge that as part of this 100-year journey, the descendants of the Girmit have been accepted as children of the vanua. Let us look beyond the simplistic history and seek to understand the deeper stories, that when understood, become the story of humankind's inhumanity. And let us never allow anyone to be so used for the sake profit, no matter how high the margin, again. Every life deserves to be lived with dignity.

"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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