Opinion | Crisis in our identity – Rightful place for ‘driftwood’ of the Pacific
27 May, 2023, 8:09 pm
Saturday, May 20, 2023 evening bore a gloomy note with overcast skies, blustery winds and pelting rain.
There was no secure place except being indoors.
And it immensely worried the Fiji Girmit Foundation NZ members who had organised the Fiji Girmit Remembrance Day annual event at the Malaeola Hall, Auckland from 5pm.
They feared that the spacious hall with capacity to hold some 1500 people would be empty.
When I arrived at the hall, the stormy conditions had not eased but intensified and with consistent red alerts on the Auckland weather, I feared sitting in an empty hall, I was wrong.
By 5.30 pm, the hall was filled to its capacity with hardly space to move.
Ultimately, it turned out to be a memorable evening of superb tribute to the memories of girmitiya, Fiji’s Indian indentured workers, through songs and a variety of programs.
To top it all, the keynote address delivered by the author of books, Tears in Paradise and Enslaved in Paradise, Rajendra Prasad, a descendant of the girmitiya, stirred minds and touched hearts in a way that made the audience flail in its mesmeric presentation.
Rajendra is also the former town clerk of Ba, Fiji, an opinion writer and a respected commentator on girmit history and a founding trustee of the Fiji Girmit Foundation NZ.
He has that gift of writing that captures not only the minds of the readers, but also their hearts.
He is equally adept at doing the same when conveying his message to a live audience, but such occasions are extremely rare as he shuns the limelight and prefers writing over speaking in public.
However, after declining years of persuasion to speak at the foundation event, he finally agreed and did not disappoint.
He awakened the audience with his opening sentence, which hit at the heart of the identity of Fiji Indians, the descendants of the girmitiya.
Prasad said he stood before them with a certain degree of apprehension, unaware as to who they thought he was, stressing that even after 144 years, the identity crisis had become part of the lives of Fiji Indians.
He amplified: “Even after 144 years since our girmitiya ancestors landed in Fiji, their descendants have had an acute identity crisis. We are variously referred to as Indians, Fiji Indians, Indo-Fijians, Fijians and at worst, have, from time to time, also been humiliated and referred to as the vulagi or the visitors in Fiji.”
In this regard, he also went on to lambast the successive New Zealand governments, claiming that they had added to their humiliation by denying them the recognition that they are part of the Pacific peoples.
He lamented, “in essence, we have become the driftwood of the Pacific. Seemingly, we do not have anchor but we are anchored to our Fiji Indian culture to which we are beholden from which no power on earth can separate us”.
In referring to the missing girmit history, Prasad said during the girmit period (1879-1920), Fiji, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, had gained distinction of being a country that had the highest rate of suicide in the world.
He stressed, “to many, death was a better option to being a girmitiya in Fiji. It was an era when productivity in the farms and profits for the Australia-based CSR Company — the largest and cruellest employer of the girmitiya, degenerated to ruthless exploitation of their labour and their lives.”
The kicks, sticks and whips that they routinely bore from the kulambar, (overseers) included denials to mourn the dead or hold proper funerary rites, resulting in the girmitiya being buried where they worked.
Their graves were scattered across the sugarcane fields of Fiji and the residue of their pain and lament had cascaded down generations.
He movingly recounted the heart-breaking fate of the nursing mothers who lost their babies whilst working in the farms unable to tend to them when required or feed them except at the appointed times.
The dead babies were hastily buried there and then to ensure that work on the farms continued and mothers left to live with the horrific memories.
“Less is known and more is hidden in the grave of Fiji’s girmit history, which needs to be recovered and restored for posterity,” Prasad said.
As has happened with other forms of torture, he explained that humiliation was used as a weapon to deter them sharing their pain and suffering even with their children.
Their lips were sealed, fated to endure the horrific memories.
Memories which they took to their graves.
In his presentation, Prasad castigated the historians of the colonial era.
He said, “the historians of the colonial era played a dominant role in hiding the atrocities of girmit through wilful exclusion of our girmit history. Yes, Fiji’s girmit history is missing. It was not by accident, but through conspiracy to protect those who could have and should have been charged for commission of crimes against humanity”.
He emphatically claimed that history almost always carried the voice of the oppressors where the voice of the oppressed was silenced.
Prasad continued: “Whilst the Methodist Church in Fiji has admitted to its failings and held a ceremony, seeking forgiveness from the descendants of the girmitiya, expect no such gesture from the British Government, as history has proven that it is a great preacher, but a poor practitioner.”
Culturally he likened Fiji Indians to orphans because every culture had its history, but theirs was missing and he challenged Fiji Indians to reclaim and restore their stolen history.
He said the event was to commemorate the sufferings and sacrifices of the girmitiya, the event also called for celebration of their achievements and appreciate the rich bequest they left behind, which continued to nourish and enrich successive generations.
He urged Fiji Indians to assert themselves and claim their rightful place among the cultures that gave diversity to New Zealand and lamented that it was harsh for the New Zealand Government to push Fiji Indians in the Asian block, cruelly defying their historical and inseparable links to Fiji.
In conclusion, Prasad said: “We do not crave for favour or mercy, but seek truth, justice and acceptance that our Fiji Indian culture is rooted in Fiji, we are Fiji’s children, Fiji is part of the Pacific and we are part of the Pacific peoples”.
It is earnestly hoped that the NZ Deputy PM, Carmel Sepoluni, the Leader of Opposition, Christopher Luxon, and other ministers who were present on stage with other MPs will carry this message to government in general and to Ministry of Pacific Peoples to grant rightful recognition to this “driftwood” of the Pacific in New Zealand — the Pacifika Fiji Indians.
• THAKUR RANJIT SINGH is a journalist, a media commentator and a blogger based in Auckland. Views expressed are the author’s are not necessarily that of this publication.