The following article was written by Thakur Ranjit Singh as it appeared in National Farmer’s Union magazine”Girmitiya”
Karauli is a town in the stony and relatively dry Rajasthan State. This town sits closely to Agra’s Taj Mahal and also close to Mathura and Vrindaban, Lord Krishna’s playing ground on the banks of Yamuna River. This town sits close to border of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh states.
It is in this town that in early 1915, some “araakatis” or recruiting agents for indentured labourers got hold of a Thakur (worrier/protector race) who was from the muhalla (street) of Phuto Kot where he just had a row with his sister –in- law and had run away from home, fearing the wrath of his brother.
He was very vulnerable, and he was easy meat for the araakatis. He was taken by road to Calcutta where he was placed at depot number 866 before departure to Fiji. He was registered on 23 April, 1915, checked by doctor on 14 May and permitted to sail for Fiji on 17 May, 1915. The ship was SS Ganges. He was made to believe that Fiji was just a few hundred kilometers away and they were going there to clean, sift and pack sugar. That was far from what they had to face back in Fiji.
He was not prepared for what he encountered, as has already been recorded in many other publications where the higher caste people were placed together with the lower or scheduled castes.
The departure from India was very emotional. There were no parents, brothers, sisters and others to farewell them. It was a very lonely departure. In the ship, Bansi and others were handed shirt, cap and trousers that were normally given to people in jail. They were also handed “lota” or drinking cup and eating plate made of tin.
Bansi was taken by a sahib called Wilkins who paid equivalent of 200 rupees or say, five pounds to immigration department for each coolie as girmitiya’s (indentured labourers on five year work bondage) were referred to as. Bansi with his shipmate, Bholai was taken to an estate called Sigave in Ba.
Condition In Estate
Coolies were given a room 12 foot by 8 foot. If there was a married couple, then this room was give to them. In case of single man or women, 3 were supposed to stay in one. This posed a great deal of problem for those who came from a country with very stratified caste system. Especially where a Brahmin or pundit (preacher) was supposed to stay with chamaar (scheduled lower caste). After some three months of similar forced assimilation on the vessel SS Ganges, Bansi to some extent started to mellow in his strong views about the caste system.
There were many hardships and atrocities by estate owners where penalties were imposed for a slightest excuse and money was deducted from the task performed.
Hard Work & Atrocities
Bansi and his gang were supposed to wake up at 4am, do their cooking and be in the farm at 5am. Those women with children had to take them to the farm. Each of them was given task to clean and hoe an area about 1200 feet long and 6 feet wide (370m x 2m). Those who were unable to complete this task had money deducted and task was such that it was impossible to complete it on a daily basis. Hence only meager sum was received which was barely enough to sustain a good living and being able to get enough food to last for the month.
The attitude of overseers left a great deal to be desired. There were many cases of suicides where coolies were not able to bear the hardship and cruelty imposed by the overseers. People were afraid to report them because they knew that they had to spend five years under that overseer, hence Bansi and others were forced to endure the hardship by the overseers who also sexually attacked and exploited the women in coolie lines. There was little remedy in light of poor judicial system and lack of witnesses because of fear of overseers.
The atrocities committed on girmitiyas were widespread and continuous and it was endured for five years till late 1920 when at last Bansi finished his girmit. He had a choice to go back to India but the stories floating in suggested that after crossing “Kala Pani” or the ocean, Bansi would be ostracized by his people back in Karauli. Furthermore, in the five years, the kinship built with people of all castes was strong enough to change Bansi’s mind not to return to India. He settled near sugar mill in Rarawai, where later, a golf course was built for white Europeans who worked in CSR Company.
While at Sigave, Bansi had met a woman named Bhuri and later married her and settled in his farm at Rarawai on a scheme whereby CSR Company gave its land to ‘free’ farmers to farm and supply cane to sugar mills in small allotments.
Education a Priority
One of the most important matters affecting new settlers at that time was education. It was British policy to keep the farmers in bondage and the best way of doing this was to keep them uneducated and ignorant. However, after their long suffering in Fiji, the girmitiyas realised the value of education and salvation via such means. They swore that never again would anybody subject their children and new generation to the indignity that they went through.
It is from such thoughts and views that various religious groupings decided to establish schools for their communities. Hence started schools like Rarawai Muslim School, Vaqia (Methodist) Indian School, Vunisamaloa Sangam School, DAV College, Khalsa College, Koronubu Indian School, Veisaru Indian School and many rural community and religious based schools throughout Fiji. These schools were started with great deal of personal sacrifice and contributions. Some farmer gave his share of land, while others assigned certain tonnage to go towards the school while others toiled to build the school. This was very unlike the schools set up by government for indigenous Fijians where the full contribution was from the colonial government
It is because of this legacy that today, over 90% of Fiji’s students go to non-government schools and it is because of such vision that today’s third generation girmitiyas are sought after professionals and skilled people in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and other parts of the world.
Girmitiyas – Buffer for Indigenous Suffering
During this 125th Anniversary of the first arrival of indentured labourers, it is important to note that while generally, things have improved for the descendants of girmitiyas, the equal rights as mooted via Salisbury dispatch is still some distance away because of obviously racist policies of current regime
The suffering that the girmitiyas went through has begun in another form for those farmers who lose land because of expiring leases. Therefore the pain and suffering may have lessened but it has not completely gone.
The other important aspect of colonization in Fiji is that unlike other British colonies, the natives in Fiji were spared the suffering, genocide, ethnic cleansing and indignity that natives in other British Colonies, including Australia and New Zealand, went through. In Fiji, the girmitiyas were surrogates for the suffering of the natives.
The girmitiyas are accused of being disloyal to Fiji for refusing to join the army. However, history should realize that while the Fijian soldiers were ducking Japanese bullets in jungles of Solomon Islands, Indians kept the economy of Fiji running, so that when the Fijian soldiers returned to their homeland, they would return to an economically flourishing country rather than a bankrupt one. History should salute the Indians who were the economic soldiers fighting for Fiji in the global market.
Unfortunately the history of Fiji and the indigenous population fail to acknowledge this important historical fact. That is perhaps the biggest tragedy for the descendants of the girmitiyas in Fiji.
Bansi Clan Today
Bansi reared his family at Rarawai Golf links, Ba and had 6 sons and 4 daughters. He has 4 surviving children today. Budh Ram Singh, who normally resides in Calgary, Canada with his sons, frequently visits Fiji and is currently here. Moti Lal, another son of Bansi resides in Vancouver Canada while his youngest daughter, Mrs Chandar Bali of, formerly of Varadoli, Ba now resides in Edmonton, Canada.
Bansi’s youngest son, Mani Lal still resides at the old Bansi basti at Rarawai, Golflinks, Ba.
It is through his second eldest son, Hans Raj Singh, that he had his grandson, Thakur Ranjit Singh, who was able to recollect and piece together the difficulties and problems on girmit through this article. Through Bansi’s 4th son, Budh Ram Singh was born Satendra Singh who is Member of Parliament representing Fiji Labour Party in Ba East Indian Communal Seat.
Through Bansi’s eldest daughter and son-in-law, late Gauri Shankar of Wailailai Ba, we have one of the most gifted legal sons of Fiji. Mr. Ganga Prasad Shankar, a grandchild of Bansi (Naati) started as a simple court clerk in Ba and today is a London – educated renowned lawyer of Ba, commonly known as GP or GP Shankar.
Over 30 of Bansi’s grandchildren are now scattered throughout the cities of Vancouver, Kitimat, Surrey, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto (Canada) Sacramento, Sydney, Brisbane Melbourne, Auckland, Christchurch and London. This reflects the movement capability and mobility of generations of girmitiya descendants. They are all successful, hardworking and loyal – the attributes passed on by experience suffered during girmit.
It is significant that on 14 May, 2004, exactly 125 years of arrival of first girmitiya in Fiji, many descendants have reached the pinnacle of success. 90 years after arrival of Bansi in Fiji, on this historic day of 14 May 2004, his great grand daughter, Ragni Ranjeeta Singh, daughter of this author, a fourth generation girmitiya will enter the bar as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand with LLB and LLM at Waikato University.
This signifies the continuous progress of the off springs of girmitiyas and the salvation they saw in higher education. The silent oath that they took in their suffering was that they will never again allow their descendants to be subjected to the same level of indignity, inhumanity and cruelty that they went through in girmit. And through migration and vision for higher education, this is being slowly achieved.
A Parting Gift
Descendants of girmitiyas, like their forefathers, are like gold – the more you subject them to fire and heat, the brighter and purer it gets. Similarly, the greater the degree of injustice and atrocities they suffer through hands of colonialists and now modern “sahibs” in form of current government’s institutionalized racial policies, the better they excel in life. We as children of girmit, like our forefathers have learnt to better ourselves when passing through adversity.
Unfortunately, history fails to recognize or acknowledge this. This article was meant as a wreath on the graves of girmitiyas to whom the whole of Fiji owes its gratitude and an attempt to correct the history.