The following article was also written by Thakur Ranjit Singh as it appeared in the Pacifc Scoop (New Zealand) on 14 May 2011 – http://pacific.scoop.co.nz
Pacific Scoop: Opinion – By Thakur Ranjit Singh
“The child is struck also. Both are crying and screaming and the mounted brute almost puts his horse’s hoofs upon her….”
This is an account of violence and atrocities of indenture, referred to as Girmit, as recorded by former Ba Town Clerk Rajendra Prasad in his book Tears in Paradise.
In his historic account of personal anguish, Prasad adds:
“Pain from the wounds of girmit resided in the hearts and minds of its victims and their families, but it failed to find expression publicly or in history books. …the Indo-Fijians, who were a significant part of Fiji and had made an enormous contribution towards its economic, social, cultural and political development, had escaped the history books.”
What that effectively means is that there is a vacuum as far as recording the contribution of Indo-Fijians to Fiji’s history is concerned.
Those who came through Fiji’s education system would recall that in primary and secondary school history, you learnt about the early history of the indigenous Fijians, about provincial tribal wars and their legends.
You would have also learnt about the prowess and courage of various European explorers and seamen like Captain James Cook, Captain William Bligh, Vasco da Gama – who ventured out to seek new lands – the history of the British royal family, contributions of the British in developing the earth, the virtues of Commonwealth, the penal history of Australia, and so on about the glory of white men’s contributions in carving out the destiny of the world.
However, as far as Fiji’s development history is concerned, apart from some contributions about indentured labourers from India brought to work on cane farms, there are few accounts about what went on in the whipping, punching, kicking, suicides and and rapes in the cane fields of early Fiji.
They were largely missing from the radar of Fiji’s the history books, written by the British and the Europeans.
Tears in Paradise also raises this issue. Prasad enquires, for example, why despite enormous contributions to Fiji’s development, Fiji Indians were largely left out of the history books.
A former Prime Minister of India, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, aptly summed up this phenomenon in his book, The Discovery of India, as quoted by Prasad in his book:
“History is almost always written by victors and conquerors and gives their viewpoint; or, at any rate, the victor’s version is given prominence and holds the field.”
In case of Indo-Fijians, history has concealed the crimes of British colonials and early masters at the Australian Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR).
Since the British were the colonial rulers of Fiji for about a century, they had a distinct advantage in manipulating history.
That is why we learnt in history lessons about British or indigenous Fijian history. The little history of India that we learnt in schools covered the perspective from British side, missing out the real treachery of the coloniser, both in India and Fiji.
In some opinion, writers have likened indenture or Girmit to slavery. In fact, some have dubbed slavery as being better, because, at least in slavery, people got better food and shelter.
The author, Rajendra Prasad, laments the lack of history of Fiji Indians and wonders what happened to the account of indentured labourers.
The supposed custodians of Girmitiyas, the British colonials, owed a duty of care to record history as it really and actually unfolded rather than how they wanted it to be told.
Instead, the history of Girmitiyas was manipulated, thus leaving a community wounded.
Tears in Paradise was an attempt to fill that vacuum and tell the new generation of Indo-Fijians about the suffering and sacrifices of our forbears from India.
On May 15 (some claim it to be 14th), 1879, the first batch of 497 Girmitiyas (indentured labourers) were brought to Fiji by the British on board the vesselLeonidas. This cargo of labour continued till 1920 and by then an estimated 60,357 Girmitiyas had been brought to Fiji.
This weekend marks 132 years of the first arrival of Indians.
While Indo-Fijians in Wellington, Melbourne, Sacramento and Surrey (Vancouver) have their plans to mark this day, one wonders what is the fate of Fiji Girmit Council which is supposed to be the representative body of all Indo-Fijians vested to uphold the heritage of Girmit .
Nevertheless, it is pleasing to see the Fiji Museum and Fiji government taking the initiative in marking this day that the history books of Fiji have ignored.
During ANZAC day on April 25, this event was marked in New Zealand with the solemnity and sanctity the day deserved.
The New Zealand community marked the sacrifices of their forbears during the two world wars and even the young ones woke up early in the European winter for dawn services at 5 am.
One wonders whether the Indo-Fijians, both in Fiji and those who have migrated in search of greener pastures, possess that same passion and desire to remember the sacrifices of their forbears.
We hope that the next generation will somehow learn about the sacrifices of the Girmit era and pay homage to those who delivered us to the comforts of Australia, New Zealand Canada, USA and other developed nations.
To awaken and jolt the conscience of Indo-Fijians towards their Girmitiyas, I end with the following powerful quote from Prasad’s Tears in Paradise:
“Even in the stillness of cane stalks, one can almost feel the powerful presence of the spirits of sorrow and grief exuding from these sugarcane fields. They are the spirits of our ancestors.
May the soul of our departed Girmitiyas, our forbears, rest in peace.