May 14, 2016 will mark the completion of 137 years since the first ship ‘Leonidas’ landed in Fiji (on May 14, 1879) carrying the first batch of indentured labourers from India. Thousands of others followed over the next 40 years, until the notorious Girmit period ended in 1919.
But much damage had been done by then. The poor Indians, unbeknown to them that they were being transported to a life of harassment, abuse, slavery- hell in short- and that they had no way out except to endure or die. Some of them did, others took their own life.
Remembering the great
Every year we remember (on May 14) those poor and unfortunate people from India who were left to fend for themselves in a strange land of people who spoke languages that were alien to them. They therefore forged their own version of Hindi, which is in vogue even today.
Time has had a telling effect on the succeeding generations. Thousands of them left the shores of Fiji in pursuit of higher education, business and better life; and of course fearing the worst after two coups in 1987 and one each in 2000 and 2006. Almost all of them have done well in life and brought pride and joy to the entire Diaspora.
Those who decided to remain in Fiji despite these untoward developments, either because they had no choice or because they had the resilience to do so, also deserve our compliments, respect and admiration. They subsisted in a country that they called their home but suffering racial discrimination and political inequity. Ironically it took a military man to end military rule, reinstate democracy and usher in the concept of ‘One Citizenship.’
Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama has done something that none of his predecessors could achieve. “We are not iTauke, Indians, Chinese or anything else. We are all Fijians and let us be proud of being so. I would also like to ask our people who chose to go overseas to return and help us rebuild Fiji,” he told the Editor of this newspaper during an interview in Auckland on August 9, 2014.
Thousands of people, mostly businesspersons, have found a new haven in their former homeland. Attracted by the grant of Dual Citizenship, tax and other incentives, they are today investing in a number of agricultural and commercial activities. As new opportunities emerge, the country can expect an increasing number of its former citizens and foreigners to seek more meaningful and profitable engagement.
There is no end to scope and potential in Fiji. The country would do well to stimulate its capital market and welcome venture capital specialists and other investors. India has always stood by Fiji when others deserted and there are fresh opportunities for closer cooperation.
Homage to Girmityas
May 14 is not so much a celebration as a commemoration to pay homage to the Girmityas, praise their courage and express gratitude and appreciation for their sacrifices. It is also an occasion to educate and inform the present generation of Indians, mainly the descendants of Girmityas, of the hardships their ancestors had to endure and the sacrifices they made to provide a better life for their children.
Their gift was the huge investment they made in providing for the education of their children. The colonial government made no provision for the education of Indian children in the early days since the abolition of indenture.
There has always been a place for Indians in Fiji and the community is an integral part and instrument of the country’s destiny.
We live in a globalised world today. Indians are citizens of Fiji and they must make their future according to their will and aspirations. It is the responsibility of their leaders to see that they are treated with respect and dignity.