GIRMIT: REMEMBRANCE TO REGENERATION
IN EVERY ACT OF EVIL, THERE IS A RECIPROCAL ACT OF GOOD
‘Without the misguided intervention of 1987, we would not have a visionary commodore leading the nation’
Recently I read a piece in one of the world’s most respected and reliable weeklies - the headline was: ‘ Coolies’ get a makeover: The lot of the downtrodden Indian railway “coolie”, or porter, is set to improve under plans laid out by the (Indian) government to try to modernise the country’s vast railway system.
Porters will now be referred to as ‘shahyaks’ (“helpers in Hindi” )instead of “coolie”, a derogatory term widely regarded as a relic of British colonial rule in India. Porters will also be given new uniforms, be asked to learn “soft skills” for dealing with passengers, and to ease the hardship of carrying heavy suitcases – often balanced on their heads – more trolleys for porters will be made available.
The series of measures aimed at lifting the status of porters and their working conditions were announced to the Indian parliament by the railways minister, Suresh Prabhu. While many of the proposed changes have been welcomed by the army of Indian porters, most of whom earn only 400 rupees ($6) a day, talk of their iconic crimson uniforms being replaced with shirts bearing sponsors’ logos is seen by some as a step too far. One porter told the Times of India that if the minister really wanted to do something for them, he should have focused on retirement plans as well as creating job opportunities for their children.
This brief article caught my attention because last year I was invited to Shimla to give a talk on Indian Diaspora in Australasia. In my talk I’d raised the issue of how so many Indians, particularly academics, continue to use the definitions devised by colonial bureaucrats and missionaries - Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British - to describe the citizens of their colonised societies. For instance, ‘ coolies’, ‘scheduled castes’, ‘tribals’, ‘backward classes’, even ‘untouchables’ ( dalits), ‘halfcaste’, are used today without any selfconsciousness to define the citizens in the largest democracy of our world. These terms should have been deleted from the Indian lexicon but they are used without much awareness of their historical origins and derogatory connotations: some indigenous, some imperial.
Speaking against degrading others
One can think of numerous other terms to denigrate, degrade and describe the people of different status, colours, race, religions, lands, professions, – the list is endless and human ability for the denigration of the ‘other’ is astounding. It reached its zenith during the European imperial conquests underpinned by racial aggrandisement. I do not think it won me many friends at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, to have raised these issues. But it made some listeners think and write to me. After all, Gandhi was defined as a ‘ coolie barrister’ when the colonial lawyers and magistrates lost the legal arguments. Mulk Raj Anand, one of India’s most eminent novelists, wrote a classic titled Coolie, and Amitabh Bachchan’s popular angry film has the same title.
These are social texts created to raise our sensitivity to the vile ways in which we defined our people and others from within our own traditional prejudices, and from without by others. The word ‘ coolie’, like its real-life counterpart, carries a heavy baggage on the head of history. In the Girmit Diaspora, the ‘ COOL
IE Experience’ is given expression through historians and writers - the Guyanese British writer David Dabydeen’s award winning poem is called
Coolie Odyssey. Only the other day a friend sent me a book, Coolie Woman, by an American critic- journalist, Gaiuta Bahadur, who, as a child, had emigrated from Guyana to the USA.
It’s the story of the author’s great grandmother, encapsulating the experience in a ‘scholarly and soulful’ narrative. In the very first sentence of her ‘Preface’, Bahadur writes bravely: ‘I know that the title “Coolie Woman” might be offensive to some.’
Many colonial and imperial writers defined ‘others’ in the most vulgar and ignorant terms. No language was more adaptable in its linguistic brutality than English, today’s most global means of communication and conversations. The Indenture Experience itself has produced a crop of remarkable thinkers of immense creative vitality: from the Nobel laureate Vidia Naipaul to a host of others from South Africa to the South Pacific and, within the diaspora, from London to New York.
There are, of course, scientists, scholars, business people, professionals, administrators, politicians, sportspersons - the extraordinary generations who grew out of the experience. They made things grow from the fields of sugar-cane.
It’s a pity, however, that some of them still think in caste terms to make them feel superior to others, forgetting their ancestors travelled in the same ships and caste, a deplorably oppressive system anywhere, was lost while crossing the kalapani, black waters. People whose ancestors knew only gullidanda, became world champions in golf ! Vijay Singh is a case in point. He learnt his golf in Nadi, while his father, Mr Mohan Singh, drank grog with my brother at our village home, next to the airport, where they were co-workers.
What to celebrate
What we ought to commemorate and derive inspiration from the girmit people in their quiet virtues, the poetry of their illiterate suffering, their faith and food, their songs of hope and despair, their steadfast belief that, though they were chained to an unjust system, they were working towards freedom, sailing from ignorance into a knowledge of the new world. They might have been, for millennia, in a well, but they walked on the banks of a noble river and found their way to the largest ocean. They carried their humble bundles on their shoulders and stood on their feet, men and women. They opened that another world for posterity and survived through madness and myth, vices and virtues, and showed how ordinary men and women can become extraordinary without doing evil to others. They were profoundly human and it’s their humanity that is their gift to new lands and new peoples.
The descendants of indentured Indians shaped many societies to which they were transported by the Portuguese, French, and the Dutch. But as luck would have it, although Vasco da Gama had discovered the sea-route to India from Europe in 1598, the British won the Battle of Plassey in Bengal against the French in 1757, and thereby hangs the modern world’s imperial tale. Mohandas K Gandhi, the noblest of all Indians, was a gift to India from the indentured in South Africa. So what did indenture or girmit give to us in Fiji? Ironically, the day, 14 May, has become associated with the first Fijian coup in 1987. The nation was wounded deeply and deceptively in many parts in many lives. The colonel and some defeated chiefs thought they had conquered defenseless ‘foreigners’ with their foreign guns and advisors. But Dr Timoci Bavadra was not the descendant of an Indian immigrant, though like many he lived amongst them and served them. In a sense, he was more Fijian, born and bred in the largest island of the archipelago, than those who had the guns or those who had lost power. But the good Lord works in mysterious ways.
In every act of evil, there is a reciprocal act of good. If yesterday the misguided Colonel had not intervened, today we would not have a visionary Commodore leading the nation.
And this, to me, is the most vital change in Fiji’s history: and to a large extent it has emerged out of the suffering of the Girmit people and the patience of their descendants. Fiji is unique: as far as I’m aware, it is the only country in the world, where an immigrant people, mainly peasants, were brought in to preserve the indigenous way of life, when around them ‘civiliation’ was decimating many native peoples on many continents and islands.
Fiji’s heritage is one of collective and enduring pride, whatever its other problems. It was only last weekend ANZAC was commemorated all over Australia and beyond to Gallipoli and Europe. 62,000 young men died from Australia defending the imperial interests of the Mother country. 160,000 of their ancestors were transported in chains as ‘convicts’ to the island continent Down Under. Some were doubtless felons; some were freedom fighters too. The battle of Gallipoli commemorates a defeat— but its myth is often seen as the coming of age of the Australian nation, the forging of a national identity.
In Fiji we are lucky that after the three deeply damaging, racist coups, we’ve achieved a common name, common and equal citizenry, a society to be created on meritocracy and nondiscrimination, a secular polity, human rights, among a host of other progressive and futuristic goals.
It is this that needs to be celebrated and cultivated as we remember the
girmityas. That is the best memorial for them and those who came in their wake. What we do with the neglected Girmit Centre, the history and literature of that experience in our schools and universities, depends on our idea of creating new ways of thinking and reinventing the nation. Above all, it is in our respect for the dead and the self-respect of the living.
Appealing aspect of freedom
To me the most appealing aspect is the idea of freedom the adventure of indenture has given us as individual men and women. The caste system for centuries created disgraceful discriminations from birth, sanctioned by mantras and scriptures, and the pointlessly privileged. We’ve freedom and a human dignity built on the sacrifices of the girmi
tyas and others. And the relationships they created with the islands and their inhabitants. That is their gift and it’s worth remembering it on this occasion to regenerate a belief in ourselves. This idea of human freedom and democratic dignity is now part of the Fijian landscape: when it’s internalized within us, as Fijians, we’ll be able to walk with our heads held high.
The opportunity for all Fiji citizens is there, created with deliberate and difficult choices only a few years ago. Remembering the girmityas may lead to the regeneration for the new generation of Fiji citizens.
The rich culture of the Girmit era will be celebrated in style tomorrow. A four day celebration to mark the 100 years of the abolishment of the Girmit era will held at Saweni market ground, Lautoka. Saweni Girmit Mela organising committee chairman Hirdesh Sharma said: “Our committee will be celebrating Girmit day after a very successful three days celebration last year to mark 99 years. “This year will mark 100 years, since the abolition of Girmit era and there will be a lot of fun filled activities. “Last year we had over 3000 to 4000 people turn out every day to attend the mela. “Other highlights of the Mela programme will be multi-cultural items performed by the local community, food stalls and rides.
He said this year’s event would be bigger than last year and they were expecting more than 4000 people to attend it.
People at the 2015 Girmit celebration.