Fiji Sun - - Big Story - Sa­ten­dra By Nan­dan Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan is Fiji’s lead­ing writer. His trav­el­ogue, his first jour­ney from Nadi to New Delhi, will be pub­lished early next year. He’s the author of ‘Lines Across Black Waters’, pub­lished in his book ‘The Lone­li­ness of Is­lands’. Fe

‘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.’

Colo­nial writ­ers

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.

Vi­sion­ary Com­modore

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.

Photo: Saweni Girmit Mela or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee

Peo­ple at the 2015 Girmit cel­e­bra­tion.

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