- Pres­i­dent’s speech


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MA­JOR-GEN­ERAL JIOJI (Ret’d) KON­ROTE Pres­i­dent The fol­low­ing is the Pres­i­dent Ma­jor-Gen­eral (Ret’d) Jioji Kon­rote’s speech dur­ing the launch of the Gir­mit Cen­ten­nial Cel­e­bra­tion at Al­bert Park Pavil­ion and Grounds in Suva yes­ter­day. Ni sa bula vi­naka, Na­maste, Asalaam Alaykum, Ni Hao, Noa’ia‘e mauri and a very good morn­ing to you all.

We gather to­gether to­day as mem­bers of the great Fi­jian fam­ily to com­mem­o­rate an im­por­tant era in our na­tion’s his­tory - the ar­rival of the last in­den­tured labour­ers from Bri­tish In­dia pre­cisely 100 years ago. The story of the Gir­mi­tiyas – as they were known – is one of im­mense strug­gle and suf­fer­ing. But it is also one of the most in­spi­ra­tional chap­ters of Fi­jian his­tory. Be­cause that strug­gle was borne with dig­nity and per­se­ver­ance. And through sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion and hard work, the Girimitiyas even­tu­ally tri­umphed – a tri­umph of the hu­man spirit in the face of ter­ri­ble ad­ver­sity. Many peo­ple trans­ported across the world in a suc­ces­sion of small ships and in the harsh­est of con­di­tions did not suc­cumb to de­spair. On the con­trary, they worked their hearts out to carve out new lives in Fiji. And in do­ing so, made a dis­pro­por­tion­ate con­tri­bu­tion to build­ing our na­tion. On the shoul­ders of the Gir­mi­tiyas rested much of the bur­den of build­ing the then Bri­tish colony. Whether it was by clear­ing land, build­ing roads, and most of all, toil­ing in the su­gar cane fields that were the main­stay of the Fi­jian economy then and con­tinue to play an im­por­tant role in our economy to­day. They en­dured hard­ship and op­pres­sion, a crush­ing work­load and the con­stant threat of ill­ness and dis­ease. They also suf­fered cul­ture shock and lone­li­ness as a peo­ple trans­planted 11,500 kilo­me­ters across the world. Yet they were also tough and they were stoic, with dreams of their own. And they were de­ter­mined to suc­ceed. And above all else, de­ter­mined that their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren would have bet­ter lives than they had en­dured. The val­ues that gov­erned their lives were the val­ues of sim­ple work­ing peo­ple ev­ery­where. The preser­va­tion of religion, cul­ture and lan­guage. The im­por­tance of fam­ily, of thrift and hard work.

For the early Gir­mi­tiyas, there was no ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and their chil­dren grew up il­lit­er­ate. But they knew even then that the ac­qui­si­tion of knowl­edge through ed­u­ca­tion was their way out of poverty. As their for­tunes changed over the years, the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion be­came para­mount. And as they set up schools all over the coun­try, they be­came im­por­tant part­ners with our other com­mu­ni­ties in grad­u­ally lay­ing the foun­da­tions of mod­ern Fiji. As a na­tion we gather to­day to pay trib­ute to these early pi­o­neers. And as a na­tion we are equally de­ter­mined to fol­low their ex­am­ple and carve out a bet­ter place in the world.

Ex­cel­len­cies, ladies and gen­tle­men, the main mes­sage that I want to con­vey to you to­day is that the Gir­mit story isn’t a story con­fined to one com­mu­nity in Fiji. It is a story that be­longs to all of us - an in­spi­ra­tional chap­ter of the story of the de­vel­op­ment of our na­tion as a whole. It is a story to be told and re­told. Not be­cause it is part of our dis­tant colo­nial past but be­cause it is rel­e­vant to our present and to our fu­ture. Not only did the Gir­mi­tiyas lay the foun­da­tion for much of what we know in Fiji to­day, they set an ex­am­ple of en­durance, team­work and sac­ri­fice in the ser­vice of our na­tion. And it is an ex­am­ple for ev­ery Fi­jian to fol­low. An in­spi­ra­tion to us all.

It is also a story that lives on in our na­tional life through the con­tri­bu­tion of the men and women who are the de­scen­dants of the Gir­mityas - mem­bers of those orig­i­nal fam­i­lies who came across the seas to Fiji. And I have the great­est plea­sure to wel­come many of them to this com­mem­o­ra­tion. My friends, you have an hon­oured place at our cel­e­bra­tions to­day and rightly so. Be­cause you are all liv­ing links to our past. An un­bro­ken line span­ning the cen­tury from the ar­rival of the last Gir­mit ship, the Sut­lej Five, in Novem­ber 1916, to where we sit in these mag­nif­i­cent sur­round­ings in our beloved cap­i­tal 100 years later. You are the cus­to­di­ans of the Gir­mit tra­di­tion – a flame that still burns brightly a cen­tury on. When we gaze at your faces, we can imag­ine the faces of your an­ces­tors – the salt of the earth of what was then Bri­tish In­dia and is now In­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh. Or­di­nary men and women trans­ported from the vast plains and teem­ing cities of the Sub­con­ti­nent to the su­gar cane plan­ta­tions, towns and set­tle­ments of Fiji. It was a voy­age in rough seas and cramped con­di­tions. And with the tough­est of chal­lenges - poor food, poor san­i­ta­tion, ill­ness and fear. Fear of dying on the voy­age. Fear of what lay ahead, in a land they could never have imag­ined and among peo­ple with whom they had noth­ing in com­mon. Ex­cept the land on which they stood.

Friends, you will all have your in­di­vid­ual sto­ries about the Gir­mi­tiya ex­pe­ri­ence passed down to you over the decades through your own fam­i­lies.

For all of you – the di­rect de­scen­dants of the Gir­mi­tiyas – to­day will be a day of solemn re­flec­tion. To re­mem­ber your own fa­thers, moth­ers, broth­ers, sis­ters. Or be­cause so much time has now passed – grand­par­ents, great grand­par­ents, great-great grand­par­ents.

It is a time for pri­vate thoughts, mem­o­ries and prayers. The rest of us can only imag­ine the emo­tion many of you now feel. Es­pe­cially as you re­call the strug­gles of your own fam­i­lies.

The sac­ri­fices and the suf­fer­ing. But also the good times. Of de­cent, hard­work­ing men and women fi­nally find­ing their feet in their new land. Ad­just­ing to their changed cir­cum­stances. Ad­just­ing to the new peo­ple around them – their iTaukei neigh­bours. Their Bri­tish rulers and their Aus­tralian over­seers in the su­gar in­dus­try. New lan­guages. New cus­toms. New rules.

His­tory records that it was of­ten a bru­tal life. Be­ing an in­den­tured labourer was akin to slav­ery. They were ex­ploited. Forced to work pun­ish­ingly long hours for a pit­tance. And they were beaten. Their pain and suf­fer­ing can only be imag­ined. Not only the poor treat­ment they re­ceived but the lone­li­ness. The iso­la­tion. 11,500 kilo­me­ters from their fam­i­lies back in Bri­tish In­dia. Some Gir­mityas were even­tu­ally able to re­turn af­ter they had served a fur­ther five years on top of their orig­i­nal pe­riod of in­den­ture.

But for oth­ers, the cost of re­turn­ing was sim­ply be­yond their means. And they had no choice but to stay and make new lives for them­selves.

Ex­cel­len­cies, ladies and gen­tle­men, it has been a long, painfully slow jour­ney. And we must never for­get the chal­lenges that the Gir­mi­tiyas and their de­scen­dants have faced. Even when they were free, the 1920s were not an era of easy travel and many never saw their loved ones again. But they were tough peo­ple. Re­source­ful peo­ple. Adapt­able peo­ple. And as the years passed, many of the Gir­mi­tiyas fi­nally came to feel at home in Fiji. And to feel that their fu­tures and those of their de­scen­dants lay here.

Friends, over the past cen­tury, some­thing won­der­ful has hap­pened. The years of in­jus­tice have grad­u­ally given way to op­por­tu­nity. The years of hard­ship have given way to rel­a­tive pros­per­ity. And the hu­man spirit has even­tu­ally tri­umphed against the odds. The Gir­mi­tiyas had their lan­guage and cus­toms. But some of these evolved over time in their new home, such as the de­vel­op­ment of Fiji-Hindi, the lan­guage we know to­day.

Yet in terms of be­ing fully ac­cepted in Fiji, of gain­ing a sense of be­long­ing, it has been a long, slow and of­ten painful process. And right up un­til our re­cent past, peo­ple who had lived in Fiji for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions were still called In­di­ans or Indo-Fijians. A cruel sense of be­ing sep­a­rate – out­siders - con­tin­ued.

Ex­cel­len­cies, ladies and gen­tle­men, I am con­vinced that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Fijians will be as­ton­ished as they look back on our his­tory.

And to learn that it wasn’t un­til 2013 that these Bri­tish In­di­ans in Fiji fi­nally be­came Fijians.

That it took 97 years af­ter the last ar­rival of the Gir­mi­tiyas for the cit­i­zens of these is­lands – no mat­ter what their back­ground – to fi­nally gain a com­mon iden­tity. A com­mon name.

But Fi­jian is what we all are to­day. And that is cause for fur­ther cel­e­bra­tion. That we are fi­nally one na­tion, one peo­ple. With equal rights and equal op­por­tu­nity fi­nally guar­an­teed for ev­ery citizen in our 2013 Con­sti­tu­tion.

Friends, as di­rect de­scen­dants of the Gir­mi­tiyas, I am sure you will agree that this is per­haps the great­est tri­umph of all. Your an­ces­tors may have dared to dream that one-day, you would achieve equal­ity and se­cu­rity in their cho­sen land. But a cen­tury later, it is fi­nally a re­al­ity. Their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great grand­chil­dren have pre­cisely the same rights as other cit­i­zens. You are Fijians too. And that, my friends, is some­thing re­ally worth cel­e­brat­ing.

That 100 years af­ter the last Gir­mi­tiyas ar­rived in Fiji, the strug­gle to get iz­zat – mean­ing re­spect and dig­nity com­bined- has fi­nally been achieved. You are no longer vu­lagi. No longer out­siders. No longer marginalised. But equal cit­i­zens with the same rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as ev­ery other Fi­jian. It is a won­der­ful achieve­ment that we have made as a na­tion. And a won­der­ful con­clu­sion to the Gir­mit story. Equal­ity and jus­tice fi­nally achieved. Ev­ery­one a Fi­jian. Ev­ery­one fi­nally be­long­ing.

I re­peat: the Gir­mit story doesn’t just be­long to one group – al­though we all ac­knowl­edge that it has spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to the Gir­mi­tiyas and their fam­i­lies.

It be­longs to the Fi­jian peo­ple. It is a part of our col­lec­tive his­tory. Of who we are as a na­tion. And that is why we also come to­gether as one in cel­e­bra­tion. Be­cause it is a story that touches us all. Of per­se­ver­ance in the face of ad­ver­sity. Of tri­umph against the odds. And so, my fel­low Fijians, as we re­mem­ber the Girim­ityas, let us also reded­i­cate our­selves to the Fi­jian ideal that is em­bod­ied in our Con­sti­tu­tion. Of work­ing to­gether as one peo­ple to build our beloved Fiji. We owe it to those who ar­rived on that last ship, the Sut­lej Five. We owe it to our­selves 100 years on. And we owe it to the gen­er­a­tions to come. To bring the dreams of the Girim­ityas to life in the new Fiji.

In 2020, it will not only be the fifti­eth an­niver­sary of our In­de­pen­dence but the cen­te­nary of the end of the in­den­ture sys­tem. And I am de­lighted as Head of State to an­nounce that we will be hold­ing spe­cial com­mem­o­ra­tions through­out Fiji in four years to mark the end of the in­den­ture era. Friends, to­day is a day of re­mem­brance. A day of great emo­tion. And it is a day to cel­e­brate the Fi­jian na­tion and all of us who be­long to it. May God bless the Gir­mi­tiyas and their de­scen­dants. And may God Bless us all and make us wor­thy of their legacy and the fu­ture we are build­ing to­gether.

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