Our late PMs and our coups

Fiji Sun - - EXPLAINER -

Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan is Fiji’s lead­ing writer. His book Gand­hi­an­jali was pub­lished in Fiji and Can­berra. His new book, Love & Grief: Twin

Jour­neys, is due for pub­li­ca­tion later this year.

Iwas for­tu­nate to have met free In­dia’s first Prime Min­is­ter, Jawa­har­lal Nehru, more than half a cen­tury ago. Since then I’ve had the priv­i­lege, if not al­ways plea­sure, of meet­ing a score of other prime-min­is­ters.

None in my mind, how­ever, mea­sured to the stature of Pun­dit Nehru.

With­out a doubt he was a won­der­fully ed­u­cated man with a sci­en­tific sen­si­bil­ity.

He wrote beau­ti­fully with a phe­nom­e­nal mem­ory of great and noble things. Cle­ment Atlee, the Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter, called him ‘a poet in pol­i­tics’.

Nehru, a Ham­let-like char­ac­ter, had the vi­sion of a poet but he may have lacked the char­ac­ter of ac­tion. Luck­ily Gandhi gave him

some sense of a man of ac­tion; Sar­dar Pa­tel pro­vided the mus­cles of a mil­i­tary man.

Yet, the shrewd Ma­hatma anointed Nehru as the fu­ture prime-min­is­ter of In­dia.

I read some of Nehru’s works while study­ing at the Univer­sity of Leeds in the early 1970s when Fiji was given its in­de­pen­dence af­ter al­most 90 years of be­nign colo­nial dis­pen­sa­tion.

Nehru was deeply aware of the past not only of In­dia, but the world of which In­dian civil­i­sa­tion was an in­te­gral part.

His books were writ­ten in prison where he spent a decade or so at dif­fer­ent times.


The im­pe­rial Bri­tish were bru­tal in main­tain­ing the Em­pire, but they had some re­spect for the life of the mind. They jailed free­dom fight­ers but they also gave them pen ,pen­cil and pa­per to write. And books to read and think.

Nel­son Man­dela and his com­pa­tri­ots sur­vived 27 years on Robben Is­land read­ing a tat­tered copy of the com­plete works of Wil­liam Shake­speare.

Hence so many ideas of our mod­ern world have come from that rather small king­dom of is­lands, now in the grip of COVID-19. The Queen has just turned 94; Boris Johnson al­most died at 55.

The no­blest gift of Bri­tain is that of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy.

The Bri­tons were wise enough to bor­row ideas and ruth­lessly plun­der wealth from any part of the world: For Great Bri­tain the world was briefly its oys­ter, af­ter con­quest, geno­cide and slav­ery and much else.

Ra­cial­ism tar­nished their im­age and fi­nally re­duced to Lit­tle Eng­land. Brexit will fur­ther di­min­ish its in­flu­ence in world af­fairs ex­cept for a few in­di­vid­u­als which ev­ery civ­i­liza­tion pro­duces un­der stress. To­day Pun­dit Nehru as PrimeMin­is­ter in In­dia has nu­mer­ous crit­ics but none have had his ex­pe­ri­ence of the free­dom strug­gle or the jails and fam­ily tragedies that he en­coun­tered in a life full of ac­tiv­i­ties of many kinds.

The prime min­is­ters who fol­lowed him were yokels com­pared to this gi­ant of the Third World dur­ing the Cold War when the world tilted on the brink of a nu­clear holo­caust. Pun­dit Nehru be­came a voice of san­ity.

A lesser man and mind will have sunk with­out a trace in the mul­ti­tudi­nous seas of the sub-con­ti­nent: its par­ti­tions, plun­ders, castes, poverty and sec­tar­ian tragedies. In­dia was lucky to have its first prime-min­is­ter of such a uni­ver­sal vi­sion de­spite the tragedy of the vivi­sec­tion, so soon af­ter World War II.

And he at­tracted some re­mark­able men and women around him. Nehru died in 1964. I was then teach­ing at the Doon School, a school cre­ated for the most priv­i­leged in In­dia to train Bri­tish trained civil ser­vants and CEOs. One of my stu­dents was Vikram Seth, the author of A Suit­able Boy, who I meet from time to time at some writ­ers’ fes­ti­vals or when I travel to Delhi.

I saw Pun­dit Nehru on the eve of his death, sit­ting un­der the large ly­chee tree with a book in his hand wav­ing at a group of us tak­ing our evening stroll.

Then he went back to Delhi; he died the fol­low­ing day.

The head­line in my favourite news­pa­per was two words in stark, bold let­ters : Nehru Dead.

At the death of Pun­dit Nehru I wrote a me­mo­rial piece pub­lished in an In­dian mag­a­zine.

Death of PMs

Since then I’ve writ­ten pieces at the death of a few more prime-min­is­ters who in some way touched my imag­i­na­tion ei­ther by their words or ac­tions: among them Indira Gandhi, Ti­moci Bavadra, Ra­jiv Gandhi, Gough Whit­lam.

When Ratu Kamis­ese Mara died, re­gret­tably I couldn’t write a piece for a daily in Can­berra: I tried twice, but what I wrote ap­peared to me hyp­o­crit­i­cal and disin­gen­u­ous. I aban­doned the project.

Now that Laisinia Qarase has passed on, I feel a sense of a gen­er­a­tion pass­ing, with my own days num­bered.

I’d met Mr Qarase only twice: Once at UniFiji and once in Deuba when a few thought­ful aca­demics or­gan­ised a meet­ing to as­sist the govern­ment’s think­ing on mat­ters of some im­por­tance. We thought we could help with a few ideas. Since then I’ve writ­ten nu­mer­ous pieces pub­lished in the Fiji Sun and in other news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines in many parts of the world and col­lected in four pub­lished vol­umes.

They ex­press my thoughts and feel­ings, rec­ol­lected in com­pa­ra­ble tran­quil­lity, away from the Fi­jian shores and ship-wreck­ing reefs.

Thirty-three years af­ter the first most fate­ful coup, how does one cope with the mem­o­ries of the oth­ers. We’re told Christ was cru­ci­fied at the age of 33.

The young colonel shamed us all. Thank­fully, Prime Min­is­ter Frank Bain­i­marama, who re­cov­ered our na­tional self-re­spect at the cost al­most of his life, said re­cently that the misguided colonel should have been jailed for his ac­tions in 2000. The story re­mains un­told.

My own at­ti­tude is slightly dif­fer­ent. I think the colonel should not be in the Fiji Par­lia­ment, de­spite his re­demp­tive acts of con­tri­tion.

In fact I think in Fiji the colonel and one or two oth­ers should es­tab­lish a na­tional body to heal the wounds and bring about gen­eral rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in our com­mu­nity.

It’s sig­nif­i­cant that May 14, and May 15, are only a night and a night­mare away.

They are twins: And who can think of the gir­mit peo­ple with­out grat­i­tude and grace of a revered place.

Surely COVID-19 gives us time to think thoughts that once were un­think­able?

A tragedy, a suf­fer­ing, can open new por­tals: Ev­ery tun­nel has two open­ings.


Par­lia­ment is not the only source of power or ser­vice to one’s peo­ple. There are in­sti­tu­tions that can do im­mense good. They need to be cre­ated: Two for­mer prime min­is­ters still live in Fiji. Who knows they may get to­gether to cre­ate struc­tures out­side the po­lit­i­cal squab­bles to help those who need their help most.

Re­mem­ber Gandhi was never even an MP. And he con­tin­ues to in­spire gen­er­a­tions long af­ter the petty men of power have had their ashes thrown in the pol­luted Ganges in search of sal­va­tion.

Other so­ci­eties that have gone through greater hor­rors of racial, re­li­gious and ide­o­log­i­cal viruses and have cre­ated or­gan­i­sa­tions be­yond im­me­di­ate po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions.

And they have con­trib­uted so sig­nif­i­cantly to the growth of their so­ci­eties har­ness­ing the great reser­voir of good­will that is ever present below the tur­bu­lent waves. COVID-19 has a les­son for most of the world’s lead­ers: Those in power and those whose power lies be­yond their im­me­di­ate in­sti­tu­tions.

True it is that some will find it dif­fi­cult to for­give but with­out for­give­ness there is no fu­ture.

We lost much in the past; the present is un­cer­tain and there are no cer­ti­tudes in life as this present men­ace has shown the pow­er­ful and the pow­er­less.

Fiji has a num­ber of schol­ars, re­tired vice-chan­cel­lors, ad­min­is­tra­tors and a cou­ple of for­mer primem­i­nis­ters, age­ing busi­ness men, school teach­ers and prin­ci­pals, civil ser­vants, cler­ics and just, de­cent cit­i­zens.

To­gether they can cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent think tank of ideas on which peo­ple like the colonel and the in­trepid trade union­ist can come to­gether to cre­ate for Fiji some­thing of en­dur­ing and in­spir­ing sig­nif­i­cance.

When the bells toll they tell us that noth­ing is re­ally per­ma­nent ex­cept per­haps your good deeds: Only the ac­tions of the just smell sweet and blos­som in their dust.

It’s time to re­write the pages of our fu­ture. One’s destiny is re­ally de­ter­mined only posthu­mously. Some work of noble note may yet be done.

COVID-19 opens the world as noth­ing else has ever done: One may find im­mor­tal­ity in one’s mor­tal­ity.

Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan

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