Our late PMs and our coups
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.