Character in Crisis : Quests & Questions
Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan joined USP in February,1969, as one of the first two local lecturers with Mr Jo Nacola. He left Fiji in December 1987,after the two coups , and came to the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, on a fellowship. He returned to Fiji in 2005 to help establish Fiji’s second university and was subsequently invited to join the Fiji Constitutional Commission to help draft Fiji’s fourth constitution after four coups
Now that on the surface the troubled waters are calm in the USP seas, some of us from distant shores may begin discussions on questions raised by several thoughtful reports in the media, personal communications and public declarations.
Let me say at the outset that I’ve never met Winston Thompson, the current chair of USP Council, nor Professor Pal Ahluwalia, the reinstated vice-chancellor and president of the university.
What compels me to write this piece, (I’d touched on the ideas in my last book of essays Dispatches from Distant Shores), are the reports from USP’s well-wishers that one receives daily -- the price of internet and developing political awareness and activism.
It’s a good sign among the young who are involved in the good governance of their institution.
Unfortunately most are garbled versions. An institution’s honesty is still the best policy: any commissioned report should be made public: the basic principle of Transparency International. We’re, after all, dealing with a university, not some institute of national security!
Some academics have an apocalyptic vision: one has written to me that the coup is still in progress, like an academic work-in-progress; another that there’s a Mahabharata going on: chaos is the order of the day. And doomsday is approaching.
The rumpus on the campus is nothing of the sorts. Racist coups shake every cell in the nation’s body-politic and in the hearts of people. Men and women, boughs and communities break.
The Mahabharta is, of course, the longest epic poem in world literature: its boast is that what is in this epic is everywhere, and what is not in it is nowhere else.
It was composed 3000 years ago, but its vision still rings true on every continent and island that has gone through genocide, civil wars, world wars, partitions and some very ugly coups and killings.
It’s really the story of the human heart in all its glory and grief, brutality and blessing. It’s an endless epic of what human beings do for greed and their vaulting ambitions.
To think USP’s troubles are anything like what is depicted in the Mahabharata is to see in a Votualevu well the Pacific Ocean.
But it is wise to know one’s well. Perhaps the best quip about university politics comes from Dr Henry Kissinger who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for some dubious achievements. When asked what he thought of university politics, compared to public political life, having experienced both in his life: why is academic politics so petty and vicious?
His reply was succinct:
Because the stakes are so small!
(Did he add: the same mice after the same piece of cheese?)
Professor Chandra, with his experience as a USP student, academic, administrator for many years, and finally its vice-chancellor for over a decade, in my opinion deserved an honourable farewell with the title of an emeritus vice-chancellor or professor.
Professor Rajesh Chandra
In the current drama or rather the sad saga of a university, the one character I know a bit about is the retired immediate past vice-chancellor of USP, Professor Rajesh Chandra.
Professor Chandra, with his experience as a USP student, academic, administrator for many years, and finally its vice-chancellor for over a decade, in my opinion deserved an honourable farewell with the title of an emeritus vice-chancellor or professor. He was a person who had served as the V-C of the largest university of the region. And also the foundation V-C of the smallest university in the Commonwealth.
I worked with him at the University of Fiji after his rather shabby treatment at USP. He was tarred by some of his former colleagues but many felt he deserved to be treated better after years of loyal service to an institution that gave him education and an exciting opportunity for service.
Indeed I recall going to his office to persuade him to be the V-C of UniFiji. He came and laid a reasonable foundation of that university in his quiet, unassuming way.
Subsequently he got the V-C’s job at USP. Many felt justice was finally done to a deserving individual.
I’ve been urging him to write a valuable book on higher education in our region that could shape the future. Few people, if any, have had his experience in that field and fewer still have written their thoughts.
Surely there should be some provision at USP for such professionals: retired, contemplative and creative. Enlightened institutions invite individuals to do that after their retirement. I still have a room at one of my former universities with all the privileges and facilities including free-parking!
Admittedly if you belong to a particular ethnic group in the South Pacific, a certain kind of pettiness and prejudice confronts you. That Professor Chandra survived two terms is the measure of the man’s success, if success is what you believe in.
“Indians” are the descendants of Girmityas and like their ancestors they have fought most of their battles themselves. Many are self-made men and women of self-respect with all their human frailties and abilities. As far as I know they are the only migrant community who don’t have to apologize for the acts of their forebears in those dark times. It’s, I think, a unique fragment in imperial history of colonial encounters. Recently Scott Morrison, our Oz PM, said there was no slavery in Australia: when it was pointed out that kidnapping and black-birding in the region were commonplace on plantations in Queensland, he immediately apologized -- and his embarrassing ignorance was forgiven.
Nobody, of course, mentioned the new system of slavery under which indentured Indians were brought to Fiji mainly to work for the Australian CSR Company.
USP might want to set up an active centre for such studies so that students and staff may learn history of their countries and understand how the winners’ tendency is always towards the falsification of history and whitewashing the grim realities. And learn the redacted parts of one’s past. Truth may not set us free, but it will make us see that the tree of man-woman has many branches, some noble, some ignoble.
It’s time that Black Lives Matter should include the treatment of the indentured in its scheme of things. Let’s not so easily forget Dada Idi Amin and several indigenous, black leaders of his ilk. See how many victims of black tyranny are today in the British Cabinet, shaping the destiny of a country that gave them a home when they were made homeless for racial reasons.
Evil is not the monopoly of any race or religion.
Today, however, the islanders and “Indians” should have a special right to move freely to Australasia as integral part of our historical ties, community sacrifices ,evangelical bonds, bondages of labour, shared values, and geographical security.
Indians have defended the Empire long before 60,000 diggers were killed in Empire’s wars, or 60,000 Aboriginal people massacred in Queensland alone, or 60,000 Girmityas brought to Fiji to serve Australian interests trusting their left thumb mark.
The problems of university education have deepened in COVID-19. In Australia the government has announced that more “pragmatic”, job-oriented courses will be given priority: they’ll be cheaper in many senses of the word; the humanities will cost more.
This, of course, is the real problem: by reducing the value of the humanities, and increasing its price, we’re diminishing something valuable and priceless.
We spend millions and billions of dollars on the human problems in so many societies. Australia is no exception.
The cry from the heart of the Aboriginal communities and their Uluru Statement from the Heart is given scant attention. Hence the massive demonstration during the protest marches, COVID or no COVID.
It will cost us dearly if humanities are marginalized and history remains hidden.
A few years ago I was invited to give a series of talks at the Hilo campus, University of Hawaii. After my talk on “Gandhi as a Writer”, I was questioned by a cynic: What relevance Gandhi had in Fiji?
My reply was: The same as Christ has in Hawaii.
Later, that night I was given a book titled Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature.
The volume is by Joseph L Badaracco, Jr, professor of Business Ethics of Harvard Business School.
The volume’s central question is: what can serious literature teach business leaders or CEOs ?
Among the books he discusses are: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. And Sophocles Antigone
and a few other literary texts but mainly from the western literary canon.
Nothing from the East, especially from India which produced some of the giant thinkers of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th when Europe was conquering the world and blissfully unaware its impending downfall.
That is why in my last piece I suggested a Higher Education Commission for Fiji at least: the funding of three universities, the comparative salary structures of the staff, the curriculum, etc.
Every university has or ought to have its centres of excellence most meaningful to its people first. That’s how knowledge grows, wisdom accumulates and is passed on: for example there academics in Fiji who know more about the Girmit people and the South Pacific than in the socalled “elite universities”.
We must together ensure that the poorest people are not paying the highest price in a region that is often defined as the third world of the third world.
And “inducements” do not make some people appear indispensable.