Char­ac­ter in Cri­sis : Quests & Ques­tions

Fiji Sun - - EXPLAINER - Sa­ten­dra Nan­dan

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.

Univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion

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.

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