Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Girmit can never be an occasion for celebration

Former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry says while the debasing experience of Girmit has a place in our history, it can never be an occasion for celebration.

He said instead, we need to honour our Girmitya forefathers who had the vision and the determination to create a more dignified and respectable future for their children.

As today marks the 145th anniversary of the arrival of the first batch of 463 Indian Indentured labourers to Fiji on board the ship Leonidas to serve British mercantile interests, Chaudhry said they overcame immense challenges in a colonial system which was determined to keep them subjugated as ‘coolies’ even after Indenture, and remained focused on their priorities.

“When the colonial administration refused to set up schools for their children, they established their own schools to educate their children so they could live as equals in their adopted homeland.”

“They preserved their culture and traditions making sure their children were brought up appreciating and understanding their roots. Nothing was handed to them on a platter.”

Chaudhry said the history of the Girmityas and their descendents is a tale of their struggle for rights and recognition as equal citizens – a struggle which continues to this day.

“We need to pause and ask: just what are we celebrating today? Are we celebrating the bondage of Girmit? The enslavement of our people under a system that was evil, humiliating and degrading?

“Or are we celebrating the resilience, the fortitude and the perseverance of our Girmitya forefathers who rose above this iniquitous system to carve a dignified future for themselves and their children?

“In many ways, Fiji’s journey from bushland to a leading South Pacific island nation began on that fateful day of 14 May 1879 when the Leonidas anchored in the waters off Levuka.”

“Our forefathers did not only work on cane, banana and cocoa plantations. They were used as labourers to cut down heavy tropical jungles to build Fiji’s early roads and bridges and develop communication lines to open up the country.”

The Fiji Labour Party Leader said in the years to come they contributed immensely to the country’s development via the education system, commerce and the professions.

“Yet total acceptance remained elusive as evidenced by the racially motivated coups of 1987 and 2000.”

“It forced thousands of Indians to leave Fiji in search of a more secure future for themselves elsewhere. We now have a sizeable diaspora of our own in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.”

“For those who remained, the future remains insecure in many ways quite apart from the issue of acceptance. Lack of access to land coupled with insecurity of tenure remains a major problem for the farming community.”

“For urban dwellers, lack of affordable land for housing, a constitutional right, is a serious handicap forcing families to survive as squatters deprived of decent living conditions.”

“The rights of minorities are no longer secure under the current Constitution. The Independence 1970 Constitution as well as the 1997 Constitution had specific representation provisions for the minority communities in Parliament as well as in the State services.”

He said heading into the future, the challenges are many.

“The country itself is beset by serious problems – a dying sugar industry, high rates of joblessness especially among the youth, deteriorating health and educational infrastructure, and above all a lack of good governance – resulting in an exodus of professions, skills and labour to our more prosperous neighbours Australia and New Zealand.”

“All of this is creating a crisis of confidence among all our people not just those of Indian ethnicity.”

The Girmit system was eventually abolished in 1916 following a vigorous campaign against it by India’s freedom fighters among whom were Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Rev CF Andrews and Sarojini Naidu.

Reginald Chandar
Reginald Chandar
Head of News & Sports | news@fijilive.com

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