Interview by Mahendra Chaudhry, NFU general secretary on Girmit Divas Celebration

1. What is Girmit Divas all about?

Girmit Divas is to be celebrated on 14 and 15 May 2004 to commemorate the arrival in Fiji in 1879 (125 years ago) of the first Indians – known as Girmitiyas. Over the next 37 years, some 60,000 of them came to slave in European-owned plantations here. They all came as indentured labourers, contracted to work for a fixed term under conditions highly degrading and dehumanising. Although slavery, to all intents and purposes, had been abolished in 1833, the British introduced a new form of slave labour to pursue their mercantile interests in the colonies.

The celebration is intended to pay homage to those brave Girmitiya souls who endured unbelievable indignity as human beings to contribute to Fiji’s economic well-being. Fiji today is what it is largely through the blood, sweat and tears of those brave men and women who must be regarded as the pioneers of our development as a nation.

2. How or who initiated this idea?

The idea was initiated by the National Farmers Union. It must be remembered that the primary reason for Indians being brought here had to do with farming.

3. What plans does NFU have to celebrate this day?

Celebrations are planned in all the major centres of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. National and district committees have been set up to plan activities which will include a glimpse into the past, re-enacting some of the degrading and humiliating experiences of the Girmityas. There will be programs which will feature the music, the songs and dances of those days to show how they entertained themselves under conditions of slavery.

A publication to chronicle the struggle of the Girmityas and their descendants for their human, political and civil rights will also be launched.

4. Is this celebration a sole effort of NFU or other parties are also involved? If yes who are they?

The celebration is the sole effort of the NFU but we will attempt to involve all those who have interacted with the Girmitiyas and their descendants.

5. As the leader of cane farmers in Fiji, how do you think the farmers have fared over the 125 years?

Theirs has been a tale of joys interlaced with sorrows. Many of them have made remarkable progress through their indomitable will to succeed. They worked hard, invested heavily in the education of their children, turning them into successful businessmen or professionals.

However, many more have remained poor and under privileged through sheer force of circumstances. They continue to struggle for a living as rural workers dependent on seasonal employment which is shrinking.

It must be remembered that an overwhelming number of cane farmers are landless, having to depend on State or native leases for their livelihood.

6. In what ways are the cane farmers of today similar or different from those in Girmit era?

Cane farmers of today are the victims of insecurity of land tenure and racial prejudice. In the Girmit era they were treated by the European planters and, subsequently by the CSR Co of Australia, as economic animals.

But today, for many of them, their future is just as insecure. Some 4300 farming families have been uprooted from their livelihood upon expiry of their leases. They received virtually no resettlement or rehabilitation assistance from the State. Many of them have been reduced to destitution. Their homes were pulled down as they were driven away from their once flourishing farms. They now squat on state land or have sought refuge with their family members or friends.

7. Can you talk about some of the hardships farmers serving under Girmit went through?

Yes. There are many heart-rending stories but let me give a brief picture of the degrading and dehumanising conditions that prevailed under indenture.

“At the lines, the harsh brutality of life as indentured labourers began to dawn on the recruits. The lines themselves were barracks of 16 rooms, eight on each side with each room measuring 10 feet by 7 feet – later, after 1908, changed to 10 ft by 12 ft.

Three single men or a married couple with two children were housed in a room which were windowless with just a door and often no floor. Rooms were separated by partitions which did not reach the ceiling – the openings were fitted with wire netting for ventilation. And often single men were placed next to married couples.

If the lines were more hell-holes than places of abode and retreat, the fields where the recruits worked were breeding grounds for brutality, violence, resentment and gross exploitation of human beings. Indentured labourers were treated like beasts of burden – made to work excruciatingly long hours under rigorous and brutal conditions for 1 shilling a day, five and a half days a week.

An indentured labourer’s day would, as a rule, start at 3am, some at 2am. At this unearthly hour, he would get up and prepare himself for the day, cook his breakfast, prepare lunch and be ready to leave for the field, often a mile away, so that he could be there at 5am ready to start work as the first shafts of daylight broke through. He worked through till 5pm, and often late into the night.

They were given task work which was both cruel and exploitative. Labourers had their pay deducted if the work was not finished on time; or worse still received a beating. Girmitya after Girmitya has borne witness to how back-breaking, arduous and rigorous the tasks were. Work had to be done rain, shine or storm.”

8. What can you say about the current status of cane farmers in Fiji, especially with so many of them being uprooted from “their homes”?

They face an insecure and uncertain future. Their plight must receive international attention. The celebration will focus on this aspect as well, to jolt the conscience of the government here and that of the British and Australian governments which must be held responsible for the human tragedy which is unfolding before our eyes for a second time in 125 years.

9. Do you think cane farming in Fiji is dying? Explain?

Well, according to present indications its future viability is seriously threatened. There are two causes for this calamity. The industry started sliding downhill from 1998 when farmers began being evicted from native land upon expiry of leases.

Some 4300 farming families have so far suffered displacement, resulting in a substantial decline in the cane crop from 4 million tonnes in 1999 to around 2.7 million tonnes last year. The reason for this shortfall is the failure on the part of those who took over the land to maintain production at past levels.

The second major cause is the FSC itself. It is a very badly mismanaged corporate entity replete with corruption, abuse, incompetence and inefficiency.

10. Many sceptic Indians would ask, “what is there to celebrate the 125th year of Indians coming to Fiji” Comment?

It must be remembered that the Indians did not come here by themselves. They were brought here by deceit practiced on them by the agents of the British colonial government.

The Divas is not so much a celebration as a commemoration to pay homage to the Girmitiyas – to praise their courage and to express gratitude and appreciation for their sacrifices. It is also to educate and inform the present generation of Indians, mainly the descendants of Girmityas, of the hardships their forefathers had to endure and the sacrifices they made to provide a better life for their off springs.

Perhaps the greatest gift they gave us was the heavy investment they made in providing for the education of their children. The colonial government made no provision for the education of Indian children in the early days since the abolition of indenture. Why would they? To them Indians were just ‘coolies’, destined to live and die working the cane farms. Of what use would education be to them?

But through education, the Girmityas saw the emancipation of their future generations. I agree, however, that their struggle for justice is far from over even though the British have long since left.

11. Some will also claim that NFU has a political motive for celebrating this. Comment

They can continue with their idle talk. We have a purpose in mind and we intend to achieve it. Besides, as the major representative of cane farmers in this country, it is only apt that NFU should organise the anniversary event.

12. Do you think Indians or cane farmers still have or see a future in Fiji? Why?

Yes. We live in a globalised world today. Indians are citizens of Fiji and they must make their future here. It is the responsibility of their leaders to see that they are treated with respect and dignity and are given equal opportunity for securing their future here. After all, no one will dispute their immense contribution to Fiji’s economic and social development.

But I must concede that Indians today are victims of racial discrimination. They were subjected to humiliating treatment in the coups of 1987 and 2000. The generation of today has a duty and responsibility to their future generations to redress the wrongs done to them. Only by doing so and succeeding will they secure the future of their children. They must be strong-willed to fight against injustice. In the ultimate, truth and justice shall prevail.

13. What does the NFU hope to achieve from the celebrations?

Already answered in Question 10.

14. Has NFU approached Government to assist or be part of this celebration? If yes what has been the response? If not why?

No. This government has shown absolutely no compassion for the Indian cane farmer. It has refused to provide any assistance to displaced farmers. It dismantled the assistance package provided by the Peoples Coalition Government.

The SDL government continues to discriminate against Indians on grounds of their ethnicity. It refuses to recognise the plight of the poor, the deprived and the under privileged amongst the Indian community.

15. How does the NFU plan to involve the indigenous people in this celebration?

The program will include the involvement of the indigenous people. It is a fact not generally spoken about but it is true that the Girmityas saved the indigenous people from the indignity of slave labour under the Europeans. It was the Indian presence here that enabled them to maintain their traditional life in the villages and to preserve their culture. So, the indigenous people have a reason to be grateful to the Girmityas.

Over the years in the cane belt, the Indian farmer and his Fijian counterpart have lived together interacting with each other. NFU sees this as a positive factor to promote a better understanding of each other’s aspirations and needs within the farming community.

16. How can many hopeless cane farmers and labourers -many of whom can be seen squatting on the outskirts of Suva City – be given hope for future?

It is not only the cane farmers who are squatting on the outskirts of Suva or other urban centres. Poverty is now widespread among our people. The two coups and the mayhem that followed have a lot to do with the high unemployment, escalating poverty levels, rising prices, high crime rate, corruption and mismanagement in government today. These have now become chronic problems for Fiji. Unless and until we are able to completely eradicate these abuses from our midst, I am afraid life for all ordinary people will become more and more difficult in the coming years.

The only hope for our people is to demand accountability and transparency from the government they elect.

Unfortunately, the SDL government’s economic policies are pushing more and more people into the abyss of poverty and human degradation. This government has failed to find solutions to the problems of the ordinary masses.

17. Is Fiji still a wonderful place to live and work?

There is nothing wrong with Fiji as a country. In fact it is a beautiful place, endowed with natural beauty, fertile in soil and has a good climate. The people are generally friendly and caring. But as in any society and country there are those with vested interests who want to remain in control of the country even though rejected by the people. They are the ones responsible for the two national tragedies of 1987 and 2000. These people must be apprehended and dealt with according to law so that the rest of the nation may live in peace and attain prosperity.

18. Why do many Indians stay here, by choice, or do you believe that most would leave if they had a choice?

The situation here is such that not only Indians but many indigenous Fijians would also want to leave for greener pastures as economic migrants if they could. They are fed up of the status quo here. What do they see their prospects here as except for worsening marginalisation.

We need to restore confidence and trust in the future of our nation. We must learn to live by the rule of law to bring order to our society. Only then will things improve and we will be able to move forward.

19. Mauritius also had Indian indentured labourers but the country today is in a totally opposite state than Fiji. Where do you think Fiji or the people here went wrong?

Yes, but the situation there is completely different. The leaders of Mauritius have been able to translate their visions into reality. Elected governments there have been allowed to govern without being decapitated by coups and other forms of civil disorder. We have a lot to learn from them.

20. What are some of the major issues that will confront Indians in Fiji over the next 10 years? And are they mostly political?

These are manifold and include landlessness, unemployment, racial discrimination, and non-recognition of the role they have played and continue to play in Fiji’s development.

Some of these problems like unemployment, and poverty apply to people of other races as well. Yes, most of these are political in nature and originate from bad governance and racial prejudice.

However, these issues can be effectively addressed and overcome if we, as a people, can learn to live by universal human values.