We gather here this morning to pay homage to a teacher, politician, orator par excellence, fearless advocate for the rights of the needy and the underdog – Irene Jai Narayan who left deep and lasting impressions in the 35 years that she trod on the stage of Fiji politics.
Indeed, one for whom Fiji was an adopted home, she has carved an unforgettable niche for herself in the annals of our history.
Not only does she carry the distinction of being the first woman in Fiji politics, but one must concede that for the best part of her distinguished political career, she masterfully held her own in a man’s world.
She came to Fiji from India in 1959 married to a local graduate from India, Jai Narayan. Her life in Fiji began in the field of education as Principal of DAV Girls College in Suva, although later she moved to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial School in Vatuwaqa. Such was her charisma, that she immediately made an impact on both her colleagues and her students with her beautiful smile and her engaging manner.
But education was not destined to be Irene Jai Narayan’s milieu in Fiji for too long. While her husband went on to achieve success and prestige as the long serving principal of Indian College, which today has been named after him in honour of his dedicated service to the institution – his wife moved on to acclaim fame in the more tortuous and challenging arena of politics.
The political environment in which she found herself thrust was difficult, tense and trying – fraught with deep racial mistrust and animosities.
This was a transition period when Fiji was taking tentative steps towards self rule. With independence a near certainty, a struggle for political control was taking shape as different ethnic groups, feeling threatened by each other, tried to re-assert themselves to gain political clout.
In such an environment, NFP’s radical stand on common roll under AD Patel and its search for political equality, rendered the political situation more volatile.
Against this backdrop, Irene Jai Narayan made her advent in politics, as the National Federation Party candidate for the Suva Indian Communal seat in the 1966 general elections.
She was hand picked for the seat by NFP leader, the late AD Patel. I was at the political rally at the Century Theatre that evening when AD sprung her as the surprise NFP candidate for the seat.
I say surprise because Mrs Jai Narayan, a high school teacher at the time, was little known in the political circles, even though she had served on the executive board of the Fiji Teachers Union and had also done some social work, notably, on the organising committee of the Hibiscus Festival.
It also came as a shock that AD was pitching this newcomer against a formidable opponent, political veteran and highly respected Suva lawyer, Andrew Inder Narayan Deoki who had held the Suva city seat since 1956 when he was first nominated to the Legislative Council and then later in 1963 when he won it as an independent.
But as always, AD Patel’s political acumen was unfailing. Mrs Jai Narayan went on to win the seat hands down polling 5676 votes against Andrew Deoki’s 2779. She continued to hold the seat for the next two decades until her loss, as an Alliance candidate in 1987, to the FLP-NFP Coalition. Even then, it was a close and tough battle between her and Labour’s Navin Maharaj – she losing by a mere 659 votes.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, Irene Jai Narayan gained in stature as a highly respected politician – she emerged as the advocate of the poor and the downtrodden, acquiring the reputation of a grassroots politician – ever compassionate and accessible to her constituents.
In Parliament, she was formidable– speaking out fearlessly against corporate and official corruption, racial discrimination and other social injustices, and on women’s issues. Her speeches and motions were always carefully researched and well informed, delivered with an eloquence for which she became legendary.
One of her oft remembered campaigns was her advocacy in the late ’70s for the rights of private students at USP who were facing discrimination in being forced to pay exorbitant fees to get tertiary education. She succeeded in this campaign by getting the authorities to lower the fees to affordable levels.
I came to know her well in those days. I was then general secretary of the Fiji Public Service Association and she would often contact me for information regarding matters in the civil service, questionable practices etc.
Mrs Jai Narayan was an equally formidable opponent on the hustings; she excelled at the cut and thrust of politics. A fiery, exceptionally polished speaker, fluent in both Hindi and English, she could cut an adversary down to size with her quick wit and sharp tongue.
She was, no doubt, a great asset to the NFP – a tireless campaigner who used to travel throughout the country speaking at political meetings and rallies, meeting with the grassroots people, listening to their woes and worries.
Her courage, integrity and forthright manner became her legendary hallmarks as a politician. It is not, therefore, surprising that in a short time she attained the heights of her political career. In 1976 she was elected President of the NFP and remained at the helm of Party affairs until 1979.
In Parliament, she served as the Opposition Whip from 1977 to 1979 and as Deputy Leader of the Opposition from 1979 to 1985.
Unfortunately, it was around this time when she was at the zenith of her political career, that the National Federation Party became increasingly embroiled in internal strife and struggle for leadership.
As a Party executive, it was inevitable that she should be drawn into the strife. Subsequently, all the acrimony and bitterness unleashed by the internal feuding, led, tragically, not only to the eventual downfall of the Party but also had an extremely negative impact on its leading personalities, including Mrs Jai Narayan.
Disillusioned and distraught, she finally left the NFP in 1986 and joined the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Although Mrs Jai Narayan stayed in politics for practically another two decades, a lot of the fire and zeal that had become her political emblem, appeared to have dissipated.
Between 1987 and 1992 she served as Minister for Indian Affairs in the interim government of Ratu Mara and later served as a Senator under the Rabuka administration from 1994 to 1999. Later still, she was associated with new, fledgling political parties maybe in a bid to recapture the vision of the past, but was never really actively involved in any of them.
Today, as we mourn her departure from our midst, we remember the sterling and dedicated service she rendered our nation. She was popularly known as “Bahenji” (respected sister) and stood as a model of inspiration for many a young woman wanting to venture into public life.
In January 1977 when Mrs Jai Narayan was at the pinnacle of her public esteem, the Fiji Times honoured her as its Woman of the Year. It may be a fitting tribute, in conclusion, to read from the citation where the paper described her as:
“Imperious but gracious,
Icy yet affectionate,
Sombre yet humorous,
Earthy yet intellectual”.
Mrs Jai Narayan was, undoubtedly, a woman who had made a significant impact on our evolving political landscape – and left her deep unforgettable imprint on it.
Such personalities come few and far between.