As I stand here before you to reflect on the life of Anand Babla, I am reminded of just how unpredictable life is. Who would have thought that Anand, the son of a Tavua taxi operator, would one day became a Member of Parliament and carve his name in the annals of parliamentary records for his courage and his stand for truth and justice?
Or that this simple cane farmer of no great distinction would go on to defeat the President and one of the great stalwarts of the National Federation Party, Dr Balwant Singh Rakka, in a political battle seen at the time as a fight between David and Goliath – and then, hold steadfastly to that parliamentary seat for the rest of his life.
But that was the mettle of Anand, known popularly as Anand Babla. He was a true and respectable son of Tavua, loved by people of all races in the community he served so faithfully. Anand grew up in Tavua, attending the Balata Indian Primary School and later, Tavua College.
He left school to work first, as a clerk for Chanan Singh and Company in Tavua and then moved on to work for another nine years as an accountant for Anand’s Haulage and Bulldozing Works.
But Babla was certainly not destined to spend the rest of his life balancing books for someone else. He decided to move on to farming. He bought 18 acres of land in Balata and settled down as a sugar cane farmer.
That is how I first met him. It was after the 1987 coups, at a time when as general secretary of the National Farmers Union, I was touring the cane belt setting up NFU branches in the Western Division to fight the Kermode Master Award.
If you will recall, these were dangerous times. Some two years after the 1987 coups, Fiji was still not politically stable and the army was the real power behind the interim government of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Kermode Sugar Master Award was a grossly unfair contract- blatantly pro-miller – had it been implemented, it would have spelt the financial ruin of many of our cane farmers.
Despite the difficult times, under the NFU banner, farmers were rallying all over Fiji in defiance of the Kermode Award and refused to harvest unless the objectionable provisions of the Award were repealed.
Tension in the cane belt was high, supporters and activists of the NFU were constantly getting threatening calls, were harassed and terrorized by the army, the government and the opposition.
Yet, courageous young people like Anand Babla were prepared to join the fight against repression and injustice and were flocking to join the NFU. In 1990, Babla became a member of the National Farmers Union and was appointed its first branch secretary in Tavua. He held that position for the rest of his life.
He campaigned tirelessly for the NFU during this traumatic period, undaunted by threats and harassment, even though he lost 130 tonnes of his cane crop in a fire that was clearly a case of arson.
People like Anand Babla were behind the outstanding success of the National Farmers Union when in the Sugar Cane Growers Council elections held in March 1992, the NFU made a virtual clean sweep of the growers’ polls winning 33 of the 38 seats.
Later in May that year, when the Fiji Labour Party at the very last minute decided to fight the first parliamentary elections since the 1987 coups, we went around looking for candidates. We had just two weeks to file nominations and campaign for the elections.
Anand Babla was by now our natural choice to stand for the Tavua/Ra West Indian Communal seat on a Labour Party ticket against NFP President Dr. Balwant Singh Rakka. As I said at the beginning, it was a David and Goliath case, with a complete political unknown Anand Babla opposing the veteran politician Dr Rakka.
It showed Babla’s strength of character and spirit, that he agreed to take on the battle. I remember he was in his farm cutting cane when we approached him to sign the nomination papers. This unknown cane farmer went on to thrash Dr Rakka, after just two weeks of campaigning.
Fiji Labour Party made political history that election when it routed the NFP in the cane belt winning all rural Indian seats except for the one held by NFP leader, Jai Ram Reddy. FLP won 13 Indian seats against 14 taken by the NFP. The credit for our amazing success went mainly to newcomers like Anand Babla who believed in what the FLP stood for and campaigned vigorously for the party.
I want to point out here that by bringing in cane farmers like Anand Babla into Parliament, the FLP had again flouted conventional practice. Hitherto, Members of Parliament were largely confined to businessmen or the educated class of lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, academics and so on.
By choosing men like Anand Babla, the Labour Party made it clear that degrees and social standing were not a necessary pre-requisite to becoming a successful MP or serving the electorate. Indeed, MPs like Anand Babla were good grassroots representatives, they lived among the people they served and were acutely aware of their needs and aspirations.
Anand Babla was one of the best grassroots MPs of the Labour Party.
He was a hard working MP and very popular in his community. He served his constituency with commitment and sincerity, and is remembered for spearheading numerous community and rural development projects for roads, water and electricity, and the upgrading and maintenance of the Tavua hospital.
It is proof of his tremendous popularity that Babla retained his Tavua Indian Communal parliamentary seat in four successive general elections – 1994, 1999, 2001 and 2006 – winning the seat each time with a landslide majority. His touch with the grassroots and people of all races, also contributed to Labour’s success in holding on to the marginal Tavua Open Seat all these years.
Part of this success, of course, was based on the fact that Babla had very good organizational skills. He had the ability to build a team of co-workers around him for elections giving him an highly oiled electoral machinery.
But grassroots Babla also made his mark in the Parliamentary chamber. You may recall the occasion in 1998 when he was suspended from Parliament for two successive sittings of the House of Representatives because he had dared to question the Speaker, Secretary General of Parliament and Government Ministers on their travel and telephone expenditures.
In September 1997, Babla as Labour MP, had filed questions in Parliament asking for details on money they had spent on travel and telephone allowances. When the information requested was disallowed by the Speaker, Babla told the Media that the refusal was “an obvious attempt to protect the interests” of the Speaker, Secretary General and Government Ministers.
On November 25, the Speaker gave Babla 24 hours to justify his statement to the media or retract. At first this simple cane farmer was virtually bullied by the Parliamentary hierarchy into making an “unconditional withdrawal” in the House, but later he decided to stand for his right and the truth, and told the Media he refused to apologise.
Overnight, the Tavua MP hit the news headlines as “House Rebel” and “Defiant MP”. He became a national hero for standing up for transparency and accountability in the affairs of government. But he was cited before the Privileges Committee which eventually found him guilty of contempt of Parliament.
The whole affair dragged on for months. On March 11, 1988 the House of Representatives upheld the decision of the Privileges Committee and Babla was suspended from two sittings of the House.
That was Anand Babla.
In politics for 16 long years – he left his mark as a man who fought unflinchingly for that which was right and just; always standing by the interests and concerns of the farmer, the poor and the ordinary person.
He had a very pleasant, unassuming personality. He remained humble and accessible to his ordinary constituents throughout his political career, and ever ready to serve them in their time of need.
To the Fiji Labour Party and the National Farmers Union he was a dedicated and committed activist, in and out of Parliament. Despite being held hostage in Parliament at the time of the 2000 coup, Babla remained loyal to the Party and all it stood for.
He held the position of secretary of the Tavua Branch of both the FLP and the NFU right till his death, and was a pillar of strength for us in Tavua.
By leaving us so suddenly, Babla leaves behind a void that will be difficult to fill. But life must go on, and I am sure many a young men and women, inspired by Babla’s example, will step forward and be ready to carry the torch that glowed so brightly in the hands of this humble cane farmer and social worker from Tavua.
May he rest in peace.