A ‘BITTER SWEET’ LOOK AT FIJI’S GIRMITIYAS

A ‘BITTER SWEET’ LOOK AT FIJI’S GIRMITIYAS

By Sanjay Ramesh

Bitter Sweet: The Indo-Fijian Experience is a celebration of Indo-Fijian history and culture. The book, a compilation of essays by 20 authors, edited by Brij Lal, is published at a time when there is ongoing debate in Fiji on the use of the term "Indo-Fijian." Nevertheless, the history of Indo-Fijians is deeply embedded in the experience of successive generations in sugar cane fields.

The sugar industry in Fiji was established in 1872. For a while, the European sugar planters faced labor shortages but were able to make up the deficiency by importing villagers from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, but all of these were repatriated shortly after Fiji’s annexation by the British Crown in 1874. The British decided on both moral and pragmatic grounds that they could not obtain the labor necessary for a sound colonial economy from the indigenous Fijians, so in 1879 they began to import Indians to Fiji.

It has been 125 years since Indians were brought to Fiji to work on European sugar plantations. The Indians came to Fiji and worked for five years under indentured labor contracts and after completing five years of bonded labor, they were permitted to work as free laborers for another five years and then qualify for a paid trip back to India at the expense of the Colonial Government. Between 1879 to 1916, some 60,000 indentured workers were brought to Fiji and many stayed back after completing their contract.

Bitter Sweet: The Indo-Fijian Experience is a tribute to these indentured laborers and their descendants for establishing a unique language, history, and culture in the heart of South Pacific. But the Indo-Fijian relationship to Fiji has been fractured by the coups of 1987 and 2000. Their struggles for political representation and national identity has become ‘bitter sweet.’ The irony is that the exploitation and degradation suffered by the indentured laborers, or girmitiyas, continues under a racial contract, where indigenous Fijians maintain direct political hegemony and Indo-Fijians are expected to support this structure through peripheral political participation.

Brij Lal notes at that the pride of the descendants of girmitiyas is replaced by despair and dejection. Since the coups of 1987, which deposed a government in which Indo-Fijians had appropriate representation for the first time in their history, some 80,000 people have left, the best and the brightest, taking with them skills and talents the country can ill afford to lose.

There are some 20 contributors to the book. Brij Lal who has written extensively on girmitiyas since 1980, provides a historical overview of Fiji’s indenture experience and struggles for political justice, following the end of indenture in 1920. This theme of struggle and self-respect in a new homeland is elaborated further by John Dunham Kelly, who argues that religious imagination among post indenture Indians provided ideological foundation for counter colonial discourse. Ahmed Ali, another contributor, provides an interesting insight into the history of Fiji’s Muslim community. Of interest is the level of cooperation between Hindu and Muslim girmitiyas against colonial oppression and continuation of that spirit in post indenture period.

Many Indo-Fijians have attempted in one way or another to discover their indentured ancestors by utilizing the records at the National Archives in Fiji and some even ventured to India to identify relatives separated by girmit. This is well articulated in the book by Praveen and Saras Chandra, who utilize records at the National Archive to identify a girmitiya relative and circumstances surrounding his death. Personal account by Vijay Mishra called "Dilkusha" provide insight into Indo-Fijian memory and Padma Lal, an academic at Australian National University, highlights challenges facing Fiji’s sugar industry, which face threats from both internal and global forces.

Personally, I think the book is well balanced between academic and non-academic perspective. Clearly, Indo-Fijians reflect on their past and they have been doing so more frequently since the 1987 and 2000 coups, which broke Indo-Fijians' heart and will. Many erected psychological barriers to shut out the bitter experiences of the coups and feel ongoing hurt and disillusionment for being forced to abandon their homeland to seek better future for themselves and their children outside Fiji.

Some of these feelings are captured in the book, especially in the later part where personal experience and emotions are unleashed. The book is well balanced and contributes greatly to the existing body of literature on girmit and Indo-Fijians.

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