Brij Lal's Book on Jai Ram Reddy

The life of Fiji’s statesman Judge Jai Ram Reddy: Dr Brij Lal’s “In the Eye of the storm.” 
-- by Thakur Ranjit Singh
India’s first Prime Minister and Indira Gandhi’s father, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru once said that history is always written from the viewpoint of victors. So is true about Fiji’s history, especially those relating to the suffering of the indenture and the trials and tribulations of its descendants.

One of Fiji’s most notable sons of Girmit (indenture), one of the architects of the current 1997 Constitution, an academic and historian Dr Brij Vilash Lal, more commonly known as Dr Brij Lal, has ventured to neutralise this deficiency in Fiji’s history through his many well known research and writings he has undertaken to give a historical perspective from the viewpoint of the victims and not the victors. Currently he is Professor of Pacific and Asian History and Deputy Director of the School of Culture, History and Language at The Australian National University. His latest addition to this is a book “In the Eye of the Storm”, where he traces the outlines of Fiji's postcolonial politics through the life and work of Jai Ram Reddy.
In the Eye of the Storm will be launched in a private ceremony at Mt. Roskill, Auckland on Saturday 30th October, 2010 by Sir Paul Reeves, who also happened to be the Chair of Fiji’s Constitutional review Commission with Dr Lal.
Dr Lal, like many other sons of Girmit, feels cheated by the history written by the victors. “The written history of Fiji, particularly by expatriates like Deryck Scarr, is hugely skewed against all those who fought the entrenched views and attitudes of the Fijian and the colonial establishments. In their accounts, our people are viewed as interlopers, usurpers of other people's rights, who shouldn't aspire to dignity and basic human rights. In all my writings, I have sought to represent the presence of the unrepresented, led by the conviction that both the vanquished as well as the victors should have a place at the table of history.”
He said that in an earlier book, 'A Vision for Change: AD Patel and the Politics of Fiji,' (1997), he had traced the contours of Indo-Fijian politics through the life and work of AD Patel from about 1929-1969. This latest book on the life of Fiji’s distinguished politician, an International Court Judge and statesman, Jai Ram Reddy is a continuation of Fiji’s history from 1970s.

Elaborating on the contents of the book, Dr Lal revealed that the book is essentially about the period since independence, after an introductory chapter that provides the historical context for the narrative that follows. The post-independent period was a turbulent one, and the book considers all of them: the battles for leadership in the National Federation Party, the manufactured 1977 'constitutional crisis,' the 1980s with Sakiasi Butadroka's strident ethnonatoinalism, the 'Carroll Report,' the rumblings in western Viti Levu led by Ratu Osea Gavidi around the pine issue, the 1987 coups and their aftermath, the tentative steps towards parliamentary democracy in the early 1990s, the constitutional reconciliation process of the late 1990s and the 1999 general elections. Along with discussing the politics of the time, the book also makes an assessment of the personalities of the major leaders of the time.

Dr Lal revealed that the idea of the book was conceived after Reddy lost the 1999 election while experimenting multiracialism for a more stable Fiji and left politics for good. It took some ten years of interrupted research to compile this great book to the addition of Fiji’s history. He said the book has over 700 pages and is longer than what he had in mind, but the full story had to be told.

When questioned why Reddy appeared to have abandoned his people, Lal said that there was justifiable hurt at the manner in which his own people did not appreciate what was achieved in the most difficult of circumstances against great odds. There was hurt too at the outrageous things his opponents said about him during election times, that he had run away from the country 'at the height of the crisis,' that he had abandoned his people, that he had sold their interests, and said by people who knew what the truth was.
Lal describes Reddy as a “reluctant politician” which title is often misunderstood because Reddy’s. main focus was not narrow political advantage for himself or his political party, but the larger interests of his people and the country as a whole. When questioned about the allegation by Ratu Mara and his Alliance party that Reddy and NFP had abandoned the concept of the government of national unity, he said that this issue is clarified in the book and the correct picture was not presented. The whole issue was ‘manufactured” and politicised by the Alliance Party which had rejected offers of a coalition in 1966 and again in 1977. He said that the political context in which the Government of National Unity proposal was mooted was hugely charged politically and it was a pity that an opportunity was missed.

Lal’s profound statement on the outcome of 1999 election is that while Reddy’s opponent (FLP and the People’s Coalition) won the battle, they unfortunately, lost the war and Fiji’s history now stands testimony to that. It is true that had Fiji accepted the multiracialism granted by Rabuka –Reddy coalition in 1999 election, Fiji may have been spared the political instability it saw after Chaudhry’s Peoples Coalition came to power and the ensuing political instability.

Despite being branded as an NFP man very close to Reddy, Lal is very gracious in his comments about Chaudhry. His analogy to battle filed in comparing the two Indo Fijian leaders of Fiji makes interesting reading:
“Mahendra Chaudhry would have to be a major figure in any narrative of postcolonial Fiji. The two men were friends once, if not necessarily close. Chaudhry was prepared to accept Dr Bavadra as his leader in the way he did not accept Reddy as his leader. From the very beginning, Chaudhry vowed, in his own words, to 'finish NFP off.' To that end, he devoted his considerable energy throughout the 1990s. For Chaudhry, the end justified the means, and the end was the attainment of power. Everything was a secondary consideration. I have used a military metaphor to describe the two men. Reddy could be likened to a commanding general, an acute understanding of the lay of the land, possessed of a strategic vision, with an ability to forge coalitions to form a broad front. Mahendra Chaudhry, on the other hand, could be likened to a great field commander, in constant touch with his troops, inspiring them with his courage and manoeuvres, tactically astute and bold, but lacking the attributes that transform field commanders into successful commanding generals,” observed Lal.

When asked what were the lessons from Jai Ram Reddy’s life and work, Lal said that what Reddy demonstrated was a capacity to appreciate, respect and accept that a different perspective can be just as valid as one's own. “Reddy's experiment was an epiphany which is only possible when people of goodwill are prepared to make themselves vulnerable and trust one another. Without mutual trust and understanding, there can be no basis for enduring partnerships in society,” Lal concluded


The chip on Brij's shoulder said…
Brij Lal is fond of having a go at anyone else who isn't Indo-Fijian for presuming to make observations about the place of the Indo-Fijian in national life. As usual here, he has a go at people like Derryk Scarr, who, he alleges, see everything in Fiji through the prism of the indigenous establishment and the Kai Valagi. But when he says such people regard Indo-Fijians as interlopers, he's not just being impertinent and unfair but plain wrong. Can Mr Lal show me one example of where "European" writers on Fiji in the modern era have done any such thing? It's abject nonsense and offensive, more a sign of the massive chip on this guy's shoulder than having any basis in fact.

The truth is that the Indo-Fijian leadership in Fiji has invariably been either provocative, as in AD Patel demanding one man one vote in the lead-up to independence, or insensitive to indigenous feelings, the chronic problem with Mahendra Chaudhry that ultimately led to his demise. The one exception - as Brij lal rightly acknowledges - was Jai Ram Reddy, a wonderful man whose behaviour on just one day before the Great Council of Chiefs did more for race relations in Fiji than two decades of bickering. But, of course, he was repudiated by the rest of the Indian establishment for showing just such tolerance understanding and compromise.

Brij Lal should confine himself to an honest examination of where the Indo-Fijian leadership has gone wrong in Fiji rather than direct his prejudice at the white man. This kind of attack on well-meaning Kai Valagi writers is a crude form of inverted snobbery, the Girmit finally getting back at the "colonials" for every perceived slight over what, in his case, has been a privileged lifetime. The tragedy of Brij Lal is that his public life beyond his acknowledged scholarship has been so hollow and disappointing. The architect of a flawed constitution that reinforced the disadvantage of other races spends his whole time defending the indefensible. And his personal fixation with deposing Frank Bainimarama has got in the way of any reasoned approach to the country's problems. The irony is that his current petulant behaviour reflects more of the character of Mahendra Chaudhry than his hero Jai Ram Reddy. But that's another story.
Jon said…

Why would ‘Chip on Brij’s Shoulder’ see AD Patel’s demand of one man one vote as ‘provocative’, when this is now accepted by many as being the fundamental change that must take place before the next elections and, by extension, one of the main reasons this coup took place?
Elementary my dear Jon said…
Well let me tell you, Jon. Because back then, the Indians - as we called them - were in the majority and everyone knew what one-man, one vote would mean - the marginalisation of the "Fijians" in their own land. Neither the "Fijians" nor the British colonial authorities nor the local Kai Valagi were prepared to accept this. But before and during the 1965 London conference on Fiji's future at Marlborough House, AD Patel was insistent. It caused a lot of trouble at the time and even threats of violence, as anyone who lived through those times will recall. Patel had been born in India and was closely aligned to the Congress Party, which had succeeded in its campaign for Indian independence from Britain and supported the same thing in Fiji.. Indeed, he and other Indian leaders at the time talked about a "new India in the South Seas", the implication being that Fiji Indians would run Fiji. In the context of the time, that was highly provocative and Fijians understandably threatened mayhem if one-man, one vote was every instituted. That's why we have the electoral system we have today.

What's changed is that Indo-Fijians are no longer in the majority since many of them started leaving after the coups of 1987 and 2000. Consequently, there is no longer any need to have a system that protects indigenous Fijians from Indian domination. That is why we can finally have the one-man, one vote electoral system that the present regime wants to introduce before national elections in 2014. Of course, many Fijians of influence don't want this because they sense an erosion of their own communal domination. This applies especially to institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs and the Methodist Church. Remove race from politics in Fiji and it's suddenly a level playing field for everyone. That holds out the possibility that Fijian-only institutions begin to lose their power. Some of these vested interests also don't want real democracy because they lose the ability to manipulate ordinary people by constantly playing the race card.

I hope this goes some way to answering the question you've posed.
Jon said…
Chip –
Your reply does go some way to answering my original question, but unfortunately it raises several more:

If, as you say, we had the communal based electoral system because of the perception that under one man one vote Indians would run Fiji, then it would appear that the old electoral system was there for good reason at the time. As such, it shouldn’t now be disparaged, as many people are doing in hindsight. It could have been changed by referendum once it had served its purpose.

However, without wishing to be confrontational, I offer you the following facts:
1) Despite the old system being in place, the Labour party still won the 1987 election. When Labour came to power in 1987 it was perceived to be ‘Indian’ which resulted in the 1987 coup - despite actually being headed by an iTaukei and with a majority iTaukei cabinet.

2) You say that ‘there is no longer any need to have a system that protects indigenous Fijians from Indian domination. That is why we can finally have the one-man, one vote electoral system’. This seems to ignore the fact that in 1999, the Labour party won the election – despite there being less Indians than iTaukei in the country, since the 1996 census shows 393,575 Fijian/ iTaukei and 338,818 Indians.

The present government’s attempt to make everyone feel ‘Fijian’ and so prevent the ethnic block voting that took place in 1999 is laudable but will, I believe, prove impossible to achieve before 2014. That sort of social engineering will take at least a generation.

So we are left with two likely scenarios, both unpalatable. Either the 2014 election is deferred until the social engineering has been completed, or the election goes ahead and there is every chance that ethnic voting will occur once again.

In the meantime the loss of intellectual and economic capital that Fiji will sustain in the intervening years make it a moot point that a coup, and not a series of referendums, under an elected government, was the best way to achieve those aims.
How 2014 might look said…
Well, we could go on and on with this, Jon, so without addressing every one of your points in detail, let me just say the following:

Yes, the attitudinal change you speak of will take a generation or even more. And, yes, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if the 2014 election is deferred, though I hope it would be because of procedural difficulties rather than the regime refusing to relinquish power. That's why it's so important for Australia and NZ to get involved again with practical assistance for electoral reform and to help hold Frank Bainimarama to the promises he's made. The milk is spilt and continuing their present policies is futile and counterproductive.

The regime has made it clear that no party or individual will be able to contest the 2014 election on a race-based platform. This means the SDL or any other solely indigenous party that emerges will be excluded, as will a party like the NFP, which is predominantly Indo-Fijian. The hope has to be that the regime helps encourage the formation of broadly based multiracial parties, made up of ordinary citizens of whatever hue. It stands to reason, of course, that some people might be drawn to some candidates on the basis of their race. But these people will be banned by law from pitching their platforms to a specific racial grouping. This in itself should produce a range of policies pitched to all races.

I am not going to quibble with your contention about the vote for Labour in previous elections, in which it went to the electorate on a multiracial platform. Yes, of course, it won. The problem was that it couldn't stay in office. But presuming the obstacles in its way are removed, there's nothing to stop Labour from contesting any poll in 2014, while the SDL and the NFP are excluded. Labour was twice unable to continue because of the intervention of indigenous extremists backed by the military or elements in the military. Frank Bainimarama is assuring us that those elements have been neutralised. Of course, time will tell, but the main priority remains to prevent anything happening again that gets in the way of a multiracial government.

Much as some people don't like the idea, this means keeping the military at the centre of national life as the ultimate guarantor of democracy even when civilian rule is re-established. This would involve a compact of trust between the people and a military that is free of corruption and takes its mission seriously. None of this is guaranteed but we can only hope and pray that good sense and goodwill prevails for the sake of the whole country. I know this isn't ideal but what other choice do we have? And don't say an immediate election under the 1997 constitution because it ain't gonna happen.
Croz Walsh said…
@ To all those commenting ...
It's great to see. Rational people discussing a difficult issue rationally. To add my five cents worth, two other things should be included in the equation: First, the changing demographic stucture. Many of the old timers will be out of the picture by 2014, and a whole lot of young people who will have lived for eight years with the Bainimarama government will be casting their votes for the first time. Many will have attended less racial lopsided schools where more attention has been given to nation-building.

Secondly, eight years of work on institutional reforms and infrastructural improvements will have shown more people (especially the poor and those in rural areas) what government should be about. There will also have been a more responsible and less hostile media, and who knows, the Methodist Church may have replaced some of its present leadership. If the global and Fiji economies have improved by 2014, that also should be another plus.

Social change and changes in ingrained attitudes do take a long time but for the good of Fiji one must hope that a good start will have been made by 2014.
Understanding the Wesleyans said…
Croz, I agree with everything you've cited except for the possibility of reform in the Methodist Church. It isn't going to happen for the following reasons:

1/ Some of the very worst indigenous extremists still hold senior positions in the Methodist Church hierarchy, not necessarily the top office bearers but influential figures like Manasa Lasaro and Tomasi Kanailagi, who've had a stranglehold on policy through their grass roots support for more than two decades. Don't take my word for it. Ask the former church president, Josateki Koroi, who fought a losing battle against these two guys before being unceremoniously deposed, or CCF leader, the Reverend Akuila Yabaki, who was persecuted for not toeing the line and stood accused of being a mateni, or drunk, for having the occasional beer as he did his Christian duty engaging with non- believers at the Fiji Club.

2/ The Methodist Church is, in many ways, the Great Council of Chiefs at prayer - the refuge and strength for a host of prominent figures opposed to the regime. These include Rewa high chief Ro Temumu Kepa and the Cakobaus of Bau, among others, who count on the Methodists for grass roots support and provide support, in turn, for the Methodist leadership in its continuing struggle with the regime. Laisenia Qarase is also a prominent church member and a regular worshipper at Suva's Centenary Church, a constant visual reminder of what once was.

3/ There is simply no real pressure outside the regime on the Methodist Church to alter its ways. Its brother churches overseas, notably the Uniting Church in Australia and the British Methodists, cannot accept that the Methodist Church in Fiji has done anything to warrant its treatment at the hands of the regime. They buy the usual media and human rights line that the church hierarchy in Fiji is suffering religious persecution, pure and simple. They simply cannot accept the church's pernicious influence in national life over the years despite having been informed of this by senior church figures and former missionaries.

Understanding the Wesleyans 2 said…
3/ The Methodist Church is overwhelmingly indigenous and there's simply no grassroots pressure on the leadership to change. The Indian division of the church is small and cowered into silence by sheer force of numbers. There are some bright Indo-Fijian Methodist clergymen like William Lucas and, more recently, James Bhagwan but they have no choice but to defer to the wishes of the majority. Epworth House, the Suva Methodist headquarters, is a bit like the Kremlin in communist times. Yes, it has its leadership but locating the real centre of power is difficult even for insiders. The regime is convinced that the strings are still pulled by the likes of Lasaro and Kanailagi, which is why it tends to target the whole edifice.

4/ Many Methodists have been drawn to the idea of a secular political battle and turf war between them and the Roman Catholics. The Catholics and especially Archbishop Mataca are seen as strong supporters of the 2006 coup and of Marist Brothers old boy Frank Bainimarama. Frank was actually born a Methodist but his wife Mary is a staunch Catholic and he can see for himself that the Methodists have had a malignant influence on national affairs since the 1980s. The photos of Frank and Mary meeting the Pope at the Vatican have reinforced the notion among many Methodists that Frank has crossed the line. And, of course, it's small wonder when he sees his mortal political enemies at Centenary Church that he has much more in common with Archbishop Mataca and Catholic social activists like Father Kevin Barr.

All this is a fascinating and little known story. if you accept that the three pillars of indigenous life are Vanua ( the Fijian way and the land ), Lotu ( the Church - traditionally Methodist because of sheer numbers) and Matanitu ( the way Fijians are governed), Lotu is perhaps the least understood but has arguably the most influence on the thinking of ordinary people. I don't think the regime really has a viable strategy to deal with the Methodists beyond hoping that the emergence of the "New Methodists" and other splinter groups will eventually render it irrelevant. It's a big weakness that needs addressing. Fast.
FijiToday said…
The above informed debate is what is required between all levels of society starting now. We do not need a rigid military set of rules for the next election rammed down our throats. This Government thinks consultation is going out and telling the people what is now going to happen.

My complements on getting the debate going on a logical, sensibile and rational level.
transition said…

I agree with most of the points above. This is exactly why

1. The work on a new cosntitution, election reform and dialogue must start earlier than 2014.

2. The PER must be lifted now

3. We need to see the military step back from civil roles (with good people stepping in)

Otherwise we will try and go from a controlling, censored dictactorship to democracy in a year and it won't work.
Seize the moment said…
Transition, you are absolutely right and the wonder is that the regime isn't moving faster on at least some of these fronts, even to give an appearance of progress.

Little of what you suggest is difficult. Even a little window dressing like formally calling for submissions for a national body to prepare for 2014 would give the regime something to show the international community.

I know that elements within the regime are pressing for the lifting of the PER but this is being resisted at senior level. Why? They're waiting to see how the Fiji Times evolves under its new ownership and are still concerned about the general level of mischief making, like the rumours of Drita and Mara confronting the PM.

The regime has been trying very hard to get more civilians to take up official roles. I know several people who've been approached and were obliged to politely decline because they simply couldn't be barred from Australia and NZ on personal grounds.

But you're right. The regime needs to seize the initiative and show that it's serious about meeting its commitments. Maybe it's a question of resources. The regime is certainly more focussed right now on better service delivery for ordinary people in Fiji than effectively selling its message abroad.
Navosavakadua said…
@Understanding the Wesleyans

Your claim that Ro Teimumu is one of the people who finds the Methodist church is a "refuge and strength for a host of prominent figures opposed to the regime" reveals your ignorance. Ro Teimumu is not, as you claim, a Methodist. Like her late sister, Ro Teimumu is Catholic.

So much for a well-informed debate, Croz

@Seize the moment

You claim you "know several people who've been approached and were obliged to politely decline because they simply couldn't be barred from Australia and NZ on personal grounds".

Well I know several people who've been approached and were ABLE to politely decline because they could blame the sanctions. If they didn't have this excuse, declining to serve this regime would mean they would be treated with suspicion and hostility.
The ignorance is all yours, tau said…
Navosavakadua, if that's the one thing you can quibble with about a very long article, then the rest of it must be true. Ro Teimumu might have been born a Roman Catholic but she has been seen worshipping with the Methodists, and even photographed in the national press doing so. She was also charged with conspiring with Methodist Church leaders to stage an illegal gathering. In addition, you'll recall that she incurred the wrath of her own people for insisting that Rewa stage the annual Methodist Church conference in defiance of the regime. Under the circumstances, I think it's more than fair to describe the relationship as mutually supportive, even if she hasn't been formally accepted into the Methodist Church or renounced her Catholicism.

As to your second point, so what? The fact remains that people who want to serve the regime cannot because of Australian and NZ travel bans. I have one close friend who is typical - family in Australia and kids in school there. Were he to take a job with the regime, he'd be unable to visit them.

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