Opinion – By Rajendra Prasad, in Fiji.
Opinion – By Rajendra Prasad, in Fiji.
It was an horrific period of our history in Fiji. A pall of darkness has descended on that period but the echoes of the cries of victims of horrific violence continue to variously affect successive generations of our people.
Time has not been able to obliterate the memories because they are ghastly. That period of our history is saturated with the tears of the victims, our forebears, who called themselves Girmitiyas.
They were a unique people – illiterate, simple, innocent, ignorant and gullible but deeply ingrained in the culture of the land from whence they came.
Most came from the economically deprived regions of India where floods, famine and drought forced the victims to stray out of their family enclaves in search of work and ended up in the traps of Aarkathis, the ruthless recruiters, who enticed them to register as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane plantations of Fiji.
Once trapped, escape from the clutches of the authorities was impossible. They were herded like animals on coolie ships and transported to Fiji.
For a majority, the saga of their recruitment, sudden separation from their families, detachment from the land of their birth and grueling ship journey left mental and physical scars that never left them.
In Fiji, both men and women, as indentured labourers, endured five years of servitude and suffered horrendous physical violence and endured appalling working and living conditions. How they bore the unbearable and suffered the insufferable is itself a feat in human endurance. Many in our community ignorantly claim that they know what happened during the Girmit in Fiji.
Such people delude themselves. Honestly, they know nothing! The fact is that the truth about the pain, suffering and exploitation of our people, during the indenture period in Fiji, was deliberately concealed.
It took me seven years of intensive research into the indenture period in Fiji to write my book, Tears in Paradise and reveal the horrors of crimes committed against our Girmitiya forebears.
Allow me, dear reader, to briefly take you through this journey to give you an opportunity to get an insight into that horrific period of our history. Think of yourself as one of them and experience what they endured, as I take you through this brief journey.
At 3am in the morning, the wild beating of empty drums began to wake the Girmitiyas. The revolting sound of the empty drums was dreaded but none could escape the pain it caused and it was meant to awe and stun them. Commonly, at this time the tropical nights cooled and people retreated into deep sleep.
To awaken them with such violence took its heaviest toll, as many chose to commit suicide, dreading the day ahead and realizing the misery that overwhelmed their lives.
Highest number of Girmitiyas committed suicide between 3am and 4am in the morning. Those who hung from the rafters of their decrepit homes found it too low, as their feet touched the ground but they folded their legs to die.
Death to them was a better option than to be an indentured labourer in Fiji. During this period Fiji had the highest rate of suicide in the world but it failed to evoke a humane response from anyone until Mahatma Gandhi entered the battlefield to have the indenture system abolished.
At 5am in the mornings, the Girmitiyas, men and women, were herded to their designated farms and heavily tasked for the day. If the task was not completed, even by a fraction, they lost their whole days wages!
Mothers who carried their infants to the farms left them on the fringes of the farms on rags or sacks but mothers were not allowed to attend to the babies when they cried for milk. Their employer, the CSR Company, planter and miller, held that the work on the farm was impeded when mothers attended to their babies.
This policy of the company had a disastrous effect. During this period, Fiji recorded the highest rate of infanticide among all the countries that deployed indentured labour.
The parents were not allowed to mourn the loss of their babies or observe traditional rituals following death.
The babies that died were buried on the fringes of the farms. From the CSR Company point of view it meant that mothers could be fully deployed in the farm work, without having to look after their babies.
For the CSR Company, productivity and profits mattered most and for it, our Girmitiya forebears were crucified in the sugarcane fields of Fiji. This is a small glimpse of the pain and suffering of our people in Fiji.
I have often pondered on the reasons for such muted obedience to atrocities inflicted on the Girmitiyas and would like to share it here. At the outset, the British were astute in their recruitment of Indian indentured labourers.
They sought those who were meek, submissive, young and of good physique.
They specifically excluded the Punjabis and those from the warrior castes, including Brahmins. Punjabis were known for their propensity for violence and those from the kshatriya caste (warrior caste) were also excluded because they were born fighters.
The Brahmins were excluded for fear that they would provide leadership and be disruptive.
Preference was given to those who fell in the vaishya and shudra castes, as they were considered largely to be agriculturists. People from these castes were considered to be very hardworking, meek and cooperative.
In this master plan, the British trapped simple, meek, hardworking and young people. Being young (16-25 years of age) had another advantage – people in this category were not ingrained in their religion, culture, customs and traditions and therefore, could be easily tamed. It worked remarkably well for the British and for forty long and painful years, Indian indentured labourers in Fiji were like lambs to the slaughter.
They bore the whips on their backs, carried out backbreaking tasks but there was no internal resistance or rebellion against the authorities.
Even the British justice system was calibrated against the victims who went to the courts to seek justice but they not only lost their claims, they also lost their legal fee that they paid to lawyers who belonged to the same community.
Understandably, suicide was a preferred option for many to escape the Girmitiya life in Fiji.
Further, the Girmitiyas also bore the atrocities and indignities because of their abiding faith in the dictum of karma, accepting their fate as retribution for the sins committed in the past or previous lives. Interestingly, in adversity, there was a remarkable unity among the Girmitiyas.
While Hindus attributed it to their karma, the Muslims attributed it to their kismet.
Both communities, usually hostile to each other, wiped each others tears and bore the rigors of Girmit in their own ways. Hindus felt that their pain and suffering was God-ordained and they could redeem the sins of their past if they bore the atrocities.
They felt that their sacrifices would liberate their children and successive generations from the tragedy that destroyed their lives. Being illiterate and without justice, freedom and rights and without leadership to guide them, they chose to bear the unbearable.
Through their struggles, suffering and sacrifices, they left a rich legacy for successive generations to follow. We, their descendants, are now spread out across the world in numerous countries. We have a strong constitution, inherited from our forebears.
Our ability to struggle, suffer, sacrifice and succeed has not diminished. We are one of the most dynamic communities in the world but largely fragmented and individualistic in approach.
The greatest tribute we can pay to our Girmitiya forebears is to be united, strong, assertive and promote our history, culture, language, customs and traditions so that the future generations are not detached from the cord that binds us together as a distinct community.
We must teach our children the history of our people. It is a painful history but both riveting and stimulating history that can transform the lives of our children and also ensuring that the vital link with the pioneer generation is never severed.
As we mark the 131st anniversary of the arrival of our forebears in Fiji, I urge every family to pay homage to their Girmitiya forebears with prayers in your homes, entreating the Almighty God to give rest to their souls. They sacrificed their lives and liberated us – this is the least you can do to show your gratitude.
Rajendra Prasad is a third generation Indo Fijian from Vaqia, Ba Fiji, author of “Tears in Paradise: Suffering and struggles of Indians in Fiji, and former Town Clerk (CEO) of Ba Town Council, Fiji.