Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts,
Your Excellency – Mr. P.S Karthigeyan – High Commissioner of India to Fiji,
President of Shree Satsang Ramayan Mandali,
Fellow Cabinet Ministers,
School management and staff,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bula Vinaka and a very good evening to you all.
I’ve said many times that Fiji is a lucky country to be blessed with many rich religious traditions. Today we are especially lucky, as we can celebrate one such tradition alongside a moment in history that brought this celebration and so much else to Fiji.
Today is both the 120th Anniversary of the first Ram Leela presentation in Fiji and the 143rd Anniversary of the arrival of the ship the Leonidas and the start of the Girmit Era.
On this day in 1897, the Leonidas became the first ship to carry indentured labourers from British India to our shores. I’ve just come from a solemn event marking that moment. I saw a truly remarkable dance performance that conveyed the story, struggle, and sacrifice of the girmitya which I could never do justice with words alone.
It is something you must see and experience for yourselves to fully appreciate. I’m glad to see we are joined by musicians, dancers and performers, hailing from all over Fiji who can continue bringing that history to life this evening in a way that words never could.
Tonight is part of the story that began at the shores of Levuka in 1897. For generations, the traditions brought by the girmitya to Fiji have added layers to our cultural fabric. Not only in the form of celebrations, but by strengthening the shared values that matter for every Fijian. This festival is the perfect example. The story of Rama’s life carries lessons and ideals that any worthy child, sibling, student, spouse, friend , or leader should strive to emulate.
As I said earlier today, the history of the Girmit era was never properly taught to the nation. It is a history we are still coming to terms with. Thanks to the hard work of descendants, activists and historians, first-hand accounts of girmitya have also been recorded for all to read.
To truly get a feel of what life was like at the time –– to see through the eyes of the girmitya –– I encourage all Fijians, regardless of age, ethnicity, or background, to take the time to read them.
It is not always easy reading, but it is important, because we must know all of history, the good and the ugly, the triumphs as well as the injustices.
While Britain abolished all slavery in their empire in 1833, that change proved to sadly be in name only. British colonies still demanded cheap labour. In place of the slave trade, they turned to the practice of indentured servitude.
For those who valued financial gain over the dignity of human life, indenture was an efficient system. Rather than purchase their victims and force them on board ships, they simply misled them with false promises and preyed on their hope for a better life.
They systematically lied about the nature of work, the duration of work, and the likelihood that any indentured worker would ever return home.
Those onboard the Leonidas and those many ships that followed had never heard of Fiji before being sent here. Most expected a journey of days rather than months. Most expected to return home to their families after a few years of work. Almost none ever did.
Instead, the girmitya, as they came to be known, endured years of backbreaking labour under brutal conditions that meet the definition of slavery that we hold today. They worked under the whip –– whether you called a slave or a servant, a thrashing cuts the same. They lived under constant threat of abuse and sexual assault. It was not uncommon for labourers to be driven to suicide. They performed the hardest work of building the colonial economy; working cane fields, farming copra, laying brick, and carving out roads, all while earning wages too meagre to fund a return home to British India.
So, once the terms of their indenture ended, Fiji was where they stayed. This became their home –– not by choice, but by circumstance. And it was our good fortune that they remained because they made the best out of those circumstances through wonderful contributions to the nation in agriculture, education, medicine, and literature. They founded schools and started businesses. Their food, festivals, and traditions added richness to our cultural fabric. So much of what we think of as “Fijian” ––including roti and curry –– was introduced by the girmitya.
But despite making enormous contributions to Fiji, their struggle did not end with indenture.
Even after they were free to live their lives as they wanted, the colonial government never accepted the gimritya as equal human beings, much less as full Fijians. What was painfully true for the first girmityas was perhaps even more painful for their descendants, for whom Fiji was the only home they had ever known. This was their country, and they were Fijians. But they were not treated as Fijians.
The British colonial government maintained its power by drawing and deepening lines between different ethnic communities. To maintain the European position of prominence, they made a scapegoat of the Indo-Fijian population, painting them as outsiders who were undeserving of a full place in Fijian society. They created anti-Indian sentiment and implemented a discriminatory system that placed one kind of Fijian over another, in law and in practice. No matter how much an individual achieved in a lifetime of work and study, they were always of lesser value because of their ethnicity.
Under the then legislative council, with allowed for iTaukei representation, Indo-Fijians were not given votes or representation at all. We lived with that legacy for years post-independence under an electoral system that left Indo-Fijians with votes of lesser value.
The injustice is almost impossible for us to comprehend in today’s Fiji. Imagine building the colonial economy only to be told that you and your children did not have a place in it, and that your presence in Fiji was only tolerated. Imagine, though you, your parents, and your grandparents were born in Fiji, you were not considered a genuine Fijian and were denied an equal voice in elections. That is the cold truth of our history –– we know it from the painful accounts of those who lived through it. Accounts of being worked to the bone. Accounts of abuse and discrimination. Accounts of rape committed by overseers against the labourers. And for decades afterwards, accounts of being denied basic dignity in their rightful home.
Everyone should know this story. It should have been taught in our schools from the day we gained our independence. It is a part of our history, and we must know our history—not just the triumphs and the glories, but the injustices and the blemishes. I believe that if past governments had done this, we would have avoided the worst tragedies to befall the nation.
The yoke of oppression was built by the colonial government. But its legacy was carried forward in ignorance by certain groups of ethnic supremacists. These racists fell for the lie that Fiji was stronger as a divided nation. They were totally uninformed of history. And all of their short-sightedness and hatred were channelled into a single, traumatic blow to the nation in the 1987 coup, which took place on this very same day, 14 May.
We are not free from the legacy of discrimination that defined that darker era of our history. The ugly faces of ethnic and religious hatred in Fiji are creeping back into the mainstream of our national life.
It’s not enough to shut our ears to these voices of division, we must condemn them. Because when we look to our history, we know how dangerous those who seek to divide our people can be.
We have come a long way since the Girmit era; a long way since 1987; and a long way since 2000. At the heart of this change, sits the 2013 Fijian Constitution which enshrines my government’s unwavering commitment to protect the rights and freedoms of every Fijian – equally. It finally delivered recognition that was decades overdue by declaring every citizen of this country to be a Fijian. Period. Fijians with equal votes of equal value. Fijians with equal protection under the law. Fijians united by a common purpose of building a better Fiji. We cannot change the past. We can choose our future –– and we must choose a hopeful future together.
Tonight we are here to celebrate and commemorate a sliver of the girmitya legacy –– a legacy which is still being written by the descendants of those first brought from British India. I applaud you all for carrying this tradition forward across decades and generations. Thank you for so openly sharing your joy with your fellow Fijians.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.