Girmit, division and Ratu Sukuna

From left, Payan Priya, Nishi Prasad, Angela Wati and Shaleshni Prasad during the Girmit Day celebrations march along Victoria Parade to Albert Park in Suva on Monday, May 15, 2023. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

In our last article I took us through the struggles of the Girmitiya, the Indian and the Indo-Fijian in attempting to attain political recognition and respect over the 144 years of his/her existence in this their adopted country – Fiji.

What was highlighted is that the whole struggle was blighted by divisions among the Girmitiya and their descendants; these divisions will probably never be healed.

Another point made was that there have always been undercurrents of Muslim separateness in a reflection of developments in the Indian subcontinent.

And a third salient point was that these divisions were fomented by the colonial powers as well as their replacements later.

To the more observant, the Samaji- Sanatani fractures have also been at play behind these divisions – Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharam are the two dominant factions of Hinduism.

The Indo-Fijian thus has been dogged by his inability to work as a united political grouping.

A quick look through history shows that the divide among the Girmitiya, Indians and later Indo-Fijians has largely been characterised by a group that has co-operated with governments and another that has vehemently opposed and criticised governments.

Thus the demarcation was between Compradors and Opposers.

Badri Maharaj

We learnt from the last article that the first political representative of the Indian community in the racially compartmentalised Legislative Council of Fiji was Badri Maharaj, a wealthy and well-connected Rakiraki farmer. He joined the Council in 1916.

Maharaj arrived in Fiji in 1889 as a Girmitiya and progressed to being a major canegrower in a relatively short period of time.

This raised suspicions among the still struggling, heavily marginalised and reviled Girmitiya as well as newly-freed Indians.

Readers will recall I mentioned earlier that Sadhu Vashist Muni arrived in Fiji in 1920 to replace the popular agitator, Manilal Doctor, who was banished from the colony for helping officially raise grievances of Girmitiya.

It was within this backdrop that the Indian sentiment against Badri Maharaj was further hiked when he provided confidential reports on Vashist Muni’s activities to the Government as the new leader/agitator conducted meetings in different parts of the Western Division in an effort to continue Manilal Doctor’s struggles.

In one report Badri Maharaj identified the Sadhu’s followers as “businessmen, planters and civil servants” referring to the people who joined Vashist Muni at Penang as “renegades”.

There is no doubt that Badri Maharaj believed in cooperation and did not agree with the agitators.

He also was spying on the Indians and reporting to the authorities.

Despite the prevailing suspicions and negativity, Badri Maharaj’s close association with the colonial government did pay dividends as he was instrumental in setting up Wairuku Indian School in Rakiraki in 1898.

This was the first Indian school to be set up in Fiji in response to an urgent desire among the Indians to access education that they were being denied because it was well understood by the colonisers, and especially by the planters and the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company (CSR), that education would mobilise the Indians away from servitude.

It needs to be noted that the Girmitiya were brought from India to serve the labour needs of the colony and a captive labour base was much desired.

The Girmitiya belief that the shackles of girmit and its aftermath could only be overcome through education fueled their resolve to not only set up schools against tremendous odds, but to also send their most promising children for further education abroad.

One can only marvel at and imagine the sacrifices that were made to educate children abroad at that time.

The preferred profession was law because it was largely through legal means that the Indian was being prevailed on – this was both lived reality and prevailing perception.

Wairuku and Ratu Sukuna

Coming back to the first Girmitiya school set up by Badri Maharaj, Wairuku Indian School, we learnt through recent writings on Ratu Sir Lala Vanayaliyali Sukuna in these columns as well as speeches during official events to celebrate Ratu Sukuna Day, that Fiji’s greatest statesman and leader was a pupil of Wairuku Indian School.

Ratu Sukuna was an alumni of Wairuku Indian School! The more significant implications of this, aside from the pride of the Wairuku community, might have been missed along the way.

From the cross-cultural perspective, we know that awareness of cross-cultural differences leads to differing levels of understanding of the “whys and hows” of these differences.

Here we had Ratu Sukuna, who would go on to become a key architect of post-independence Fiji, inter-mingling with Indian children on a daily basis.

He would have been conversing with them, playing with them, eating with them and observing their idiosyncrasies.

He was seeing their difficulties, triumphs and sorrows. And he was learning from it. Remember he was a standout when it came to intelligence.

The Ratu was not only intelligent, but keen on learning much more than was available in Fiji. Another significant factor that needs to be highlighted is that not only was Ratu Sukuna totally immersed among Indians at school, but his father Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi held the highly respected position of Roko Tui in the province of Ra.

This meant that Ratu Joni as a government official was also working with Indians (businessmen, growers, farmers, labourers, et cetera.) on a daily basis.

He was thus also working across the cultural divide. Discussions at the Sukuna home would surely have been dominated by “Indian issues”.

It is this fact that I wish to highlight because within the crosscultural paradigm, if we wish to see cross-cultural acceptance, the process needs to go through three phases: awareness, understanding and acceptance.

The awareness portion between Ratu Joni and young Ratu Sukuna was thrust upon them because of the Roko Tui’s posting to Ra.

Understanding would have developed inevitably through daily interactions with the Indian community.

It is the acceptance portion that I wish to discuss next. It needs to be noted first that Ratu Sukuna was a strong adherent of the Christian faith. There is no doubt that so was his father.

Secondly, both were highly respected chiefs.

They drew their legitimacy from both the colonial bureaucracy where Ratu Joni was a Roko Tui, as well as the traditional power structure where both were chiefs of high rank.

Scholars of the Fijian chiefly system will agree that Fijian chiefs were notorious for their compassion and generosity towards those who they befriended.

When we combine all these factors – Christian faith, traditional power position and legendary generosity – we have a concoction of heightened crosscultural acceptance and desire to assist those in need across the cultural divide.

This is significant because both Ratu Joni and Ratu Sukuna and would have acutely observed the difficulties faced by increasing numbers of Indian cane farmers and labourers.

This brings us to the biggest legacy of Ratu Sukuna – Fiji’s land tenure system. In the 1920s as the Girmitiyas continued to complete their indenture and move into the largely agrarian economy in search of opportunities to forge a new existence, the demand for land became a growing concern.

The person who led the project to address this problem that would bring together two key factors of production – land and labour – was Ratu Sukuna.

Sure he was pointed in this direction by Governor Sir Arthur Richards, but it would have been Ratu Sukuna’s intimate knowledge through his experiences at Wairuku that informed the Ratu in how to address the land concerns of both the i-Taukei and the immigrant community within the framework of economic development.

His efforts culminated in the tabling of the Native Land Trust Ordinance before the Legislative Council in 1940.

Prominent former civil servant and diplomat, Joji Kotobalavu, writes that as a public administrator, Ratu Sukuna “brought together two parallel and concurrent strands of development imperatives in our history, namely, consolidating the security of all native lands to their customary owners, and simultaneously enabling the on-leasing of surplus native land to all citizens of Fiji”.

This is the groundbreaking legislation that laid the framework for the management of native Fijian land for the benefit of all Fijians.

It is this that opened up opportunities and helped meet the land needs of the Indians and later Indo-Fijians in the land of their adoption. I will elaborate on this further in my next article. Until then, sa moce toka mada va’lekaleka.

• DR SUBHASH APPANNA is a USP academic who has been writing regularly on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers

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