By Dr Sakul Kundra
The historical discourse of Girmitiya’s coming from India on a girmit (contract/agreement) in 1879 and thousands staying back after the end of the indenture system (1916), reflect the phase of sacrificing and struggling in the foreign land.
British colonial power brought around 60,000 Indian labourers in 42 ships and 87 voyages. The Leonidas was the first ship that brought Indians to Fiji on 14th May 1879, which became a historical landmark to remember and commemorate.
Prof. Brij V Lal’s work Chalo Jahaji: On a journey through indenture in Fiji, reflects a milestone work in subaltern studies that focuses on the girmit experience in Fiji. Another scholarly work by Prof. Vijay Naidu titled Violence of Indenture in Fiji, emphatically explained the indenture system and labour importation, the factors behind recruitment, the journey of the blood brotherhood, the condition in plantations and the violence that happened with them. Other renowned scholars documenting the suffering of Girmitiyas are Robert Nicole, Dung Munro, John D Kelly and others.
One needs to remember that Girmit system was used by the British during the colonial phase to bring labourers from India to different colonies like Mauritius, the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica), South Africa and Fiji.
Thousands of Girmitiyas uprooted from their original homeland and brought to Fiji to work in sugarcane fields showed their perseverance and determination to succeed. The indentured period for them was a phase of humiliation that led to many suicides, sexual jealousy, and inhuman treatment. Despite these challenges and hardships, Girmitiyas have contributed to Fiji’s economic and social development to transform it into a modern state. They became an integral part of Fiji’s rich history. This op-ed gives a synoptic view to commemorate Girmitiyas principles, values and the way forward to achieve progress and development.
Inspirational Traits: Learning from the Past
Every generation learns from their forefathers and elders to remember and learn from their principles and values. Similarly, the discourse of Girmitiyas’ arrival and struggle to survive in a foreign land, their contribution and future generations’ role in nation-building, sacrifices to uplift the educational standard of their children. This has been a hallmark of their contribution. Girmitiyas’ traits of honesty, dedication, commitment, and the determined spirit to work under tough conditions, are some of many traits that need to be embraced by younger generations. They have played a significant role in preserving the culture and social institutions that have become moral lessons for many.
Girmitiyas’ blood and sweat went into the harsh plantation system, substantially contributing to Fiji’s economy during the British colonial phase [1874-1970].
During their historical journey in Fiji, Girmitiyas did not have access to proper education, and many remained illiterate, so they gave education to their children and helped them escape a life of poverty and despair.
Over the years, the following generations contributed to the educational sector by setting up schools and educational institutions that became a learning means for thousands of Fiji’s children. They exerted considerable effort to carve out their niche in the nation-building process.
The spirit of teamwork and hard work is considered a service to the nation’s development and has inspired generations. With their self-dignity and respect, the Girmitiyas have preserved their social, cultural and traditional values.
Besides contributing to the education, economy, medical, social and political sector, the descendants have also contributed to raising the name of Fiji internationally and making the nation proud in sports, media, academics and other sectors. They have worked together with their fellow citizens and achieved success in the eyes of the world.
In Fiji’s post-colonial phase, there were many political putsches, but this archipelago remained united in re-emerging as the thriving economy in the Pacific Islands.
Fiji’s inclusivity and diversity have been the core element of its strength to cooperate among its citizens in reaching economic excellence compared to its surrounding Pacific islands. This helped to develop a multiracial society, and the nation is among the world’s happiest countries.
Girmitiyas and their descendants have made immense contributions in many fields like education, economy, politics and culture. The inspirational stories of Girmitiyas are a fascinating phase of Fiji’s history; their following generations have achieved global recognition, naming a few A.D. Patel, Jai Ram Reddy, Prof. Brij V. Lal, Prof. Subramani, Vijay Singh and many others. Declaration of Girmit Day as a public holiday is a welcome gesture by the state. It provides the general public opportunities to inculcate the traits of Girmitiyas’ dedication and hard work into their lives to become successful citizens of the nation through their commitment and dedication to national progress and development.
Contributing Author: Dr Sakul Kundra is Associate Dean Research and Assistant Professor at the College of Humanities and Education, at Fiji National University, Nadi. The views expressed are his own and not of his employer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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