Girmit Day | Celebration and belonging

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Priya Vadana and Sudha Kumar with their kerosene lantern during the Girmit Day celebrations march along Victoria Parade to Albert Park in Suva on Monday, May 15, 2023. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

Last week was filled with activities and festivities that were organised to mark the arrival of the girmitiya in Fiji.

There were a number of things that stood out in the organisation of these events that need highlighting. One, government allocated a substantial sum of $500,000 to the commemoration of girmit in Fiji.

Two, the occasion was celebrated over four days culminating in a public holiday.

Three, Girmit Day is an unprecedented public holiday that has brought the significance of girmit onto the national stage.

Four, the world’s largest girmit conference to date was organised at the University of the South Pacific where girimitiya descendants from all over the world made research presentations and participated in the recording and sharing of knowledge on girmit.

This conference was organised over two days and presentations were made either in person or via zoom links.

The program did not end there as Sunday brought new developments that need to be highlighted.

This brings us to point number five, a Thanksgiving and Reconciliation Service was organised at the Vodafone Arena on Sunday (May 14) where Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka and the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma apologised for their roles in the 1987 and 2000 coups.

Six, all three of our paramount chiefs — na Turaga na Tui Cakau, na Marama bale na Rokotui Dreketi and na Turaga na Vunivalu na Tui Kaba — were there to legitimise and bless the momentous occasion.

All three vanua that make up Fiji were therefore, directly involved in the celebrations. Seven, an official visit was made to Naivilaca Village on May 11 where the Marama Bale na Rokotui Dreketi declared that village, which was involved in the rescue mission when the slave ship Syria capsized on Nasilai Reef on May 11, 1884, a Peace Village.

Eight, many ethnic Fijians openly expressed support and empathy for the descendants of the girmitiya — many shared stories of quiet acceptance of the girmitiya by chiefs that we had never heard of before.

Nine, a pact was signed to relegate coups to the ashes of the past and to ensure acceptance, belonging, racial and religious tolerance. And ten, the whole five days was silently aimed at healing wounds that may have arisen from cross-cultural conflicts in the past.

In this, the hand of Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka was silently loud. This is what I wish to amplify and discuss in this article. The rest will be analyzed in articles to come.

The healing crusade continues

I ended one of my earlier articles by sharing with you how Mr Rabuka’s focus after ascending to Prime Minister in December 2022 has been focused on healing the wounds and instilling a new hope in the iTaukei population after 16 years of castigation, ridicule and demoralisation.

The girmit events covered here were saliently underlined with the same concerns — an official recognition of girmit as an integral part of Fijian history, an official and countrywide acceptance of the invaluable contribution of the girmitiya in Fiji’s development, an acknowledgement of the injustices and atrocities of coups especially on the Indo- Fijian population, a humble acceptance of responsibility and request for forgiveness and a reciprocal acceptance of the need to forgive and forge a new path of hope and opportunity for all.

Indeed, a path of healing across the ethnic divide for the future of Fiji.

Few realised that over all this, moved the quiet, compassionate, humble and sincere hands of Mr Rabuka. I covered in some detail in my writings here last year how PM Rabuka had an unexpected epiphany after the catastrophic events of 1987.

I also took you through his experiences with the then NFP leader Jai Ram Reddy who showed him that the Indo-Fijian were not all bad — we could also be trusted. Mr Rabuka worked very closely with Mr Reddy over more than five years to bequeath Fiji the widely-acclaimed 1997 constitution.

That monumental achievement was considered to be an impossibility even before the project started.

The two leaders worked at it assiduously with able support from key quarters until the final document was unanimously accepted by both the Fiji Parliament and the Bose Levu Vakaturaga. That was the 1997 constitution — a fruit of cross-cultural trust and cooperation between two leaders who came from very different sociocultural backgrounds.

It is unfortunate that the 1997 constitution was tested by two other leaders instead of Mr Rabuka and Mr Reddy.

There is every reason to believe that the results would have been very different. But that is now water under the bridge — we need to look at the current circumstances.

The Indo-Fijian had for a long time complained about not belonging here — the land of their birth.

The late Professor Brij Lal lamented in his book, BitterSweet (2004), “for how many generations does one have to live in a place to be allowed to call it home?” Well, all that is being addressed now with much ground covered over the Girmit celebrations.

It needs to be noted that Prof Brij Lal was accorded full respect and acceptance in February 2023 when the vanua of Nasoso and the vanua of Caumatalevu accepted his delayed ashes in Tabia (his village of origin) during the ceremony of ai soli ni yago.

Mr Rabuka played a pivotal role in this hugely significant undertaking. The formal establishment of Girmit Day and its elevation to national holiday was something that was always yearned for — that is now reality.

Those festivities that were seen over the weekend of May 14th will be repeated annually now as part of our national calendar. Girmit history will be included in our school curriculum very soon as assured by his excellency the Tui Macuata and President of Fiji in his address to the conference on “Celebrating Girmitiya Lives” at USP on May 12.

This should help build understanding of the “whys” and “hows” of the Indo-Fijian presence in Fiji.

Without that basic understanding, the bridges that we are trying to build will remain on flimsy ground.

Cross-cultural cooperation and the 2022 elections

I followed closely the rapport built between the NFP and PAP in the lead-up to the 2022 General Election.

The NFP leader, Professor Biman Prasad, worked closely with PAP’s Mr Rabuka in setting up a shared agenda and direction for their two political parties.

Much of Fiji was despondent with disbelief when FijiFirst took a speedy early lead during vote counting.

It looked like that would be the trajectory to the finishing line until Pundit Glitch or Talatala Glitch or Saint Glitch (you choose the name) decided it was time to shine the light on the vote counting process that was being taken for granted until that point in time.

Surely the process had faults when a huge chunk of votes could miraculously appear for a most unexpected candidate after a power failure — the same type that had been experienced in 2018.

You will have to agree that once the light descended on the counting process, the trajectory changed and what had appeared to be headed for another upset result, changed to what had always been expected.

What is important for this article is what transpired after the elections. With SODELPA winning three seats, the field was wide open for negotiations and horse-trading.

As Mr Rabuka and the PAP worried desperately about the permutations and combinations of the ensuing power-play, Prof Prasad and the NFP stood firmly beside him and PAP.

This is significant because the conventional wisdom has been that the kai idia cannot be trusted.

This was the sternest test to date of the cross-cultural bonds that had been forged between the two political parties. The NFP came out of it with flying colours having shown that the trust that Jai Ram Reddy had managed to build was very much in good hands.

The same Rabuka, who had worked with Reddy, was still there and he showed his tenacity and statesmanship by becoming Prime Minister under extremely difficult circumstances.

Prof Prasad and the NFP was firmly with him. The rest is ongoing history. I will focus on each of the points I enumerated at the start of this article in my next few contributions to this series.

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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