The historic Fiji-Girmit Day commemorative event held on Friday, May 10, at Skipton Hall in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere East, was full of appreciation of the rich history and an unabashed affirmation of pride in the Fiji-Indian identity.
Often, identity issues are at the centre of any migrant community, who remains in a never-ending pursuit of tracing their roots and belongingness and more predominant in communities that have experienced a difficult past in their migratory journey.
And indeed, forbears of our Fiji-Indian community have experienced and endured an extremely horrendous phase of more than four decades where thousands of unassuming people were uprooted from villages of India and brought to the South Pacific island of Fiji, often against their wishes, and put through an exploitative system of indentured labour which was designed for the sole purpose of filling coffers of British colonial empire with least respect of human dignity and lives.
The experiences of that first generations of sugar plantation workers – or - Fiji Girmitiyas – as they were fondly called has been permanently engraved in the minds and hearts of their descendants and the entire Fiji-Indian community, often constituting their core Fiji-Indian identity. (It is the agreement that they were made to sign with their colonial masters that came to be known as ‘Girmit’).
It was an unabashed appreciation of this Fiji-Indian identity, and the culture, that was on full display on the May 10 event hosted by Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, though suggestions and assertions of a Pacific identity were also heard during the colourful cultural celebrations.
The widely anticipated event after the recent changeover of the executive committee at the Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, where the new incumbents keen for shifting the traditional focus on the expression of lament to a more celebratory tone, was well attended by members of the community and several high profile dignitaries.
Former Governor General of New Zealand, and probably the most famous son of the Fiji Indian community in the country, Sir Anand Satyanand, was the chief guest at the event. Several dignitaries including the Minister for Transport and Housing & Urban Development Phil Twyford, Labour MPs Deborah Russell, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Aupito Williams, National MPs, Kanwaljeet Singh Bakshi, and Melisa Lee were present on occasion.
Meanwhile, leading the calls for a new Pacific identity (Fiji-Indians constitutes the second largest Pacifica community in New Zealand) was the newly elected President of Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand, Krish Naidu, who is leading the change in future for the foundation by bringing a youthful executive committee team and vowing to change the narrative of the entire Girmit commemorative event by emphasising on empowerment, celebration and affirmation of their mutually shared identity.
Speaking at the event, Mr Naidu said, “We also need to be recognised as a part of the Pacific community and entitled to resources, opportunities, respect and recognition available and given to people who originate from the Pacific Island Countries.”
To make it clear, this call for a new identity was not in any way in any disjunction with their Indian identity as Mr Naidu had earlier told The Indian Weekender, “We are proud of our Indian ancestry and the culture that we have together. It’s best of both worlds.”
However, the question about mutually shared Indian identity was put most aptly by none other than the greatest Fiji-Indian son that this country has produced, former Governor General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand who said in his keynote speech, “What are we to do with our matter with Indian heritage?” – A question that repeatedly traverses the minds of members of the Fiji-Indian community.
Answering the critical question himself, Sir Anand went on to assert, “It is not only to be recorded and bottled-up but shared around for the benefit of a considerable number.”
The remaining part of Sir Anand’s speech was a tribute to the trials and tribulations faced by forbearers of Fiji-Indian community and the portrayal of an ever-present desire in every migrant community – of connecting back with the country of their origin, which is India in this case.
Speaking on the occasion, Minister for Housing and Transport Phil Twyford acknowledged the powerful forces of history that have shaped the lives of current generations of migrants and residents living in this country including the Fiji-Indian community and reminded everyone how our present choices could determine the lives of the future generations in this country.
The remaining part of the evening involved a display of the unique Fiji-Indian culture and the Fiji-Indian Hindi language, along with a ceremonial appreciation of several older generation executive committee members of Fiji Girmit Foundation of New Zealand.
The president had Krish Naidu reflected that Fiji-Indians needed to celebrate their distinct identity and people. Hence the Girmit Legacy Awards were instituted this year to celebrate and honour the success of the descendants of Girmitiyas.
This year four such awards were declared viz. Community Wellbeing Awards – Samajik Kushalta Ratan, awarded to Friends of Fiji Heart Foundation. The Arts and Culture Awards – Girmit Kala aur Sanskriti Ratan - awarded to Waitakere Hindi School. The Sports Award – Khelkood Ratan, awarded to Wellington A-League Phoenix Star, Roy Krishna, and the Literature Award, Sahitya Ratan, awarded to Professor Brij Vilash Lal.
The evening came to an end with the sharing of bilos of traditional Fijian drink, yagona, and people had a good feed of sumptuous meal provided.