A former Fiji Vice President the late Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi summed up a valuable lesson of the Girmitya when he told a 2004 remembrance, “Your forebears’ arrival in these islands in 1879 altered their character forever.” Ratu Joni was absolutely correct. 

The indenture system was a product of colonisation, a legacy left by imperialists. It has been aptly referred to by a former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, eminent writer and Indian MP, Dr Shashi Tharoor as a “brotherhood of the boat” in terms of suffering and bonded labour of Indian Girmit pathways.

The British Raj and its promoters provided a ready supply of workers and various British colonies fell into the net. Much has been written about the Fiji Girmit.

Some likened it as a step above slavery. At the height of the sufferings Indians were enduring in Fiji, an emissary of Mahatma Gandhi, Reverend C F Andrews saw first-hand and wrote about the level to which peoples’ dignity had been compromised.

A traumatic event widely reported was the sinking of the vessel “Syria” and the loss of life. Girmit ended eventually. The deep scars however took time. This factor was alluded to by India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on a state visit to Fiji in 1979 to share the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Indians and to meet a small number of remaining Girmitiyas.

What are some pertinent lessons of Girmit for us? Fiji’s tangled political history often saw Fijians of Indian descent on the back foot, disadvantaged, made to feel second class citizens.

There have been lessons of belonging, both positive and negative. Indeed, a nationalist politician moved a motion in the Fiji Parliament in 1975 for example that Indians be repatriated back to their original homeland, India. Conversely, on another occasion, in 1999 a Fijian President told an Auckland conference Fijian Indians are Pacific Islanders; pointing out that one in their number had become the elected Prime Minister of Fiji. Today, the term “Fijian” is applied to those born in Fiji, irrespective of ethnicity. Since 2006 I have visited many Fiji secondary schools as part of an annual writing project undertaken by senior students; I note remarkable changes, including a vibrant culture of unity, shared hopes and far less uncertainty relating to the place of Fijian Indians as outsiders.

My message on your fine effort recalling the sacrifices of those we call “Girmitiyas” is to celebrate this current diversity; something which forebears, together with descendants worked hard for. Girmitiyas will always remain sources of inspiration. Thank you for remembering them on this anniversary. My best wishes to The Indian Weekender.

(Dr Satendra Singh is a fourth generation Fijian. His forebears settled in Fiji in 1879 from Rajasthan. Dr Singh was the founding Treaty Officer in the Prime Minister’s Foreign Office after Fiji’s independence in 1970. He has twice been honoured in New Zealand for services linking Fiji/NZ/India – 1990, Queen’s Service Medal (QSM), 2006, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM). He was the first Fijian appointed a JP in New Zealand in 1979. The President of India bestowed the highest civilian medal given to diaspora, Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award (PBSA) on Dr Singh in 2013. The President of Fiji made him an Officer of the Order of Fiji (OF) in 2014.)