Banished and excluded: the Girmit of Fiji

By Rajendra Prasad

The story of how the Empire’s forgotten slaves overcame the political legacy of colonialism.

In 1975, Sakeasi Butadroka, an indigenous Fijian nationalist politician, moved a motion in the country’s Parliament seeking the repatriation of all Fijian citizens of Indian origin to their ancestral homeland. However distasteful, the motion was in keeping with the times: in 1972, Uganda’s Idi Amin had successfully deported people of Indian origin, inspiring indigenous nationalists throughout Britain’s former colonies, and highlighting the fraught political legacy of colonial statecraft.

Girmitiyas in Fiji. Photo: Ministry of External Affairs / Government of India

Though Butadroka’s motion failed, Indo-Fijians remained deeply troubled by the apparent weakness of their rights. This was not without justification. In April 1977, The National Federation Party (NFP), an Indo-Fijian ethnic party, won the national elections. After taking what seemed an interminable time to form cabinet due to internecine bickering, Siddique Moidin Koya, a lawyer, was forwarded by the NFP to be sworn in as Fiji’s second prime minister. Instead, Governor General Ratu Sir George Cakobau, the Queen’s representative, told him that he had already sworn in former Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

Within Fiji’s racially charged environment, a pushback against the political clout of the Indo-Fijian community in the Independence era seemed inevitable. Indeed, the next 30 years would be marked by the Indian diaspora’s struggle for political equality and the realisation of the citizenship rights to which they were entitled. As in many postcolonial struggles, the roots of oppression are embedded in British statecraft during the colonial period.

An abhorrent trade
In 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, abolishing slavery throughout the Empire. Though billed as a revolutionary moment in world history, the wheels of slavery were reinvented and renamed, and the indentured labour system was instituted throughout the Empire. Under the indenture system, which lasted from 1834-1917, the British employed Indian labour for five-year terms, with some 1.2 million Indians serving, largely as plantation workers.

For Fiji, a British colony, 60,965 Indian indentured labourers were recruited to work in the country’s sugarcane plantations. As the workers were generally illiterate, the system came to be known as ‘Girmit’ (derived from the word ‘agreement’), and later the labourers came to be called ‘Girmitiyas’.

While the system differed from slavery in that workers were hired for periods of five years, it was still based on deceit and exploitation. In the recruitment of workers, the districts of Gonda, Basti, Faizabad, Sultanpur, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Allahabad, Jaunpur, Shahabad and Rae Bareilly in the United Provinces and Bihar were targeted. These districts often suffered natural calamities in the form of droughts, floods and famines. In 1903, recruitment was extended to South India. Destitute peasants who left their homes in search of work were easy prey for deceitful recruiters (aarkathis) who stalked railway stations, places of worship and melas, pouncing on those who appeared desperate and credulous.

Prospective workers were told of the riches that awaited them in Fiji. Some were told that Fiji was part of India, or near India, that the nature of work varied, and that they could return in five years laden with fortune. Recruits were produced before the local maamledaar (magistrates) who witnessed the signing of the indenture contract (as most were illiterate, they could not understand the terms under which they would be employed). The labourers were then taken to the sub-depots where they joined others for the journey ahead. Many soon realised that their freedom was lost. None could escape. Those who resisted were kept in isolation without food or intimidated into submission.

As ships departed from the river Hooghly in darkness, recruits were unable to experience visually their laceration from the motherland. Still, there was resistance. In the second ship Berar, and third ship Poonah,bound for Fiji in 1882, fifteen people found separation from the motherland unbearable. They jumped overboard and drowned. Subsequently, all coolie ships, as they came to be derisively called, were accompanied by boats until they reached the open seas.

Surgeon General Liang, whose duty it was to deliver live serfs to their European masters, claimed that the recruits suffered from a deep sense of loss and separation. In his logbook, he wrote, “Many die from nostalgia… with caste prejudices, their leaving their native land, perhaps never to see it again, and being thrown among people with strange habits, language and even colour”. 

Of the 60,965 recruits registered for transportation to Fiji, hundreds died at sea. In the nocturnal hours, their bodies were disposed of without rites or ritual. It took three months by sail ship and one month by steam ship to reach Fiji. Despite the hardship during this period, a type of bonding occurred among the recruits who called each other jahajibhai (shipmates).

Planting resentment
On reaching Fiji, the recruits were kept in quarantine on Nukulau Island before being allocated to the plantations. On the day of allocation, the recruits were formed into groups for plantation owners to transport them by boat to their destinations. The largest number of Girmitiyas were allocated to the CSR Company that operated sugar mills and had its own sugarcane plantations.

On a typical day, workers were woken at 3 am by the paaniwallah (water carrier) and the loud beating of empty drums. According to a report on Fiji prepared by Reverend John Andrews, an emissary of Mahatma Gandhi, the highest number of Girmitiyas committed suicide between 3 am and 4 am. The realisation of another day of misery was likely the cause.

Paucity of women created grave social conditions. Cases of polyandry were known in many plantations, and women bore the brutishness of the Girmit system, with no rights to justice. Fiji recorded the highest rate of infanticide in countries that used indentured labour. Pregnancy was an inconvenience best avoided. On 22 August 1910, one Girmitiya woman named Naraini was given the task of breaking stones with a hammer on the Sigatoka tramline six days after childbirth. She could not cope with the task. In response, Overseer Harold Blomfield held her by her hair and bashed her face on the stones. She was grievously wounded and later became insane and was repatriated to India. Bloomfield was charged but escaped punishment.

On 4 November 1912, Hannah Dudley, a Methodist missionary who worked with Girmitiya women in Nausori, wrote movingly in an open letter directed to Indian leaders asking them to rescue their compatriots from the infamy of Girmit in Fiji, and to abolish the system as it was beyond redemption. She claimed that she was haunted by the looks of fear and desperation on the faces of Girmitiya women returning from the plantation after a day’s work. In 1919, largely due to public pressure in India, the system of indentured labour ended.

Emergence of a subculture
Prior to the end of the indentured system, the Girmitiyas had not yet severed their ties with the motherland: they lived in Fiji but their hearts were in India. Most, if not all, considered themselves sojourners, and return was on their mind. Circumstances changed when they became marooned in Fiji through the deceptions of the indenture system. While most had signed five-year contracts, to qualify for a free return passage to India, the Girmitiyas were required to stay in Fiji for another five years. The idea behind this provision was that they would re-indenture or break their links with the homeland and stay back in Fiji, thereby providing for the labour needs of the colony. But few re-indentured: most engaged in farming to support their livelihood and began raising families.

Contributing to their decision to stay on in Fiji were reports of those that had returned to the motherland. Many were rejected by their families, and were accused of having lost their caste after crossing the kalapaani. A large number were stranded and destitute, living in appalling conditions in depots at Calcutta’s Metiabruz. Those that had returned to Fiji shared their horror stories, discouraging others in Fiji from returning. Once the decision to stay was made, their culture was effectively dislocated, taking on its own distinct forms.

In the aftermath of Girmit (1879-1919), a new diasporic subculture of Indianness took root in Fiji. The Girmitiyas had come largely from the United Provinces, though approximately 15 percent were from the south. Two dialects of the Indian subcontinent, Awadhi and Bhojpuri, prevailed over others and produced a distinct lingua franca, which came to be called Fiji Hindi. Though it is a distortion of Hindi, it gained strength and influence from Bollywood films released during the 1950s. Fiji Hindi also posesses a strong sprinkling of Urdu that adds a distinct quality to it. Descendants of those from South India today also speak Fiji Hindi and Tamil, while Telegu and Malayalam languages are no longer spoken among the younger generations. The Indo-Fijian culture evolved in relative obscurity, though has been refined and adapted through its interplay with Western culture, and now exists even outside of Fiji while retaining its distinctive character.

Immediate influences on the emergent Indo-Fijian culture (apart from those emanating from the motherland) came from Western culture, as there was greater interaction between the Europeans and Indians in day-to-day relationships on the island. Exposure to indigenous Fijian culture was limited as indigenous people, for the most part, lived in communes, and, as per European colonial strategy, were restrained from interacting with Indo-Fijians. However, by the 1970s, following Fiji’s independence, the Indo-Fijian culture asserted itself within the country. While there was greater interaction with the indigenous culture as Europeans left and the indigenous oligarchy assumed formal power, the influence of Western culture remained strong.

Despite the crystallisation of a common culture and identity, the descendants of the Girmitiyas of Fiji have faced systemic political and economic marginalisation. In the post-Girmit, pre-Independence period (from 1920-1970), Indo-Fijians strived for equality with Europeans, but retained second-class citizenry and had very little influence on government plans and policies. As a part of the British policy of divide and rule, the indigenous people came to be ruled by provincial and tribal chiefs. In the colonial stratagem, the chiefs (who derived much of their power from the British) became the sole voice of their communities and the most powerful allies of the government. The British gained the loyalty of the chiefs who effectively restricted their own people to communal living and subsistence farming, thereby estranging them from the capitalist economy. The chiefs were granted power, perks and privileges, and became strong allies of the colonial regime which resisted the Indo-Fijian demand for the introduction of a common-roll system that would de-racialise Fijian politics.

While Europeans required the labour of Indo-Fijians, they also feared the community’s entrepreneurial spirit and capacity to challenge European dominance. Claims that indigenous Fijians risked losing their land and customary rights if the common-roll system of voting was adopted and promoted, thereby stoking communal sentiment. By the time Fiji was being readied for independence in the early 1960s, relations between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians were at their lowest.

Independence and exclusion
In 1965, the British promulgated an interim Constitution to prepare for Fiji’s independence. Under this Constitution, Indo-Fijians were given 12 seats, indigenous Fijians 14 seats and Europeans 10 seats. Indo-Fijian leaders were incensed by this iniquitous, undemocratic and unjust Constitution. For many, it revealed clearly the intent of the British, with the connivance of indigenous chiefs, to push Indo-Fijians to the periphery of the country’s political spectrum. The revised 1970 Constitution, which would govern independent Fiji, was marginally better. Indo-Fijians, in a 52-seat Parliament, were granted 22 seats, as were indigenous Fijians, while General Electors (a category encompassing Europeans, Chinese and other Polynesians) were allocated 8 seats. Fiji also had a 22-seat Senate (Upper House) comprising 8 nominees of the Great Council of Chiefs, 7 nominees of the prime minister, 6 nominees of the leader of the opposition and one of the council of Rotuma. While the distribution of seats was equitable in comparison to the 1965 interim Constitution, the relationship forged between the British and the indigenous chiefs prior to Independence paid dividends. In effect, the numbers in both houses were stacked against Indo-Fijians as the Europeans, along with other remnants of the colonial era, collaborated with indigenous leaders on issues of mutual interest.

After independence was achieved on 10 October 1970, European settlers had receded into the background, but remained powerful props for post-Independence governments. Within a decade, European numbers dwindled into insignificance, though their seat allocation in the Parliament did not change. In effect, the ruling indigenous aristocracy retained the support of those who were redefined as General Electors.

In the initial post-Independence years, the indigenous aristocracy consolidated its power and massaged the system to its advantage. But by 1985, the NFP had regrouped under one umbrella after years of factional infighting, while the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) had been launched by the trade-union movement. Together, the NFP and FLP formed a coalition to fight the 1987 election, and de-communalise Fijian politics via a platform that focused on issues of class rather than race. They won the election and formed a government, only to be deposed within weeks through a military coup based ostensibly on the perceived threat to indigenous interests. Whereas the constitution in 1977 proved sufficient to ensure Indo-Fijians were excluded from the power loci, the equation had changed. Indigenous ethno-nationalism and supremacist rights were now openly pursued.

In the wake of the coup, a state of anarchy prevailed, as Indo-Fijians suffered abuse, harassment, persecution and violence. In Muaniweni, Tailevu, Indo-Fijian homes were looted. Families hid in jungles for days to avoid the mobs that were let loose as the police and Fijian army failed to react. Indo-Fijians offered no resistance, aware that it would lead to a bloodbath. The Fijian army, aligned to ethno-nationalists, was poised for an opportunity to act.

In the aftermath of the violence, the interim regime promulgated the 1990 Constitution, which was unabashed in its discrimination against Indo-Fijians. For over a decade, Indo-Fijians bore the draconian provisions of the 1990 Constitution. In 1997, however, in a collaborative effort between the leaders of the two ethnic communities (indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians), a new constitution was formulated, which adhered to international constitutional conventions. It was unanimously passed by the Great Council of Chiefs, Senate and Parliament. To most, Fiji appeared to have entered a new era of consensual politics, discarding the politics of ethnicity that had caused it much pain and suffering. Shock and surprise was, however, around the corner.

Recurring themes
Fiji went to the polls on 8 May 1999, returning an FLP government that had an Indo-Fijian majority. Duly, it forwarded Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indo-Fijian, to be the country’s prime minister. To allay the fears of indigenous people (or rather, the indigenous aristocracy), Chaudhry allocated 12 out of 18 cabinet positions to indigenous Fijians. This wasn’t enough. The displaced indigenous aristocracy was seething and began a sustained campaign to destabilise the Chaudhry government. Communal passions were inflamed once again. On 19 May 2000, exactly one year after the Chaudhry Government came to power; it was deposed through a civilian-led coup headed by renegade indigenous supremacist George Speight.

A platoon of the Fiji Army joined the group. For 56 days, Prime Minister Chaudhry, with his parliamentary colleagues, was incarcerated in the parliamentary complex. The Fijian army took control of the situation, abrogated the 1997 Constitution, and appointed an interim government headed by merchant banker, Laisenia Qarase, a leader deeply embroiled in the indigenous ethno-nationalist movement. The government’s supporters asked for the restoration of the draconian 1990 Constitution. However, the High Court declared that the 1997 Constitution was still valid, a decision that was later affirmed by the Fiji Court of Appeal. After doling out millions of dollars of assistance to indigenous farmers via the Farm Assistance Scheme, the government was returned to power in the 2001 elections, despite comprising many of those that had actively participated in the coup.

To the new government, the interests of Indo-Fijians were of little concern. Within the imagining of the indigenous aristocracy, Indo-Fijians lacked a common identity that linked them with Fiji, the land of their birth. Successive governments referred to them as Indians. Even the designation ‘Indo-Fijians’ was being resisted by ethno-nationalists, claiming that ‘Fijian’ was to be used exclusively to identify indigenous people. Such persistent government actions and policies had created fear and doubt among Indo-Fijians on the authenticity of their citizenship and rights associated with it.

A new Fiji?
In 1987 and 2000, when Indo-Fijians were prominent within the government, they were removed through military coups and the indigenous oligarchy restored to power. However, in a major turn of events, the military deposed Qarase’s ruling indigenous oligarchy on 5 December 2006. The interim government that replaced it removed institutional forms of racial discrimination and advocated equal rights to all. The 2006 coup against the indigenous oligarchy was caused by the government’s decision to free the coup convicts through dubious means. Government functionaries had also infiltrated the Fijian army and initiated a mutiny on 2 November 2000, with a view to killing the commander Commodore Frank Bainimarama and replacing him with someone who was an ally of the oligarchy. The indigenous oligarchy had come to realise that Bainimarama wasn’t fully committed to its cause and had not directly intervened in the removal of the Chaudhry government. In the mutiny, eight soldiers lost their lives but Bainimarama was not harmed.

Upon removal of the Qarase government, Bainimarama told the people of Fiji on 5 December 2006, “We consider that Fiji has reached a crossroads and that the government and all those empowered to make decisions in our constitutional democracy are unable to make these decisions to save our people from destruction”. He claimed that the military had “observed the concern and anguish of the deteriorating state of our beloved Fiji… and taken over the government as executive authority in the running of the country”.

Historically, Indo-Fijian resistance against government injustices, including racial discrimination, was temperate. With the police, civil service and Fijian army (99 percent indigenous Fijians) aligned to the indigenous oligarchy, Indo-Fijians were seldom able to unite to collectively resist the injustices perpetrated against them. The Bainimarama putsch was welcomed by many Indo-Fijians, however unanticipated: no one had ever predicted that such retaliation against ethno-nationalist forces was ever possible. In the aftermath of the coup, the Methodist Church was prevented from interfering in politics and the Great Council of Chiefs was dissolved. Both of these institutions had become bastions of indigenous ethno-nationalism, with the Methodist Church providing the spiritual justification for the coups of 1987 and 2000.

Being ‘Fijian’ is becoming a common source of identity for all citizens of Fiji. On the back of its 2013 Constitution (which, though de-communalising electoral politics, restricts freedom of speech and enlarges the states powers of detention) and work done by the interim government, Fiji held its first elections based on a common-roll system on 17 September 2014. The country overwhelmingly returned Prime Minister Rear Admiral (Retd) Voreqe Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party to power. Indo-Fijian support for his party was eighty percent, whereas indigenous support was forty-one percent.

Courtesy:, Himal Southasian

~Rajendra Prasad is the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004

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