Fiji Indians- Trapped in the Gulag of the Pacific

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Despite  becoming victims of indentured labour and racism in Fiji, Indians worked hard  to prosper and grow but strategic blunders like spurning military service have  made them a defenceless and disenfranchised diaspora forever in search of a  homeland.

The south Pacific country of Fiji was home to one of  the most inhuman gulags in history. Deceptively beautiful, the emerald island was  the place where the British led tens of thousands of Indian indentured  labourers into virtual captivity. After being hauled halfway around the world the  men and women were beaten, tortured and made to work long hours – often longer  than Auschwitz prisoners – while being given bare minimum food rations.

In his book Tears in Paradise, author Rajendra  Prasad, a descendant of indentured labourers, has given a vivid account of the  harrowing ordeal of such labourers. It was a regime of violence that was not  only horrendous but quite unnecessary. “The victims of the indenture system  bore the rigours of a system that not only exploited them but also made them  feel that they were serfs who should be grateful for the privilege to be in  Fiji, working for the sahibs,” writes Prasad. “The shame was so overpowering  that it also permeated the lives of their children who were unfortunate enough  to be born during that gruesome period.”

“In essence, the British destroyed the lives of a whole  generation of Indians in Fiji; it inflicted on them such ghastly physical and  mental wounds that recovery within their lifetime was well nigh impossible for  the majority.”

The Island of Cannibals
When  the British discovered Fiji in the 18th century, the country was populated by wild  tribes that practised cannibalism. In The  Story of Civilization, Will Durant corroborates this practice among the  natives: “The Fijians complained that the flesh of the whites was too salty and  tough, and that a European sailor was hardly fit to eat; a Polynesian tasted  better.”

After the British subdued these tribes, the plantation  merchants sailed in. They wanted to grow sugarcane in the virgin country but found  the natives had little interest in progressing beyond their hunting-gathering ways.  And why would they – that’s how they had lived the past 1000 years.

Enticing  the Indians
But the British had other ideas. In 1879, they sent  in the first shipload of over 400 Indian indentured labourers. How the Indians reached  here is a story in itself. Initially, the labourers were recruited from eastern  Uttar Pradesh and were told they were embarking on a journey of a few days down  the Ganga; the actual trip was closer to three months.

There was a reason why thousands of Indians undertook  this perilous journey to the world’s end. British land acquisition policies,  such as the notorious Permanent Settlement Act, had dispossessed millions of Indians  of their hereditary land holdings. For the first time in India’s recorded  history of at least 10,000 years, there was now a new class of people – landless  farmers numbering in their millions.

Only during the heights of Islamic depredations  under the Turks, Afghans and Mughals had the Indian countryside known such  economic devastation. But the British went a step further – they dictated what  crop could be grown and what not. Indigo and cotton, needed by the Manchester  mills was okay, grain needed to feed people was not. Under the colonialists, India’s  education and industry were also being systematically destroyed, so the landless  now had nothing to do. Millions dropped dead like flies because of famines caused  by the British policies.

It was in such desperate times that the offer of  migration to Fiji, the Caribbean and Africa was made.

Also, it was barely 20 years after the First War of  Independence of 1857, during which the British had managed to cling on to their  Indian possessions by their fingernails.

Consequently, the British coerced many landless  people into boarding ships on pain of internment; men and women wandering  around the countryside were told they would be branded criminals and jailed if  they did not accept indentured labour.

The deal was this: Indians were to come to Fiji and  work for five years plus five more years as a Khula, a free labourer. The  indenture agreement (which became known as Girmit in the dialect of the Fiji  Indians) stated that upon the completion of 10 years in the colony, the labourer  would qualify for a paid trip back home. Also, those who did not wish to return  could stay back as British subjects.

Fiji’s colonial authorities established recruiting  offices in Kolkata and from 1905 in south India. The recruiting office hired  sub-agents, who used many tricks to entice illiterate people from the Bhojpur  region. For instance, potential recruits were told Fiji was a place near Kolkata,  or they exaggerated the wages paid to labourers in Fiji.

Fiji  Prospers on Indian Toil
The increasing number of Indian labourers arriving  in Fiji soon transformed the country. The Europeans and the native chiefs  fattened, but the money flowing into the country did not transform the conditions  of the Indian workers, who remained ghettoised.

In 1920, after years of protests by nationalists in  India and heroic resistance against the inhuman conditions by the labourers,  the indenture system was ended. Another reason was the harrowing tales of torture  had trickled back into the hinterlands in India and consequently the British  were not able to recruit any more people.

Free from their shackles, Indians in Fiji became a  growing social and economic force, and their organizational skill on the  plantations was quickly replicated to organize in other sectors. Now they  clamoured for social and political empowerment, and launched a series of  strikes that brought the Fijian economy to a near standstill. After all, sugar  was Fiji’s only source of income and the Indians were the only people who  worked.

One of the key leaders of the Indians was the mystical  Basist Muni. Following the strikes, the British deported him, but as he was  being led away, Muni predicted that lightening would strike the government  building in the capital, Suva, and burn it to the ground. Incredibly, the  prediction came true.

Because of the violent wars of revolution that  continually endangered their rule in India, the British never trusted the Indians.  Now after the strikes, their attitude towards the former indentured labourers  hardened.

The British drew up a Fijian Constitution that  completely left out the Indians. It was Indian sweat and toil that had enriched  the British plantation owners and the native chiefs, and yet under the new Constitution,  the Indians lost the right to own land and could only lease it from the  natives. This was a body blow because now they were at the mercy of the Fijian  islanders’ whims.

It is a tribute to Indians’ age-old agricultural  skills and their legendary work ethics that not only were they able to feed the  greed of the native chiefs but also prospered and turned Fiji into the world’s  sugar bowl.

Strategic  Blunder 1
But then they committed their first strategic  blunder. The issue of continued immigration from India was – predictably – alarming  from the natives’ point of view, but incredibly the Fiji-born Indians now began  to campaign against it. This issue began to split the Indian community in Fiji.  The locally born Indians, who perhaps considered themselves the Mayflower Indians raised specious arguments, such as  the better economic strengthen of new immigrants or their inability to get  along with the Fiji-born Indians, to campaign against fresh immigration. For a  community that was being victimised by two races, curbing immigration was  nothing less than suicidal.

Strategic  Blunder 2
During World War II the Fijian Army was for the  first time admitting non-Europeans but with a condition – Indians and Fijians would  be paid less than a European of equal rank. The Indians took it as an insult  and refused to join unless they were offered salaries that were on a par with  the Europeans; the natives however had no such problems.

By 1970 when the British quit, the Indians and  Fijians were equal in number out of a total population of nearly 700,000. But  while the police force was only 50:40 in favour of the Fijians, the military  was 95% Fijian. This was the game changer that ultimately snuffed out the Indian  enterprise in Fiji.

Strategic  Blunder 3
In 1987, a military coup overthrew a democratically  elected and Indian-dominated government. Indians were systematically dislodged  from influential positions and their agricultural leases were cancelled. The  Indians now made another historic blunder; instead of resisting they started  leaving the country in droves. It is worth mentioning that Fiji Indians today  have very tenuous links, if any, with India; few have any knowledge or interest  in India. They call themselves “Fijians”, and yet here was the majority running  away from the country they called their own.

Of course, the exodus was disastrous. By the end of  the decade the military government released statistics showing that ethnic  Fijians were the majority population for the first time since 1946.

Despite these reverses, the Indians bounced back when  on May 19, 1999 Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Fijian Indian to become the  country’s Prime Minister. He was to be the last. Exactly a year later on May 19, 2000, Chaudhry,  whose grandfather came from Haryana’s Rohtak district, was taken hostage by military  personnel. Encouraged by the military and the Christian Methodist church, Fijians  launched violent attacks on Indians and their property; arson, looting and rape  were common. Indian emigration now turned into an exodus; by 2007 around  120,000 had left and 313,000 remained.

Serf  Status
Today, the Indians in Fiji hold a status more like  the disenfranchised guest workers of the dictatorial Gulf sheikdoms. Most of  them live under daily taunts of “We’ll ship the last of you back to India”.

Many Fijian Indians justifiably feel aggrieved that India  did little for them when the native islanders were trammelling upon their  rights. In 1987, the year of the first coup, rumours were rife in Fiji that New  Delhi would despatch a naval flotilla to the Pacific to help the Indian  population. The non-arrival of the fleet caused considerable bitterness.

The reality was that India was hardly in a position  to help Fiji. Today, the Indian Navy is a mighty long-range force but two  decades ago, it lacked such reach. Besides, it could hardly have sailed into  the Pacific without being ticked off by the Americans.

New Delhi could have at least issued a threat to the  Fijian government because the Fijian natives despite all their bravado were  wary of India’s strength.

Looking  Ahead
The scenario looks bleak. The educated and  professional classes among the Indians have all but packed up and left. In  Fiji, the only Indians who remain are the very wealthy, the old, and the poor. About  Fijian Indians it can be said that the exit of colonialism does not necessarily  mean the arrival of freedom. With few interested in staying on in the island,  they might well be the lost diaspora. Perhaps their only hope lies in belated  help from the original homeland.

If New Delhi helps out with cash and institutionalised  support, as it did for Indians in Mauritius, Fiji Indians might well bounce  back as they have done so many times in the past.

The killing cane fields
Rajendra Prasad’s Tears  in Paradise highlights numerous instances of violence and violations by British  and Australians against Indian indentured labourers during the indenture period  1879-1916. These include the following:
•Habitually punching,  kicking, whipping
•Pouring boiling water  on a victim
•Forcing a person to  drink kerosene to extort confession
•Forcing a man to wear  women’s clothes
•Denial of the right to  seek medical care when sick
•Making Indian children  (older than 10 years) work in the plantations
•Restricting nursing  mothers from feeding or caring for their children at appropriate times,  resulting in Fiji recording the highest number of infant deaths among the  countries using indentured labour
•Forcing a woman to get  back to work just 6 days after she had given birth and then eating her  unconscious for being unable to carry out the duties assigned to her
•Ritually over-tasking  the workers
•Depriving or reducing  the workers’ earnings
•Providing stable-like  accommodation to the labourers.

About the author: Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based  writer. He has previously worked with Business World, India Today, Hindustan  Times, and was News Editor with the Financial Express.

Editor –  The West, England included, never tire of giving India sermons on human rights.  They conveniently forget treatment meted out to Red Indians tribes and Indian  labourers taken to British colonies. This article gives you an example of  inhuman treatment and violation of basic human rights.

A pro-active Indian government should be  concerned about the welfare of all Indians globally. This needs to be done  smartly and if possibly subtly.

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