Opinion

A True Son Of Fiji, Sir Moti Tikaram

Moti Tikaram was an outstanding citizen of Fiji. Beyond that, he served a wider world. He advanced the principles of universal human rights, justice and the rule of law. His
18 Nov 2014 13:46
A True Son Of Fiji, Sir Moti Tikaram

Moti Tikaram was an outstanding citizen of Fiji. Beyond that, he served a wider world. He advanced the principles of universal human rights, justice and the rule of law. His life was an example to all. We should not forget its milestones for they helped to shape his values and explain his motive forces.

He was born on 18 March 1925. We shared the same day of birth. His parents had arrived in Fiji in 1912. They were subjects of the system of indentured labour. They traced their ethnicity to India, via the Caribbean. They came to Fiji on the MV Ganges. As a mature man, Sir Moti was to re-establish his family’s links with India, of which he was proud.

Early education

He was educated at the Samabula Indian School, at the Methodist Mission School and the Marist Brothers’ High School in Fiji. In the 1940s he undertook study at the Auckland University College. He selected journalism, probably because he knew, at a young age, that he had a gift with words. Fortunately, in 1952, he switched to the law course at Victoria University. He returned to Fiji with legal qualifications and,in 1955, set up in private practice in Suva. His practice took him into many fields of Fijian law. He also gathered clients from Tonga. At about this time, he married Satya, with whom he was to raise three children: Savita, Anil and Sunil, happily all still living. Lady Satya Tikaram predeceased him in 1981, but after he had received the honour of knighthood.

In 1959, Moti Tikaram received the first of many acting judicial appointments. He was later to remark ruefully that he deserved an Oscar for his repeated success in acting. Often, his temporary appointments were the product of racial discrimination. He was appointed because he was able and useful. But the authorities held back from permanent assignments. His first acting judicial post was in 1959 when he assumed duties as a temporary stipendiary magistrate. At the same time, he was admitted as the first ‘non-white’ member of the Fiji Club in Suva.

Professional skill

Such was his professional skill that in 1961 he was confirmed as a full-time magistrate. And at this time he made the first of many visits to India, where he was received as an honoured son.

In 1967, Moti Tikaram was appointed an acting judge of the Supreme Court of Fiji. Once again, he was the first local lawyer to receive that appointment. He served in it with a distinction marked, in 1970, by the award of the Fiji Independence Medal. In 1972 he was seconded to serve as Fiji’s Ombudsman. This was an office he retained until 1987. He was later celebrated as the longest serving ombudsman in the world. He engaged himself in the international organisations of ombudsmen and attended their international conferences where he began to gather a wide circle of admirers.

In 1979 he was appointed to chair a Royal Commission on Punishment of Offenders. His able discharge of so many diverse public duties was recognised by the Queen in 1980 when he was created a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE). His citation recorded that he had:

“Discharged the duties of his office with distinction and honour and… made an outstanding contribution to public life in Fiji.”

International duties

In 1985, he was elected by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to be the first Commissioner chosen from Fiji.   When, in 1993, he became Acting President of the Fiji Court of Appeal and served as Acting Chief Justice of Fiji on many occasions, he and I were swimming in the same professional waters. I would meet him at conferences in Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and further afield. His wider interests continued ever to expand. They extended to Ruby Union football; cricket; libraries and education. In all such activities he was a leader in the moves, within Fiji, to assure equality of opportunity to people of every race. Truly, he was colour blind.

When he urged the closure of a body created for Indian citizens who wished to play football, he explained that he did so in order to assert a race-free attitude to sporting participation. He told his children that he undertook such efforts in order that they could join every civil association, and not be held back in any way by their racial identity. He was strong and principled.

In 2000, at the age of 75, he retired as President of the Fiji Court of Appeal. However, he was soon appointed to the Supreme Court of Fiji: the pinnacle of the national judiciary. Upon his eventual retirement from judicial life, he became a notary public and his service to the law was honoured within Fiji and in India. The Fiji Law Society made him its first honorary life member.

Multiple awards

The Government of India conferred on him the Hind Rattan Award and the President of India conferred the Parvasi Bharatiya Samman Award in January 2007. Other honours from Fiji and India ensued. But Sir Moti simply carried on being the same modest and engaging man. He had a beautiful smile and a lovely temperament. Still, beneath the amity, was a steely resolve. He was abstemious in his personal habits.

He was devoid of discrimination. On many occasions when he visited Australia, we met together. Our conversation was never about the ‘good old days’. It was about the better days that were yet to come.

In 2012, I was warned that he was seriously ill. On our mutual birthday, March 18 2012, I telephoned him and spoke to him with words of encouragement. His voice was weak; but as always cheerful.

He died on May 17 2012. This lecture series in his honour was inaugurated by the University of Fiji. The first lecture in the series was given by Professor Julian Moti QC, Dean of the Law School and a member of Sir Moti’s family.

 

The writer is a distinguished Australian jurist and academic who is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia.

 


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