The Search For Freedom, Equality, Citizenship

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, will be published this year.   The Centennial commemoration of the Abolition of Indenture in
31 Mar 2017 09:32
The Search For Freedom, Equality, Citizenship
Girmitiyas in Fiji. Photo: Ministry of External Affairs / Government of India

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His fourth book of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, will be published this year.


The Centennial commemoration of the Abolition of Indenture in March 1917 is an historic occasion. A century ago none of us was there; a century hence none of us will be here.

It’s a time for remembrance and renewal – a glance at history to glimpse  the life lived by our grandparents and great grandparents : the dark, unknown seas they sailed across as ordinary men and women to forge a new and forward-looking identity for each one of us. They became part of our nation’s DNA.

It’s also a time to remember and honour those who struggled for their freedom from an inhuman bondage in many parts of our world, including Fiji.

The story of Girmit is an epic of grief and glory, of people and places, of sacrifice and achievement, of the resilience of the human spirit and the gifts of the human body, of fostering new relationships and facing new horizons.

In a single word, it’s about the quality of our humanity and the daily ceaseless quest of being fully human.

After almost 100 years of servitude in the British Empire, which was supposed to last for at least a millennium, a people and their descendants were freed from a degrading  yoke : many  disembarked from forced voyages. The Empire, too, became a rubble of gray stones on the sun-bleached, distant seashores. The sun had set; a new dawn was breaking across the seven seas, over many wrecked ships and lives. History happens; and memory lights up the dark places.

The story of the Girmityas is a unique epical story. Most classical epics deal with the exploits of   powerful men conquering other people in other lands with their brutalities and banalities of power: from Valmiki’s Ramayana, Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Homer’s Iliad, the story is the same, giving  local colourings of the times and places, replete with grisly and ghastly details and godly interventions in fratricidal, tribal wars.

The cunning gods did the heroes’ thinking for them in any seeming crisis. Some acquired divine mantles after their conquests.

These masterworks  are full of heroes and villains and the battles are reduced to the fundamental war between good and evil or between god and devil, or karma and dharma, angels and demons. And a lot of cosmic kidding in between.

As Shakespeare put it in his greatest play: As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.

Human beings live by myths —  Trump’s fake news  and alternative facts have ancient echoes and these hoary devices keep people in their places through patriarchy and hierarchy, colour and caste, race and religion, gender and agenda, among other man-made manacles and shackles, of wealth and health, poverty and plenty, war and peace.

But these narrations take place within their geographical boundaries. When they were imagined, the world was flat and nations were ill-defined.


The uniqueness of the Girmit Epic is that it’s the story of the most ordinary people, mainly peasants — indigenous peoples who had hardly moved a few miles from their land of birth for many millennia.

They were born and bred in one place where they loved and  lived, cultivated their patch of earth, and died in the footprints on their natal soil. There they were buried and cremated. Over their graves grass grew; on their bones ashes and birds flew.

Nothing could be more sacred than that.

Among their many gifts, the girmit people’s greatest legacy is that of life as a journey, many journeys in fact; those who have not migrated will scarcely understand what it means to leave a dwelling – it leads to sea-changes, both within and without. Character becomes your fate.

They also gave us a new consciousness — making us think for ourselves for they were so totally dependent on their own  routine of survival, creating their own web of relationships by which one lived away from the familiar and the familial.

They had to create their own families in an unfamiliar environment of seas and sheer hard labour of blood, sweat and tears.

In short, they were self-made people. One hundred years later that became a gift of immeasurable strength to many. Of course, so many went under also; but I know personally the strength of their character, that grain in their DNA is part of our inheritance and it continues to give us visions of the future, hope in the present, and an inspiring heritage from a past.

This  creation of a new consciousness is their great gift to all of us. If we can use it, without forgetting that the past that damaged so many lives,  yet forgiving the groans  and sorrows of history, we may  find that something of a nobler note may yet be done.

In the past 160 odd  years or so , these men and women were flung into many parts of the world, crossing the SEVEN SEAS, as indentured labourers, just as our many lives have undergone immense transformations in the past 60 years.

It’s in their midst, out of their suffering and sacrifice, resistance and resilience, a new kind of epical grandeur was born and many a world was created with unforgettable fragments from the old.

It’s our common history — a history one can be profoundly proud of and deeply grateful for.

This diaspora was fashioned of the extraordinary human experience of human contact.

It’s the only diaspora where men and women didn’t come to conquer but simply to create and shape new worlds into existence with their bare hand, standing on their calloused feet.

This is reflected most poignantly in the life and history of Fiji: first an island world becomes a colony of exploration and exploitation; then coups; and now a sense of an emerging identity. I can’t imagine two more disparate worlds, two  such vastly different cultures and realities, coming together and shaping a colony into a modern nation. And despite our tragedies and trials, we’re still the envy of many an island country.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve often asked my learned colleagues if they can give me another example of the uniqueness of the Fiji Indenture experience replicated anywhere else in the world: where you’ve men and women, some with their children, coming thousands of miles away — people who hadn’t seen a ship, a sea-wave or and island, suddenly transported to the islands of the South Seas –  building a life of some significance and substance, together sharing a common destiny.


The rest is not history: it’s our lives, our living memories. And the lives of what we call the girmit people. Nowhere else in the world, you’ll see a people who were brought to protect another way of life and they did it without stealing their land, or destroying the images of the native gods or the sacredness of indigenous beliefs. In the process they, too, gained a sense of liberty and dignity.

It’s really an inspiring story of a most unusual encounter and remarkable grandeur. The Girmit people of Fiji do not need to apologise to anyone for the wrongs of their ancestors. They gave all they had: their lives. And we’ve received their greatest gift: a sense of an island home.

We know we’ve been through the Age of Anxiety, the Age of Anger, The Age of Coups, the Age of Crooks, the Age of Books, and the Age of Apologies; The Age of Trump’s Triumph and Post-Truth is just beginning.

In short, we’ve all aged.

From Australia to Zimbawe one reads leaders are apologizing for a variety of reasons for their ancestral wrongs and the denial of rights of human decency to their citizens.

And this commemoration gives us an opportunity to do precisely that: to see the journeys the Girmityas made outside and how they lived the short and simple annals of the poor. Illiterate, they gave us the most magnificent education through their lives and living, values and visions.

Now, more than ever, we know the longest journey was not from Calcutta or Madras over the black waters, kala pani. It’s really within our country in the making; it’s really within ourselves and our treatment of one another with a sense of justice, equality and humane dignity.

In a single word our humanity: it’s about being a citizen, equal and free, in the landscape of your choice.

There are so many promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.


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