Some Meditations On The Month Of May

Satendra Nandan’s fourth collection of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, was launched at USP, Suva, by Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, in March marking the commemoration of the centennial of the
29 May 2017 10:01
Some Meditations On  The Month Of May

Satendra Nandan’s fourth collection of essays, Dispatches From Distant Shores, was launched at USP, Suva, by Chief Justice, Anthony Gates, in March marking the commemoration of the centennial of the Abolition of Indian Indenture.

The month of May is a momentous month in Fiji’s history: on May 15, 1879 the first girmit people arrived in the South Seas. I, like many others, believed my history began then.

But history has many cunning passages, twists and turns, and it never signals the turning it will take for better or worse?

Exactly 108 years later, on May14, 1987, the first Fijian coup was staged in the Parliament in session by a colonel of the RFMF.

On 19 May, 2000, another brutal ‘coup’ took place in the new Parliamentary Complex: it lasted almost two months. Uncertainty, torture, bullying, racism, in an atmosphere that deeply destabilised the moral basis of an elected, democratic government.

The political haemorrhage continued.

Nothing has ever been the same again in the islands. And so many of us have spent the best part of our lives fighting naked racism, religious bigotry, political terrorism: these became the idiom of our daily conversations, the diet of our daily bread.

*Then on December 5, 2006, a most extraordinary event took place, after months of warnings to the then Government’s divisive, racist policies that were vivisecting the national ethos with most primitive  ideology; their potential consequences could have been devastating, fragmenting the nation irretrievably.

I was in Fiji for the first two coups in1987–one on May 14, the second on September 25. During the 2000 coup I was outside Fiji but had predicted that the man who would be the President of Fiji would soon be a prisoner.

I’m no prophet nor was meant to be but this one prediction of mine has come to pass.

But more importantly for me, I was invited by Transparency International in July 2006 to give a talk at their annual meeting held at the Reserve Bank of Fiji in Suva.

I was accompanied by another academic, now a distinguished vice-chancellor.

My subject was ‘Professional Ethics and Civil Society’. The  full essay is published verbatim in my book of essays Between the Lines: Selected Prose.

The issues I raised then seem relevant and resonant now.  As is my wont, I rushed in where angels fear to tread. So I said, inter alia:

My own professional ethics compels me to say a few words about the event of December 5 and its aftermath.

To paraphrase an Australian prime minister, who gave a 21-gunsalute to the colonel in the Federal Parliament in Canberra in the late 1980s: ‘It’s a coup we had to have!’

Just as there are just wars, are there just coups?

Many caring people, both in Fiji and abroad, were ambivalent and ambiguous towards this most extraordinary happening. We were used to coups but this seemed like quite another beast –  a clean-up campaign or a kind of president’s rule?

The constitution was not abrogated and it had been led from the front by the commander himself–no masked gunmen, no goonda gangs, and sufficient warnings to a government determined to cut a migrant face to spite a native nose!

The question for the nation then was not the choice between good and bad but between bad and worse.

The interim government, I argued, will not take us to heaven but it may just and justly get us out of the hell-hole we had been digging for the past 20 years.

Was Commodore Frank Bainimarama emerging as the most modern leader in Fiji’s history?

He did not invoke racist indiginity or mawkish religiosity, nor the burning of temples, mosques, gurudwaras or mobs marching and bullying defenceless civilians and peasants and looting shops in the city.

No criminals were released from jails, while real criminals stalking the streets with guns as had happened so treacherously in 1987 and 2000.

The Commodore brought a new hope and appealed to one symbol of unity: the country called Fiji: to save it from being divided along ethnic hatreds and privileged prejudices.

I argued that if a thing is illegal, is it necessarily immoral?

Perhaps we were dealing with a lesser evil.

One hoped the force of arguments, and not  arms, may yet become our way of life in politics and the new road to a country’s upliftment towards peace and progress.

Life’s most difficult choices are not between good and evil, but between evil and lesser evils, as Mr Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East amply augurs.

The violations of human rights was unacceptable, inexcusable. But this abuse happens daily in many democracies – the law of the land is not always just or justly administered.

And often something precious is sacrificed: a human life, too, is lost and we must be eternally vigilant against this.

In Fiji people had made too many sacrifices for generations.

How much time, energy, thought, we’ve wasted in fighting unnecessary evils when we should be creating the most exciting and elevating democracy and civil society in the South Pacific?

*My talk was given considerable publicity and put under public scrutiny. This is as it should be–every writer or a politician, and there’s a lot in common between them, must be subjected to that critical scrutiny because their words affect other lives, our lives.

And once you’ve spoken or written, you’re in the public domain and you must pay the price–for good or ill, fair and foul.

While understandably there were many detractors, a number of people said to me: “We always wanted to say this: but we’re glad you did.”

Recently I’ve been reading  ex-President Obama’s farewell presidential address, possibly one of the finest. Every time Mr Trump opens his mouth, one has to read Barack Obama.

Obama, says a commentator, was more candid than most, reminding Americans that the quality of our democracy depends on us – on our capacity to reason and empathise, our attachments to facts, our willingness to get our hands dirty even when the political game seems sordid and futile.

Politicians should not let the public, the voters and citizens, off the hook. It’s dishonest. Citizens should take responsibility for their greatest democratic right: voting.

The key word of his speech was ‘Citizen’, the most important office in a democracy.

And it’s here that, I think, the present Fijian Government has given us equality, value, vote and vision for the future under one common citizenship. This is an enduring and stupendous achievement.

As I’m writing this, the Aboriginal people here are celebrating their recognition as Australian ‘citizens’, 50 years ago in 1967; and they have been on this ancient continent for at least 50, 000 years.

By May 2018, we’ll know if the citizens of Fiji value the privileges, challenges, responsibilities that are part of the Fijian archipelago’s land-life and moral landscape.

This is what the citizens of Fiji will decide through a constitution wherein they are equal–a feat never before achieved in Fiji’s several attempts at constitution-making.

Herein in are envisioned the hope of the young and the wisdom of the old.

These thoughts come to my mind in the month of May, thirty years after the first fatal assault on the Fijian Parliament in 1987.

Since then Indian Parliament, of the largest democracy, and the Westminister, mother of all parliaments, have been attacked by terrorists.

It’s for the citizens of Fiji to begin thinking–whether to dwell on the past 30 years or to live and let live during the next thirty years and build on some remarkable and substantial structures of political realities and possibilities.

As far as I can see, the choice is limited but not limiting to our imagination, determination and vision. And the blue ocean must never become the black sea again.

And no colonel should darken the entrance of a Parliament again – ever.


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