Analysis

Girmitiyas Not ‘Vulagi’: Rosi Akbar Speaks Out

I am a Fijian with a rich ancestry. As a Fijian I want to again welcome all our foreign from far and wide to my beautiful country, conference told
16 Jul 2019 15:39
Girmitiyas Not ‘Vulagi’: Rosi Akbar Speaks Out
Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts Rosy Akbar.

Analysis:

The great ‘vulagi’ debate will not be dying a natural death anytime soon.

A large segment of our society was left fuming and humiliated by this term and there is still much chatter about this and how the whole issue has been handled.

Yesterday, the Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts, Rosy Akbar, spoke of her anger at being labelled a ‘vulagi’. The event where she spoke was the International Conference on Forced Labour and Migration: Indenture and Pacific Labour Trades.

For a senior Government minister to speak so strongly at such an event about this issue is an indication of how seriously Government is taking this issue and calling out such behaviour.

Present at the event were former Governor General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand, vice president of the Indentured Labour Route Project, and former Minister of Home Affairs in the Government of Suriname Maurits Hassankhan, Chancellor of the Fiji National University Professor Rajesh Chandra, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific Professor Pal Ahluwahlia, and Vice Chancellor of the Solomon Islands National University Ganesh Chand, all of whom are in one way or the other related to the ‘vulagi’ debate.
Minister Akbar’s ire:

“Fiji has come a long way since the Indenture period tackling the issues of identity crisis in the most positive way and I wish the same for those still thirsting to belong to a nation their ancestors toiled to flourish.

“I proudly call myself a Fijian by the milestone achievement of a common name after being labelled as Indian for so long. I certainly do not see myself as a ‘vulagi’ (visitor) in my own home, in my own country where my grandparents, my father were born and buried.

“My mother and my children will also be buried here. So how can we be “vulagi” as believed or bluntly stated by some? I am a Fijian with a rich ancestry. As a Fijian I want to again welcome all our foreign from far and wide to my beautiful country.”

It is not a coincidence that Ms Akbar chose to speak about this issue at this event. This event was about indenture and forced labour migration.

It was a timely reminder to many that there are many very passionate about this subject.

Ms Akbar further stated: “I stand tall today, coming so far from where my ancestors started as Girmityas. I acknowledge that this is a Conference that has been convened with the background of the British Indian indenture system, following from a similar conference in 2017 marking the 100th year of the abolition of the Indian Indenture system.

“However, I also note with great interest the other central theme of this conference, which is the South Pacific Labour Trade with the high calibre participation from around the region.”

Blackbirding:

Within the period of blackbirding an estimated 62,000 people from Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were engaged in forced labour in Australia.The brutality of the blackbirding system and the inherent brutality within the indenture system are very much painful memories for our people. These haunting facts are now being revealed by globally recognised researchers and the many speakers at this conference.

Government’s stand on Girmitiyas:

In his address to the nation on our 140th Girmit Commemoration last May, Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama paid tribute to those, who have recorded the Girmit experience and its legacy.

He had said: “Thanks to the hard work of descendants, activists and historians, that history has been recorded for all to read –– to see through the eyes of the Girmitya. I encourage all Fijians, regardless of age, ethnicity or background, to take the time to read them. While these stories of suffering serve as a permanent reminder of the scars of colonialism that we must never forget, they are also a beacon of hope.

They have within them lessons that we all can learn from; lessons of strength, of perseverance, and of unity.”

Affirming the words of Mr Bainimarama, Ms Akbar added: “…apart from the exploitation, racism and the institutional aspects of indenture, it is also a formative and defining period in the history of overseas communities, a social transformation that has given Fiji it’s multi-ethnic and multilingual rainbow.  Fiji, saw some of the worst forms of indenture inflicted on the vulnerable, however it turned them into resilient survivors.

“I quote, the story of the “Girmitiyas” – indentured laborers brought from British India to Fiji – is one of immense struggle and suffering. But it is also one of the, most inspirational chapters of Fijian history, because that struggle was borne with dignity and perseverance.

“In our schools we emphasise on cultural activities, celebrations and vernacular languages so that these inheritances are safeguarded.

“The Girmit is an inspirational chapter of the story of the development of our nation as a whole. It is part of our distant colonial past and is relevant to our present and to our future. Girmitiyas have laid the foundation for Fiji through exemplary endurance, teamwork and sacrifice in the service of our nation.

“Our younger generation should value this heritage and take pride as it inspires us all.”

While scholarships into African slavery are well established, however, fuller research and studies remain in respect of each other and research from countries in which blackbirding and indenture take place.

She encouraged our universities in Fiji to pursue further research and writings in collaboration.

She gave an insight into what Government is doing:

“We are working on the formation of the Fiji National Research Council which will promote and advance research and development in all scientific, industrial, technology, social and economic areas.

This will also see the establishment of a national research fund which will further promote national development and sustainability.”

The Fijian Government, in consultation with other organisations, is providing a concerted focus on the preparation of the Fiji Chapter of the Indentured Labour Route Project (ILRP).

Edited by Naisa Koroi

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