A divided struggle

Dancers dance to the beat of the music during the Girmit Day celebrations march along Victoria Parade to Albert Park in Suva on Monday, May 15, 2023. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

In our last article I took us through the struggles of the Girmitiya, the Indian and the Indo-Fijian in attempting to attain political recognition and respect over the 144 years of their existence in this their adopted country – Fiji.

It was highlighted that the Indo-Fijian has historically been dogged by his inability to work as a united political grouping. The case of Badri Maharaj, the first nominated Girmitiya representative in the Legislative Council of Fiji, was analyzed to show how resentments and suspicions arose as well as how co-operation with the authorities could pay dividends as witnessed with the setting up of Wairuku Indian School in 1898.

Some readers have mentioned to me that I was drawing two rather simplistic contrasts between those who distrusted and refused to co-operate with the colonisers and those that chose a more conciliatory and less reactionary path in dealing with the authorities at the time. They complained about the reductionist nature of my argument. Let me elaborate on this further here.


THERE is little arguing that Girmitiya comprised predominantly disaffected people who had run afoul of their families/authorities or were generally unhappy with their existence in India. These were thus temporarily helpless individuals who were preyed on by the arkati recruiters who hovered around villages eager to pick up commission from the recruiting agents who were, in turn, working for the colonial authorities.

An often overlooked “qualification” that these recruiters were particularly careful about is that potential recruits should not be too strong, not be potential troublemakers, not be educated and should not have leadership qualities. Thus a certain type of recruit was being sought to sign on to become Girmitiya.

They had to be dumb, docile, resilient and reserved acceptors of authority. It wouldn’t take much imagination to conclude that they were expected to be like farm animals — bullocks ready to till the land.

On the other hand, the Girmitiya saw themselves as sojourners and did not expect their departure from India, and subsequent misery and drudgery, to last for long.

Recorded history of what transpired during girmit and how the institutions of reward and punishment were used leaves little room to dispute about what was expected of the Girmitiya — silent and stoic acceptance with ever readiness to jump to command. The Girmitiya were contracted to a pay of 12 pennies per day for men and 9 pennies for women. They were made to believe that they could choose to work for nine hours daily or do task work.

Task work was defined as the amount of work an able-bodied adult could accomplish in six and a half hours of steady work.

Furthermore, the employers were to provide free accommodation as well as rations for the first six months at a daily cost of four pennies for each person over twelve years of age” (Lal, 2012, p.174).

In reality, there were so many qualifications and heinous interpretations to what comprised a full day’s work that too many were never paid the 12 and 9 pennies expected.

In the 11 years from 1886 to 1897, 97 official cases were recorded against employers for non-payment of wages (ibid, p.179). During the same period, 186 cases were recorded against employers for assault and battery. Furthermore, the task work option was

not encouraged and wherever it was used, it was not uncommon for tasks to be “expanded” unilaterally.

These inequities were complemented by myriad rules that made it extremely difficult for Girmitiya to make official complaints. They were blocked off from approaching district medical officers (DMOs) and inspectors of immigrants. These personnel and colonial authorities were often more inclined to agree with planter/CSR explanations and painted the Girmitiya as being “of emotional temperament (who)have low moral standards, (are) prone to trickery, and under certain excitement to crimes of violence, even under the discipline of continuous labour” (Colonial Secretary Office fi le 3027/11 in Lal, 2012, p.176).

With these types of type casting, it was inevitable that the official position was often atrociously against the Girmitiya.

Within this backdrop it would have been very difficult to expect the Girmitiya to trust their “white” oppressors and tormentors.

And this is just a glimpse of a wide and elaborate array of obstacles and challenges that the Girmitiya had to endure.

Thus anyone, like Badri Maharaj, who was seen to be making “quick” progress would have been viewed with both suspicion and resentment. And anyone who spoke on behalf of the Girmitiya, like Manilal Doctor and Sadhu Vashist Muni, would have been accepted with open arms and revered.

This divide between the opposers and the compradores, as outlined in an earlier article, persisted throughout Girmitiya, Indian and later, Indo-Fijian history. I outlined and discussed how the divide in sugarcane politics emerged between the Maha Sangh and the Kisan Sangh.

The leaders of the Kisan Sangh were later seen in the Indian Alliance wing of the Alliance Party led by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Maha Sangh protagonists, on the other hand, led the National Federation Party through Fiji’s independence in 1970.

There was a brief period of cross-party (I would prefer to see it as cross-cultural) co-operation when AD Patel passed away unexpectedly and SM Koya assumed the helms of the NFP in 1969. Talks on independence had been stalled to that point because Mr Patel insisted on common roll while Ratu Mara and his support (Sir John Falvey, Sir Charles Stinson, plus Fijian leaders) feared this would lead to a change in the power structure because of Indian demographic superiority.

Koya’s less doctrined and refreshingly pragmatic and conciliatory approach helped pave the pathway to independence.

The euphoria of détente and cross-cultural co-operation carried Fiji through independence on a wave of high hopes, but these expectations were dashed shortly afterwards in 1973. The path of ethno-cultural antipathy persisted from there onwards.

I will write on that later.

Here, let me take the available space to focus on Fiji boxing as a blockbuster program is set for

this evening in Suva.


Big boxing is back in Suva today with two title fights and a slate of eagerly-awaited matchups.

This program has been organized under the banner of Tuwai Boxing Promotions. As the name suggests, rugby wizard Jerry Tuwai has decided to help sports in the country by (among other things) supporting Fiji Boxing. This is a huge plus for boxing in the country as we try to navigate it to greater heights because the “Tuwai” name has a special mana.

As a keen follower of boxing, Jerry is working closely with Alan Kumar of the former Bula Boxing Promotions. Fans will recall that Bula Boxing Promotions had its program hobbled in Nadi last year when Ronald Naidu withdrew unexpectedly from his bout with Nathan Singh. There were allegations of sabotage, but Boxing Commission of Fiji (BCF) was hampered in its efforts to prove this.

This time, Alan had successfully negotiated for an explosive James Singh vs Puna Rasaubale bout, but Puna was withdrawn by another promoter who insisted that Puna was contracted to him.

This is something that should be totally removed surgically from Fiji Boxing because it could lead to powerful entrenched promoters sabotaging new promoters and hounding them out of boxing. All will agree that this is bad for boxing anywhere.

Anyway, despite this lowblow, the program is set to rock the National Gymnasium with Naitasiri Hitman Jese Ravudi defending his super-welterweight title against medaled ex-Olympian Winston Hill in a highly anticipated bout.

The second title fight pitches Nadroga’s Junior Binnu Singh against the never-say-die Junior Farzan Ali.

This is a battle of a young Junior against an old Junior where a new chapter could begin. A third charged bout is between

“The Hornet Prince” Nathan Singh against Fijian Conqueror Masing Warawara of Vanuatu.

This bout will set the stage for career paths for both boxers.

Nathan has his sights set on a much bigger international bout later this year.

There are four more exciting bouts involving present and past champions. It will interest ardent fans to know that one of the boxers who will be showcased is the son of Rabi King Ruata Teupa who used to rock the ring in the 1970s.

Drua Crusade

Today will also see our very own Drua taking on the mighty Crusaders in a historic Super Rugby first in their very fortress in Christchurch in midwinter.

The Drua are no strangers to Christchurch having lost to the Crusaders 3-61 in miserable conditions last year.

As the “Drua Mania” (Prof. Ratuva) sweeps through Fiji, we know that nothing unites the nation like a full steaming Drua brigade scything through fortresses and weaving magic Fijian-style.

Go the Drua, toso ra gone!

With that, I conclude this one.

Until the next round, sa moce mada va’lekaleka.

 DR. SUBHASH APPANNA is a USP academic who has been writing regularly on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers subhash. appana@usp.ac.fj

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