Changes challenge Sangam to adapt and grow

Sir Anand Satyanand – 

My right to stand here this morning arises primarily because I am the older grandson of Mutyala Sriraman and his wife Kanthamma, who travelled as girmitya aboard the steam ship Sutlej II, a vessel that arrived in Fiji from Madras in October 1911, leaving behind their life in Rajahmundry in today’s Andhra Pradesh.

My grandfather came to Fiji under the Girmit.  However, as a person who could speak Telugu, Tamil, some Malayalam and some English, after arriving here, he sought and gained employment as an interpreter and added knowledge of the Fiji ‘baat’ that enabled him to spend 40 years as a government interpreter in the Fiji court system and occasionally on secondment to other government departments and councils.

Mutyala and Kanthamma Sriraman’s son, Mutyala Satyanand, my father, was born in Lawaqa, Sigatoka, in 1913 and went to the St Joan of Arc primary school in Fiji in Sigatoka and then Suva.

Mutyala in New Zealand

He was selected for a government scholarship with three other children from Fiji to attend secondary school in New Zealand. University and qualification as a medical practitioner followed.

In due time, because of unavoidable circumstances, he remained in New Zealand.

There he married my mother, Tara Tillak, who was also born in Fiji to girmitya parents and who came to New Zealand to study as a nurse.

My mother’s two parents came to Fiji from Uttar Pradesh on the sailing ship Berar in 1882 to work as girmitya in the sugar fields.

As well as producing two sons, Mutyala, who was widely known as ‘Dr Satya’ or ‘Dr Saty,’ worked as a busy medical practitioner for more than 45 years and was very active in New Zealand life, not least among its growing Indian community.

He maintained a close interest in his country of birth and was always glad to welcome and spend time with visitors from Fiji. He enjoyed a fruitful retirement before passing on in 2002.

Our family, although becoming wholehearted New Zealanders, has always been proud of acknowledging our roots in Fiji.

The Labasa venue

The place of our meeting is at Subrail Park in Labasa located in the Macuata Province, in the north-eastern part of the island of Vanua Levu, in the centre of a significant delta formed by three rivers – Wailevu, Labasa and Qawa.

I would like to acknowledge the land and surroundings where we meet and offer respects likewise to the indigenous Fijian people, iTaukei, alongside of whom, people of Indian origin have lived and a number have farmed on their land in this country for the past 138 years.

The early months of 2017 are a particularly good time to acknowledge those who have gone before. Last month, March 2017, marked 100 years since the ending of the indentured labour scheme.

Homage to ancestors

Many of us have forebears who were girmitya who came to Fiji and were required to work extremely hard and long, in the sugar industry and in other places.

Let us bring to mind, with respect and gratitude, the sacrifices of all those people of those early generations whose efforts, and whose resilience and whose faith in education and what it might bring, and confidence in the future have given so much to those of us who survived and who have either become citizens of the modern Fiji or who have migrated again to Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada in the Pacific rim, and even beyond that.

I feel certain that if it was possible for our forebears to know, of what has been achieved by the subsequent generations, they would be proud.

I am also proud to be asked to deliver this address to the Sangam following as I do, many redoubtable speakers who I have admired and learned from over the years.

In recent years, for example, to name just four, who I count as friends and, in one instance, colleague,  Professor Vijay Naidu of the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Ambassador TP Sreenivasan of the Indian Foreign Service, the late Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, former Vice President of Fiji and Justice Jai Ram Reddy, now resident in New Zealand, who has been a well respected contributor to public life in Fiji, as a lawyer, politician and more latterly as a judge, not only in Fiji but also in an international context.

There are many reasons that people with leadership roles have accepted invitations to engage with the Sangam and support it over its 90 years of existence.

The early settlers

The first is to say that we gather in numbers as a matter of respect to those who endured the back breaking work and, in so many cases suffering, during the indenture period.  The means of recruitment in India and the conditions of work in Fiji were both controversial.  In the years between May 1879 and November 1916, 42 ships made 87 voyages bringing in total slightly more than 60,000 people from India to Fiji.

The fact that those early settlers survived and maintained a faith in the future deserves recognition. Knowledge of what happened in the indenture years is vital.

To use the words of the famous Jamaican politician of the late 19th and early 20th century, Marcus Garvey, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

South Indian girmitya

The second reason is to acknowledge the experiences of the people of South Indian origin who formed a large proportion of the cohort of girmitya who were recruited from what today is Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and who came to Fiji from that quarter, out of the port of Madras.

They spoke a different language and had different customs and found it very difficult to assimilate with the earlier cohort who had come from 1879 on, from more northern Indian states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to Fiji through Kolkata and who spoke a variant of Bhojpuri Hindustani.

These new South Indians became a kind of underclass who experienced difficulties in addition to those of the general workforce.

Happily, people arose to take up the challenge of supporting and encouraging the South Indian girmitya.

People like Sevak Ratnam Sadhu Kuppaswamy, MN Naidu, T A J Pillay, K S Reddy, Govind Mudaliar and V M Pillai, took on the mission of people supporting each other while preserving cultural tradition, in language, customs and education.

Birth of Sangam

Thus was formed the Sangam 90 years ago, an avowedly pan-religious organisation which admitted Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (all religions professed by our girmitya members) in a shared aspiration to a life beyond indentured labour in an agricultural setting and to what knowledge and culture could yield as a dividend for future generations.

The Sangam has become a monument which does not need any building to signify the notion of pride in one’s being and faith in the future.

South Indian culture is now a defined and valued part of the Fiji population.

I would like to add a side note relating to my own family which is that, although my grandparents were present in 1926 and 1927, neither their names nor their photographs appear in Sangam lists that I have been able to view.

I am fortunate to have family members with whom I could ask the reason for this.

The answer I have been given makes sense to me.

My paternal grandfather had been in Fiji for 15 years by the time that the Sangam was formed. It seems that he decided that actually joining the Sangam might have compromised his position as a government official, even though he was just a third and second class interpreter.  However, since through this role, he had achieved a good reputation, for example being addressed as ‘Babuji’, and being regularly approached by people seeking assistance, one can understand him making a decision against actually joining the Sangam whilst at the same time offering encouragement.

My relation, Vimla Westwood, who grew up partly in my grandparents’ household, describes to me in an email that they frequently saw people like Sadhu Kuppaswamy, MN Naidu and TAJ Pillay.

Another aspect was that my grandparents, along with Rama Raju, and Kottaiya Naidu were Telugu, and this seems to have constituted a kind of bar against joining Sangam at the time.

The best interpretation seems to be that my grandparents can be said to have been “with” Sangam, even if not actually “of” the organisation.

Acknowledging Achievements

I feel certain that my grandparents would have been very proud to stand with us today and affirm the achievements of the Sangam.

There are 21 primary and five secondary schools as well as one tertiary nursing training establishment.

Many thousands of young Fiji people, from varied backgrounds and religions, attend Sangam educational establishments following at least that number before them.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

In summation, the Sangam has contributed a crucial amount to the fabric of the modern Fiji in engendering pride through knowledge, education and culture, and this yearly meeting celebrates many achievements.

Future Challenges

This leads me to the end in which I offer two challenges for the future.

First, it seems to me that with so many young people here for the Sangam weekend, engaged in sport and other meetings and social activities, now is an appropriate time to issue a challenge to everyone to engage in intergenerational discussions and to participate anew in Fiji’s civil society mechanisms.

Intergenerational discussions

The theme of this conference is ‘Unity through the Pathway of Honesty’ and I believe understanding and adopting this theme is a good start.

Closeness and discussion between young people and those who have been around longer, can create greater engagement with civic organisations.

Sangam or service organisations such as Rotary or Lions could enourage younger people to join and be part of their work of community building.

Young people should be urged to join governance of clubs whether in sport or in general community activity. Many people from across the generational spectrum are connecting with those who are struggling through lack of education and poverty and advancement, and working to make a difference for these people.

Young people of today have great role models to emulate from those who kept this organisation going for so many years, and the more discussion and connection between generations will create more unity through the pathway of honesty.

That challenge to young people can also be connected with activity beyond this country into the wider Pacific.

Climate Change issues

The territory of the Pacific has to tackle the resources of the sea and grapple with the onset of climate change.  It is the resolve of young people that may provide the solution.

My challenge is thus to point to Education, Community Engagement, Civics and the Environment as providing the wherewithal for survival and advancement in this wonderful country.

The Sangam as a whole is positioned to be at the forefront of addressing climate change and climate change related adaptation.

The Bangla example

My second challenge is to the organisation itself.  Sangam has done really well for nearly a century as a vehicle of self-help and encouragement and advancement, based here in Fiji. I want to instance another country and another organisation where something similar – a people’s movement devoted to educating and upskilling – has achieved enormous benefits for its people.

I am thinking of Bangladesh and an organisation called BRAC which began in 1972 as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

It began providing expertise to farmers, finance in the form of micro credit to small enterprises, assistance with dairy and food production, fisheries enterprises, and retail of handicrafts.

It is now at a point where BRAC has become (as Building Resources Across Communities), the largest non-government organisation in the world, operating in some 14 countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Nepal and Myanmar in Asia and in Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone in Africa as well as in Haiti in the Caribbean.

BRAC is a sterling example of enterprise and assistance that has been generated in the developing world to promote financial security, education and advancement.

I want to suggest that these aims are similar to those of Sangam and that it would be a useful exercise for Sangam’s leadership to consider investing time in appraising and benchmarking BRAC and its methods.

I would be happy to encourage making the connection with this organisation in the hope that there may prove to be some parallel methods and programmes which could work in a smaller country like Fiji and potentially help TISI Sangam to set its course for the next 90 years.

I wish everyone well in the endeavours they choose to pick up.

I end with a quotation of a person of Indian origin and one, like so many of us, the son and grandson of girmitya – in his case, Trinidadian.

I speak of the celebrated writer, Vidhyadhar Surujprasad Naipaul, more usually called VS Naipaul, who once wrote, in that bleak fashion that is a byword for him:

“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Naipaul’s message is a real challenge – to all of us.

The Sangam leaders persuaded the community that they indeed had something, and had every reason for a place in this community.

Sir Anand Satyanand is former Governor General of New Zealand. The above is a slightly edited version of his speech at the Conference of the TIS Sangam in Labasa Vanua Levu, Fiji on Friday April 14, 2017. A smaller version appears in our print edition of May 1, 2017.

Photo Caption:

  1. Sangam accords formal welcome to Sir Anand and Lady Satyanand
  2. Sir Anand and Lady Satyanand at the event with leading businessman Y P Reddy


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