My two sets of Fiji Indian grandparents were both ‘Girmitya’ and I am pleased to have their papers – one set from the Berar in 1882 and the other from the Sutlej II in 1911.
In circumstances nearly 30 years apart, they saw the prospect of a brighter future than that which prevailed in Uttar Pradesh in the 1880s or in what is called Andhra Pradesh in the early part of the 20th century.
Along with many thousands of others, they exhibited optimism and resilience, which was necessary to deal with the colonial circumstances of Fiji.
The terms ‘Girmit’ and ‘Girmitya’ reflect the English word ‘Agreement,’ being a reference to the contractual agreement for people to work in their new setting.
With an emphasis that they placed on education and advancement and hard work, the Girmitya managed to put their children into better circumstances than their own.
They retained a respect for the country of their birth and brought with them cultural traditions in the form of food, language and music. But there was, in the main, no resolve to return to India.
The basis of their coming is the subject of much controversy.
Indentured labour being provided by India for work in places such as Mauritius, Guyana, and Fiji ceased (in Fiji’s case) after more than 30 years of operation. People were subjected to live and work in conditions that would not be tolerated today and were barely tolerable then.
These people left a proud record of completion of whatever was placed in front of them, and they have, in Fiji, continued to make crucial impact on the country’s progress in spite of changes and difficulties, which are for other venues to discuss. Additionally, descendants of these people have, remained in Fiji or in larger measure sought to migrate to countries, principally on the Pacific Rim but also further afield.
The capacity for advancement has continued and represented in the form of education, medicine, sport, business and public life.
People of distinction
To take short examples out of each, Professor Brij Vilash Lal of the Australian National University is an acknowledged expert writer on the Indian Diaspora, Dr Bramah Nand Singh, after outstanding scholastic effort at Medical Schools in New Zealand and the UK, has been for a number of years a leading cardiological physician in Los Angeles, Vijay Singh is a household name in international golf, Yanktesh Permal Reddy is a well known and respected hotelier in Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand, and Senator Lisa Singh and Dr Rajen Prasad are Members of Parliament respectively in Australia and New Zealand (Lisa in the Senate and Rajen in the House of Representatives).
A significant shift has occurred in the way Girmitya are considered by the Government of India. For many years, there was no particular acknowledgement of the many thousands of people of Indian origin who had made their way overseas, by indentured labour schemes or otherwise.
A report delivered in the early 2000s by Dr Laxmi Mall Singhvi, a senior jurist and diplomat, identified that there were some 20 million plus people of Indian origin living overseas, and that many, if not most, would value a new policy of inclusion and receiving opportunities for investment, citizenship, tourism and philanthropy.
Although Dr Singhvi died in 2007, he would have undoubtedly be pleased to see such things as the development of Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and the yearly provision In India of a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) celebration provided for those people who have either left India to make their life overseas or those whose forebears have done the same.
Each PBD is centred on a Conference, providing issues on tourism, investment and current issues and is attended by thousands of delegates.
One effect has been on descendants of Fiji Girmitya acknowledged for their efforts in contemporary public life. Thus, Mahendra Chaudhry (Former Prime Minister of Fiji), the late Sir Moti Tikaram (Fiji Supreme Court Judge), Yanktesh Permal Reddy, Dr Ajit Swaran Singh (Auckland District Court Judge), Vijay Singh, Satendra Singh (Auckland based educationist and community leader) and this writer have been presented with the Pravasi Samman Award by the erstwhile President of India.
Descendants of Girmitya can harbour a number of views about their history but can take pride in reflecting on the benefits of advancement.
1. Sir Anand Satyanand receives the Pravasi Samman Award from Pratibha Patil, then President of India, watched by Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi in New Delhi on January 9, 2011 in Delhi
2. Girmitiyas prior to their departure from India
3. Immigration Form for indentured male labourers
About Sir Anand Satyanand
Sir Anand Satyanand served as Governor-General of New Zealand for five years from August 23, 2006 to August 23, 2011. He currently holds a number of official positions nationally and internationally, among which are Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation (London), Member of the Board of Governors of Indian Development Foundation for Overseas Indians (Delhi), Patron of the New Zealand Chapter of Transparency International and Chair of the Expert Advisory Group on Information Security (New Zealand).
About Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture
Indian Newslink instituted, with his permission, the Indian Newslink Sir Anand Satyanand Lecture in 2011 to promote four qualities of good leadership of which he has been the prime example- honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability. The annual Lecture series is an initiative that is sans politics, designed to promote good governance in governmental, commercial, corporate, entrepreneurial, not-for-profit and individual entities. The Lecture presents an opportunity for a cross-section of decision makers to deliberate on issues affecting their institutional culture and values, apart from meeting Sir Anand and Lady Susan Satyanand.
Vino Ramayah, Executive Chairman of Medtech Global Limited (which has offices in several countries) and many listed and private companies is the Guest Speaker of this year’s Lecture, scheduled to be held on Monday, July 29, 2013 from 630 pm at Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland City. An expert on various aspects of good governance, Mr Ramayah will speak on ‘Transparency – Myth or Reality?’
Tickets for the Lecture, priced at $161 including GST, cocktails (between 630 pm and 730 pm) and dinner, will be available from June 15, 2013. For further details, please email firstname.lastname@example.org