My fellow citizens
Members of the Western Girmit Day Remembrance Celebration
Ladies & Gentlemen
Good morning everyone.

I thank Commissioner Western, Mr Apolosi Lewaqai, for the invitation to address you all today.

This is a very special time for Fiji. We are coming together as a nation to observe the first public holiday to recognize and honour the Girmityas from India who came to Fiji between 1879 and 1916.

This recognition is long overdue.

The celebrations that have been taking place in the last few days and continue this weekend, are not just about those original indentured labourers who came to toil in the cane fields.
They are an accolade for their descendants who today make up a significant part of our population. They contribute immeasurably to the life of the nation socially and economically.

I praise the Lautoka programme for this Girmit Day celebration. It captures very well the spirit and intention of what your Government had in mind when we approved this new national holiday.

I am particularly impressed by its multi-cultural, inclusive nature. That is what we want to see. It is time now for the nation to work harder to overcome those things that have kept us apart.

In a sense we have reaped what was sown in the colonial period.

Girmityas came to serve the interests of the colonial masters. There were no employment regulations to protect them and ensure they were fairly treated.

The official approach was one of exploitation involving physical and mental ill treatment; terrible working hours and very poor pay.

Historians like our late Professor Brij Lal conducted research that showed the Girmit labourers were virtual slaves.

Read Professor Lal’s The Tamarind Tree for accounts of plantation life.
He has many things to tell, including how the Girmityas administered their own version of the law. They dealt violently with Sukkha the unpopular Sirdar.
The man they employed to mete out their justice was Bhukkan. Mr Underwood, one of the overseers with very bad habits, paid for his sins with his life. Thanks to Bhukkan.

I mention this to illustrate what a cruel world the Girmityas inhabited.

More power to them for surviving what seemed to be Fiji’s version of the lawless Wild West.

Those who decided to stay - freed from their oppression – made new lives.

They became independent farmers, small traders and shopkeepers. Their numbers grew and so did their contribution to Fiji.

The evidence of their achievements is all around us today here in Lautoka, and in other places throughout Fiji.

Unfortunately for us, the British rulers had a policy of keeping the indigenous Fijians and the Girmityas and their descendants separate.

They thought the Fijian communal way of existence would not mix well with the more independent and individual way of living of the Girmityas. They may have been right.

But the outcome meant that our small island nation was inhabited by two very different communities.

The differences were not only about basic social beliefs, traditions and attitudes. They extended to religion and language.

The end result was that the Fijians and the Girmitya descendants often did not fully engage with each other. So there was a lack of mutual understanding leading to suspicion and divisions, especially politically.
I’m not going to go further into this part of our history. But I do want to emphasise that your Coalition Government, in consultation and cooperation with all the people of Fiji, wishes to build a country based on respect and love of neighbor.

Our schools need to teach history that will give our children a deeper appreciation of our diverse society.

What I see on your programme is exactly what is required. But it must be done consistently and with more awareness of how we can overcome our differences.

I am very confident that if we commit to finding this new way forward, Fiji will become a truly united home for us all.

When I say all, I mean the descendants of the Girmityas, the indigenous people and the other cultural groups that live here.

To me the underlying theme of the new Girmit holiday is about unity and how we can achieve this.

Your Government wishes to share thinking about making changes right across the community so that we can come to a consensus about the future.
We can do it my fellow Fijians. I know we can.
Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be attending a special service of Girmit reconciliation by the Methodist Church of Fiji. This too is on the agenda for Girmit Day.
To me, it is of major importance for healing our national divisions.

This inaugural Girmit holiday has led to an outpouring of thoughts and tributes in song, oratory and poetry.

I’m going to end my remarks today by reading some of the best lines from a poem published in The Sunday Times, on May 7th. It was written by Avenai Serutabua of Nabukelevu Village in Serua.
“If you listen closely, you can still hear them sing,
“Songs of sorrow and hope, of everything.
“Their legacy lives on, despite the pain,
“For their toil and sweat served as a gain…”
“For Girmit in Fiji we shall not forget,
“The struggles they faced and the pain they met.
“Their memory and legacy we shall preserve.
“A reminder of their bravery and their strength to serve…”  
I thank you for listening.

May God bless us all on these days in our history.