My first thought of girmit and my ancestral connection to India way back in 1987, originally belong to the times when racist coups in Fiji shattered my illusion that Fiji was my home. My four grandparents were recruited in India (Uttar Pradesh) and transported to Fiji in 1910. Two of my uncles were also taken to Fiji, the young one, who was half year old died soon after his arrival to Fiji. My parents were born in Fiji and all my siblings were also born there. My fifty-one cousins from my paternal side were also born in Fiji. There are many more from my maternal side. Today all but one of my paternal cousins live outside Fiji, mainly because of the racist coups of Fiji! I migrated to UK in 1980 with intention of returning to Fiji after five years. The coups shattered that intention as well.
In 1991 I completed my bachelors (Hons) degree in Sociology with a major in Race Relations. During that period, I wrote UK’s first anti-racist policy and procedures and persuaded the London Borough of Greenwich Council to adopt and implement it. This experience prompted me to write my novel Silent Cries: a journey through 4 Continents. Based on my research, story of this novel brings together for the first time, the stories of the African slaves and indentured
Indian laborers (girmitiyas) who were taken to Guyana after the abolition of the African slavery. This was my first major research on the massive human labour trafficking of Africans and Indians by Britain and other Europeans. I continued with my research on the Indian indenture system (girmit) during my masters degree thesis titled –Colonial Legacy and Coups in Fiji (1996-1997) and my doctoral thesis and film –In Exile at Home-A Fiji Indian Story (2005-2011).
My academic pursuits were matched by my practical pursuits in this area. In 1994 I visited India for the first time to trace my ancestral roots. Finding myself living in exile in UK, and Fiji no longer being a home for me, I was desperate to establish a home and an identity for me.
However, the 1994 visit of India was a failure, as far tracing my roots was concerned. I managed to reach Lucknow, Basti and Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, but did not get anywhere near Utraula in Balrampur, where I believed my maternal roots existed.
Disappointed with the failed search for my ancestral roots, I wrote a paper called –Discover Your Indian Roots. I outlined my failed adventure and concerns in this paper. I also wrote about the benefits to India and the descendants of the global girmitiyas should the Indian government or UP government decide to implement the project. I posted copies of this project to the Indian government as well as Uttar Pradesh government. Soon after that I migrated to Australia and then a few
years passed coolly while I established myself in the new country.
In 1999, when I was contemplating shooting my first documentary film in India- A Search of UP on the internet revealed that the UP Tourism had announced a Discover Indian Roots project. I was intrigued to find that this project was very similar to the one I had posted to UP government back in 1995. I subsequently interviewed the person who claimed to have come up with the project, but he denied any knowledge of my project. I was amazed! It was pleasing that a project was in place to assist the descendants of the UP girmitiyas to search their ancestral roots in the state. Unfortunately, to a large extent I remain disappointed with the UP initiatives, which have gone through several versions since then. I maintained contact with the project till 2008.
But when I realized that the project did not have the vision, skills, and technology to assist the global girmit community in its pursuit to connect with their ancestral roots in UP I stopped communicating with the project.
In 2004, in my fourth attempt to find my ancestral roots in India, I visited my paternal grandmother’s home in Utraula, Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. Since then, I have come to know the village of my maternal grandfather’s home in Lakhimpur, (Uttar Pradesh). I learnt that my maternal grandfather was from Mathura. According to the immigration pass my paternal grandfather was listed to be from Basti. My uncle Dhanus Rai repeatedly told me that I would not be able to trace his ancestral roots. Despite that I visited and inquired in the village and the district mentioned in his pass. I did not find his roots! My uncle’s soul took the mystery of my maternal grandfather with it.
My ten-year effort to search my ancestral roots demonstrated to me how difficult it is to trace the ancestral roots in India. Basically, the first stage is to extract the immigration pass of the girmitiya from the national records and then the second is to find the village and the ancestral home of the girmitiya as listed in the pass. Both of these tasks are very difficult. I decided that I would assist others to discover their roots in India through a self-funded project called –Milaap-Discover Your Indian Roots. To promote this work, I independently produced Milaap film trilogy namely Milaap-Discover Your Indian Roots (2001), Milaap-a Royal Discovery (2004) and Milaap-the Land of South Indian Girmitiyas (2006). Since establishing the project, I have assisted hundreds of descendants of the global girmitiyas to trace their roots in India without charging them any money.
While assisting people to trace their roots in India, I also initiated Girmit Divas in Sydney (1999) and in Fiji (2015) as a means to revive girmit. I first called for a global conference on girmit in 2004, as a way to bring together the global girmitiya community to discuss our common history, struggles, culture, and concerns. My call for such a conference was finally successful when my colleague Aslam Khan in Mumbai took my proposal to Mr Chander Prakash in Lucknow. This resulted in the first Trace Your Roots/Girmitiya session in Uttar Pradesh Pravasi Divas (UPPD) in 2016, which was repeated in UPPD 2017. I participated in both these events as a guest of UP government. During UPPD 2017, I was presented Uttar Pradesh Apravasi Bharatiya Ratna Award by the Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. This was in recognition of the work I have done so far in promoting girmit issues and promoting UP.
In 2015 I initiated the Centennial Commemoration of the Indian Indenture System (Girmit) in Australia to mark the acceptance by Lord Hardinge in 1916 to abolish Indian indenture system and the subsequent abolition in 1917 by the Legislative Assembly of India of the recruitment and transportation of young Indian men, women and children as indentured workers to the British and European colonies. The Uttar Pradesh Pravasi Divas 2016 and UPPD 2017 marked these occasions respectively and along with this one-minute silence in the memory of the girmitiyas were also observed.
In 2016 I prepared this short paper for the stakeholders as a way to secure support for Indian Diaspora Council of Australia Inc’s Centennial Commemoration of the Indian indenture (Girmit) System on 17 and 18 April 2017. I reproduce an abridged version of that report to illustrate some of my thoughts on this historic event.