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How Fiji’s democracy lost the war – Jai Ram Reddy’s legacy

Jai Ram Reddy

Jai Ram Reddy: Former judge and leader of Fiji's opposition National Federation Party. Photo: PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Opinion – By Thakur Ranjit Singh

A missed opportunity – that was the theme during the Auckland during the launch of Canberra-based professor Dr Brij Lal’s In the Eye of the Storm by the former Chairman of Fiji’s Constitutional Review Commission and a former Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Paul Reeves.

During the launching, Sir Paul said Jai Ram Reddy was the connecting thread through which the book weaves the history of Fiji since his appointment to the Senate in 1972 until his retirement from the Fiji Court of Appeal in 2003.

Sir Paul highly rates the book as well-written as an expression of the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge, his analysis and his basic commitment and love of a country of which he is an inseparable part.

Book Eye of StormHe said the book was an admirable chronicle; it is a commendable commentary and interpretation of complexity, the lost opportunity and the strength of human spirit which  make up the history of Fiji.

The book begins with this memorable and prophetic 1993 quote: “I offer a vision which sees this beloved land of ours united in its diversity, forged out of adversity and built on trust. I offer you a vision of Fiji of which historians will say that, in the midst of tragedy, we found courage and wisdom, and foresight and determination to lead the nation away from the precipice into a prosperous future. I can only hope that my vision for this most wonderful of nations will fulfil its promise.”

Won the battle
Unfortunately this vision could not be fulfilled, because in 1999 while the People’s Coalition Government won the battle, Professor Lal says Fiji unfortunately lost the war.

Then, as political commentator, I had also laughed off Jai as a non-expedient leader engrossed in multiracialism and vision for the nation while the astute politician Chaudhry fought on bread and butter issues and won the battle.

However as the history remains testament to the facts, Fiji and its democracy lost the war, as is evident in the politically embroiled Fiji today.
This theme was again echoed in Sir Paul’s launch speech, when he revealed that in his copy of the book Dr Lal had inscribed: “In memory of a Fiji now banished beyond recall.”
Sir Paul added that Reddy in the book had assessed his life in politics in Fiji as:”It has been a wasted thirty years”.

But Sir Paul was optimistic about Fiji in disagreeing with both Dr Lal and Reddy.

“I want to deny both of these statements. I would say that nothing is ever lost, but in the end all is harvest. What Jai stands for, what 1997 Constitution stands for, what a free democratic society requires of us, that these will return in some shape or other.”

Heaped praises
Two reasons prompted Professor Lal to retell Fiji’s history. The first was the praises heaped on George Speight by some Miss Hibiscus contestants visiting the Naboro Prison where they met this treasonous person and compared him to Nelson Mandela.

Professor Lal said he was speechless and mused – what future for Fiji when you have role models like these?

The second was when in a school talk, when asked how many knew Jai Ram Reddy, he was shocked to see that none did and he was astonished at the ignorance in Fiji schools.

“I saw writing as an act of resistance against a culture of indifference and forgetfulness, an act of revenge against historical amnesia. And the historian, if he is to be true to his vocation as a guardian of public memory, must find a place at the table of posterity for both the victors as well as the vanquished”, Professor Lal said.

The gathering brought back nostalgic Fiji days of NFP conventions where who’s who of NFP were present.

It included the loyal NFP and one time MPs such as Master Shiu Charan; Harnam Singh Golian, father of Aiyaz and Riaz Sayed Khaiyum; James Raman; former leader of Opposition Prem Singh; the organiser, Ahmed Bhamji; former Sanatan head, Pundit Harish Sharma, former Fiji Broadcasting executive Pundit Diwakar Prasad and Ujagar Singh.

The business community was well represented by none other than Hari Punja, Vinod Patel, Charan Jeath Singh, Shashi Mahendra Singh (Ba Motor Parts) and Y. P. Reddy, among others.

Legal fraternity
From the legal fraternity were Richard Naidu, Dorsamy Naidu, Bhupendra (BC) Patel, Raman Pratap Singh, former Fiji judge Justice Kishore Govind, NZ judge Dr Ajit Singh and the MC of the afternoon, Bharat Parshottam.

Other notable attendees were trade unionist Pramod Rae, list NZ Labour MP Dr Rajen Prasad,  journalist Kamal Iyer, and of course with my fellow columnists, Rajendra Prasad, author of Tears in Paradise and Subhash Appana.

Nothing on a book launch on Jai Ram Reddy would be complete without the mention of Mahendra Pal Chaudhry who had virtually taken an oath to finish off NFP. He succeeded in doing that, through the removal of moderate Indo-Fijian party with visionary leadership, with dire consequences for the nation.

Professor Lal did a commendable job of comparing the two leaders with a military analogy.

“For Chaudhry, the end justified the means, and the end was the attainment of power. Everything was a secondary consideration. I have used a military metaphor to describe the two men.

“Reddy could be likened to a commanding general, an acute understanding of the lay of the land, possessed of a strategic vision, with an ability to forge coalitions to form a broad front.

“Mahendra Chaudhry, on the other hand, could be likened to a great field commander, in constant touch with his troops, inspiring them with his courage and manoeuvres, tactically astute and bold, but lacking the attributes that transform field commanders into successful commanding generals,” said Professor Lal.

Perhaps, looking at Fiji today, it may have been an error to have given the country too soon to a field commander – Chaudhry and the People’s Coalition Government, which lacked the astuteness to become or train anybody else to be as visionary as a commanding general in form of Jai Ram Reddy that Fiji had rejected.

On the final page (720), the quote says:

“Jai Ram Reddy’s rare achievement was to have witnessed and endured the worst that Fiji had to offer and still find hope  and optimism in his fellow countrymen, someone who rose above the disunity and divisions that afflicted his country and his people, and , for a brief shining moment, managed to make hope and history rhyme.”

Unfortunately, no other Indo-Fijian leader in the recent history could rise above the disunity and divisions that have plagued Fiji and contributed to its political instability.

Thakur Ranjit Singh is a postgraduate student in communication studies at AUT University.