Former trade unionist, politician and teacher, Pratap Chand was delighted to see the launch of his book last week. A Fijian Memoir, Footprints of a Girmitya’s Grandson is a story of his journey. He shares his struggles, joys, hardships, success and failures.
Mr Chand said, “The writing of my story, which began in an environment of despair was not originally intended for publication. My wife fell seriously sick while we were attending a wedding in Brisbane.
“I thought that some writing would help me to overcome stress and help me manage my life better. Indeed I found this helpful.”
According to Mr Chand, only a limited number of copies will be sold locally and a copy will cost $20.
The second last chapter of the book is entitled Life in the Fiji Labour Party.
“The 1999 General Election results were coming and the signs of a Labour victory were very ominous. After the close of polling on 15th May, our supporters gathered at the Suva Grammar School. This was the counting centre for the Central Division. We had a shed for Party supporters. The other parties also had similar arrangements. The counting process was a slow one testing the patience of everyone.
During the counting, I advised some of the polling officers on the procedures. This annoyed one of the candidates, Vijendra Prakash. He remarked, ‘Why don’t you do the counting instead of the officers.’ This was to reflect his anger and frustration, though we have been good friends and remain as such.
Fiji Television had a temporary broadcast centre at the school. I was interviewed along with several other candidates, including Wadan Narsey. At this stage, the overall trend was for a Labour victory. The discussion centred on who would be the Labour Party prime Minister. I had mentioned Tupeni Baba was a likely choice but the matter would of course be decided by the caucus. My response was largely consistent with answers and comments made by Party candidates and the President during the campaign.
Soon after the interview I received a call from MP Chaudhry. He told me that many supporters were calling him and objecting to my statement. He advised me not to make any further comments on the issue of Prime Ministership. The next day one of the newspapers reported the FLP President, Jackie Koroi, mentioning that MP Chaudhry could be the Prime Minister too.
When all the results were declared the FLP had 37 seats of its own. It had the majority to form the government.
MP Chaudhry came to Suva and we converged at the FPSA office. There was a lot of excitement and supporters were jubilant. MP Chaudhry convened a meeting of the Management Board members who were present there; Mrs Jokapeci Koroi, Tupeni Baba, Krishna Datt, Mahendra Chaudhry and I. Muttu Sami also joined the meeting at the invitation of Chaudhry as a member of the Council. After some initial remarks, the President, Mrs Koroi, emphasised the need to finalise the selection of the Prime Minister and not to create any sense of uncertainty. Chaudhry followed Mrs Koroi and asked Baba directly if he wanted to be Prime Minister. Baba responded that during the campaign it had been mentioned that he would be the Prime Minister. He also mentioned that it might be prudent to appoint an indigenous Fijian as Prime Minister as this was the general expectation. Chaudhry responded that he had worked tirelessly to bring the party to victory. The Prime Ministership should be his call. He added that the issue was not about Indo-Fijian or indigenous Fijian. He emphasised that the Prime Ministership should be the call of the person who had led the Party to victory. After some comments it was agreed by all to propose the name of Chaudhry for the Prime Ministership to the caucus later in the afternoon. Dr Baba was to nominate the name of MP Chaudhry to the caucus. I was to second the nomination.
The founding of the Labour Party in 1985 was a historical occasion. It transcended all barriers bringing together people from all walks of life. The inaugural meeting took place at the Fijian Teachers Association Headquarters in Knolly Street. The Fiji Trades Union Congress launched the Party on 6th July 1985.
In the past attempts were made to form a Labour Party but without success. The Congress was frustrated by the Government’s change on industrial relations. It was assumed that James Raman and Mahendra Chaudhry were Alliance Party sympathisers. But the Congress leadership was very offended by the path taken by the Ratu Mara Government.
The government was taking a unilateral approach on wages policy and curtailing collective bargaining. The teachers protest march in 1984 and the strike at the beginning of 1985 had further demonstrated widespread frustration with the government and its policies. There was talk of seeking a political solution to industrial problems. At the national level the government had already destroyed the Tripartite Forum and its wages policy had become unilateral.
The Fiji Teachers Union and the Fijian Teachers Association played a pivotal role in the formation of the FLP. The officers and members of the two unions were well represented at the inaugural meeting. I had helped lobby our members to come to the meeting. The FTU and FTA were in full force. In fact, Krishna Datt, the FTU President, has resigned from his prestigious position as Principal of Suva Grammar School to become the full time Secretary-General. Later events proved this decision to be extremely costly to him and his family.
Soon after the coup, the military has taken control of the media. The only source of information was the Australian Broadcasting Commission news. We talked with some FIT electronic lecturers on whether they could mount some means of broadcasting. Efforts were made but we cold not succeed. Michael Columbus, Fiji Oil Workers Union General Secretary, and a stalwart of many labour upheavals, kept saying that we needed to blow the Shell storage tanks in Walu Bay to create a crisis. Some other individuals and groups succeeded in blasting homemade bombs and sabotaging government infrastructure. The trade unions confined their protests through industrial means.
I resigned from the civil service on 16 June 1987. This released me from obligations to the civil service rules governing political activities. I was appointed the urban representative of the Party at the Delegates Conference. Later I became a Management Board member also. I became more closely involved with the FLP from the 1992 elections. Initially, the Party had decided not to take part in the 1992 elections. This was because the 1990 Constitution prescribed a communal electorate. The Party through the Secretary General announced that it would campaign for its supporters and others not to register to vote as a protest to the 1990 communal constitution.
We had a Council meeting in Lautoka where very robust debate took place on this issue. Through the discussion it was obvious that a majority of the Council members supported the FLP taking part in the election. Chaudhry was the key advocate of boycotting the elections. When he realized that a vote would go against him, he sought a break. During the break he spoke to several of the National Farmers Union and Western Division representatives. Shri Chand Badlu and Krishna Nand Sharma supported taking part in the elections. However, after the break they changed their position. The decision not to take part in the election was carried by a show of hands.
As a result of this decision, we encouraged and supported some of our friends and colleagues to stand in the election for the National Federation Party. The most notable candidate was Shiu Charan who had been a Labour supporter, the past President and the past General Secretary of the FTU. He was serving as the Unions Industrial Relations Officer. The NFP invited Shiu Charan to stand as a candidate for the Party. He discussed the invitation with several of us. We did not have any objection to his contesting the election. He eventually became the General Secretary and the President of the NFP. Much later, when the days of the NFP were gloomy, we used to joke that we had planted our people to end the NFP.
As the 1992 elections drew closer, Chaudhry realised that the NFP would gain a lot of ground if the FLP did not take part. The NFP and Labour had drifted apart after the coup. Attempts to restore the coalition had failed. One of the key differences initially was whether to take part in the 1992 election. A few weeks before the nominations, the FLP decided to take part in the elections. There was scramble to choose the candidates. MP Chaudhry tried to persuade me to stand from Tavua, my home district. I declined as I felt I was not ready to enter the uncertain and turbulent life of politics. I was mindful that serving the Tavua constituency from Suva was not viable.
Early one morning, I had a call from Chaudhry. He said that he could not run the party alone and others should throw in their support too. He said that if I could not take the Tavua seat then I should contest the Suva seat. After some discussion I agreed to contest the seat. My opposition was James Raman, a trade union colleague. Raman was the National Secretary of the Fiji Trades Union Congress and a founding Vice President of the Fiji Labour Party. He had played a key role in the founding of the Fiji Labour Party along with Dr Timoci Bavadra, Dr Tupeni Baba, Krishna Datt, Bob Kumar Chaudhry and other unionist and academics. Rajeshwar Singh used to say that Chaudhry would be very happy in succeeding to put me against his archrival James Raman.
During the campaign, there was a lot of backlash against the FLP decision not to contest in the election and then last minute deciding to take part in the election. Many of our supporters had not even registered in support of the original position of the FLP. I was not prepared for the elections both in terms of resources and mentally. However, as we campaigned, we picked people who joined our team. Our support was strong in the squatter settlements. The campaign was also a revelation for me. I had not been in the heart of the squatter settlements before. There were people in makeshift structures with unbearable sanitary conditions. At high tide, seawater almost flooded homes in Wailea settlements and coastal areas.”