“Jayant Prakash: A Gentle Son of Fiji”. (edited version in The Fiji Times, 18 April 1915″.
Jayant Prakash: A Gentle Son of Fiji
(by friends of Jayant Prakash)
[A slightly edited version was published in The Fiji Times of 18 April 2015 titled by The Fiji Times, ‘A victim of coup culture’ with the legally required bylines of Vanessa Griffen, Wadan Narsey and Friends of Jayant Prakash].
Last week, Fiji sadly lost a quiet achiever, a friendly unassuming multiracial person whose professional life and his friendships, amply demonstrated a great love for Fiji.
Born in 1952, Jayant Prakash was the son of a humble Ba shop-keeper, Ram Jas and his wife Dharam Raji.
He fondly remembered his days at Xavier College and at The University of the South Pacific (USP) in the early 1970’s where he was an economics major.
He was an adventurous development studies masters graduate from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with a law degree from the University of NSW.
He ably contributed in many fields where he formed lasting friendships: as a researcher at the Reserve Bank of Fiji, planning officer at the Central Planning Office, senior executive at the Sugar Cane Growers Council, and ultimately, a High Court Judge, with a legacy of judgements predicated on a commitments to human rights, equality and non-violence.
Jayant was a philosophical thinker with an active social conscience, so evident in his later career as magistrate and judge. As a friend noted : ‘He had a wonderful, inquiring intellect which probed and questioned in a gentle, respectful way which friends were privileged to share’.
He was passionately and emotionally committed to Fiji, yet he also had a ‘maddening sense of detachment’ as a close friend observed.
Jayant was a wonderful generous friend to many people of all ethnicity and gender, with an open mind and open house. Truly, no one ever had any negative comment to make about this gentle and kind person.
He was renowned at USP for his friendliness to USP students of all ethnicity, gender and nationalities, extending invitations to his home in Ba, often taken up.
His many friends during his student days included Eta Baro, Ganga Anoop, Neal Engledow, Shamima Ali, John Samy, Vijay Naidu, Rajesh and Dharma Chandra, Aarti Triveni, and in later years, with Makareta Waqavonovono, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi and Jone Dakuvula.
Active Ideal Student
He was active in the USP Student Council and Student Christian Movement and displayed a strong sense of social responsibility towards the under-privileged.
In 1974, he and a group of friends (Vimal Madhavan and Rajendra Prakash) cajoled a mathematics lecturer (Wadan Narsey) to drive them to Ba to interview Koronubu cane farmers whose leases were not being renewed.
The stories of these desperate farmers’ facing poverty and indebtedness despite contributing immensely to Fiji’s major industry and welfare, were revealed in an outstanding student newspaper issue of 1974 (UNISPAC), which also included Mesulame Lutumailagi’s expose of the sufferings of the workers at the Vatukoula gold mines.
USP students then, like Jayant Prakash, John Samy, Vanessa Griffin, Claire Slatter and Vijay Naidu, and student chaplain Rev Akuila Yabaki, were in a class of their own, radically investigating and highlighting social, economic and political issues.
Jayant eventually went on to serve the interests of the cane farmers in a professional capacity as Secretary and legal adviser to the Sugar Cane Growers Council.
Contributions in Law
His close friendships with many of Fiji’s feminists such as Amelia Rokotuivuna, Vanessa Griffen, and Claire Slatter probably exercised some influence on Jayant’s role as a judge.
In 1999, Justice Jayant Prakash received legal and social acclaim in Fiji and the Pacific Region for his landmark judgement in the case of State v Prabha Wati, allowing the phenomenon of Battered Woman’s Syndrome as a defence against the charge of murder of a partner who had engaged in prolonged violence.
Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and Shamima Ali no doubt appreciate that ruling while in their continuing struggle to eliminate violence against women.
Justice Jayant Prakash is also well known for his ruling that outlawed the use of corporal punishment in schools, in another landmark case, Naushad Ali vs State, boldly using Section 25 (1) of the Fiji Constitution (1997) stating ‘Every person has the right to freedom from torture of any kind, whether physical, mental or emotional, and from cruel, inhumane, degrading or disproportionately severe treatment or punishment’, especially children.
This ruling is cited in numerous articles and used by international children’s rights organizations such as Save the Children. It has had a lasting impact to this day, with the Ministry of Education banning corporal punishment in schools.
Many regretted Jayant’s resignation from the judiciary, with his fellow High Court Judge and fond friend, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi recalling “His happiest moments on the bench were off it: being approached by a former inmate he had sentenced at the market or elsewhere, talking to persons on remand as a visiting magistrate (which contributed to his seminal judgment on the state of prisons in Lautoka)”.
Jayant himself later regretted not being able to contribute in the field of law, and it is sad that Fiji’s legal system was not able to use the services of this former High Court judge, well known for his calm, principled demeanor and steady intellectual approach to social problems.
His last years
With his family selling their Fiji home and migrating to New Zealand Jayant inevitably spent much time there, but an immigrant family’s life was not easy for him, or his family, because of his continuing wish to live in Fiji.
This desire of (mostly) men to live in Fiji after their families have emigrated has divided so many families who left Fiji after all its coups.
The family sold their NZ home and returned with him to Fiji where they again bought a house. But the family again returned to NZ, for the sake of the children.
Jayant however decided to remain in Fiji, circulating among his extended family and friends, writing his thoughts, and searching for more meaning in his life.
While many legal positions were closed because of his stance to the 2006 coup, Jayant unfortunately also declined many offers of employment, for example as a lecturer at the two large Fiji universities, because he felt his freedom to think and write, would be compromised.
In his last eight years, Jayant suffered from health problems as he fought a losing battle to maintain equilibrium in a national and personal environment where he was disappointed that close friends made ‘realpolitik’ decisions to ‘move Fiji on’ at the expense of the rule of law.
His wish to be where he served best was tempered by circumstances that were sometimes unbearable for one whose judgments were so principled, and a friend sadly concluded that ‘Jayant became a victim of Fiji’s coup culture’.
He could have contributed so much more to Fiji in his chosen professional fields of work.
Sadly, this gentle person who had given so much to friends and Fiji, recently chose to end his battle with his illness and his mental torment, at the doors of a church which had given him much solace in his last days.
His distraught brother who found him, recalled that Jayant was strangely at peace with himself, and died soon after in hospital.
His family and friends agonize that despite all their efforts, they failed to help him in his time of need.
But unlike richer countries, Fiji is ill-equipped in skilled medical psychologists and other professionals who can accurately identify and mental illnesses.
Family and friends, however loving and committed, are simply not up to this Herculean task which cannot be solved merely by medication, as for most biological illnesses.
Had we been able to do that, we would still have in our midst a beloved friend, and Fiji might still enjoy the dedicated services of a talented and principled citizen, a true Gentle Son of Fiji.
[The Ministry of Health every year mounts strong campaigns for the greater understanding of mental illness patients in Fiji and the need to encourage suffering persons to not feel any stigma, but seek help, just as they would any other illness. Just google ‘mental illness’ in The Fiji Times archives to see how frequently our mental health professionals have been making appeals to the public]..
[Some years ago, I personally went through very similar experiences that Jayant Prakash’s family and his friends no doubt went through.