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“USP academics in the 1980s political storms”


USP academics in political storms: the 1980s

 Today’s USP academics rarely involve themselves in national politics, except for the critical commentaries from economist Dr Neelesh Gounder (which the Bainimarama Government excoriates), and the adulatory accolades from Dr Rohit Kishore in the Government propaganda TV channels. Young academics might want to look more closely at what USP academics went through in the 1980s and 1990s, while they were also struggling for survival at USP.
The regionalization battles that Fiji academic staff faced at USP cannot unfortunately be neatly separated from the simultaneous Fiji’s national political events, as they affected each other.  Many of us USP academics, in the midst of trying to obtain the PhDs which the expatriate managements demanded from us, were also distracted by the national political events and crises.
There was the birth of the Fiji Labour Party and its election to government in April 1987, then traumatically involved in opposing the Rabuka coup and government (and some paying the price); but eventually prevailing on the academic fronts.
Here I sketch the many events which unfortunately do not do full justice to a wonderfully dynamic USP academics who were deeply and passionately involved in national development issues and distracted from their career developments (while some of course played it safe nationally, and made it good within USP).  Interested people can read the accounts of William Sutherland, Robbie Robertson and Brij Lal for more in-depth analyses.
But there is surely a wonderful PhD to be written about Fiji’s university academics and national politics, with the birth of Fiji University and Fiji National University, and the dramas concerning their vice chancellors, deserving an additional chapter to the many chapters that can be written about USP.
It goes without saying that the events I sketch here, changed my personal professional trajectory for the next twenty years at USP, and into and out of the Fiji Parliament.

Young Turks abroad

During the early 1980s, four “young Turks” at USP (Wadan Narsey, Vijay Naidu, Rajesh Chandra and Ropate Qalo) went off abroad to do their PhDs (with new appointee and my former student Ganesh Chand manning the fort).
Myself, the most senior of the four at USP, went to Sussex to work on “Fiji’s money and banking”; Vijay also went to Sussex to do a thesis on “State and Class in Fiji and the Pacific”,  a theme originally begun by our friend John Samy and William Sutherland; Rajesh Chandra did a regular PhD topic (“Industrialisation in Fiji: Industrial Structure and Organisation”) at the University of British Columbia; and Ropate Qalo went to ANU to produce “Indigenous politics in the governance of Fiji : the case of forestry”.
In mid-stream, I changed my topic to the massive but intellectually challenging one of British manipulations of colonial currency systems throughout the British Empire- by the time three years were up I had just finished the research in primary historical records at the Public Records Office, Kew, London. My fiancée (who was then working at the USP Library) and I got married in a registry office in Brighton (UK) with Vijay Naidu and Shamima Ali, Ropate and Salote Qalo, Navi Naisoro and Barbara, and two sisters being present.  To our dismay, the USP Acting Vice Chancellor still refused (for unstated reasons) to give my wife leave of absence from USP.  Our first child was borne in Brighton (UK), my wife returned to Fiji, and with an incomplete PhD, I also returned to Fiji so as not to miss the first months of my first child.  Vijay Naidu also did not finish in time while Rajesh Chandra did.

USP academics foray into Fiji politics

In the midst of our PhD trauma (and it was trauma, hanging over heads every day for four years) we academics contributed to national political development (birth of the Fiji Labor Party) and then coped with the 1987 Rabuka coup, some of us (Anirudh Sigh and Som Prakash) badly brutalized by Rabuka’s soldiers.
There have always been USP academics contributing to Fiji’s national politics, with an early pioneer being my old secondary school teacher, then teaching colleague at Marist Secondary and later still at USP, Dr Ahmed Ali.  He was a battler at USP, and a strong supporter of Ratu Mara and his Alliance Party. Ahmed became the Secretary General of the Party, and later Minister for Education. Other academics like Satendra Nandan, William Sutherland, Jo Nacola and Tupeni Baba, came later.
1 Think Fiji First

2 Wadan on Wage Freeze

In 1984, the Alliance Party brought in a Wage Freeze to try and kick-start the stagnant Fiji economy.

The FT advertisement read “Think Fiji First” (Ha ha. “Fiji First”???)

     On a request from a certain Mr Mahendra Chaudhry, I presented a paper to the Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC) Biennial Conference on the Fiji Government’s anti-labor Wage Freeze, and argued that there was a need for a new political movement in Fiji, different from the pro-business Alliance and the National Federation Party (NFP). My former student, Simione Durutalo presented the other paper. Chaudhry was not pleased with me for raising in my paper and presentation, the need for FLP to focus not just on the white collar workers, but also the “blue collar” workers who committed unionist Jim Smith thought were being ignored (another story).
The Fiji Labour Party was formed; Simione Durutalo my junior academic friend, was made a Vice President but not me (Simione was a chief from Ra with potential votes, I was a Gujarati nobody from Toorak).  But I was made the Chairman of the Policy Committee, which also included all the radicals from the USP and YWCA:  William Sutherland, Atu Emberson-Bain Vijay Naidu, Claire Slatter and Amelia Rokotuivuna, .
But Chaudhry and the symbolic leader of FLP, Dr Bavadra, were listening to a “strange” Marxist sociology lecturer at USP (Dr Michal Howard) and without consulting the Policy Committee, suddenly announcing policies such as their plan to nationalise the Vatukoula Gold Mine. This was a fatal mistake which drew the ire of conservative capitalist forces and the US who feared that there was a “communist movement” emerging in Fiji.
At a FLP management meeting at Des Veoux Road, I complained to Chaudhry and Bavadra about the bypassing of the Policy Committee.  Chaudhry, after a whispered conversation with Bavadra, informed me that “I could leave if I did not like it”. I looked to my friends for support, and with none coming (I don’t blame them- it was an exciting time for young radical USP academics), I walked out, disgusted (FLP stalwarts have been “walking out” ever since, including Krishna Dutt, Tupeni Baba, Atu Bain, Felix Anthony, to name just a few).    My priority then became the completion of my PhD thesis.
The FLP went into the April 1987 elections in coalition with the NFP and won (read the accounts of William Sutherland and Brij Lal). I was transferring my Draft PhD files in the USP Computer Room when a radical former student (Kamlesh Prakash), rang me from town that a military coup had taken place, worried that I would be soon Politics not race - 1987 coup explanation- meeting11202014_0000picked up.

The 1987 Coup

A that time, my children’s nanny and house help was related to the late Rev Tomasi Raikivi, a Methodist coup supporter and a cousin of Rabuka. My first thought was to take my children from the USP Quarters where we were then living to the safety to my parents’ home in Toorak.  I flew out with my draft PhD thesis from Nadi, to Sydney where I spoke at the Sydney Town hall meeting condemning the Rabuka coup and seeking support (another great story). (post)      Getting nowhere, within   a few weeks I flew on to UK to complete my doctorate thesis in early 1988.

1988 coup protest and a night at the Police Station

On the first anniversary of the 1987 coup, a group of USP academics and other activists (including some Catholic priests) protested at the Sukuna Park.  A “Group of 18” (including a certain Aiyaz Khaiyum) was arrested and put into the cells for the night, where in the middle of the night, while they were singing Fiji’s  national anthem (and in the morning they sang Cat Stevens’ “Morning has Broken”), they faced diesel fumes being directed through their cell windows.   The 18 comprised three Catholic priests, seven UP and associated staff, volunteer social workers, students, and a technician from FM96.  , ve university lecturers, were (in order the names appeared in the Fiji Times front page news item:

Amelia Rokotuivuna     Atu Bain                         Arlene Griffen             Peni Moore
Patricia Jalal                 Jane Ricketts                 Debbie Mue                  Emma Druavesi
Judith Denaro               Vijay Naidu                  Wadan Narsey              Fr Tom Rouse
Fr Paul Tierney             Fr John McEvoy           Kenneth Zinck             Radha Krishna
Aiyaz Khaiyum             Larry Thomas


b FT Editorial

c Lawyers show some ethics

d Court discharges

The names are interesting today, simply because so many in this group, so passionately opposed to the 1987 coup,  became supporters of the Bainimarama military coup.  What a fantastic research topic this would be.
There was social outrage.  Fiji Times bravely fired off an Editorial expressing great concern. Lawyers Mehboob Raza, Sir John Falvey, Sidik Koya and Miles Johnson fronted up to represent the 18 in court (a commitment to ethics that is somewhat missing in the Fiji Law Society today).

     Judge Davendra Pathik ruled that the 18 had “wilfully and unlawfully held a meeting at Sukuna Park without a permit”. Nevertheless, he granted the 18 “an absolute discharge without conviction bearing in mind the mitigating factors…. you are to be commended for your lofty ideas… freedom of speech and association was guaranteed for every citizen…”.
Compare these views of Judge Pathik in 1988, with his pro-Bainimarama judgments after the 2006 military coup.

Young Turks moving up at USP

By 1985, regionals had become fed up of the racist expatriates running our School of Social and Economic Development (then SSED now FBE) and continuously opposing the appointment and promotion of Fiji academics. I had no interest in management, and I prevailed upon Vijay that we support Rajesh for the Head of SSED- a momentous decision then, which led to two parallel career paths where Vijay also served in high places at USP, but never caught up with Rajesh.
Deserving of further study is the strange phenomenon that for decades, the Head of SSED did not come from Accounting, Economics or Management (by far the largest of the Departments in SSED) but from Geography and Sociology- two of the smallest departments, but with the most administratively ambitious academics.
I chaired the Organizing Committee for a huge regional conference on industrialisation (Rajesh’s choice of topic) and we were supposed to edit the proceedings together for a book, but Rajesh Chandra soon pursued an alternative path for publication.
By the beginning of 1988, I had completed by DPhil (read the references from my supervisors Dr Evans and Charles Harvey in an earlier post) and returned to the regionalization battles.  There was a new set of “Young Turks” Dr Yadhu Nand Singh (my former secondary school teachers, eminent  USP academic and pioneering kava researcher), myself, Ropate Qalo and Rajesh Chandra. We were finally promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1989.
The economics department eventually appointed a solid academic as Head, Professor David Forsyth whose presence made a big difference to my personal career trajectory.   Forsyth had no need for the politics that many expatriates engaged in.  He was a dour Scotsman with a wry sense of humour. One could not only engage in theoretical debates with him, but he was also good fun to be with socially, out and about in town, as also in the company of the late Dr David Williams and my great friend the late Kisor Chetty.  As was the case with my 1970s fascinating Head of Mathematics and Fijian linguist, Ross Renner (he used to annoy indigenous Fijians at Union Club by correcting their grammar- a bit like Paul Geraghty today), t was a great pleasure to be able to talk to my Head of Economics, intelligently, over many cold beers, about any thing under the sun, rather than the pathetic local politics that most Fiji academics were engrossed in.
My only embarrassing moment with David Forsyth was over a dinner at my home when my oldest child ingenuously challenged Forsyth, “Professor David, can you drink my Dad under the table?” David did go a bit red in the face, but he absolutely encouraged and facilitated my professional career developments thereafter (next post).

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