Chapter Two: Jaat

November 1, 2020

We left off in the last post about about ship Leonidas arriving to the islands of Fiji. But what happened during the gruesome and tragic three-month long journey that Indians had to endure to get there?

As Indians fought for survival, religion, caste (jaat) and language were among the many obstacles they needed to overcome. Almost immediately Indians were made aware that what they knew as a caste system no longer applied on the ships to Fiji and during girmit.

Let’s break down the 3,000 year old caste systems that is said to have originated from Hindu god Brahma.  Caste systems break Hindus into four main levels of hierarchy: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. These four main castes were then divided into 3,000 different castes and over 25,000 sub-castes. Caste systems defined your place in society when it came to where you lived, what job you had and who you socialized with.

image source: bbc.com / Alamy

Brahmins – known as the priestly caste, duties included studying, teaching, sacrificing and other priestly functions.

Kshatriyas – warrior class – included study, sacrifice and learning skills of warfare

Vaishya –  duties included, work, study, cultivation, trading and raising cattle

Shudra – bound to serve the trinity of castes

Crossing the kala pani (ocean), Indians lost ties to their castes. The British did not take into consideration the caste system when they were recruiting indentured laborers and shoving them into the depots in Calcutta waiting to be shipped off. Indians were forced to share food and space with castes they historically would have never done so. Brahmins would have never shared food with a Shudra and visa versa. However in tight quarters and under strict rules they had no choice.

India, from womb to tomb, religion, culture and caste play a dominant role in the lives of the individual, the family unit, the community and the country at large. – Tears in Paradise

While the caste system seems as though it existed to create divide and distinct segregation, girmityas became one when it came to loss and suffering. The pain they suffered united them together during this time.

During girmit, caste systems were not adhered to as extensively as they would’ve been. It wasn’t until girmit ended, that the girmityas tried to revive their castes, some by seeking marriage to the same or higher castes, never allowing their children to marry into lower castes. However this didn’t last long, by the early 1970s caste identity in marriage dissolved in Fiji among the descendants of girmityas.

Unaware of my own roots when it comes to traditional caste systems, I do believe that if the caste system did not dissolve as it did in Fiji, my parents may have never been married.

I don’t want to say that the caste system has been dissolved completely, as it’s proven to be alive among the Gujarati community in Fiji. Gujarti’s came on their own will (from western India) to Fiji as traders and craftsmen after 1904. They were not part of girmitya and tend to marry within their own community to this day. Gujartis were able to maintain the connection to their roots in India, which many of the girmityas were unable to do.

I believe that internalized racism within the Indian culture begins with the historic caste system. Our people then had to face further racism with the British during girmit and eventually with Indians from India that don’t consider “Fiji Indians” (Indo-Fijians) to be their brothers and sisters (not all but some).

We may no longer be from the same caste, however, being from the same country is what unites us – and this is the very thing that separates us from the ‘motherland’ we once knew as India.


Sources: bbc.com | Tears in Paradise 

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