On the morning of August 27, 1912, several hundred Indians converged at the port in the Fijian capital of Suva under the watchful eye of the British. These Indians, all indentured labourers, had come to the archipelago in search of fortune but found themselves caught in a difficult existence. Their fervent hope was that the person they had gathered at the port to welcome, Manilal Doctor, would help in their struggle against the British with his legal knowledge.

“We made preparations to welcome him to the best of our abilities,” Totaram Sanadhya, an indentured labourer who would become a Hindu priest, wrote in his book My Twenty One Years in the Fiji Islands. “On the day he was welcomed, there was so much happiness for the Fiji-dwelling Indians that it cannot be told.” The excitement among the gathered crowd began to grow as the passengers began to disembark. “On the face of many Indians drops of sweat glistened, from hard work and running around. Oh! That was so beautiful,” Sanadhya wrote. “There wasn’t even space for a sesame seed, men pressed together filling it.”

A few hours after Doctor’s arrival, he was given a letter by representatives of the Indian community outlining their hardships. “To the best of my ability, I will surely try to help you,” he told them.

Gandhi’s intervention

Getting the Baroda-born and Bombay- and London-educated lawyer to Fiji was a long-drawn process that began when members of the community wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. Moved by the “sad story of Hindustani brothers”, Gandhi promised to look for a “rationally minded man” who was “well read in English”.

Before long, an article about the plight of Indians in Fiji appeared in the Indian Opinion, a newspaper established by Gandhi. Doctor, who was living in Mauritius at the time, read the article and travelled to South Africa to meet the Mahatma. It was Gandhi who had encouraged Doctor to move to Mauritius and fight for the rights of indentured and non-indentured workers. Although he lived in Mauritius for only four years, he is seen as a national hero there. “During his short stay from October 1907 to September 1911 in Mauritius, Manilal Doctor played a crucial role in the struggle of indentured and unindentured labourers, and the Indo Mauritian planters for their social, political and economic rights,” Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said in 2017.

Doctor established contact with the Indian community in Fiji after reading the article in the Indian Opinion. With Gandhi’s blessings, he set out for the distant South Pacific archipelago. The Indian community in Fiji pooled in 172 pounds for Doctor. Out of this 45 pounds were set aside for his steamship fare, while the rest went for his law books and getting a house in Suva.

Activism in Fiji

The Indian indenture system, which was introduced by the French in 1826 in Reunion Island, was adopted by the British Empire after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. The British began sending Indian indentured labourers to Fiji to work in sugar plantations in 1879, five years after the empire made the archipelago a British colony.

To understand the colonisers’ view of Indians and ethnic Fijians, it is enough to read the words of an anonymous European cited by Sanadhya in his book: “Fiji’s true inhabitants cannot do the work of a labourer well. Their own nature is wholly unsuited to this activity. In the cane fields, one has to do the same work every day (They get fed up from doing this). But the Indian coolies are utterly well-suited for this very activity, and planters generally give the work to them.”

Between 1879 and 1916, as many as 60,965 labourers from India were sent to Fiji. The name given to them was Girmitiyas, a word derived from girmit, which in turn was a corruption of the word agreement.

Although a set of procedures were laid down to ensure that indentured labourers would not be exploited, the colonial authorities rarely held plantation owners accountable for violations. Before Doctor’s arrival, the labourers had been taking their disputes to court but they were not getting decent legal help.

“White lawyers were writing one thing and telling us something else,” Sanadhya wrote. “They had little sympathy for us, and they looked on us with disgust.” The labourer-turned-priest documented a case of a lawyer by the name of Berkeley who cheated a group of Sikhs to the tune of 1,925 pounds under the guise of arranging their passage to Argentina and finding them employment there.

Almost immediately after arriving in Fiji, Doctor set up a law practice and began to take up cases of Indians who were being exploited by plantation owners. “He defended Indians in court, often for very low fees, and wrote letters and petitions for them,” Kenneth Gillion, a New Zealand academic wrote in his book The Fiji Indians: Challenges to European Dominance, 1920-1946. “The government was suspicious of him, but occasionally consulted him on Indian affairs.”

Political rights

Doctor, who had started a Hindustani newspaper in Mauritius, established a newspaper in Fiji as well, calling it the Indian Settler and editing its English-language section. He also became an important source of information about the Indian community in Fiji. “He sent reports to the press in India, suggesting that traders, craftsmen and professional men came to the colony,” Gillion wrote.

Over the next eight years, while fighting cases for Indian labourers, Doctor wrote extensively against the indentured labour system. However, his role in ending it was minor, Gillion argues. When the system began to be phased out in Fiji in 1916, Doctor shifted his focus to helping Indians obtain their political rights.

“Manilal did advance the political organisation of the Indians in Fiji,” wrote Gillion. “At meetings in Suva, Rewa and Navua in 1916 and 1917, it was decided to form an association to ‘further the well-being, political in particular, of the Indian settlers in Fiji.’ The Indian Imperial Association of Fiji was inaugurated on 2 June 1918 at Mahant Pingal’s Cottage, near Flagstaff, Suva.”

The association managed to slowly grow in popularity among the Indian community, which was awakening to its rights. “On 26 December 1919, the association organised a conference of Indians in the Suva town hall,” Gillion wrote. “Manilal was chairman, did most of the talking, and moved several resolutions, including one in favour of self-government in India, another in sympathy of those who suffered in the Punjab riots (Jallianwala Bagh), and others calling for the cancellation of remaining indentures by the end of the year, the abolition of the Masters and Servants Ordinance, a minimum wage to be fixed by law, equal educational facilities, and permitting of repatriates for taking sovereigns out of the country.”

The British authorities did not take too kindly to these demands, nor did they appreciate the chants at the meeting of “Hindu-Mussalman ki jai,” “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” and “Mahatma Tilak ki jai”. Doctor’s political activism, along with his success in the legal cases against plantation owners and Europeans, made him a prime target of the colonial administration.

1920 strikes

On January 1, 1920, the system of indentured labour finally ended in Fiji, with the remaining indentures on the island being cancelled. Two weeks later, when labourers employed by the Public Works Department in Suva were told they would have to work 48 hours a week instead of 45 hours, they began to strike. Bruised by the protest, the authorities retracted their demand, but the strike continued, turning into a protest against the rising cost of living. At that time, Fiji used to import Indian rice from Australia, and the post-First World War economy had raised prices of the basic item along with other Indian staples such as pulses.

The strikes began to spread to other parts of Fiji and tensions ran high. “The first confrontation between government forces and the strikers came at Nausori on 27 January, when a crowd of about 1000 sought the release of three Indians who were accused of intimidating others,” wrote Gillion. The situation was brought under control this time, but things took a turn for the worse over the next few days. Doctor’s wife, Jayakumari Devi, was one of the main organisers of the protests across Fiji.

When the colonial authorities began to lose their grip on the situation, they turned to New Zealand for help. “Desperate to take back control, colonial administrators appealed to New Zealand for soldiers,” New Zealand writer Scott Hamilton wrote in The Spinoff. “Prime Minister [William] Massey sent 60 artillerymen, armed with six heavy machine guns on the government steamer Tutanekai.” The gunners from New Zealand joined Europeans armed by the colonial authorities to crush the Indian uprising.

Once the strikes were put down, the colonial authorities found a perfect scapegoat in their long-term nemesis – Manilal Doctor. “On 27 March an Order was made under the Peace and Good Order Ordinance, 1875 prohibiting Manilal, Mrs Manilal, Harpal Maharaj (a Hindu priest) and Fazil Khan (a wrestler) from residing for two years on Viti Levu or Ovalau or within Macuata province on Vanua Levu,” Gillion wrote. “Legally, this was not a sentence of deportation, but it amounted to the same thing, as the areas named were the main areas of Indian settlement and the only places where Indians could earn a living in Fiji.” The colonial authorities initially wanted to try Doctor for sedition but did not have enough evidence to prove it in court.

Manilal Doctor was forced to move to New Zealand, where he tried to practice law. “He applied for a lawyer’s license, saying he wanted to represent New Zealand Indians brought before the courts,” Hamilton wrote. “But the Auckland Law Society blocked him, saying that events in Fiji had shown he was a man of ‘bad character’.”

He went back to India in 1922 and lived in Bombay and Penang, before moving to Aden, where he would work as a lawyer for a few decades. Doctor came back to India in 1953 and passed away in Bombay a few years later. The Indian community in Fiji, whose rights he fought for, continues to thrive, although it faces political struggles with ethnic Fijians. Doctor’s legacy is celebrated with greater gusto in Mauritius than in the South Pacific archipelago, where he arguably had a greater impact on the lives of Indian labourers.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.