On 10 April 1913, Kunti, a female Indian indentured labourer, was sent alone to weed an isolated banana patch at Nadewa in Rewa, Fiji.l Enforced isolation was a common and very effective technique to deal with recalcitrant workers. Kunti was being punished for her allegedly quarrelsome behaviour and for giving the plantation management ‘a great deal of trouble’. Later that afternoon, Overseer Cobcroft came on his usual round of inspection, caught hold of Kunti and made ‘improper suggestions to her’. Kunti screamed, struggled herself free from Cobcroft, ran towards the Wainibokasi river a little distance away, and threw herself into the water. Fortunately-so Kunti told the world she was saved from drowning by Jagdeo, a boy who happened to be in a dinghy nearby.
Kunti’s story appeared in mass-circulating Indian newspapers, the Bharat Mitra and the Allahabad Leader/and sparked off an unprecedentedly intense campaign to stop the emigration of Indian indentured labour altogether. The move to stop the degradation of Indian women on colonial plantations attracted more support among the Indian masses, according to historian K.L. Gillion, ‘than any other movement in modem Indian history, more even than the movement for independence’.3 Even though of lowly cobbler caste, Kunti was eulogised by the still caste-conscious Indian press for her ‘bravery, patience and strength of mind’, and her name joined the ‘list of honourable and brave ladies’ in Indian history.4 Kunti’s story was published at a time of growing agitation in India itself against the indenture system. Eager to avoid political embarrassment and to diffuse a sensitive and potentially explosive issue, the Government of India wanted ‘to expose the falsity of the story before it attains a wider currency’s (my italics). The colonial government of Fiji obliged. The Immigration Department re-opened its files and unearthed supposed inconsistencies in Kunti’s earlier testimony. Damaging declarations were extracted from witnesses, including one from Indian immigrant S.M. Saraswati who denied talking to Kunti or writing the story for publication. The Agent General of Immigration, Sydney Smith, thought Saraswati’s account suspect, but it was decided that, in official correspondence with the Government of India, it would be ‘better not to say whether or not Mr. Saraswati’s statement was reliable’. But the ultimate growth upon which the Immigration Department rested its case was Kunti’s alleged immoral character. It argued that Kunti had concocted the entire episode in revenge for the dismissal earlier of her paramour, Sundar Singh, as the sirdar (foreman) of the plantation. In response to the Indian government’s demand for definite evidence linking Kunti with Sundar Singh, the Immigration officials forwarded the sworn declaration of Ramharak, Sundar Singh’s successor as the sirdar and Kunti’s implacable foe. A. Montgomerie, the Agent General of Immigration in 1913, summed up the feelings of his department as well as of the planters with the following sweeping statement:
I believe the whole statement to be a fabrication. It is absolutely untrue that female indentured immigrants are violated or receive hurts or cruel treatments at the hands of their overseer. If such were the case, it would be quite impossible to manage the labourers on a plantation. It is only by fair and just treatment that labourers, at any late in this colony, can be worked.6
The above excerpt is published with Professor Brij V Lal’s permission and the full publication can be viewed att:
- The official documentation on Kunti’s case can be found in Minute Paper(M.P.) 8779/13 and M.P. 6609/14. Totaram Sanadhya provides the perspective of a
a contemporary observer in his Fiji Dvip Me Mere Ikkis Varsh (My Twenty One Years in the Fiji Islands) (Varanasi: Privately published, 4th edn., 1973).
- Bharat Mitra, 8 May 1914 and Leader, 13 August 1913. Translations are found in the files cited above.
- K.L. Gillion, Fiji’s Indian Migrants. A history to the end of indenture in 1920b(Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 182.
- Leader, 13 August 1913.
- R.E. Enthoven, C.I.E., I.C.S., Secretary to the Government of India, to Colonial Secretary, Fiji, 10 June 1914, M.P. 6609/14. An earlier request was sent on 17 September 1913.