Concern in Haryana

Print edition : June 10, 2000

AS the world reacted to the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Fiji's Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the anguished voices of and expressions of solidarity from his relatives in his ancestral town in Haryana stood out.

Relatives of the ousted Fijian Prime Minister, with a letter he wrote them last year, in Bahu Jamalpur village in Haryana's Rohtak district.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Mahendra Chaudhry, who was elected Prime Minister in May 1999, is a third-generation Indian in Fiji. His grandfather Ram Nath, who hailed from Bahu Jamalpur village in Rohtak district, left for Fiji in 1912. The British rulers of India were looking for cheap labour to work on the sugarcane plantations in colonised Fiji, and labour was aplenty in Haryana villages. According to village lore, the locals were promised jobs in the army, but ended up as indentured labour on the canefields.

Ram Nath was the only one from Bahu Jamalpur to leave for Fiji, but there were others from other villages who left to seek their fortunes in the faraway land. In Fiji, Ram Nath married Ram Kalia, a local woman, and had two sons, Ram Gopal and Krishan Gopal, and a daughter, Raj Kumari. Both sons stayed on in Fiji, but Ram Nath and his wife returned to Bahu Jamalpur, where he died. Ram Gopal had 15 children, including Mahendra Chaudhry, who was born in 1942 and grew up on his father's sugarcane farm. Mahendra Chaudhry studied at Tavua Indian School and Shri Vivekanand High School and was known as a good debater and an outspoken personality. In May 1999, he became the first Fiji Indian to be elected Prime Minister: in the racially divided nation, the Labour Party's victory under his leadership was seen as a major achievement.

Ever since news of the coup in Fiji came in, Bahu Jamalpur has been abuzz. Curiously, after the crisis broke, many people have come forward to claim that they are Mahendra Chaudhry's relatives. Most of these claims are unsubstantiated, and there is reason to believe that the rush of claims may have something to do with the fact that Chaudhry's father and uncle own 4.4 hectares of land, which is caught up in a dispute. Chaudhry's paternal cousins and uncles however said that the land would be his if ever Chaudhry returned to India.

Some of Ram Nath's nephews and other descendants still live in the village. Claiming to be Chaudhry's relatives, they dismissed as fraudulent public declarations made by some others that they were the ousted Prime Minister's only surviving relatives.

Mahendra Chaudhry's niece Madhu Chaudhry with another of his relatives in Rohtak.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

In May 1999, ahead of the elections in Fiji, the villagers had sent Chaudhry a letter of support, to which he had responded. In a letter dated June 29, 1999, Chaudhry wrote: "After twelve years of struggle, often for the rights of the workers, farmers and the less privileged, the Fiji Labour Party ... today has the overwhelming mandate of the people to govern. The task before us is now to get Fiji on track. We have to uplift the lives of the people, create employment and address the social ills that afflict this country..." He also promised to visit Rohtak when he was in India next. In his letter Chaudhry made no mention of the disputed land, indicating perhaps that it was not a matter of priority for him.

One of his distant nephews claimed that at least 50 young men in the village were ready to go to Fiji, if required, to help Chaudhry. Hazari, an octogenarian and an uncle of Chaudhry, was concerned about the ousted Prime Minister's safety.

The grand-daughters of Chaudhry's paternal aunt Raj Kumari account for another group of relatives. This section of the family returned to India and settled here. With Chaudhry's rise in politics, relations appear to have been revived once again, but there is little genuine correspondence to show that Chaudhry was in regular touch with this group. But sisters Madhu and Mukta Chaudhry proved somewhat more resourceful than their cousins and fished out photographs of a young-looking Mahendra Chaudhry taken during a visit to India. They said that the photographs were taken in 1997, but relatives at Bahu Jamalpur denied that Chaudhry had visited India in 1997.

Madhu's sister Mukta points to family-album photographs of their uncle in Fiji.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Madhu and Mukta Chaudhry met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and sought the Indian government's help in securing the safe release of their uncle. They told Frontline that they had been in touch with their uncle even on May 19, a day before the coup, to congratulate him on his completion of one year in office. They said that after the armed action they had spoken to Chaudhry's family members in Fiji.

Fiji was the talk of town in Rohtak, and the politics of the small South Pacific island became the concern of many Haryanvis. At a protest march at Rohtak organised by the villagers of Bahu Jamalpur, an effigy of coup leader George Speight was burnt. The demonstrators submitted a memorandum addressed to Vajpayee demanding his intervention to secure the release of a son of Haryana.

Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala sought the Indian government's intervention on the grounds that the coup in Fiji impinged on Chaudhry's democratic rights; Chaudhry's identity as an Indian and more particularly a Haryanvi was purely incidental. Chautala also wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging the intervention of the world body.

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