How Fiji could help resolve the Pal Ahluwalia and USP crisis

Professor Pal Ahluwalia
USP vice-chancellor Professor Pal Ahluwalia with students and staff at Suva's Laucala campus ... exonerated by five inquiries but forced into exile in Samoa by the FijiFirst government. Image: Linked-In

ANALYSIS: By Tony Fala

The arrest, detention, and deportation of University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Pal Ahluwalia and his wife are significant issues for Fiji and the “Sea of Islands”.

As a son of the Pacific committed to Oceania, I am dismayed by recent events at USP. I write in support of all the peoples of Fiji. Moreover, I uphold the mana of the many artistic and intellectual ancestors USP has provided for the education of younger generations of Pacific people across Oceania.

I acknowledge USP’s educational leadership for all peoples in Oceania with humility and respect. I extend solidarity to all USP staff and students from Fiji and around the Moana.

I do not have the right to tell USP staff or students how they might resolve their issues. We Pasifika in Aotearoa are not qualified to lecture our brothers and sisters at USP about conflict resolution. USP has the collective culture, history, people, and protocols to resolve some of the issues about the expulsion of their vice-chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia.

But I wish to provide some humble suggestions to empower those seeking to resolve the issues that USP in Fiji confronts today.

Speaking as a Pasifika activist, I acknowledge that the only resolutions will be holistic ones involving all parties. But I think the Fiji government can perform an important role in resolving all issues. In broader terms, I feel the Fiji government could perform an important leadership role in allowing USP to heal and move forward in a spirit of Moana unity.

Ramifications for Fiji, region
The Fiji government’s expulsion of Professor Pal Ahluwalia and his wife from Fiji has had tremendous ramifications for Fiji and the region.

Academic organisations, activists, legal organisations, NGOs, journalists, Fiji members of Parliament, regional politicians, and USP alumni, staff, and students have all clarified relevant issues about the Fiji government’s unilateral decision to expel Ahluwalia and his wife.

In summary, some of these issues are:

  1. The rule of law and the right of due process;
  2. Protection of human rights;
  3. The protection of the right to dissent;
  4. Academic freedom;
  5. Unilateral government intervention into the affairs of USP;
  6. Protection of USP staff from unfair dismissal,
  7. Safety and the wellbeing of USP staff, students at USP in Fiji, including safe from arrest or detention;
  8. Claims of corruption at USP;
  9. Allegations against Pal Ahluwalia;
  10. Claims of punitive action against Ahluwalia by the Fiji government and Fiji members of the USP Council;
  11. Issues of staff remuneration;
  12. The health of relationships between Fiji and other member states who co-own USP;
  13. Distinctions between state and civil society, i.e. the distinctions between the Fiji government and the regional university campus in Fiji; and
  14. Calls for a relocation of the office of USP’s vice-chancellor from Fiji to other member nations, such as Samoa or Vanuatu.

Helpful resolutions
The Fiji government could help resolve these matters by engaging in a number of actions, discussions and processes. It could:

  • Invite Professor Pal Ahluwalia and his wife back into the country so the issues could be resolved in Fiji.
  • Clarify precisely what part of the law Ahluwalia his wife are alleged to have breached.
  • Recommit to protecting the human rights of all in Fiji. More specifically, the government could ensure that all USP employees’ human rights are guaranteed so academic freedom can be exercised responsibly.
  • Acknowledge that Pal Ahluwalia and his wife’s human rights have been breached. Moreover, the government could act to ensure this does not happen again to any other USP employee.
  • Take precautions not to directly intervene in the affairs of USP again by expelling employees of the university. Moreover, Fiji government representatives on the USP Council could work to ensure this is never carried out again at the university.
  • Release the funding the Fiji government owes USP without strings attached.
  • Work closely with USP’s member nations to work out collective resolutions to enhancing the regional nature and character of the institution. This could be achieved through the creation of innovative policies that ease current immigration restrictions on the recruitment and retention of staff particularly from the region, and, further, by helping to facilitate an easing of inter-country movement of USP staff and students among member countries.
  • Uphold the sanctity of USP as a learning space and strongly discourage police and military units from entering any USP grounds in Fiji and elsewhere.
  • Respect the autonomy of USP’s staff and student organisations.
  • Ensure the University Council-commissioned 2019 BDO Report, which independently investigated all allegations of corruption, is officially released to all stakeholders including staff and students. The only way to investigate criticisms of Ahluwalia is for independent people to assess the truth of these allegations. Similarly, only independent voices can consider the truth of claims made on Ahluwalia’s behalf. The government agrees to accept the outcomes of such investigations. The search for truth and fact are being politicised because of the Fiji government’s interference in university matters. Truth can only prevail if it is not weaponised for political purposes.
  • Ensure all concerns regarding staff remuneration are scrutinised fully and fairly by investigators acting independently of both the Fiji government and USP. The government could respect the independence of investigator’s findings. Moreover, the issue of remuneration for those staff who have served the region selflessly over long years could be examined with sensitivity and respect by investigators.
  • Allow USP staff and students privacy to work through issues raised by Professor Ahluwalia’s deportation. The government could step back and encourage USP’s people on all sides of this issue to engage in toktok or talanoa in order to heal and move forward in unity. This might encourage people not to settle scores with one another via government and/or university politics.
  • Articulate and clarify the lines of autonomy existing between the spheres of the Fijian state – and USP as part of Moana civil society. Then healthy lines of intersection between state and civil society might be established. If such lines are not clearly established, the Fiji government could be accused of trying to absorb USP in Fiji into an apparatus of the state.
  • Seek assistance from Pacific neighbours to help sort out issues. Pacific unity is perhaps best demonstrated when we support one another. Working with Pacific Island friends ensures USP’s vision of re-shaping the future in Oceania continues. Moreover, working in partnership with other Pacific Island peoples ensures USP’s mission of empowering Moana peoples in the region continues for the foreseeable future.

Tony Fala is an activist, volunteer community worker and researcher living in Auckland, Aotearoa. He has Tokelau ancestry. According to genealogies held by family elders, Fala also has ancestors from Aotearoa, Samoa, Tonga, and other island groups in Oceania. He works as a volunteer for the Community Services Connect Trust rescuing food and distributing this to families in need. Fala is currently producing a small Pan-Pacific research project, and is also helping organise an Auckland anti-racist conference.

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