OBITUARY: By Professor Biman Prasad
Brij Vilash Lal, banished from the land of his birth by the Bainimarama government in November 2009 for championing democracy and barred from entering Fiji upon the orders of the Prime Minister, has died in Brisbane, 12 years after the draconian act of a heartless government.
The sudden and shocking death of Professor Brij Lal at the age of 69 should create a moment for all Fiji citizens to pause and reflect, even while we are distracted by our many personal challenges brought on by the pandemic and our other deep national problems.
Professor Lal was a giant on the international academic stage. But for the last 12 years of his life he was banned by the Bainimarama and FijiFirst governments from returning to the place of his birth.
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Some of Fiji’s most outstanding people, with international reputations, are sporting figures, business people or international diplomats. But among historians and scholars, Professor Lal stood tall around the world.
From a poor farming family in Tabia, Vanua Levu, Professor Lal rose to be an emeritus professor of Pacific and Asian history at the Australian National University, one of the world’s highest-ranked places of learning.
He was an acknowledged expert on the Indian diaspora around the world. He was recognised as the pre-eminent historian on the history of indenture and Girmitiya.
Among his many books, he wrote authoritative biographies on A D Patel and Jai Ram Reddy, two of Fiji’s most influential political leaders.
1997 Fiji Constitution architect
Professor Lal will be remembered as one of the architects of the 1997 Fiji Constitution. His membership of the three-man Reeves Commission, with former Parliamentary Speaker Tomasi Vakatora, ushered in multiparty government and a national governing law strongly protective of good governance, human rights and multiracialism.
It is this constitution that current Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, as Army Commander, twice abrogated in May 2000, only for it to be restored by the Fiji Court of Appeal in March 2001, and again in April 2009, bringing in a new legal order.
However, Professor Lal may be best remembered in Fiji as the target of a small-minded two-man government of Voreqe Bainimarama and Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, which banned him and his wife Dr Padma Lal indefinitely from returning to Fiji.
This was because Professor Lal spoke up for democracy and rule of law at a time the Bainimarama government did not want to be criticised. Professor Lal remained excluded from Fiji to the day of his death because Fiji’s insecure political leaders could never say they were wrong.
And they repeatedly refused to reconsider their reprehensible act despite resumption of parliamentary democracy 7 years ago in October 2014.
Pettiness of Fiji leaders
The pettiness of Fiji’s leaders will not take away Professor Lal’s towering achievements and scholarship, for which he will one day be fully recognised in the place he was born. All of us in Fiji are the poorer for his irreplaceable loss.
The opposition National Federation Party will be organising a condolence gathering to remember Professor Lal and details on this will be announced soon.
The party offers its deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to Dr Padma Narsey Lal, children Yogi and Niraj and the Lal and Narsey families in Fiji and abroad.
“I do not know whether I will ever be able to understand the mystery that is Fiji, and whether I will ever be allowed to return to again embrace the land of my birth. But I know one unalterable truth whatever happens, the green undulating hills of Tabia will always be a special place for me. Home is where the heart is.”
– Professor Brij Vilash Lal, October 2020
Professor Biman Prasad is leader of the Fiji opposition National Federation Party (NFP) and a former colleague of Professor Brij Lal at the University of the South Pacific.