Brij Lal’s tribute to Jai Ram Reddy – ‘a true son of Fiji’

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Jai Ram Reddy (right) and Mahendra Chaudhry at a meeting
Jai Ram Reddy (right) and Mahendra Chaudhry at a meeting ... "His words and deeds will not die, nor allowed to perish on the silent shores of Fiji’s public memory." Image: The Fiji Times

OBITUARY: By Dr Brij Lal

Full many a gem of purest ray serene The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear Full many a floww’r is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air

— Thomas Gray , “Elegy”, 1751

Jai Ram Reddy, former Fiji statesman, judge and international jurist, has died in Auckland aged 85.

In his passing, Fiji has lost one of its most distinguished sons of the 20th century.

We mourn his passing but, in truth, we mourn for ourselves, for he has left the silken bonds of this earth to find rest and respite in the company of Fiji’s immortals. He is now one for the ages.

This gifted man will continue to shine as a beacon for those who fight for fairness and justice and a higher purpose in life, and for a decent country to live in.

The words of Urdu Laureate Allama Iqbal are apposite: Bade Mushkil se Hote Hain Chaman men Deedawar paya.

Men of great clarity of vision are born rarely on this earth. Jai Ram Reddy exemplified the finest traits and traditions of his people.

He was born on May 12, 1937, the eldest child in a humble, hardworking family in the heart of Fiji’s cane country.

Transcended the limits
But he transcended the limits and limitations of his time and place and circumstance to reach the highest pinnacles of his profession in law and in international jurisprudence, with a distinguished record of public service in his native country.

Reddy graduated in law from Victoria University of Wellington in 1961. After several years at the law firm of the legendary lawyer AD Patel, he joined the Crown Law Office.

Declining the offer of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution from Chief Justice Sir John Nimmo while still in his early 30s, he joined the law firm of Stuart and Company where he remained for the rest of his legal career.

Law was his passion, he used to say, and what made all the difference was that he was so good at it.

He was the finest criminal barrister of his generation. After a short, ill-fated stint as Fiji’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in 1987, he accepted appointment as President of Fiji’s Court of Appeal, to the great delight of Sir Timoci Tuivaga, the Chief Justice, and Qoriniasi Bale, the Attorney-General, who counted Reddy as one of his two heroes in the law, the other being the judicial titan Justice Ghana Mishra.

Reddy’s judicial career reached its pinnacle as a Permanent Judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTAR, in Arusha, Tanzania, where his judicial acumen and integrity won him accolades as a “consummate judge” respected for his “wisdom, fairness and sense of justice”.

‘A sheer privilege’
The president of ICTAR, Justice Eric Morse of Norway, wrote that it was “a sheer privilege to sit with judge Reddy on the bench”.

From law into politics which he entered in 1972 as a senator and the House of Representatives in April 1977. In Parliament he remained a commanding performer, never bested in debate, quick on his feet, withering in response, one of the best he had seen, said Dr Apenisa Kurusiqila, the Speaker.

“The Parliament will not be the same without you, Jai,” he said when Reddy left after his electoral defeat in 1999. His early years in politics were unproductive ones for him and for the people he represented, caught in the quagmire of communal wrangling, hobbled by division and disunity, and drifting.

But to his everlasting credit, he transcended that in the second phase of his career to become an honoured elder statesman, respected across the communities for his vision and essential, transparent fairness and “sincerity of purpose”.

The political reconciliation he achieved with his once arch political nemesis Sitiveni Rabuka in the teeth of rancorous opposition and deep skepticism on all sides, will remain one of the shining moments of 20th century Fijian history.

And Reddy’s evolution from a communal politician to a venerable statesman is a story for the pages of history books, too. Jai Ram Reddy was a “reluctant politician”, his critics charged. And they were right although for the wrong reason.

A vehicle for social service
Jai Ram was not in the thrall of politics, making small talk, trimming the truth, mixing easily with the crowds, glad handling. He readily acknowledged his essential shyness in public spaces. Politics for Jai Ram Reddy was a vehicle for social service, not a path to personal enrichment and accumulation.

Swami Rudananda’s influence on him was profound. Reserved and shy in public, Jai could be great fun in private. His laughter was infectious. He loved music and was a social singer in his early years.

We could talk endlessly about the Hindi movies of the 1950s, the songs and the actors he remembered. He was fond of horses and once owned one he impishly named Shabana Azmi, after the great Indian actress.

But all these private passions gave way as public duties increasingly came to consume his time. Jai Ram was an intellectual who believed in the power of ideas to change society and to enable sustainable social reform.

His enlarging vision saw a unity of purpose and common space for all the people of Fiji. “We are fellow human beings travelling in the same canoe,” he used to say.

“This country is big enough for all of us,” he said to a soldier who told him menacingly in Nadi in September 1987: “In this country, Mr Reddy, you take what we give you, no more.”

That Jai Ram refused to allow such taunts and provocations to derail or define him spoke volumes about the man. In one of the defining speeches of Fiji’s 20th century history, Jai Ram shared the deepest fears of his people with the Great Council of Chiefs in 1997: He spoke movingly of history and the making of history, of truth and destiny, words the chiefs collectively had heard for the first time from an Fijian of Indian descent leader.

“Indians of Fiji brought to these shores as labourers did not come to conquer or colonise.

“We, their descendants, do not seek to usurp your ancient rights and responsibilities. We never have. We have no wish, no desire, to separate ourselves from you.

“Fiji is our home. We have no other. We want no other.”

It was a majestic moment of truth and reconciliation, none better.

At his finest, eloquent
It was Jai Ram Reddy, the statesman, at his finest, eloquent and truthful in his thoughts. We all basked in the glory of his great achievement. But it was not to last long. He was gone soon afterwards. And we can only ponder what might have been had his vision succeeded.

“What might have been” must be among the saddest words in the English language. Jai Ram Reddy was a complex man. He had a very short fuse as some of us close to him knew well. He suffered fools badly. But no-one minded. We knew he was a person of complete, unimpeachable integrity.

He said in private what you heard from him in public. Often, he spoke from the heart.

“I have said what I felt,” he often said. Transparency of purpose defined him. He had a fine mind. He could cut through clutter in a canter. He readily won respect; he was a man who could be trusted to keep his word, as Sitiveni Rabuka has often said.

That, I think, lay at the heart of his life in politics and in public. Trust and integrity will be two words most closely associated with Reddy in the long years to come. In one of my last extended conversations with him in Auckland before his ailment claimed him.

He asked me how things looked in the country to which he had given the best years of life. I replied with the words of Firaq Gorakhpuri: Suraj ke nikalne men zara der lagegi. (The sun will take a little while longer to come out.) Is raat ko dhalne men zara der lagegi. (The night will take a little longer to fade away.)

Jai looked at me wordless for a while as if to say he understood.

We are grateful
And now he is gone. We are grateful and give thanks for the gift of his life which enriched us all. Jai Ram Reddy will not be forgotten.

His words and deeds will not die, nor allowed to perish on the silent shores of Fiji’s public memory.

We bow our heads in silence and respect as Mr Reddy embarks on his final journey.

May the angels light his way to Amar Lok, that sacred place of eternal rest for humanity’s immortals. Goodbye Jai, Goodbye Mr Reddy, goodbye sir.

The late Professor Brij Lal is the author of In the Eye of the Storm. Jai Ram Reddy and the politics of postcolonial Fiji (ANU Press, 2009) and most recently of Girmitiyas: Making of their Memory Keepers (New Delhi, 2021). He and his wife Padma were banned from Fiji for life. Professor Lal wrote this tribute before he died in exile on Christmas Day in 2021. Republished with permission from The Fiji Times.

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