I had the honor of working with Brij from 1995 to 1996, when he was one of three commissioners on the Fiji Constitution Review Commission, chaired by the former Governor General of New Zealand and Anglican Archbishop, Sir Paul Reeves. Brij was the local member appointed by the then opposition leader and leader of the National Federation party, Mr. Jai Ram Reddy. Brij brought with him his extensive knowledge of modern Fijian political history, but from the perspective of his life experiences at that time.
The other Local Commissioner was the late Mr. Tomasi Vakatora Snr who came to the Commission after a long career in public service, as Speaker of the House and Government Minister. Mr. Vakatora was the candidate of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Sitiveni Rabuka. As he had always been at the highest level of government during my career, he was always “Mister Vakatora” for me. Brij, on the other hand, was closer in age and less formal, and insisted on being called by his first name.
I returned from studying in Boston to join the Commission as local legal counsel, the other counsel being experienced constitutional drafter, Alison Quentin-Baxter from New Zealand.
Before joining the Commission, I was familiar with Brij and his accomplishments as a historian. I remember quoting several of his sentences verbatim in one of my academic essays on Fijian politics and law, as I could not find a way to summarize his ideas as elegantly as he expressed them.
For someone with an established reputation as a terrific academic, Brij was easy to get along with and work for, despite the heavy and stressful responsibility of his role. One of the first remarks he made to me was that as a historian, he was excited about making history. He told how he sometimes found it hard to believe that he had come from his small village of Tabia to Labasa for such an important national role.
The Commission was established to review and recommend changes to the 1990 Constitution, which was enacted after the 1987 coup. The 1990 Constitution contained various provisions aimed at ensuring what was then called the rule of Fijian interests. These included a House of Representatives elected exclusively along communal lines, with a fixed majority of indigenous “Fijian”, Rotuman and “voters at large” seats and a fixed minority of “Indian” seats. It also provided for an appointed Senate, also with a fixed majority of Fijian representatives. The question for the Commission was whether these types of arrangements should be maintained or replaced by something else.
Brij began his work with the Commission with the clear idea that these provisions should be replaced, ideally with an open voting system based on a common role for all. Mr Vakatora, for his part, started from the principle that the 1990 agreements should be kept in principle and that any adjustment should be aimed at strengthening Fijian supremacy.
Alison and I were available to the commissioners for private conversations to help them understand the legal issues and formulate their ideas, and those positions were clearly expressed in the early stages of our work.
The Commission’s job was to travel the length and breadth of Fiji to hear from the people. We have also traveled around the world, consulting with governance experts in various multi-ethnic countries and consulting with experienced leaders and politicians in those countries.
It is to his credit that Brij approached the task with the utmost dedication and open-mindedness of an academic. He listened carefully to people. He questioned the experts closely, and he began to see things differently than he had seen them when he started.
Sir Paul recognized early on that Brij and Mr Vakatora were proxies for the Indian and Fijian communities, and any agreement between the communities had to start with Brij and Mr Vakatora. Brij recognized it too, as did Mr. Vakatora, finally. Luckily, they were both lovable personalities. A close friendship slowly developed, and through our travels, hearings, and many meetings, each came to see the other community’s perspectives, fears, and hopes as real and deserving of respect. .
They started the journey that we all have to travel.
It is fair to say that it was Brij who brought the energy and academic rigor to the Commission’s deliberations, and his tenacity and enthusiasm must be credited for moving Mr. Vakatora to the middle ground represented by the Commission report.
Reaching this common ground took longer than expected. Alison and I were tasked with writing the Commission’s report with a deadline that was fast approaching. Being the sleek, perfectionist writer that he was, Brij scrutinized our drafts closely, suggesting or demanding rewrites where I wasn’t able to capture the essence of an idea as eloquently as he would. do. He wasn’t ready to put his name to anything that was below his high level. Those days and nights were long and tiring. Brij, the tough builder, nevertheless supervised my work in a benevolent and jovial manner.
At the end of the process, Brij was proud not only of the report and its recommendations, but also of the new insights he had gained during this trip.
He had learned that power and responsibility are very different when moving from the seat of an outside critic to that of a decision maker. He learned that perspectives, insecurities, and hopes that you don’t share should always be acknowledged and addressed. He is proud of the history that the Commission and his friendship with Mr. Vakatora is writing.
The resulting 1997 Constitution is of course now history itself. I leave it to social scientists to determine whether this was due to flaws in the Commission’s recommendations or to other factors such as changes made by parliament when adopting the recommendations – for example, the Constitution required a multiparty cabinet, which the Commission had advised against; it also reversed the recommended ratio of reserved seats to open seats.
As we all know, Brij and Padma were exiled from Fiji in 2009 after a radio interview he gave to Radio New Zealand which criticized the military takeover. Sadly, he was never to return to his beloved village of Tabia, Vanua Levu.
Equally sad is that after the 2009 takeover, the story Brij had spent his life documenting, and the history he helped make, was effectively erased from the national consciousness. Before 2006, it is now prehistory. This long history – the colonial experience, independence and the period that followed, and the revision of the Constitution – is no longer evoked, is no longer recalled. Many young people are not even aware that this has happened.
Brij died the day before another leader, Archbishop Tutu of South Africa. Tom Vakatora Jnr shared on Facebook a photo of his father, Brij and the Archbishop taken at the latter’s home in South Africa when we traveled there to consult with the country’s leaders on their elaboration and experiences post -apartheid.
The photograph brought back fond memories of that time. It also made me realize the similarities between the two men and the tragic contrasts. Both were champions of equality and human rights. Both were fearless defenders. Both witty, boyish and cheeky and just as they appear in the photo, with a twinkle in their eyes.
Especially if it made me understand the tragic contrast. One of them died a famous leader, at home in his native country. The other, in exile far from his beloved Tabia, celebrated around the world as a scholar but almost forgotten in his native land.
The challenge for us is to rewrite our history again, to remember and properly honor once again, Brij and our many, many other leaders who have contributed to our national life throughout our history.
Rest well Brij. Padma and family, may you too find comfort in this sad time.
This is an edited version of the author’s speech at a memorial gathering for the late Professor Brij Lal in Suva on December 30, 2021. This is the third in a series of tributes to him, collected at #Brij Lal.