Mahendra Sukhdeo

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Mahendra Sukhdeo (born 17 October 1940) is a former Fiji Indian unionist and politician, who was one of the founding members of the Fiji Labour Party (FLP), but only a few months later resigned from the party due to disagreement with the leadership over the direction in which the party was being steered.

Academic Pursuits[edit]

Sukhdeo was born in Nadi, Fiji. After completing his primary at St. Andrews Government School and secondary education at Shri Vivekananda High Scholl in Nadi, Fiji, he went to India and studied at Elphinstone College, Bombay where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree in History/Politics (1964). At the College, he was elected the General Secretary of the Overseas Students Union (1962) and subsequently the Joint Secretary of the Student Union and contributed to its literary organ, the "Elphinstonian". In 1965, he received the Bachelor of Education, Delhi University and Master of Arts in politics from Bombay University. He was regarded as the first Fiji student to have obtained a Masters degree in Politics. He also studied Sociology and Journalism. He had his initial training as a journalist with The Times of India (1967). In 1966, he was elected to the University Students' Council and was the Editor of the "The University Journal"(1967/68). A scholarly article, India that is... critically analysed the socio-political psyche of emergent India after two decades of independence. He wrote a few literary poems. One, entitled 'FACADE' was published in the 'Student Journalist' (1965), a laboratory publication of the Bombay College of Journalism and the other, 'PETALS', was included in the University Journal (1967).

Meeting Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India[edit]

He met Nehru in Bombay in May 1963 when he was casually engaged as an information aide for the Government of India pavilion, showcasing the lavish 'Our Himalayas' exhibition. On Nehru's 80th birth anniversary, he wrote an extensive article, Face to face with Nehru in the 'Fiji Times (17 November 1969) and his photograph together with Nehru was published in Shanti Dut, a Hindi publication (19 November 1970)

Contribution to Fiji's Civil Service (1968–1974)[edit]

On his return to Fiji in 1968, he was courted by the then Head of Politics of the University of the South Pacific for a position of Lecturer of Politics, but on being called to take the appointment, the offer was abruptly turned down by the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, Dr. Colin C Aikman. This ended his aspiration to be the first Fiji academic for that position. It was assumed by many at the time that the Vice-Chancellor did not favour an Indian for this sensitive position, as his academic utterances could impact on Fiji's politics. Sukhdeo then opted to be employed as a Divisional Welfare Officer in Fiji's Department of Social Welfare. As the first Divisional Welfare Officer, Northern he successfully siphoned a number of social oriented functions of the District Administration such as the family assistance scheme, matrimonial reconciliation, youth schemes etc. into the new service and opened district welfare offices in Labasa and Savusavu. In 1970, he initiated the formation of the "Fiji Association of Welfare Officers" later renamed "Fiji Association of Social Workers" and edited its first journal, "The Welfare Forum" (December 1971). He was elected President of the Association in November 1971. In his capacity as the President, he criticised the 1972 National Budget for failing to fully address the social paradigm. This earned him a formal warning from the Public Service Commission for criticising Government's economic policies. In 1972, he was the Secretary and subsequently its interim Chairman of the Suva District Council of Social Services. In the same year, he spent three months in Australia studying the Australian family system as a guest of the International Training Centre (ITC) and in February 1974 he was called for an interview in Singapore and narrowly missed selection for the position of Regional Coordinator of the World Planned Parenthood Federation. A strong pressure for the Indonesian candidate and an impromptu negative remark on the Australian family planning scheme propelled the Chairperson (an Australian) of the Selection Committee to negate Sukhdeo's bid.

Suva City Council (1974–81): First Phase[edit]

In April 1974, prompted by the then Suva City Councillors of National Federation Party, Harilal M.Patel and Chandra P. Bidesi, he resigned from the Civil Service to take up an appointment as the Industrial Relations Officer/Fair Rents Officer, Suva for Suva City Council. His recruitment created a minor political flutter as the Alliance Councillor Joape Rokosoi stormed out of the meeting. Ironically, both of them became good friends till Rokosoi's untimely demise in 1996. During the intervening years, Sukhdeo was the informal link between Bidesi and Rokosoi who were on opposite political platforms. When Bidesi was nominated as a Senator, he penned almost all his speeches.

In early 1976, he initiated the formation of the Fiji Local Government Executive Officers Association to represent the interests of the senior executives. He drafted the constitution and at its first meeting on 9 February 1976, he was appointed its general secretary. The SCC Staff Association opposed the registration that resulted in its application for a separate trade union being declined. That ended the first attempt at uniting all local government executives under an official industrial umbrella. The position of Industrial Relations Officer was later designated as the City Personnel Officer that reflected the depth of responsibility for more than 800 employees. In 1977, Suva City Council was dissolved after a damning report on its misadministration. A Government nominee, William Cruikshank was appointed its Chief Administrator. A number of senior executives were axed, but Sukhdeo worked closely with the Chief Administrator to reorganise the workforce and transfer personnel when the Council's electricity operations were taken over by the Fiji Electricity Authority. In 1978, the Administrators appointed him the Assistant Town Clerk. With the return of the elected Councillors, he was appointed the City's Deputy Town Clerk in August 1979. In December he acted as the Town Clerk/chief executive officer. He was clearly being groomed for the Town Clerk/CEO's position when in August 1981 his tenure was abruptly terminated by the then Lord Mayor of Suva on account of writing a feature article, "Vatuwaqa Cemetery Access Road...how it all happened") that did not record his name in the Fiji Sun supplement ("The Fiji Sun" 18/08/81).

India-Fiji Friendship Society (1974–81)[edit]

Parallel to his first phase of career in Suva City Council, Sukhdeo was instrumental in the formation of India-Fiji Friendship Society in association with Councillor Isireli Vuibau, the then Lord Mayor of Suva and the Indian High Commissioner to Fiji, Bhagwan Singh. He drafted the first Constitution of the then titled Asia-Fiji Friendship Society that was adopted at its first meeting. In the subsequent meeting, the new name was adopted. Since its inception in 1974, he remained the Society's Secretary till the early 1980s when a new set of office bearers were elected. It was during this (1974–1981) period, the Society organised the reception for the Indian Navy ship, provided platform for several Indian dignitaries and supported the engagement of some 700 Indian nationals as professionals in almost all facets of Fiji's development.

Research Fellow/Lecturer: University of the South Pacific (1982–83)[edit]

In 1982, he was appointed a Research Fellow conjointly with his engagement as the Lecturer-in-Charge of “Social Policy and Administration” at the University of the South Pacific. Under the aegis of Dr. Benjamin Higgins, Head of the Centre for Applied Studies in Development, he completed several research projects, principal one being a six month study of Suva, its developmental potential and constraints as part of the United Nations’ (UNCRD) inter-country project on the “Role of Small Towns and Medium Cities”. During this period, he wrote the University of the South Pacific’s lead paper “Urbanisation – An Inevitable Development” for discussion at the 22nd South Pacific Conference in Pagopago, American Samoa (23–29 October 1981). Sukhdeo was also a Consultant for the Commonwealth Youth Programme and a Resource Person for several high level seminar/workshops at the USP’ chiefly the “Local Level Planning” Seminar at the Institute of Social and Administrative Studies; Regional Training Course on “Environmental Management for Resource Development (funded by CFTC) and a Workshop on “The Use of Technical Consultants in Technology Decision Making in the Public Sector”. During 1983, he wrote an extensive survey of the “Economic and Social Policy responses of the Pacific Island Nations (PINs) to the International Development Strategy, 1983 and completed writing Country Papers on “Economic and Social Developments” for each of the following ESCAP affiliated PINs: Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Niue, Tonga and Fiji.

National Union of Municipal Workers. (1983–1989) First Phase[edit]

[1] Whilst still engaged at the University of the South Pacific, several senior executives of the Union (Akapusi Tui, Haffizud Dean and others) approached Sukhdeo to stand for the general secretary's position to replace the incumbent who was reportedly weak and ineffective. At the AGM held in Jubilee Hall, Suva on 26 March 1983, he comfortably won the election on the promise of forfeiting his pay of $3000 in favour of a welfare fund for the workers and removing discriminatory structures affecting municipal workers (The Fiji Times, 28/03/83). From 1983 to 1989, Sukhdeo was the voice of the Union and under his leadership, branches were established in Nausori, Lami and Labasa; industrial agreements were fortified; job evaluation affecting the Suva municipal employees was implemented; several cases were taken up as industrial disputes and the Union provided a viable support for social campaigns and the formation of the Fiji Labour Party. After the 1987 Coup, he spent considerable time to ensure that the municipal employees were minimally affected by the cost-cutting measures.

During 1984/85, there was a strong bid by Councillors all over Fiji asking the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs to implement the 1982 Report on "Remuneration and Allowances for Councillors". Sukhdeo was opposed to any substantial remuneration to Councillors, as he viewed Councillors' role as that of selfless service at the local level. He wrote a letter directed at the Minister resulting in the Minister diffusing any bid for remuneration for Councillors. Noting that the Management Board of the FTUC was heavily tilted in favour of large white collar union leaders and almost all external seminars/conferences were being earmarked for the Board members, Sukhdeo steered the Union away from the ICFTU affiliated FTUC activities towards affiliation with the Russian backed World Federation of Trade Unions and its affiliates. The first such affiliation was with the Public Service Trade Union International of Public and Allied Employees (PSTUI) with its Headquarters based in East Berlin. In 1985, Sukhdeo was invited to a Regional Trade Union Conference in New Delhi where he spoke of the glaring anomalies both within the public service personnel as well as comparative matrix outside the public service. In 1986, he accepted a direct invitation from the General Secretary of the World Federation of Labour to attend its XI World Trade Union Congress at Berlin (GDR) from 16 to 22 September. Another Fiji attendee was his trade union and political colleague Krishna Datt, a nominee of Fiji Teachers Union. The FTUC did not wish to be officially associated with the visit although the invitation was sent to the FTUC. At the time, Sukhdeo was a Vice-President and Krishna Datt the General Secretary of the newly formed Fiji Labour Party. On the way to Moscow, both of them were given new passports by the Russian Embassy in Singapore. In Moscow, both of them had informal discussions with the WFTU officials and in Berlin WFTU Conference were accorded front line seats. On their return to Fiji in early October, Krishna Datt was the first to break the informal pact that their whereabouts will remain confidential. Later in the 1987 General Elections, their Moscow visit generated keen media attention as both of them traded innuendoes regarding the visit. In 1988, he was again invited by the General Secretary of TUI of Public and Allied Unions, Jochen Meinel to attend the VIII International Trades Congress of Public Employees in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Board of Trustees: the Fiji Museum: (1978–1981)[edit]

As a nominee of Suva City Council, Sukhdeo was a Member of the Board of Trustees of Fiji Museum for three years. During this time, the importance of Lapita relics found at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes was a subject of Board’s deliberations. Sukhdeo and Kamikamica (later to become the Prime Minister of Fiji) spearheaded the move to provide protection for such heritage sites. Sigatoka Sand Dunes were then brought under the heritage protection of the Fiji National Trust Act.

Birth of Fiji Labour Party: (1982–1985)[edit]

Between 1982 and 1985, people of Fiji were getting disenchanted with the political impotency of the National Federation Party and the right wing policies of the Alliance Party. Soon after 1982 elections, during the prolonged teachers’ strike in 1983, Sukhdeo was called in by the combined FTA/FTU team to galvanise the teachers and supporters. In a spirited impromptu speech at the FTA Hall, he lashed out at the anti-worker policies of the Government and the then Minister for Education, Dr Ahmed Ali. This strike was followed by a hunger strike by the young graduates who were deprived of guaranteed employment. In a speech in front of the hunger strikers and their aides, he once again criticised the Government’s inability to prioritise its economic policies towards the weaker sections of the community. The imposition of wage freeze in November 1984 provided the fodder for the unionists to unite across sectoral trade union and political interests and galvanise the rank and file workers against the measure. Following massive support given to the public rallies in Suva, Lautoka and Labasa and after much discussion within the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), about forming a Labour Party, it was Sukhdeo, who at an executive committee meeting of the Congress on 15 December 1984 moved a motion that Fiji Labour Party (FLP) be launched.[2] After the formation of the FLP, he outlined his vision for the platform of the new party as follows:

"a strong anti-corruption bill, tougher immigration laws, improvements for rural people, increased social welfare projects, an overhaul of all labour legislation, job creation programs, greater encouragenet of local production and import substitution, a non-aligned foreign policy,, and support for a nuclear free Pacific as well as for independence movements in New Caledonia and French Polynesia."[1]

He was elected a Vice-President of the Party and the Secretary of the Nasinu/Vunidawa branch. In 1985 he was elected to the Suva City Council.[1]

Suva City Council Elections: November 1985[edit]

He was asked by the Party general secretary to prepare the strategies, formulate policies and provide leadership for the Suva City Council elections in November 1985. Initial press reports and Party pamphlets showed that Sukhdeo was providing the lead for the Party candidates, particularly in the Samabula ward. It was just before the elections that a Labour candidate, Michael Dutta withdrew as he was migrating to Australia. This provided the opportunity for Bob Kumar to seek Management Board’s approval for his Samabula candidacy. The Party immersed itself into an electioneering mode at ground level and received wholesome support in Samabula and Muanikau Wards. The Labour candidates thrashed NFP and Alliance candidates in Samabula Ward, once regarded as a blue ribbon constituency for the National Federation Party. It was the first nail in NFP’s coffin. Sukhdeo was well groomed to take the helm of the Council, but the Party bypassed him in favour of Bob Kumar, the Party Treasurer a late comer to Suva City Council electioneering. Sukhdeo was then elected as the Party Whip and Chairman of the sensitive Tender Committee.

Not long after, Sukhdeo was the centre of media attention when he opposed a Suva City Council resolution to lease part of the Flagstaf Park to an Australian Company and in the process accused some Councillors of involvement in the matter. The media blew his statements to smack of corruption on the part of two unnamed Councillors. Sukhdeo was referred for investigation of his allegations by the Council to the Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs. On an investigation report by a senior Detective, the Minister, Hon. E.J.Beddoes ruled that there was no case to answer. The TV saga resulted in a formal split amongst the FLP Councillors as a section led by Bob Kumar was seen to be in cahoots with a few dissident Alliance Councillors

1987 General Elections[edit]

In early 1986, Sukhdeo organised one of the largest Party rallies in Nasinu attended by some 500 followed by another rally in Narere where the Branch was formed and he was elected Secretary of the Nasinu/Vunidawa branch. He provided logistical support to the FLP candidates for the Labasa Town Council elections and was active in electioneering for the FLP candidates for the Ba Town Council elections. At the formation of the Nadi Branch, he, being a Nadi born official, was called alongside Dr Bavadra, Choudhry and Krishna Datt at the Nair’s Dias to speak at its inauguration.

His relationship with the leadership of the Party soured after talks began with the National Federation Party (NFP) for the formation of a coalition to contest the 1987 election. He publicly opposed any idea of a coalition. On 22 December 1986 he resigned in protest from the Party and later defected to the Alliance Party. In the following weeks, he elaborated on his disenchantment with the Labour Party: “My reasons for leaving the Labour Party are self-evident. The Party has lost its credibility, because it constantly deviated from its principles and promises. The Party leadership has made several unpardonable lapses and its primary aim is to secure safe seats for four to five staff union leaders. It is unfortunate that there is not a single representation of blue collar workers. The labour party is not the beginning but the end of the road for a united labour movement in Fiji” (Fiji Sun 29 December 1986) And predicted “... that the coalition, win or lose, would soon break up after internal fighting” and he “warned of the possibility of violent reactions here in Fiji if Fiji citizens living overseas were allowed to vote” (in Fiji’s elections) (Fiji Sun 8 January 1986) “On the Labour Party’s credibility, firstly the Party stated that it will not have any track with an organised group; it went ahead and had talks with the National Federation Party Youth Group. Then it indicated that no parliamentarians will be taken in, it went ahead and recruited three “political refugees”, namely Dr Satendra Nandan, Jai Raj Singh and Davendra Singh. Inter alia, the Party hurled abuses at the National Federation Party as a sectarian party full of ostentatious lawyers and party bourgeoisie; it went ahead into an unholy coalition with the same National Federation Party. Subsequently, the Party fostered the view that the National Federation Party will be embraced under the umbrella of the Fiji Labour Party. It ended up becoming a junior partner of a communal party with the sole aim of toppling the Government rather than disseminating the egalitarian labour philosophy. The Party labelled itself as a representative movement. Yet those union leaders who have selected themselves as candidates belong to the white collar unions only. Such callous inconsistencies within such a shot life span of a multi-racial party are inexcusable. Deny these Mr. Datt?” (Fiji Sun 12 January 1987) And quite ominously, he declared that “...the unholy alliance of National Federation Party and Fiji Labour Party was sowing seeds of instability in Fiji” (Fiji Sun 29 January 1987)

For the 1987 general election, the Alliance Party chose him as a candidate for the Nasinu/Vunidawa Indian Communal Constituency which the Party had no chance of winning. He issued a personal leaflet, “Fiji Labour Party and I” (Fiji Archives doc.) outlining a raft of policy contradictions and false promises to the voters. In particular, he predicted that “Race relations is likely to deteriorate in Fiji with the emergence of a Coalition – a marriage of convenience – consisting of racial extremists, business opportunists, political refugees and white collar unionists..” and he concluded that “Any disturbance of race relations i n Fiji is likely to harm more the Indians than any other race in Fiji.” During the campaign, he accused Krishna Datt (of the FLP) of asking the Russians for help.[2] The military coup a month after the election ended his national political career.

Deputy Lord Mayor of Suva: (1988–1989)[edit]

However, he remained a Councillor in Suva City Council and in November 1987 Sukhdeo was elected Deputy Lord Mayor and in June 1988, he was the Acting Lord Mayor of Suva. In this capacity, on 22 June he officially opened the paved bus bays at the Suva Bus Station. In August 1988, he was invited as a Guest of the Fifth South Pacific Arts Festival, Townsville, Australia in recognition of Suva being the host of the First South Pacific Arts Festival. A large Fiji contingent participated in the Festival that was opened by the then Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke on 14 September. During his visit, he met with the Mayor of Townsville, Alderman Mike Raynolds and his key officials (18 September) with a view to forming a sister city relations between Suva and Townsville. On 20 September he was invited as a unionist to speak at the combined group of Federal Municipal and Shire Council Employees Union and Municipal Officers’ Association in regard to the post coup political situation in Fiji. On 21 September he was at the World Expo in Brisbane. Later he met with the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson. Although the Council was dissolved in November 1988 on expiry of its three-year elected life, he remained a Councillor as a nominee of the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Tomasi Vakatora . In November 1988, he along with Councillor Navin Chandra, played an active role in the election of the mayoral candidate. In April 1989 he resigned as a Councillor to take up the substantive position of the Operations Manager once again with Suva City Council.

KMU Conference, Manila, Philippines (22 April – 2 May 1989)[edit]

On his way to India to consecrate his late father’s ashes in the Ganges, Sukhdeo and his wife, Malti Sukhdeo, a teachers’ unionist, attended the KMU Trade Union Solidarity Conference in Manila. Their week -long visit to familiarise with the minimal working conditions of workers in various parts of Philippines coincided with the Labour Day solidarity march in downtown Manila. Thousands of workers had gathered at the protest rally that was addressed by prominent trade unionists. A heavy military/police presence was noticeable. As the rally progressed towards the American Embassy, the military opened tear gas fire and water cannon shooting at the gathering including Sukhdeo and his wife. In the stampede, both of them along with other delegates ran out of the military/police range and took shelter in buildings around the grounds. It was a harrowing experience for all the delegates that left an indelible imprint on their minds.

Operations Manager, Suva City Council (1989–1996)[edit]

As a condition of employment imposed upon him, Sukhdeo resigned from the position of General Secretary of the Union in April 1989. The highlights of his career during this period included the pioneering work in producing/mounting a visual/textual exhibition, “Suva- Showcase of the Pacific” that was displayed for the public at Civic Hall, Melbourne during “Cities and Towns of Asia-Pacific” Conference. The exhibition was later displayed at Suva Civic Centre during the 1995 Tourism Convention for which it received the Air New Zealand Fiji Tourism Award of Excellence. In the same year, Sukhdeo received the Government of Fiji “Letter of Appreciation” for contribution towards the official visit of the United Nation’ Secretary General, Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali to Fiji. In 1996, he received similar accolades for the State Visit of HRH Princess Sirindorh of Thailand and for his singular contribution towards the United Nations’ 50th Anniversary Celebrations in Suva. It was Sukhdeo who proposed and on his recommendation the Suva City Council approved that the adjoining park between Municipal Library and Old Town Hall be named “United Nations Park”. Sukhdeo is also credited for writing a management report on the feasibility of incorporating “Giant Waterslide” for the Suva Olympic Pool; giving support for the food kiosk project for Fijian women at the Suva Municipal Market and submitting a detailed marketing report for the Civic Tower project. In July 1996 he resigned from Suva City Council.

Member: Hotel and Catering Wages Council (1989–1994)[edit]

Sukhdeo served as a Member of the Hotel and Catering Wages Council for almost five years when minimum wage bands and service conditions were established. In 1995, he was awarded the 25 Anniversary Independence Medal by the President for his meritorious service to Fiji

National Union of Municipal Worker (August 1996 – December 1999) Second Phase[edit]

From 1989, when Sukhdeo left the Union till early 1996, the Union was without a strong steward and the regional and racial factions within the Union catapulted into separate union entities. The Municipal Employees Credit Union that Sukhdeo had established had broken its umbilical cord; the branches in the west had formed their own trade union and a separate trade union was registered in Suva. Jale Toki, the General Secretary of the SCC Staff Association that was perpetually at loggerheads with the National Union of Municipal Workers had forced his way into the Union as its Organising Secretary. A series of meetings with Sukhdeo by a group of concerned Executive members led to his reappointment as the general secretary and revocation of Jale Toki’s appointment as the Organising Secretary. His attempt to reunite the members from the Western Division failed as the separate union was now entrenched under the shadow of the Fiji Local Government Officers Association. Sukhdeo re-established links with the Trade Union International of Public Employees, now led by Sukomal Sen with its Headquarters in India. In 1998, he attended the IX TUI Congress in Calcutta, India. In December 1999, prior to his emigration to New Zealand, he resigned from the general secretary’s position and invited Pramod Rae to be the Organising Secretary of the Union. In March 2000, he returned to Fiji to steer the Union’s Annual General Meeting in Suva that formally appointed Pramod Rae as its general secretary.

President, Fiji Society for the Intellectually Handicapped (1988/89)[edit]

In September 1988 Sukhdeo was elected the President of the Suva Society for the Intellectually Handicapped. His involvement began when his son, Devneel Sukhdeo joined the School in 1986 after it was ascertained that he could not progress through the normal school curriculum. The School’s administration was disorganised and its finances remained unaudited for a number of years. Sukhdeo was asked to take the lead to streamline the management of the Society. His engagement was discontinued in 1989. It was his son’s rehabilitation that prompted the family to migrate to New Zealand in December 1999

Centre Manager: Adult Education Centre, South Auckland Branch, Auckland, New Zealand (2000/2001)[edit]

The Centre catered for adult students in pursuit of New Zealand Qualifications Authority’s accredited units for Computing, Business Administration, Communication and Customer Service. On account of liquidation of the company, Sukhdeo left and since 2003 he is with the Skycity Entertainment Group, Auckland in a supervisory role in its support operations.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Howard, Michael (1991). Fiji: Race and politics in an island state. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 384. ISBN 0-7748-0368-1. 
  2. ^ Robertson, Robert; Akosita Tamanisau (1988). Fiji – Shattered Coups. Canberra: Pluto Press Australia Limited. p. 24. ISBN 0-949138-25-8.