“Diwali uproar” screamed the CJ Patel Fiji Sun, characteristically throwing more heat than light on the debate about the merits of daytime fireworks intruding on the Christian Sabbath during the Hindu Festival of Lights. Anyone glancing at the government-controlled Sun might have thought that temples were being desecrated or Hindu devotees set upon by angry mobs. But no. The “uproar” was because a Methodist Church minister and an opposition politician had the temerity to suggest that maybe any fireworks could be delayed until after 6.00pm on Sunday to avoid disrupting Christian services and the spiritual contemplation of the majority of believers in Fiji.
As it happens, I agree with the Reverend Wilfred Regunamada and Lynda Tabuya not because of the specific impact on Christians but because of the aural assault on Fijians of all faiths. And so incidentally does the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji – a bastion of the Hindu faith and a backbone of education in Fiji, with its string of schools across the country established as far back as 1918. The spokesperson for the Sabah is Kamlesh Arya, the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Fiji, a former High Commissioner to Australia and as strange a bedfellow as you could possibly imagine for the good Reverend and the perennially glamorous Ms Tabuya. Mr Arya is one of the most prominent and respected Hindus in Fiji. And he surprised many by saying that the Sabah fully concurred with the notion of fireworks not being let off until after 6.00pm on Sunday.
Kamlesh Arya ventured the opinion that fireworks have “no meaning or purpose in the religious commemoration of the festival of Diwali and are a commercial advent”. In other words, it’s more about money and entertainment. And he went on to make an observation with which many thousands of Fijian can agree – that the fireworks are “a pollutant in respect of noise and the environment”. In other words, a bloody nuisance.
So let’s get this straight. Fireworks have nothing to do with the religious observance of Diwali itself. They are an expression of celebration separate from the religious ceremonies and are entirely optional. And the fact that they have become part of Diwali in Fiji is no more relevant to the Hindu religion than Santa Claus or mistletoe is to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. They are the commercial side of Diwali. The ultimate beneficiary are Chinese fireworks manufacturers, just as Chinese toy manufacturers are the ultimate beneficiary of the commercial expression of Christmas.
Amid the “Diwali uproar” fuelled by the Fiji Sun with its classic tabloid beat-up, I sought the opinion of a close Hindu friend of mine, who also surprised me by agreeing with Wilfred Regunamada and Lynda Tabuya. And believe me, this person normally can’t stand the Methodists or SODELPA. My friend backed Kamlesh Arya by saying that fireworks have nothing to do with the Hindu religious rites that are conducted during the day. They merely go with the sweets and general revelry that come after the religious commemoration. And it is perfectly reasonable – this friend opined – to ask that the fireworks be delayed until after six. And not just to accommodate the sensibilities of Christians but for entirely practical reasons. Because what is the point of letting off fireworks before sunset? You can’t see them anyway and they are just a lot of gratuitous noise. So Wilfred and Lynda are right and the chorus of the politically correct and religiously sanctimonious are wrong.
I am not alone in deploring the increasing and sustained use of fireworks over the Diwali period in Fiji in recent years. For days before and after Diwali itself, Suva and other population centres resemble Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. The constant explosions and “small cracker fire” well into the night have become an undeniable nuisance. When I lived at Suva Point a few years back, it was sometimes impossible to sleep because of the racket emanating from neighbouring Raiwaqa. And as any pet owner will tell you, the trauma suffered by animals is terrible, not to mention the risk of injury to both children and adults when lighting a firecracker or rocket goes wrong. The steady stream of injured in the emergency corridors of our hospitals is evidence enough of that.
In short, the uncontrolled use of fireworks is a menace and a risk to public health that has led to total bans in some countries, including Australia. Yes, you are no longer permitted by law to set off fireworks yourself in the land of one of the most famous fireworks displays of all – the New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney. But has that stopped the Festival of Diwali being celebrated in Australia? Not at all. Ergo, you don’t need fireworks to celebrate Diwali. It is a commercial add-on to the religious festival that is totally without significance except for the gratification and entertainment of once-a-year pyromaniacs and amateur rocket launchers, the squeals of their delighted (or frightened) children and the whimpering of their terrified small animals.
I think it is high time for the personal use fireworks to be banned in Fiji altogether – as it is in other countries – on the grounds of nuisance and risk of injury. That doesn’t mean getting rid of the magic of fireworks altogether. There is nothing to stop the government licensing fireworks operators to conduct controlled displays in the major population centres. But this should be on the basis of a permit system and strict regulations about when these displays can take place. None of them should take place before sunset purely on the grounds of logic in that they can’t be seen in daylight anyway. And that anyone who lets off fireworks for the noise alone is a menace who deserves to be silenced.
Poor Reverend Regunamada – the Secretary for Communications of the Methodist Church. He is undoubtedly a nice man who will have never imagined being caught up in a political storm over his polite request for people to wait until after 6.00pm before unleashing Armageddon on the Christian Sabbath. He says his aim was “interfaith dialogue” and “peace”. But instead a great deal of indignant firepower has been unleashed on him. SODELPA MP Lynda Tabuya also made the mistake of treading into the line of fire. By backing the Rev Regunamada, she also found herself at the centre of the political storm.
Some cynics suspect that Ms Tabuya was trying to exploit the issue for her political advantage by playing to SODELPA’s nationalist hardcore in advance of the leadership ballot later in the month. But you don’t have to be a Methodist or a SODELPA supporter to see the sense of what both these individuals were saying. You just have to realise the abject pointlessness of letting off fireworks in daylight and upsetting your fellow citizens who value their tranquil surroundings.
So why was there such an unholy outcry against them? Easy. Those who inherently oppose the Methodists and SODELPA saw these comments – however sensible and innocuous – as a chance to make political capital themselves. Cui bono is an old legal term that asks “who benefits or who stands to gain?” And it is the question that underpins the judicial system when it comes to the issue of motive. So let’s ask: “Who benefited from sparking an uproar over all of this”? And the most plausible answer is the FijiFirst government and in particular the Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum. From where I sit, the AG’s fingerprints are all over this saga.
Ask yourself: Who was in the driver’s seat of this “uproar”? Yes, the CJ Patel Fiji Sun. In Wednesday’s paper, the fireworks row received coverage completely disproportionate to its importance. The Methodist Church President, the Rev Dr Epineri Vakadewavosa, had already disassociated the church from the Rev Regunamada’s comments. And the Rev Regunamada himself had expressed regret and had deleted the offending Facebook posting calling for the pre-six o’clock restraint. Lynda Tabuya had also deleted her own Facebook comment and replaced it with an expression of apology and regret. Yet the Fiji Sun still went in for the kill.
It was the lead item on page one. On page two, the AG’s handmaiden, Jyoti Pratibha, brought out the heavy artillery in her risible “analysis” column. On page six, there was further blanket coverage. And then the AG’s manservant on the Fiji Sun, Nemani Delaibatiki, weighed it with his own reflections, followed by an entire page of letters to the editor on the subject, including a “how dare they!” from the ubiquitous Simon Hazelman of Savusavu.
As I have said before, based on personal experience, the Fiji Sun does nothing without the imprimatur of the Attorney General. He tells it which stories to emphasise and which stories to play down or ignore altogether, such as any criticism of his favoured religionists at the Grace Road “church”. It is therefore inconceivable to me that Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum wasn’t the guiding hand of the Fiji’s Sun’s coverage of the “uproar” over the comments of the Methodist Church Communications Secretary and Lynda Tabuya, one of the opposition’s brightest stars whose electoral appeal the FijiFirst government fears only after that of Sitiveni Rabuka.
It is also inconceivable to me that the Director of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Ashwin Raj, would have gone public personally targeting Lynda Tabuya over her comments without either the imprimatur of the AG or to pander to the AG’s prejudices. Ashwin Raj occupies a supposedly independent office. He could have made a general statement about religious tolerance without specifically naming Lynda Tabuya and still have made his point. But to extrapolate her single Facebook posting into a statement about her being a threat to religious tolerance was at a similar level of overkill to the Fiji Sun. In essence she said: “Would you mind waiting till after six o’clock before letting off your fireworks (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with the Hindu religious observance either) so that Christian services can proceed without sounding as if Fiji is under attack?” So what was so wrong about that?
For his part, the AG can’t help trying to turn every single utterance made by his opponents into a full scale “uproar”. It is his political modus operandi – attack, attack, attack. Which is why he is easily the most unpopular politician in the country, however much he appears grinning from the pages of the CJ Patel Fiji Sun. And yes, he is back fully in the public eye and the Fiji Sun has resumed its promotion of the Khaiyum personality cult after a period away from the limelight during which the Prime Minister ordered him to make himself scarce during the 50th anniversary Independence celebrations and the AG took his family off to the Mamanucas.
The AG has also resumed his assault on those in his own ranks who he perceives as political enemies. This includes Mahendra Reddy, the Minister for Agriculture, Waterways and Environment, who the AG himself identified to me as having sided with the iTaukei ministers in the cabinet in pressing for Mere Vuniwaqa, the Minister for Women and Poverty Alleviation, to eventually replace Frank Bainimarama as Prime Minister. It is no coincidence that Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum took a question from the floor at a talanoa session in Dreketi last weekend from someone who claimed that an unnamed Indo-Fijian government minister had remonstrated with him for wearing a sulu. That minister is allegedly Mahendra Reddy. And while Reddy himself has gone public to deny that it was him, the intriguing wider question is whether the question from the floor in Dreketi was genuine or an AG-inspired plant. This is far from idle speculation on my own part. Because reports are starting to circulate that all was not what it seemed on the day. Sulugate in the making? Another “Kaboom”? Time will tell.
The irony is that by blowing up the significance of the comments by the Rev Regunamada and Lynda Tabuya, the Fiji Sun and Ashwin Raj achieved the opposite of what they were purporting to do. Instead of playing down any sense of religious conflict or division in Fiji, they were actually fuelling it. Instead of giving the story the treatment it deserved – which the Fiji Times did by putting it on page 3 with none of the extravagant hyperbole about “uproar”- the Fiji Sun deliberately lit a much bigger firework and undoubtedly caused a much bigger explosion than the issue deserved. Faux indignation as a political weapon against the government’s opponents.
Stripped to its bare essentials, this wasn’t a religious dispute so much as a dispute about noise and the right of people of any faith to their peace and quiet. It was, of course, unfortunate that the Rev Regunamada and Lynda Tabuya, cast daytime fireworks as an aural assault on Christians observing the Sabbath. It is an aural assault on everyone. And Christians are as guilty as anyone of disturbing people’s Sundays with the amplified music and pulpit ranting that has long shattered the peace of the Sabbath in my own lifetime. But delaying the fireworks until after six also benefits Hindus as they go about the solemn religious rituals of Diwali without the background soundtrack of a Lebanese-style civil war. It has nothing to do with religious observance and everything to do with respecting everyone’s right to peace and quiet. And if anyone had the decency to ask most other Fijians what they thought, they’d surely say amen to that.
POSTSCRIPT: Another Hindu friend of mine – who shall remain equally anonymous – has set a commendable example by winding back his own family’s celebration of Diwali in Suva in deference to the suffering of other Fijians from the economic fallout of Covid-19. This is what he had to say on his Facebook page:
This year our family has decided to adopt a minimalist approach to Diwali celebrations in light of the suffering and the hard times that our loved ones, friends and those in the community are going through.
Through God’s grace, we remain privileged…but the reality is that many in our immediate midst are struggling.
We will still celebrate but without the usual fanfare, feasting and extensive hosting on the evening of Diwali that has become the norm for many years.
So this year things will be a bit different, we will keep things simple and as such will be happy to receive your company from 11.00am to 3.00pm on Diwali day.
We will instead focus more on prayers and more importantly in trying to make a difference to the lives of people that we know are going through tough times.
The true joy of Diwali this year for my family will be to try to make a difference to the lives of others and to spread smiles.
I wish you all safe celebrations with your loved ones.
What wonderful sentiments! And let’s hope this inspires others to think of the less fortunate in the same way. Happy Diwali!