USP welcomes home Vice Chancellor with prayers, standing ovations…and soon, FJ$10million

The two-year exile of the University of the South Pacific’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Pal Ahluwalia from the university’s Suva campus ended with a thanksgiving ceremony last night.

Professor Ahluwalia told regional leaders and diplomats, academics and students in his opening address, “After 107 weeks of exile, I never thought I would see the day where I would absolutely thank the staff and be able to see them face-to-face. I love Zoom, but I love this so much better.”

In February 2021, the then-Fiji government deported Ahluwalia and his partner, Sandra Price, saying they had repeatedly breached Section 13 of the Immigration Act, which states that “no foreigner is permitted to conduct themselves in a manner prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, security, or good government of Fiji.”

Recently-elected Fiji Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, was instrumental in the lifting of the ban on Ahluwalia, and he received three standing ovations at yesterday’s event.

During his speech, Rabuka informed Ahluwalia that he would not be presenting a traditional apology, as his predecessor and now-Opposition leader, Voreqe Bainimarama, had a lot to say about the use of traditional apologies in parliament this week.

“So I won’t use the Fijian word for it; I’ll only use this word; I want to apologise very simply; it doesn’t matter who did it, as far as the world is concerned; Fiji did it. Now I am Fiji by the power of one vote; we’ve corrected that, and I thank you for agreeing to come back,” he said.

The financial health of USP depends on Fiji backing this apology with the release of financial contributions, which have not been paid for several years.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Economy, Professor Biman Prasad could not hand over a cheque last night, but reaffirmed that FJ$10 million will be released within a matter of days, once the USP signs a grant agreement.

The Vice Chancellor says the Fiji government owes USP $116 million, but they understand the financial pressures the new Fiji government is under.

“After 16 years of people living in a culture of fear, where they couldn’t express how they felt or where funding was, all of a sudden there are so many requests on your desk, especially for the deputy prime minister (Hon. Biman Prasad), I’m sure the shopping list, let alone USPs, must be huge.”

“Please be conscious that under the most difficult circumstances our staff stood by this university, and we can wait a few months,” he said.

While Ahluwalia is back in Fiji now, a decision is still pending as to whether he will return to live at VC’s residence at the main campus.

“I will wait on the USP Council’s decision on that; at the moment, my focus is on lifting the standards of the university,” he said. The Council is due to meet in May.

Mixed feelings about return

Pal’s partner, Sandy Price has mixed feelings about returning to Fiji, despite the outpouring of emotion at last night’s event.

“I’m still not certain,” she told Islands Business. “I haven’t been back to the house yet, so I would like to do that while I’m here. It was a traumatic event.

“With Pal, they sat him down and were explaining a lot of things to him with regards to the deportation, but with me, they were very physical, so they grabbed me; I was left with bruises, and I was in my nightwear.

“They would not let me get changed without a male and a female present in the room; I wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet; and they’ve taken all our phones away,” she said.

“So I still live with that trauma, and I’m still not ready to move back,” Price shared.

Professor Ahluwalia says his time in Samoa and Nauru [where he first lived after the deportation] has brought to light the need for more attention to be focused on upgrading the regional USP campuses.

“The region deserves to have a voice,” he said.

In his speech, the VC also asserted that USP staff and students helped influence the Fiji election swing to opposition parties, and the eventual election of Rabuka as Prime Minister.

University of the South Pacific Student Association (USPSA) council member and former deputy chair, Viliame Naulivou was among the guests present yesterday.

“We went from campus to campus raising awareness about the importance of voting, registering to vote, and the impact and importance of your vote,” Naulivou explained.

“The student body is the heartbeat of the university, and we need everyone to work together,” he continued.

Another member of the USP Council, Semi Tukana, reflected on the role of the Council in supporting Professor Ahluwalia successfully through ten rounds of voting.

“As council members, we knew what was right, so we stood on that and never wavered; we didn’t think about the companies that we owned; we fought for what was right, and we won 10 times.”

Professor Ahluwalia says now it is time to look forward.

“When I arrived in Nadi, I had said that I forgive people and I don’t have any vendettas; USP needs to move on from the saga; it needs to get to the next stage.”