Rest In Peace, Raman Velji–The Final Interview

Raman Velji and Rosa Colquitt hugging, with text which reads Rest In Peace, Raman Velji--An Interview

Last week, Raman Velji, a longtime Washington County Democrat and friend, passed away unexpectedly.  We were all stunned and saddened by the loss.  We were also very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Raman in June of this year.  At the time, he was excited about the future and looking forward to running for office again.  The interview was conducted by George Hough, one of our volunteers, and we thought the best memorial to Raman’s legacy would be to allow him to tell the story of his life and accomplishments, in his own words.  The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GH: Raman, on behalf of the Washington County Democratic Party, let me thank you for your willingness to sit down with me to discuss some facets of your very interesting background. 

RV: Thank you very much.

GH: To set the stage a bit, you interviewed previously with Adam Gretzinger, who was House District Leader for HD-27. And that interview was published on the Washington County Democratic Party’s website on March 2, 2020. Interested readers can review that interview for more information on your background, and I will not attempt to repeat that interview in its entirety here. In brief, however, let me reference but a few of the highlights. As a native of Fiji, you obtained your BA degree in Linguistics and are fluent in four languages.  You served as training staff in the Peace Corp. Soon thereafter you went on to be a diplomat with the Fijian Embassy to the United Nations. You later returned to Fiji to work for political reform and start a new democratic movement which nearly cost you your life. You are now a long-term resident of Washington County and have been variously involved in the hotel and restaurant industry, having once managed a total of 68 restaurants at once covering a territory of six states. You are now in the hotel real estate business. You have worked on several political campaigns, such as Reverend Jessie Jackson’s, Michael Dukakis, & Bill Clinton. You were previous Chair of CD1 in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s, ran a strong campaign for a house seat in a predominantly red district in 2000 for HD-9, have served on the Washington County Democrat’s Executive Board and have been on various campaign and finance fundraising committees. You have also been a long-term PCP and activist in the party for years. Are those at least some of the highlights?

RV: Yes.

GH: You clearly have a depth of political and economic knowledge, as well as financial experience. 

RV: Yes.

GH: Let’s go back to the beginning. Speak to your early interest in politics and democracy. You have had a longstanding passion for democracy. 

RV: Yes, since childhood. Since age 11.

GH: Can you speak a bit about the genesis of your beliefs, for your passion for democracy as a child. It is very unusual, especially for a child of 11, to feel that way. Most children that age are out playing and doing ‘kid things.’

RV: I have always been very passionate about democracy since an early age. I cannot see injustice. I will not tolerate discrimination. I do not condone human rights violations. I have always, always had a soft spot for the poor, for people who are abused or marginalized.

GH: Did you yourself come from a deprived background?

RV: No, my father had a supermarket. We were not rich, but middle class. But from childhood, elementary school, I would see a kid from a poor family that people did not want to associate with. And I would go and talk to them. Try to help them. And I always stood by them.

As a boy, I would sit by my father as he would tell us stories about Mahatma Gandhi. And about life back in India. About working class people and their struggles, and things like that.

So, that sort of motivated me to come to the assistance of people throughout my life, to help in whichever way possible.

GH: So, there is a thread back in your development that traces back to Gandhi in that kind of compassion for you?

RV: Yes, I think so. In India, my family and the Gandhi family were neighbors. So, my family was rich in stories about Gandhi.

GH: So, you were inspired by your father and by the legacy of Gandhi. Any other people who inspired you?

RV: Yes. The Indo-Fijian leader, A.D. Patel. He was an inspiration. So, when I first got involved in politics at age 11, is when the Federation Party was formed. There was a rally where it was decided to form this political party and I was following A.D. Patel. I used to always admire him. I admired his conviction. He used to fight for the farmers and the working-class people. See, sugar was the big industry in Fiji. See, I was not in Fiji in 1969, as I had come here to the U.S. And I was told that even on his death bed he was studying a report that came out about the sugar cane farmers and the company that had the sugar cane mills. So, there was an arbitration about prices of sugar cane. So, he was studying that report while he took his last breath and the report fell on his chest. He was one of my inspirational figures. I admired that man.

GH: You mentioned before we started the interview that you were inspired to return to Fiji to fight for democracy?

RV: Yes, I returned to Fiji in 2010.  And it wasn’t long after I returned before I was in danger.

GH: How so?

RV: I received a call one night. The voice on the other end of the line asked me: “how would you like your funeral arrangements to be made?” And that startled me. I know that was real. I had been in the country for eight years.

GH: Did you recognize the voice on the other end of the line?

RV: It was anonymous. But it sounded like the same guy that had called ten days earlier after I had returned to Fiji. So, when he asked me that, I basically went ahead and started thinking, what should I do? So, next morning I got up, real early in the morning, and called Rambuka, the man I was working with for SODOZPA (Democratic Liberal Party). And he happened to be the man who had staged the first coup in Fiji. But he is a completely changed man now. He apologized for the coup. But I didn’t want to talk to him or have anything to do with him until 2004. So, from 1987 to 2004, I had nothing to do with him….

But I kept in touch with Rambuka, and we became good friends. So, in 2010, when I went back to Fiji, I got in touch with him. And we discussed the situation, and about the dictatorship and all that. And we decided to form a political party.

GH: So, this would have been a dangerous environment within which to try to start a new party?

RV: Yes. Definitely!

GH: And they had already warned you to back off.

RV: Uh-huh. They had not forgotten about me. The Police Intelligence Department, they were keeping an eye on me. For example, we had a march in one of the cities. Most of the marchers were native Fijians and I was the only Indian, Indo-Fijian. That was on a Saturday. The following Monday I got a call from the Police asking me to come to the police station. They wanted to talk to me. So, I went, and this guy from the Intelligence Unit interrogated me. And, as I was leaving, he said he wanted to ask me something. I said “what?” He said, “the next time Rambuka comes to the western side will you let us know this information as to where he is going?”

GH: They wanted you to be an informant?

RV: Yes. And I said “hell no. That’s not my job”. I said, “why would I spy on my friend? That’s not me. You do your own job.”

GH: Clearly your conviction of belief about the value of democracy goes beyond the ordinary citizen who just simply votes one day and then forgets about politics again. You were willing to put your life and liberty on the line.

RV: Yes.

GH: Shifting to the American political scene, where do your thoughts take you about what you see today?

RV: I came back to the U.S. in December 2018. So, having lived through a dictatorship for 8 years in Fiji, I could see where we were heading as a country with Trump. I saw that we were heading for a dictatorship. There was one statement that Trump made that really caught my attention. He said that he was not only going to serve a second term; that he was going to serve a third term and a fourth term. You know what that told me? He was going to throw the Constitution right out the window. Because according to the Constitution, no president can serve more than two terms. He was willing to abrogate the Constitution.

GH: Trump didn’t make his ambitions a secret, did he? 

RV: Right. I knew that he would be capable of doing that. People over here in the U.S. have not gone through coups, gone through an unstable government that is crumbling. Only after you experience such things can you truly understand the value of the democracy we have here. So, they would not understand those things.

GH: There have been some elements within the far right within the Republican Party who have said that January 6th was just a protest. Was it just a protest?

RV: It was not a protest. It was an attempt to overthrow the government. And if that would have happened in any other country, immediately Trump would have been arrested and charged with Treason.  Why has nobody talked of charging him with Treason?

GH: Is this a social blindness we are living through?

RV: You see, we should wake up and realize what this man is capable of. How much does it take for us to wake up and see what is going on? What is happening is unthinkable. OK, what do I mean? Let me back up a moment. Both Democrats and Republicans have gone to extremes. Some Republicans are leaning too far to the right. And some Democrats are going way too far to the left. It’s time for us to wake up. We can’t be too far out on the extreme either way.

GH: Referring back to your previous interview with Adam Gretzinger, you said there is no substitute for life experience when it comes to being a political candidate. Can you elaborate on why you put a premium on life experience for candidates? 

RV: Well, as a candidate, you certainly must have life experience. And you need to be knowledgeable about a range of subjects, finance, and economics, to start. You also need to be knowledgeable about a broad range of bread-and-butter issues. If we try to address any social issue, let’s say homelessness, for example, you need to be knowledgeable about all these issues. And be able to see the bigger picture: you must understand that neighborhoods and even entire cities can be turned around.  Detroit is an example of a city that is being resurrected. And with homelessness, people have their rights. We can’t push them to move somewhere else, or for those who need Rehab to go into one, unless they are ready for it. We can’t push them. Instead, we must sit down with them and reason with them. And with some homeless, some have been out in the elements a long time and they no longer see any light at the end of the tunnel. We have to offer them motivation and hope; we must help them see a light to find their way forward. We must show them alternatives. So, we need to be knowledgeable about many things; but also, we must be able to bring compassion to their situation and inspire hope. That combination of attributes only comes from a wealth of life experience tempered by compassion.

GH: Back to your roots with Gandhi again?

RV: Yes.

GH: Moving on, I have heard it said there is a generational divide within the Washington County Democratic party. Do you think there is?

RV: There may be. I’ve been noticing it more and more. You need an infusion of young people with fresh perspectives, of course. But you also need people with life experience, who can take a longer view of issues based upon lived experience, and especially political experience, to come up with ideas to address problems. So, with this issue, we need to put our thinking caps on.

Raman and I then went on to discuss a veritable tour de force of issues about which he is exceedingly well informed; these were, but to name a few: U.S.  foreign policy towards Russia and China, to include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), his insights into business and real estate, and the divisive nature of the ‘culture wars.’   He also showed me a photograph of him with his friend and associate, Phil Geoff, the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, which was taken during his last year in Fiji, in 2018. This picture depicted the participants from all political parties in Fiji at the time, all of whom attended a conference organized by Raman to collaborate on the common goals of peace building and restoring democracy to the country.  He emphasized that, as a peacemaker, he has long worked at such efforts to bring different conflicting parties to the peace table.

In closing, Raman offered a riddle to ponder: what is the difference between a flashlight and a candle? (I admit I fumbled this riddle badly). Answer: with a candle you can light the wick of other candles and keep the light ongoing perpetually into the future. On the other hand, the flashlight’s battery will eventually wear down, and its light will permanently extinguish. Raman likened himself to the candle, as it is his desire to keep sharing the light of his hard won political and life experience with others. As he put it: “as for me, I’m not going to throw in the towel; I’ll keep going till my last breath. I’m not going to sit down and just watch life pass by. I will continue to make a difference. I will continue to be a candle”.