PALAGI ISLANDS REPORT: A REPLY TO ROBERT CHURNEY

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LETTER TO THE EDITOR

September 18, 2001

[See: Palagi Islands Report]

Robert Churney is once again needlessly whipping up the "Indian" bogey. His hypothesis that Indians in Fiji are colonizers is nothing more than a skillfully crafted mythology, which has been repeatedly used by indigenous Fijian nationalists to dehumanize Indo-Fijians. Indians were brought to Fiji by the British Colonial Government to work mainly on European owned sugar estates, and from 1879 to 1916 some 60,000 Indians came to Fiji with many deciding to stay as British subjects. Indians came to Fiji as bonded labor and were subjected to a repressive colonial immigration ordinance. The whole idea behind bringing Indians to Fiji was to shield indigenous Fijians from the rigor of plantation life. Many argue that had it not been for Indo-Fijians, indigenous Fijians would have been "extinct" by now. The Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, was of the view that the indigenous Fijian way of life had to be protected from colonial exploitation and the only way to do that was to tap into the existing indenture system, which provided British Colonies with cheap and abundant labor.

Robert Churney should go to Fiji and see for himself how some descendants of indenture continue to live on the land, hoping for further lease extensions from their indigenous landlords. Did Indians or Indo-Fijians usurp indigenous Fijians land? No. The 1970, 1990 and 1997 Constitutions fully protect indigenous Fijian institutions and their land. Indo-Fijians through their hard work and skill managed to move out of land into middle class positions, and a large number own a majority of businesses in all urban centers in Fiji, but a growing number of indigenous Fijians are also emerging in business.

Indians in Fiji have always accepted the fact that the indigenous Fijians need greater political control to improve their economic and social status. As early as 1969, Indian leaders like late Siddiq Koya, leader of the Indian National Federation Party, agreed to work with Fijian chief Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and defer general elections until 1972. During constitution review exercises in 1987, 1988-89 and again in 1995, Indians argued in favor of a special position for indigenous Fijians within any new constitutional framework. With the same breath, Indians also argued that their political rights must also be fully protected. In 1987, coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka argued that indigenous Fijians had become a minority in their homeland and that the Government of the late Dr. Bavadra was Indian dominated and as a result had to be deposed. While Indians had become a majority in Fiji since the end of the Second Great War, the events of 1987 forced many Indians out of Fiji and by 1996, Indians in Fiji constituted 45% of the total population with indigenous Fijians at 51%.

From 1987 to 1997, Indians were not happy with the racially weighted 1990 Constitution and an all indigenous Fijian Government of Sitiveni Rabuka was in serious trouble when its own members revolted over the 1994 Appropriation Bill. By 1995, the National Bank of Fiji scandal highlighted lack of checks and balances. Not to mention a rather embarrassing High Court ruling on a Fijian high chief, who was declared "stateless" for holding dual citizenship. All this mess was not instigated by the Indians but was entirely indigenous Fijian in making. From 1992 to 1999, Indians were in permanent opposition and with the support of Rabuka and Jai Ram Reddy; there was a new constitution, which focused on addressing diverse inter-communal interests via social and economic justice provisions and proportional representation.

The 1999 elections showed that indigenous Fijians were dissatisfied with the chiefly sponsored SVT party and, as a result of indigenous Fijian fragmentation, Rabuka’s party was badly battered at the polls. Skillful political maneuvers by Chaudhry guaranteed him the Prime Minister’s seat. But Fiji’s society remained deeply divided and Indigenous Fijians were suspicious of the motives and designs of an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. The discourse between the two communities remained cursory and somewhat truncated. Separate schools, racially divided unions, cultural and religious differences, and prejudiced viewpoints bred intolerance and this was used by sectional interests to strike at the Government of Mahendra Chaudhry on 19 May 2000.

In this story, Indians are not colonizers but their industriousness is seen as a "colonizing quality" by mainly indigenous Fijian leaders. Indians in Fiji have a very strong sense of political rights, which has its origins in 1929. Indians in Fiji do not have the same cultural baggage as those on the Indian subcontinent, and Indo-Fijian culture is a blend of what their ancestors brought with them from India coupled with the island experience of subsequent generations. If Robert Churney wishes to understand Indo-Fijian culture in any significant detail then he should read John Dunham Kelly’s "Bhakti and the Spirit of Capitalism in Fiji," Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, 1988. Also he should look at the research on indentured laborers by Dr. Brij Lal.

The problems of Fiji are complex but largely invented by the Colonial Government and carried forward into post-colonial Fiji by communal leaders. Indigenous Fijian nationalism as articulated by the late Sakeasi Butadroka argues for the deportation of all Indians in Fiji to India. Interestingly enough, most new generation indigenous Fijian nationalists have abandoned that idea. But without initiative to enhance cross-cultural understanding, Fiji’s diverse communities are going to remain trapped in jaundiced views of the other. So far, there has been no leadership on this issue and the only way forward is some form of mutual obligation on the part of all Fiji citizens to understand and respect each other’s diversity.

Sanjay Ramesh, Ph.D. Email: sanjay_ramesh@yahoo.com.au  

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