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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AFP, April 26) - Fiji's ethnic Indians will next month mark the 125th anniversary of their arrival in the South Pacific nation - but many of them see little future in Fiji and are hoping to emigrate.

Around 60,000 Indian contract laborers went to Fiji between 1879 and 1916 to work in the sugar cane plantations.By the mid-1960s, Indians nearly made up 50 percent of the total population but after three coups in the name of indigenous rights their number has dwindled.

Fiji now has 845,000 people, 51 percent of them indigenous and 42 percent Indians.

Many of the Indians still work sugar cane on rented lands but their leases are expiring and the sugar industry itself is in trouble.

Writer and Australian National University Professor Brij Lal, whose grandparents emigrated to Fiji as contract laborers, said historians would sum up the Indo-Fijian experience as "Immigration to Emigration."

"My sense is that they are emotionally uprooted, feel trapped and terrorized, facing the glass ceiling in the public sector," he said, referring to Fiji's indigenous preference policy.

"The uncertainty over the renewal of leases, the shaky future of the sugar industry, is contributing to their sense of unease. All would leave if they only could."

Fiji's first coup in 1987 led by Sitiveni Rabuka overthrew an Indian dominated government while Rabuka's  second government saw anti-Indian laws passed.

A multi-racial constitution later led to Fiji's first Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, but he was taken hostage for 56 days and thrown out of office in George Speight's 2000 coup.

Next month's anniversary recalls the May 14, 1879 arrival at Fiji's capital Levuka of the ship Leonidas from Calcutta with 497 people, mostly from eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Lal said most did not intend migrating permanently and some returned after the five-year contract. Others stayed.

The contract laborers, known as girmitiyas, "were simple people, but not simpletons. While many were brutalized, many survived. Some even prospered....

"Time passed and memories of India faded as the girmitiyas wrestled with the problems of daily life."

Lal said while some people in modern Fiji see themselves as "Indians in exile" they are a minority.

"My sense is that Indo-Fijians are a unique cultural, ethnic group,"

They have taken Indian food, language, culture and religion and combined them with a European approach to education and politics and Oceania's more relaxed attitude to life.

Lal said Fiji Indians have a sense of being islanders and he himself would be "impoverished" without being able to tap on the three strands of his cultural heritage.

As it is, caste-free Indo-Fijian society is different from India: "It is only when they travel to India that they realize how very different they are."

Over 120,000 Fiji Indians, twice the number who arrived from Indian, have now left the island for different shores, and the numbers emigrating continue to rise.

But while Indo-Fijians have a sense of Indianness, a visit to India quickly makes them realize they are not truly Indian.

"The India-Indians tend to look down on Indo-Fijians, as products of lower orders of society who have forgotten their caste and cultural identity. So there is definitely a tension there," said Lal.

He added that many of Fiji's Indians have migrated to Australia saying: "Indo-Fijians take to Australia like ducks to water: respond well to its egalitarian ways."

The Indian diaspora, which originally migrated to work as laborers in British colonies in the West Indies, Mauritius, Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia, on sugar plantations or in other industries, have begun a second wave of migration.

Political turbulence in parts of Africa and Asia associated with rising nationalist movements in former British colonies - Idi Amin in Uganda, Forbes Burnham in Guyana - has sent the descendents of many original Indian migrants to Canada, the United States, Australasia, and Europe in search of a better life.

April 30, 2004

Agence France-Presse/Michael Field:


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