By Michael Field

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, April 26) – Huddled together, looking cold with fear, a group of Fiji Indians stood on the empty street of Korovou one afternoon in 2000. Makeshift bags at their feet, they waited for a bus to take them to Suva, 50 kilometers south.

Armed with military weapons, rebels had seized Korovou in support of local boy George Speight who was holding hostage the government of Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry.

Days earlier in a Rewa River valley, where Indians had grown vegetables for nearly a century, 16-year-old Romika Nair, told of gangs looting, burning and assaulting Indians.

"The men came back at about nine, and they took all our things."

Shopkeeper Lagan Prasad said it used to be peaceful. "Before, we called this the paradise of Fiji, now this is the darkness of Fiji."

Five years on from the third coup to afflict Fiji since 1987 the real price is emerging. Over 100,000 Indians have left for New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States since 1987 – a stunning loss in a talent-short country of just 900,000. Even the talented indigenous people are leaving.

Brij Lal, a Labasa born Indian academic who co-wrote Fiji’s latest constitution with Tomasi Vakatora and New Zealand’s Sir Paul Reeves, and expert on the Indian Diaspora, was home recently.

"Every time I visit Suva, I find it becoming more a ‘Fijian’ town," he told Islands Business. "Look at the people in the market place – more Fijians there. In the civil service, in government offices, everywhere...We are seeing a huge, historical transition taking place before our own eyes," said Lal.

A tragic story lies in the past, and Indians suffer still in the myth that they are somehow to blame for Fiji’s chronic instability.

American author James A Mitchener – much loved for the syrupy book that led to the musical South Pacific – used fierce racism to describe Indo-Fijians as being like mynah birds – raucous, uncultured, uncouth and grubby.

Indo-Fijians are mostly descendants of indentured laborers brought in by the British to work on CSR Australia-owned sugar plantations. Between 1879 and 1916, around 60,000 girmitiyas [indentured Indian laborers] came. All first stayed on Nukulau Island – Speight’s prison today – for quarantine purposes.

When the indentured labor system ended, a small but sizeable group of Punjab farmers and Gujerati merchants came, creating a caste-less patchwork of Tamils, Nepalese, North Indians, Sikhs and Bengalis—all speaking a kind of pidgin Hindi.

Like Pakeha New Zealanders, Fiji Indians suffer an identity issue. Professor Lal insists he’s Indo-Fijian. "My grandfather’s country is not mine", adding that for his children India is "essentially a strange place full of strange people."

In the 1966 census, Indians accounted for 51 percent of the population, Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics says. Indigenous Fijians were just 42 percent – the rest made up of Chinese, Europeans, Rotumans and other Pacific Islanders.

London colonial masters feared Indians would take over the country and in a long and complicated process – which continues today in the electoral system – measures were taken to ensure indigenous Fijians would never lose their land in the way the Maori had in New Zealand, and that their political supremacy would remain intact.

Following independence in 1970, and under Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara this happened. But in 1987 the Indo-Fijian dominated Fiji Labor Party won power under Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra. That prompted the military’s number three, Sitiveni Rabuka, to stage two coups.

Promising a Taukei, or indigenous government, he instituted a racist constitution, producing the first wave of Indo Fijian emigration.

By 1999, even Rabuka had recognized the heavy cost and brought in a multi-racial constitution and a re-organized preferential voting system, albeit still on racial lines. That led to another Fiji Labor Party victory, this time with Chaudhry, although heading a cabinet dominated by indigenous Fijians.

A year later, came Speight’s coup and then military commander Voreqe Bainimarama’s martial law – a coup in everything but name. Indo-Fijians were revealed as nothing more than a stalking horse for indigenous tribal warfare.

Statistics New Zealand’s figures neatly mirrored Fiji’s politics. The 1986 census recorded 2,157 people of "Indian ethnicity who were born in Fiji." In 1991 – in the wake of Rabuka – this had leapt to 10,770 and in 1996 it was 12,720. In 2001, a year after the Speight coup, the number was 19,290. The 2001 census recorded 25,725 people in New Zealand who said that Fiji was their birthplace – up from 6671 in 1976.

The United States Embassy in Suva saw the impact dramatically in 2002, the last time the worldwide "Green Card" lottery was held manually – 220,000 people in Fiji entered.

An embassy official told Islands Business that under the computerized lottery, 800 Fiji families (they do not give out race) get green cards each year. A startling five Fiji families a day get residency visas normally.

In Fiji, no one knows for sure what is happening. Fiji last had a census 10 years ago and migration cards in recipient countries don’t record race.

Fiji’s statistics bureau estimates the population at December 2004 at 840,201, including 320,659 Indians, approximately 38 percent of the total population. In 2000, Indians were 41 percent of the population.

The radical change is shown in the way the bureau estimates how long it would take a population to double in size.

In 1986, it reckoned the indigenous population would double in 29 years and the Indians in 40 years. In 1996, the figure was 39 years for indigenous, and never for Indians – minus 241 years.

Human and development geographer Manoranjan Mohanty of the University of the South Pacific notes that since the Speight coup Fiji has lost over 3,800 professionals, technical and related workers.

"This represents over half of Fiji’s stock of middle to high level workers. Teachers are the single most dominant professional group that Fiji has been losing."

The cost of Fiji’s "human capital loss" is around F$45 million [US$25.8 million] a year.

One clue to what is happening came last month with the new electoral rolls. Of the 502,574 registered voters, just 35 percent are Indians.

It would rise to 40 percent were it not for the inexplicable fact that 26,000 fewer Indians are on the rolls this year than they were at the last election in 2001.

As Fiji TV News puts it: "Political pundits say this is a worrying trend which shows that the Indo-Fijian population is falling rapidly, and this will have a huge impact on Indian-dominated or controlled parties this year and in the future."

Its not gerrymandering, says Professor Lal. "A lot of Indo-Fijian people are apathetic and apprehensive about politics generally and about elections, in particular."

Indians feared a Fiji Labor Party-Chaudhry win and the prospect of more upheavals.

"That fear resides deep in their hearts. The recent threatened confrontation between the army and government does not augur well for them. Why bother with Fiji when you want to leave any anyway? When you are emotionally uprooted with children overseas? Better to keep a low profile, get things done, get by and hope that no one will bother you. Even if they are not in the direct line of fire, when Fijians confront Fijians, they know they will suffer collateral damage. Makes perfect sense to me," said Professor Lal.

Vice-president Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi says the "nightmarish experience" of the Girmitya instilled in the Indo-Fijian community discipline, frugality, industry and sacrifice.

He was saddened by the loss of Indians. "While it is always a matter of choice, and there is in all of us a sense of seeking greener pastures, this is our home, yours and mine together."

A paramount chief (of Speight’s district), Madraiwiwi spoke of the "tragic legacy of misunderstanding that is our joint heritage." Neither group would make the compromise necessary for a more cohesive society – each fearing that to yield would end in apocalypse.

"Those who find the constant jockeying and endless bickering for advantage wearying, leave," he says.

Few reporters have ever seen reaction to a story like Riyaz Sayed-Khaiyum had one Sunday night in May 2000.

Nine days earlier Speight had seized the government of Chaudhry and was holding it hostage as Sayed-Khaiyum went to air with a live panel discussion on the coup.

The program finished at 7 p.m. and 45 minutes later Sayed-Khaiyum headed home. Within an hour, an angry Speight mob arrived at Fiji TV and smashed it up. Later that night, they murdered a policeman.

A big fish in a small pond, Sayed-Khaiyum and his family--including his first-born child who arrived five days after the coup--are now on the latest leg of the Indian Diaspora. He works for the television program Asia Downunder in Auckland.

Away from home he finds Indo-Fijians hankering for Fiji. "My theory is that with Indo Fijians, because they have never been made to feel like they belong in Fiji, they are always striving to feel like they belong. It is a strange thing."

Many of those who emigrated from Fiji would return, he believes, if conditions improved. But their children won’t. The Indo-Fijian tribe was facing extinction. Very likely the case if enough Indo-Fijians don’t stay back in Fiji. We will dwindle down to almost nothing."

Fiji Hindi was already disappearing.

"Although New Zealand has a very Pacific influence, there are certain things about people from Fiji that is very Pacific, and that is what differentiates us from mainland Indians. We are more relaxed, we are friendlier, our sense of humor is very Pacific."

He feared they were doomed to be perpetual people of the Diaspora. "It is heartbreaking, firstly, because people don’t think we belong, and then we are forced to leave.

Most people who leave Fiji feel they have to leave because they feel they are being discriminated against. Yet they yearn to be back in that environment."

Like many, his family decided on New Zealand over Australia because its Indo-Fijian community was more contained than it was in the sprawl of Sydney and Brisbane. "It seems like a nice small place, a bigger version of Fiji may be, the personal friendly touch, a better place to bring up the kids."

Twenty-one-year old physiotherapist Renee Karan spent her first 10 years in Fiji. "My race is Indian but I’m a third generation Fijian," she says.

Indians from India don’t necessarily see her as a "true" Indian and Fijians don’t see her as Fijian. "But Fiji is a part of me and my family members were raised there, lived there, we earned and lived off the land and gave back to it. After three generations we consider ourselves part of the land.

"Fiji is happiness, my childhood, safety, simplicity, beauty, sunsets that painted the sky crimson red, feeling of belonging, looking at a Fijian and seeing myself in them."

Auckland businessman Rajendra Prasad, who left Fiji in the week following Sitiveni Rabuka’s first coup, has devoted seven years to putting together "Tears in Paradise," a searing account of the girmit years.

A former town clerk of Ba, on the northern coast of Viti Levu, he says India has almost no significance for Indo-Fijians.

"In my conscience when the term ‘home’ is used, what comes to mind is Fiji, not India."

But Indo-Fijians live with the painful dilemma.

"Our people have experienced through the coups and the policies of the government that we are not wanted."

Most who leave come to the "grim conclusion that Fiji will not be secure and stable for them in the future." They do well in New Zealand.

"At least, they don’t have to live with the trauma of Fiji. Fiji is an illusion, a nightmare for most. But in their heart Fiji is still magnetic."

But, says Prasad, they feel nameless, landless and stateless. We have been lumped with India and when our children make applications for Pacific grants for education, they are disqualified. We don’t seem to have an identity.

"We have a distinct culture which has been tampered and refined by exposure to Pacific cultures and also to the western culture. We are distinctly different to India’s Indians."

As a man who enjoyed high-level contact with leaders of the indigenous community, he fears Fijians have not recognized the impact of the loss they will suffer with the departure of Indians.

"One of the advantages Fijians have had is that the Indo-Fijian community is not a violent community. In all the coups, they have never taken to violence and avoided them. Any other community would have turned to violence."

April 27, 2006

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