Use Of Term ‘Fijian’ For All In Fiji Remains Touchy Subject

Feature

By Sally Round

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, May 19, 2016) – It's been 100 years since the end of Fiji's indentured labour system, which saw thousands of Indians arrive to work in the country's sugar plantations.

The government has refused a call to mark the centenary, saying the best tribute to the hard-working men and women is that their descendants were now known as "Fijian".

But using the word "Fijian" to describe all in Fiji was still a touchy subject.

The FijiFirst government went to the election two years ago with the mantra of genuine equality and a common identity for all.

It said the race-based voting system of the past was over and it pushed the message "I'm Fijian", with television and radio campaigns featuring people of all races.

At the last session of Parliament, opposition MP Biman Prasad called for the indentured labourers, or Girmitiyas, of the past to be honoured in special events and activities this year.

But prime minister Frank Bainimarama scotched the idea.

"Bestowing the name "Fijian" on every citizen, that is our tribute to the Girmitiyas and their sacrifice, to treat them and their descendants with respect, not to have the spectre of violence hanging over their heads," he told Parliament.

But there were many in the indigenous Fijian community who said the word "Fijian" should only be reserved for them.

Nemani Ramasei of the Fiji Indigenous People's Foundation in California said the word was part of his identity.

"I have respect for other races. I cannot come and take something from other races, something which belongs to them. So I personally think they should respect us and give us what is ours, which is the name Fijian. "Fijian" to me is my identity," he said.

An aspiring politician in Fiji, Roshika Deo, said it was not so much of an issue for the younger indigenous, or i-Taukei, that she was in touch with through the 'Be The Change' movement she helped start.

She said she had noticed it mainly among older i-Taukei, where there was still resistance to calling everyone Fijian - probably because of recent government policies.

"If it was just the name it wouldn't be such a big issue, but because there were other i-Taukei structures that were being dismantled, there were other forms of oppression that were being undertaken through decrees and through decisions, it was a lot of factors that led to the kind of hostility that developed around the name," she said.

Ms Deo said Indo-Fijians like herself found the word empowering and they had embraced it.

"Among the Indo-Fijians there's a still a lot of feeling of resentment, of injustice because of the past coups and as a result when the word "Fijian" came up, it somehow felt like a little bit of justice was given to them."

A language and culture scholar in Fiji, Paul Geraghty, said use of the word to refer to everybody in Fiji was not new.

He pointed out the international golfer Vijay Singh, nicknamed The Big Fijian, had been described as Fijian for many years.

"It's like many other English words. They have alternative interpretations and you can use Fijian in the sense where it means anybody who's of Fijian origin or who is born and brought up in Fiji, but also you can restrict its meaning to the sense of an indigenous person," said Dr Geraghty.

But he said using it should be a personal choice.

"I don't think decreeing or fiats about linguistic usage are going to serve any useful purpose. There are certain factions who think this will help in unification or something like that but what they forget is that the vast majority of people in Fiji don't speak English. They speak Fijian or Fiji Hindi most of the time, therefore making a change in English will have nil effect on the perceptions."

Dr Geraghty said in their own languages, the two communities continued to refer to each other in ethnic terms.

Ms Deo said she was a little conflicted when she used "Fijian" to describe herself.

"In the sense that, yes, it also makes me feel like part of something bigger, it makes me feel more patriotic, it gives me a lot more ownership of the country in terms of the feelings that I have but at the same time, there are certain contexts, certain circumstances where I still refer to myself as Indo-Fijian."

A civil society leader in Fiji, Emele Duituturaga, said it remained a sensitive issue.

"There is a greater usage of it across the board. Everyone is referring to it as the constitution stipulates however we are also picking up that indigenous communities in Fiji are still raising it as an issue."

Dr Geraghty recommended using the word "Fijian" sensitively, given the lingering tensions over its use.

Radio New Zealand International
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