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Resurgent tribalism in Fiji

By Sam Rajappa (opinion from "The Hindu", published 4 August 2003)

Over decades, the gulf between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians has widened.

THE CRUX of the problem facing the Republic of Fiji Islands, which has witnessed three coups d'etat since independence from British colonial rule in 1970, is resurgent tribalism. Even after the historic July 18, 2003 judgment of the Supreme Court, ordering Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase to include representatives of the Fiji Labour Party in his Cabinet, the Government has been playing truant. The address of the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo, to the joint session of Parliament on July 28 stressed the paramountcy of the indigenous Fijian community and asserted that the Blueprint Action Programme contained in the election manifesto of Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua, the party of the Prime Minister, would continue to be implemented. The Blueprint is a 20-year development plan for the exclusive benefit of Fiji's indigenous communities, including Rotumans.

When European colonisers gobbled up Melanesia in the South Pacific in the 19th century, the Fiji archipelago comprising 320 islands, not all inhabited and dubbed as Cannibal Isles, had no takers. To get over this seeming neglect by the `white man,' Ratu Seru Cakobau, high chief of Bau Island, embraced Christianity in 1854, emerged as the most powerful among the high chiefs, and proclaimed himself Tui Viti (King of Fiji). In 1874, Cakobau, in consultation with the other high chiefs, requested Queen Victoria of England to annex Fiji Islands to the British empire and declared her as their Chief of Chiefs. Flattered by the honour, the British allowed the chiefs to retain power traditionally exercised by them, and formed the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (Great Council of Chiefs), which, to this day, wields considerable power in Fiji.

Not knowing what to do with the latest acquisition of the jewel in Britain's crown of colonies, Arthur Gordon, who was appointed the Governor of Suva, capital of Fiji, requested his principals to recruit indentured labourers from India to clear the forests in Fiji and raise sugarcane plantations. Two labour depots were opened, one in Kolkata and the other in Chennai. Between May 1879 and November 1916, when the indentured system was abolished, 60,553 workers were transported from India to Fiji in 87 ships. According to the Girmit agreement, they were to work initially for a period of five years, after which they would be set free, although no return fare to India was offered. However, if they signed up for another five years, they were promised return passage. Hardly anyone chose to return. After the abolition of the indentured system, more Indians, mostly from Gujarat, migrated to Fiji and entered into business activities in their adopted country.

Having lived together for long in barracks in the most inhuman conditions in the initial stages and subsequently among aliens with a different culture, the Indian community, irrespective of caste or creed, achieved a great degree of integration not witnessed in its motherland. A hybrid Hindi became their lingua franca. Hindus and Muslims lived as neighbours in complete harmony and participated in each other's religious and social festivities. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages were quite common among them.

Over years and decades, the gulf between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians has widened. The two groups have completely different attitudes and philosophies of life. The indigenous Fijian culture is that of a communally kin-based organisation, which restricts economic activity towards an individualistic way of living. The Indo-Fijian attitude is to achieve main ends in life by individual hard work. The Fijian chiefs wanted to preserve the old order in which they have held a privileged position. Commoners owed their chiefs allegiance and paid them tribute in food and other material goods. Thus there existed two separate orders and two different ways of life until Fiji became independent.

While the indigenous Fijians were content to remain a colony of Britain, Indo-Fijians wanted independence. They formed the first political party in the country, the National Federation Party (NFP), and agitated for independence. As a counter move, indigenous Fijians organised the Alliance Party under the leadership of Ratu Kamisese Mara, who eventually became the first Prime Minister of Fiji. Under the 1970 Constitution of Fiji drawn up by the British, Indo-Fijians, who accounted for 48 per cent of the population, and indigenous Fijians, with 44 per cent, were given 22 seats each in the 52-member Parliament. Europeans, part-Europeans and Chinese, who together constituted eight per cent of the population, were given eight seats under the category of General Electors. The Indo-Fijians' demand for a common electoral roll with `one-man one-vote,' undiluted democracy, and no racialism was rejected. With the support of the General Electors, the Alliance Party was able to form the first Government after independence with Ratu Mara as Prime Minister. He continued in office for a second term. In the third general election held in 1987, the multi-racial Fiji Labour Party (FLP) made its debut in alliance with the NFP and swept the polls. Timoci Bavadra of the FLP, an indigenous Fijian, became Prime Minister, but his 11-member Cabinet was dominated by Indo-Fijians belonging to both the NFP and the FLP.

Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, a young officer of the Fiji Army who had obtained a Master's degree in Defence Studies from Madras University, staged a coup and brought the country under military rule. Interestingly, the subject of his M.A. thesis was "How to stage a successful coup." Promoting himself to the rank of Major General, Rabuka abrogated the 1970 Constitution and imposed a new one in 1992, under which Indo-Fijians were reduced to second-class citizens; among other things, they could not hold the office of President or Prime Minister. There was a mass migration of Indo-Fijians to countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. This altered the demographic profile of the country. The process continues even to this day and the proportion of Indo-Fijians in the population has come down to 44 per cent. Fiji was suspended from the British Commonwealth while the European Union and neighbours like Australia and New Zealand imposed economic sanctions. The economy suffered and unemployment grew.

To arrest the trend, a new Constitution was drawn up under the guidance of Sir Paul Reeves, a former Governor-General of New Zealand, and endorsed by all political parties in Fiji. It provided for a 71-member House of Representatives, in which 46 members were to be elected from four separate electoral rolls and 25 from an open electoral roll. Voters registered as indigenous Fijians were to elect 23 members, Indo-Fijians 19, Rotumans one; and three were to be elected from the mixed races roll. Under Article 99 of this Constitution, any party that wins 10 per cent or more of the total number of seats is entitled to be represented in the Cabinet in proportion to its numbers and the Prime Minister must establish a multi-party Government. The Constitution was adopted in 1997 and elections were held in 1999. Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, who led the FLP at the polls, emerged with a majority and became the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister.

Although Mr. Chaudhry did establish a multi-party Cabinet by accommodating a couple of minor indigenous Fijian parties with which the FLP had an electoral alliance, he kept the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei, the party of Gen. Rabuka that had contested the election on the slogan of "Fiji for the Fijians" and emerged with more than 10 per cent seats, out of his Cabinet.

While the SVT was content to remain in the Opposition, the powerful timber lobby that made millions of dollars from the illegal logging of mahogany for which Fiji is famous, pressed into service George Speight, a part-Fijian businessman, to bring down the Chaudhry Government. Leading seven hooded men with semi-automatic assault rifles and pistols and backed by certain extreme right wing elements in the Fiji Army, Speight held Mr. Chaudhry, his Cabinet colleagues, and MPs belonging to the ruling coalition captives in Parliament House in Suva for nearly two months. The armed forces in Fiji, incidentally, are the exclusive preserve of the indigenous communities. Mr. Chaudhry, whose ancestors hailed from Haryana, looked to India in vain. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone of the Girmit Centre in Suva in 1981, she said: "I feel somewhat like a mother about the welfare of a married daughter who has set up home far away." Many years later, all that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could do was to say that the coup in Fiji was "not acceptable to India."

Eventually the Army installed Mr. Qarase as interim Prime Minister and he, in turn, set up a Government of indigenous Fijians to the exclusion of Indo-Fijians. In the general election that followed in 2001, Mr. Qarase's SDL won 32 seats, four short of an absolute majority, and the FLP 27. Mr. Qarase enlisted the support of like-minded parties such as the Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua, the New Labour Unity Party, and two independents while extending a formal invitation to Mr. Chaudhry to join his Cabinet to fulfil the constitutional requirements without really meaning it.

Mr. Chaudhry challenged the denial of representation to the FLP in the Qarase Cabinet in the High Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court and obtained favourable verdicts. Mr. Qarase, left with no option, grudgingly agreed to accommodate 14 FLP nominees without dropping his allies or reducing the number of the SDL nominees in his 22-member Council of Ministers. The FLP, however, can play a more effective role by occupying the Opposition benches as willed by the people of Fiji in the 2001 election.