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After 125 years, Fiji's Indo-Fijians in retreat

This article has been saved in 2004. It is still available at http://www.angelfire.com/hi2/hawaiiansovereignty/fiji.html

By Sanjay Ramesh

A majority of Fiji Indians are the descendants of the indentured laborer, who were brought to Fiji as contract workers to develop the colonial sugar economy. The Indians came from different regions, spoke different dialects, and practiced different customs and religions.

After the final indenture contracts were rescinded in 1920, the Indians rebelled against the colonial state. The disturbances of 1920-21,1941, and 1959-60 were attempts to challenge the colonial order, which saw Indians as a 'problem'.

The Fijian colonial system was designed to cater to the interests of the eastern indigenous Fijian chiefs, the European settlers and investors, and above all the British Empire. Indians were a necessary labor resource, which sustained Fiji as well as other British colonies economic infrastructure. The Indenture Experience

The first Governor to Fiji devised a paternalistic system of native administration, which spared the indigenous Fijians from the destructive forces of colonial capitalism. To ensure that the Fijian way of life was preserved, Gordon instituted the Great Council of Chiefs (GCC) as the 'official' custodian of native custom and tradition. The Council campaigned on behalf of indigenous Fijians and requested the colonial government to stop using growing but small army of Fijian laborer. According to the chiefs, the rigors of plantation life destroyed the "Fijian way of life", which was based on communal mode of production. Gordon enthusiastically endorsed the viewpoint of the chiefs, but was mindful of the fact that survival of the Colony of Fiji depended on establishing a viable economy for the islands were located at a great distance from the European trading centers.

It was not until 1879 that the Fiji government, under the direction of Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, started to import Indians under the indentured labor scheme, which existed in the British colonies since the 1837. The Indians were to come to Fiji and work for five years and another five as a "Khula" or a free' laborer. The indenture agreement stated that upon the completion of ten years on the colony, the laborer would qualify for a paid trip back to India, and those who did not wish to return could stay in the colony as British subjects.

In 1916,the Indians were partly successful in their struggle for political representation. Responding to the pressure from the Fiji Indians and India, the government appointed an Indian colonial sympathizer, Badri Maharaj, to the Legislative Council. The reason for a nominated Indian member for it provided hope to the colonial authorities in Fiji that India would resume sending laborer to Fiji, despite anti-indenture activism by Indian nationalists. But by 1920, India exhausted all avenues for acquiring Labor, and the indentured system became a thing of the past.

At first, the Indians were seen as sugar producing machine. But after the strikes of 1920-21, the Indians became a problem for the colonial government. If unchecked, these Indians could contaminate the whole island with their anti-establishment ideas. Fijiís colonial administrators argued persistently that Indians wanted to establish an Indian government in Fiji by using their ever-increasing population. In 1921, there were 60,634 Indians in the colony of Fiji but by 1936, the number had increased to 85,002.

Under the leadership of Siddiq Koya, Indo-Fijians entered the 1972 election as a divided community. Despite attempts to woe indigenous Fijian votes, the National Federation Party failed to win majority of the seats. Following the election defeat, the National Federation Party pressured Prime Minister Ratu Mara to implement common roll electoral system based on one person one vote. This was particularly troublesome to indigenous Fijians because Indo-Fijians were a growing majority and continuing demands from the Indo-Fijian leaders on the issue was seen by nationalists as an attempt to disenfranchise indigenous Fijians and to alienate native land.

By 1977, National Federation Party secured itself as the communal voice of Indo-Fijians in Fiji and in a surprise turn of events, Federation won the 1977 general elections. But while Indo-Fijians fully supported the party, rank and file members that formed the party cadre were bitterly divided. The National Federation Party victory was short-lived as divisions within the party started to take its toll. For two-days, Federation party officials argued relentlessly on next steps and one of the newly elected Indo-Fijian members, Jai Ram Reddy, publicly stated that there was nobody in the National Federation Party with the stature to lead the country.

Unable to form a government, the National Federation Party fractured along cultural and religious lines. The party was unable to function and as a result lost the general elections, giving political power back to Ratu Maraís Alliance Party. Immediately afterwards, Jai Ram Reddy became the leader of the National Federation Party after Siddiq Koya lost his seat due to factional in-fighting. Reddy was unable to stop the political machinery of Ratu Maraís Alliance Party and lost the 1982 elections, even after forming an alliance with the regional indigenous separatist movement called Western United Front (WUF).

By 1985, Indo-Fijian frustration with the National Federation Party had grown and a new political party, the Fiji Labor Party, was formed by Indo-Fijian and indigenous Fijian trade unionists. In the 1987 elections, the Fiji Labor Party formed a coalition with the dying National Federation Party and was successful in dislodging Ratu Maraís Alliance Party. This single success for multiracial unity was shattered by the coups of 1987. Indo-Fijians were targeted by the coup supporters at all levels of government and pro-indigenous Fijian Taukei Movement rioted in the streets of Suva.

Indo-Fijians in large numbers migrated overseas as Methodist fundamentalist imposed Sunday ban with the help of the military government. The multiracial 1970 constitution was quickly torn up and in its place a pro-indigenous Fijian Constitution was implemented. The events of 1987 decimated the Indo-Fijian community. While many skilled professionals migrated, others became frightened of political participation. A new racial contract was drawn up in the name of indigenous rights as Indo-Fijians were relegated to permanent opposition in a new parliament, which convened following the May 1992 general elections.

Indo-Fijians remained divided in the 1990s, splitting votes evenly between the National Federation Party and the Fiji Labor Party. However by 1999, Indo-Fijians had snubbed the leader of the National Federation Party, Jai Ram Reddy, for engaging in political partnership with Sitiveni Rabuka, who remains accused of causing pain and suffering to the Indo-Fijian community in 1987 and beyond. Interestingly, though, it was Sitiveni Rabuka who fought off hardliners within his party to push through, with the support of Indo-Fijians, an internationally acceptable 1997 Constitution.

It was under this constitution that the Fiji Labor Party won the 1999 general elections and Mahendra Chaudhry became Fijiís first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. On 19 May 2000, armed gunmen incapacitated the Government of Mahendra Chaudhry.

The crisis created by the armed hijacking of parliament had far reaching impact for Indo-Fijians in remote and rural areas, where support for the armed insurrection was strongest. A number of Indo-Fijians were attacked by indigenous Fijians in rural Fiji, including Muaniweni, Dawasamu, Wainibokasi, Dreketi, Korovou, and Tailevu. Many fled with their belongings to the Fiji Girmit Centre in Lautoka. The center, which was the symbol of celebrating Indo-Fijian culture in Fiji, was transformed into a refugee camp.

Another mass exodus of Indo-Fijians in thirteen years started and is continuing because Indo-Fijians do not have any confidence in the current indigenous Fijian government, despite assurances that the events of 1987 and 2000 will not repeat. Most problematic are thoughts that Indo-Fijians may become caught in power struggles within the indigenous Fijian community, which is quick to lash out at Indo-Fijians for the push effects of economic globalization and modernization.