The Fijian saga

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Fiji: A Precarious Coalition by Shubha Singh; Har Anand, New Delhi, 2001; pages 183, Rs.295.

SINCE 1987, Fiji has caught the attention of the world - for the wrong reasons. Three coups have violently disturbed the peace and communal harmony of this Southern Pacific island. The indigenous Fijians and the immigrant Indians had lived side by side for a hundred years. Indians were taken in the 1880s as indentured labourers to work in the sugar plantations. They suffered enormous hardships and indignities but persevered. They made Fiji their home.

Shubha Singh's knowledge of Fiji's history and politics is both deep and extensive. She lived and worked in Fiji for a number of years, when her father, the late, incomparable, Bhagwan Singh was High Commissioner of India in Fiji. Shubha Singh has woven the history of her family with that of Fiji. Her great-grandfather went to Fiji in 1884. It was not a happy passage. Gandhiji sent C.F. Andrews in 1915 to Fiji to take a first-hand look at the plight of the indentured labourers. Finally, on January 1, 1920, the Government of India cancelled all indentures in Fiji.

The Indians mostly came from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat. But the Fijian-Indian divide remained. Divide-and-rule was practised by the colonial government with die-hard dedication. The Indians were treated as worse than second class citizens. Gradually the Indians began to assert themselves and began raising political demands. For the colonials, Fiji was a paradise and the Indians were becoming a nuisance. According to the whites, paradise was being polluted by the Indians. The American author, James Michener parroted the racist view in his book, felicitously called Return to Paradise. Shubha Singh quotes a venomous passage from the book published in 1951:

It is almost impossible to like the Indians in Fiji. They are suspicious, vengeful, whining, unassimilated, provocative aliens in a land where they have lived for more than 70 years. They hate everything: black natives, white Englishmen, brown Poly-nesians and friendly Americans. They will not marry with Fijians, whom they despise. They avoid English ways, which they abhor. They cannot be depended upon to support necessary Government policies. Above all, they are surly and unpleasant. It is possible for a traveller to spend a week in Fiji without ever seeing an Indian smile.

This is the language of an American racist and reminiscent of Katherine Mayo's book, Mother India, which Gandhiji rightly called "a drain inspector's report".

PERHAPS no one did more to prop up the pride of Indians than the author's father. He also worked to improve Fijian-Indian relations. He became well-known throughout the Pacific islands. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. I visited Fiji in 1964. I was then at the United Nations in New York and rapporteur of the Committee on Decolonisation. I was not particularly popular with the colonial office in London. I called on the Governor of Fiji. I took him by surprise when I told him that I hoped he would be the Mountbatten of Fiji!

The second half of this eminently readable and balanced book is devoted to the civil strife which has haunted and violently disturbed and dislocated life in Fiji. Shubha Singh has given accurate accounts of the coups masterminded by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987 and by George Speight in 2000. Rabuka spent some time in India. He did a one-year course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellingdon, Tamil Nadu, under the technical cooperation programme. He also did a Master's course on Defence and Strategic Studies from Madras University. Shubha Singh informs us that Rabuka's dissertation topic was titled "Staging a Successful Coup".

It fell to me to condemn the coup at the U.N. in 1987. The same month Rajiv Gandhi made sure, at the Commonwealth Summit at Vancouver, that Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth. He was ably supported by New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange and Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal. Shubha Singh has done her home-work well and describes the fate of Dr. Timoci Bavadra with feeling. Bavadra was the elected Prime Minister whom Rabuka ousted. I took a letter from Rajiv Gandhi to Dr. Bavadra. He was already suffering from cancer and died thereafter.

Rabuka introduced a racist Constitution which ensured that the Indians (who constituted 50 per cent of the population) would never have a majority in Parliament. This Constitution was condemned the world over. Things started changing in the late 1990s and Mahendra Chaudhury won a majority under a revised Constitution, which enabled Fiji to return to the Commonwealth. In May 2000, Mahendra Chaudhury's government completed one year in office.

On May 19, 2000, history repeated itself. A man called George Speight walked into Parliament House and took Chaudhury and his all-party Cabinet hostage. Chaos followed. The world watched, aghast and helpless. Democracy had not yet taken root in Fiji. Chaudhury was ousted. He got a hero's welcome in Haryana when he was in India after the coup. In the elections held recently the tenacious Chaudhury's party is leading and he may be Prime Minister again. This time, one hopes for a longer period.

Shubha Singh's book is most timely and worth reading.

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