The Indian connection

Print edition : June 10, 2000

Shipped in during British colonial rule to labour on the island's sugarcane plantations, Indians have contributed much for over a century to making Fiji an independent, prosperous nation.


THE association between India and Fiji is inextricably linked to the evolution of colonial trade and industry. There was a need for cheap labour in the dominions of the British Empire, and Indian labourers fulfilled the need. Indian men and women laboured to drive the economies of far-flung British colonies - in Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Mauritius, South Africa and Fiji. Indians went on contract basis as indentured labour to work on the sugarcane fields. One of their destinations was the sunny isles of Fiji, deep in the heart of the South Pacific ocean.

Indian tenant farmers working on a sugarcane plantation in Fiji.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The first agitation that Mahatma Gandhi launched during his days in South Africa was against the system of indentured labour. In India, Gokhale, Tilak and others agitated against the practice of sending Indians abroad to labour on sugarcane farms. Totaram Sandaya's book My 21 years in Fiji stirred the conscience of Indian readers, and Mahatma Gandhi sent Rev. C.F. Andrews to study the conditions of Indians living in Fiji. The system of indentured labour was finally abolished in 1920.

The 300 islands in the sun, as tourist brochures describe Fiji, were the home of the Melanesians. Abel Tasman is regarded as the "discoverer" of the Fiji Islands and William Bligh was the first European to write about them. After the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, two launches of the ship sailing through the waters between the two main islands of Fiji, Viti levu and Vanua levu, were chased by the islanders. The inhabitants of Fiji were thought to be cannibals, but the discovery of sandalwood brought European ships and traders to the islands. Buccaneers and seafarers in search of gold and sandalwood came to the islands and traded knives, beads and knick-knacks for these goods. But shipwrecked sailors and beachcombers joined up with different tribes to help fight their battles until the demand for firearms grew and the wars became bloodier. Internecine warfare among the Melanesian tribes was given a new and lethal dimension with the introduction of guns and gunpowder to the islands.

European settlers arrived to plant cotton and tobacco plants, coconut trees and sugarcane in the islands, and the missionaries were not far behind. The settlers found it difficult to recruit workers from among the warring tribes. With this began the pernicious trade in human beings: unsuspecting people were kidnapped or lured onto visiting ships on the other Pacific Islands and brought to work on the plantations. The practice was known as "black-birding" and Fiji's black-birding era came to an end only in the 1870s. In the tribal battles, Seru Cakobau, a high chief of Bau Island, emerged as the strongest Fijian chief, but the war-weary Cakobau turned to Christianity and the Church gained a firm hold on the islanders. Cakobau formed a government with the help of some European settlers but the government's mounting debts forced him to look for a way out. He ceded Fiji to Queen Victoria. Just after cession, an outbreak of measles wiped out entire villages in much the same way that cholera had done about a decade earlier.

THE first ship carrying Indians to Fiji, the Leonidas, arrived on May 14, 1879 with 463 immigrants aboard. They were the answer to Fiji's dwindling supply of labour. The first British Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, had served in Trinidad and Mauritius, where he had seen the industrious Indians at work. He had already taken steps to safeguard the rights of the Fijians: he made it unlawful for Fijian land to be sold (the early European arrivals had acquired sizable tracts of land for a pittance), and in order to maintain the authority of the Fijian chiefs he ensured that certain Fijian customs remained intact. His taxation system required that Fijians work on their own plantations; this provided the government revenue and the Fijians a source of income. Fijian customs were codified in the 1877 Regulations and the social structure standardised with the Great Council of Chiefs at the apex.

From May 1879 until 1919, 87 shiploads of Indians travelled to Fiji to work out their five years of indentured slavery - the girmit (from the word agreement). Conditions on the cane plantations were miserable and the Indians called that part of their lives narak (hell). Rapacious overseers and corrupt sirdars made their life miserable, and the tasks assigned depended on the whims of the overseers or their extortionary tactics. The "coolies" lived in long sheds, partitioned into 10 ft x 7 ft cubicles, within which space three men, or a couple and their children, cooked and slept. Once the five years of servitude were over, the Indians were given a certificate of residence. Only after another five years would they become eligible for a paid ticket back to India. The Indians were allowed to take on lease a limited extent of land from indigenous Fijians, where they grew sugarcane or vegetables; others became hawkers or set up small shops.

Life was hard for the Indians even after their period of indentured labour was over, but many Indians used their traditional skills to make a living. There was a demand for schools, but despite support extended by the colonial administration in India, the Fiji government remained reluctant to act on this. Finally Indian organisations such as the Arya Samaj, the Sanatan Dharam Sabha, the Madras Mahasangam and the Christian Marist Brothers took the initiative to facilitate education.

Coral reefs fringe the Fijian coastline. Tourism is one of the island-nation's biggest foreign exchange earners.-AP

After the system of indentured labour ended, there was another wave of immigrants from India - consisting of Gujaratis who paid for their passage to Fiji and set up small shops and businesses. Education helped Indians find a variety of vocations, although a majority of them remained tenant farmers.

There was little intermingling between Fijians and Indians, and in fact the colonial government frowned upon any such interaction. However, since the two communities lived in proximity, each became aware of the other's customs. Fijians lived mainly in villages that supported their community-based lifestyle. They were discouraged from moving to the towns, for that would undermine the authority of the chiefs. In 1904 Europeans were granted the vote to elect six representatives to the Legislative Council, while two Fijian members were selected by the Governor-General from a list of six names presented by the Great Council of Chiefs. Indians were not considered for representation at all.

The system of indentured labour officially ended on January 1, 1920, giving the Indians a new sense of freedom. About that time, the Indians went on strike in protest against high food prices and low wages; the fortnight-long strike induced some changes in the administration's attitude towards the Indians' welfare. The Indians were enfranchised only in 1929, but it was strictly on communal basis. The Europeans and the Fijians, who were influenced by the Europeans, resisted the extension of political rights to the Indians.

The Australian-owned CSR Company controlled the sugar industry in the country. A strike by the cane farmers in 1943, during which the Indians burnt the cane in their fields, led to the establishment of a sugar advisory committee, with representation from both sides, to decide the purchase price of cane. The Indians' main grievance related to the price of cane and the land leases. In 1969 a Court of Arbitration was set up under Lord Denning, but the CSR Company was unwilling to accept his award. By the time of independence in 1970 the company sold its interests to the Fijian Government.

Over 83 per cent of the land is owned by ethnic Fijians and the rest is freehold or government land. Fijians do not own land individually; it is owned by the tribal mataqalis. The Native Land Trust Board administers Fijian land leased out for cane farming or tourism. Initially the Indian farmers leased their farmland for a period of 10 years, and this was later extended, through the Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Ordinance, to 30 years. Most of these leases are due to expire by 2004 and the question of renewal of the lease contracts was one the sensitive issues facing the Fiji government.

Fiji attained freedom without a sustained struggle, but as part of the decolonisation process that was sweeping across the world. The Indians' demand for a common electoral roll on a one-man-one-vote basis upset the influential European community and ethnic Fijians, since Indians formed the majority in the island-nation. The demand, first raised in 1930, was never accepted as it raised fears among the other ethnic groups of Indian domination.

Despite the differences in the political arena, relations between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians remained cordial. In 1979, the centenary of the Indians' arrival in Fiji was celebrated on a national scale, and moving tributes were paid by the Governor-General and the Prime Minister to the girmitiyas who came to Fiji and their descendants who worked to make Fiji an independent and prosperous nation. Ethnic Indians dominated the middle levels of the bureaucracy and the professions and owned most of the shops, although Australian companies controlled the economy.

Until 1987, Fiji nationals, whichever stock they belonged to, took pride in the multi-racial harmony in the country, but the military coup that year shattered that sense of well-being. Ethnic Fijians began to believe that they had special rights as sons of the soil and the 1990 Constitution enshrined the "supremacy of the Fijians rights". The coup leaders played on the fears that an Indian-dominated government would take away the Fijians' rights. The cry "Fiji for Fijians" found a good deal of support among the urban indigenous Fijians. The Fijian army comprises exclusively of ethnic Fijians, as does the functional part of the police force; this is a factor that made it difficult to use them to resolve the hostage crisis.

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