Hope and home

Fiji’s fourth Constitution offers the country a road map to lasting democracy and raises hopes of erasing the racial divisions that have marred the multicultural country’s 43-year post-independence history which has seen four coups.

Published : Sep 18, 2013 12:30 IST

President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau signs the country's Constitution during a ceremony in Suva on September 6.

President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau signs the country's Constitution during a ceremony in Suva on September 6.

FIJI’S first daily newspaper, The Fiji Times , founded in 1869, a fortnight before Mahatma Gandhi was born, boasts in its masthead: “The first newspaper published in the world today.” Fiji is almost on the International Dateline. And Fijians are the first to see the rays of the rising sun, over the largest ocean in the world, deceptively named the Pacific.

On September 6, the country’s new Constitution was promulgated as the supreme law of the land by the President of the Republic of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. It is the fourth birth certificate of a small but complex nation since its independence 43 years ago.

Fiji was granted independence on October 10, 1970, exactly 96 years after it was ceded to Queen Victoria. Initially, the Queen was reluctant to accept a small jewel in her crown but the mischief created by her subjects from Australasia forced her royal hand: Fiji became a crown colony, with the dubious distinction of surrendering its sovereignty in a Deed of Cession on October 10, 1874. The day of cession became subsumed in the day of independence.

The Deed of Cession, possibly the first in colonial history, was done by warring tribal chiefs, who had converted to Christianity, and their European advisers. The colonial masters, with their penchant for invented traditions for annexing states and islands, immediately created a Council of Chiefs to facilitate their rule over the native population and keep the few rebels in their place.

The chiefs consolidated their political paramountcy through special schools, colonial patronage, honours, privileges and military medals. But the colony needed some financial viability for future political stability. The enlightened agents, with colonial experience and interests, knew what their compatriots had done to the Aboriginal people in Australia and to the Maoris in New Zealand, two of Fiji’s largest neighbours.

Because the brutalities suffered by native populations elsewhere were so terrible, by the time the islands of the South Pacific were evangelised and colonised the imperial powers had developed a better understanding of native cultures and their uniqueness in the decimated world of imperial conquests.

Generally, the islands of the South Pacific escaped the fate of many an indigenous community since at least 1492. The island nations are some of the smallest in the world —one has a population of barely 60. Fiji’s population is smaller than a million.

Colonial reshaping of Fiji The South Pacific has always had a paradisiacal aura in the European imagination from 1688 when Louis Bougainville first beheld the stunning naked beauty of Tahiti, both in nature and in the natives.

Since then the islands have been heir to all the imperial ills of the French and the English: nuclear tests are just one of them. All the nuclear bombs have been dropped in the Pacific Ocean. But the idea of paradise has persisted for some privileged wanderers on civilising missions of various denominations and dimensions. Some islands will go under the waves as global warming is on the rise.

Into this Christian cauldron were transported Indian indentured labourers from United Provinces and from Bihar and Madras provinces from 1879 to 1920. Peasants were uprooted, transported and transplanted into the islands of Fiji—16,000 kilometres away from Mother India. The indenture system was finally abolished on January 1, 1920, thanks to the agitation led by Mahatma Gandhi and his ardent follower Rev C.F. Andrews.

Gandhi was shaped among the indentured workers and small Indian merchants in South Africa and understood racial subjugation better than most others because of his formative 21-year stay in Natal. Although the hundred years of servitude was finally abolished on paper, the colonial attitude persisted and the descendants of the labourers were treated as second-class citizens without full and fair human rights.

The first Indians, as British subjects under this system, arrived in Fijian waters on May 14, 1879. They gave the colony some semblance of economic sustainability; all together 60,939 children, women and men were transported in 87 ships under an “agreement”, which the illiterate labourers heard as “girmit”.

And girmityas they became. Their girmit was signed and sealed with their left thumb mark. It had an expiry date, after 10 years of bonded labour. But few returned to their villages; having crossed the kalapani , or dark waters, they had lost more than their caste marks.

In their wake came small merchants, teachers, policemen and preachers. Fiji was transformed by the Indian presence unlike any other island country in the region.

History of coups It was ironic, therefore, that a third-ranking colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka, partially trained in India, staged the first coup in the Pacific on May 14, 1987, in the Fiji Parliament with 10 masked gunmen, exactly 108 years after the arrival of the first batch of Indians to serve Fiji and to ensure that the native way of life was not dislocated.

Rabuka’s coup changed Fiji for the worse; several prominent Fijian politicians were implicated in the coup —an act of treason, with unprecedented violence and violations. Subsequently, the colonel was persuaded to have some figment of a constitutional government, a fig leaf of democracy. When Dr Timoci Bavadra died a broken and betrayed Prime Minister, the colonel received a 21-gun salute in Australia’s expensive Parliament, built in 1988—the bicentennial year.

Rabuka’s 1990 Constitution was so racially designed, with electoral apartheid as its centrepiece, that finally a Commission was set up, chaired by Sir Paul Reeves of New Zealand. The Reeves Commission produced a document of 800 pages which few read but many claimed was the answer to Fiji’s internecine troubles which dwarfed for a generation the humanity of a multiethnic nation of great potential and decency.

Elections were held on its provisions and the Fiji Labour Party won a landslide victory. After a year, a disastrous coup followed, led by disgruntled, sacked soldiers and a handful of bankrupt businessmen whose gravy train had been derailed by the Labour Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, a former trade union leader and a close friend and confidant of Bavadra, Fiji’s first Labour Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and his Members of Parliament were kept captive in the parliament complex for 56 dreadful nights.

The 1997 Constitution was abrogated by the Fiji Military Forces.

Although the Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the abrogation of the Constitution was not valid, the Chaudhry government was not reinstated. Instead, the then military commander, Commodore Voreqe Frank Bainimarama, installed a banker, Laisenia Qarase, as the interim Prime Minister.

Racial turn When the general elections were held, Qarase’s racially oriented party won a majority in a Parliament of 71 seats. The 1997 Constitution’s good intentions were never realised in the formation of a multi-party Cabinet.

The Great Council of Chiefs had the exclusive power of selecting the President and the Vice-President of the Republic of Fiji. Rabuka had in his act of treason dethroned the Queen of Fiji on September 25, 1987, when he staged the second coup, which was more fatal than the first. Hitherto the Queen appointed the Governor-General of Fiji.

Sadly for Fiji, Qarase, though elected, began pursuing policies seeped in racial discrimination and dispossession, especially against peasant farmers on leasehold lands. Fiji has a unique land tenure system—90 per cent of all land is communally owned. This has prevented the displacement of the native population unlike in Australia.

Small farmers, mainly of Indian descent, lease farmlands for sugar, rice and vegetable cultivation from the landowning units whose interests are safeguarded by the Native Land Trust Board. They also acquire land to build their homes, big and small.

However, some of the intended legislation of the Qarase government was so blatantly motivated by ethnic calculations that Bainimarama warned him not to pursue such damaging policies which could bring Fiji economically to its knees and divide the nation into racial fragments.

‘The most just coup’ After months of failed persuasion, the commodore staged his coup—what some have called “the most just coup” or the “best of all coups”. It was like surgery after three heart attacks, necessary and urgent, painful but life-saving.

It was an extraordinary act of deposing an elected government, done with quiet and swift expediency and efficiency, unlike any of the three previous coups in Fiji’s independent history.

The region showed its displeasure —the usual suspects and experts made their noises: Fiji was expelled from the South Pacific Forum and suspended from the Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand instituted sanctions.

China and a few others moved in to fish in the troubled waters of the blue Pacific. India showed its quiet support in a variety of small acts of assistance on a bilateral basis. It could and should do more when you consider the historical ties with Fiji over more than a century.

Fiji had to seek newer friends to survive the smart sanctions of old allies who showed an abysmal lack of understanding of the Fijian situation for almost a quarter of a century, since 1987. Rabuka had got away with his mischief, so why not others?

But what most did not know was that Bainimarama was a different, determined leader and a man of considerable courage. He had escaped death by a few seconds in the military barracks—and that defined his many actions, for he knew how ruthlessly some people in Fiji would follow their calamitous policies, no matter what happened to Fiji as a nation or to its many defenceless people.

These racial extremists were prepared to create chaos and organise assassinations.

With the help of a few dedicated officers and leaders (Chaudhry was initially part of the Bainimarama cabinet as Finance Minister), the Commodore set about changing not only the direction of the ship of state but the course of Fiji’s future. The People’s Charter, through the National Council for Building a Better Fiji, defined a new road map for the country. Even hardened cynics saw a new way of moving Fiji forward as a nation, uniting its multi-ethnic mosaic into a composite whole.

The new Constitution After almost eight years, Fiji, on September 6, 2013, adopted a new Constitution—it is now the supreme law of the land. The President gave his assent at 4.00 p.m. Fiji time.

It is an historic document enshrining many universal principles of democracy on which Fiji can build its modern institutions and political structures. It will not be easy but it is full of promise for the most interesting multicultural nation of the South Pacific.

For the first time in Fiji’s turbulent racial history and communal fantasies, all citizens are called Fijians, after the name of their nation, now called Fiji and not the Fiji Islands. This may appear a small change but it is of radical significance. The indigenous people are now defined as itaukei.

More than 30 postcolonial nations changed their names to accommodate citizens of many descents and lands with a common national name and identity. Fiji never had this national definition of its citizens because equal citizenry was not part of its founding vision.

Now the word Fijian is as important, politically and psychologically, as Australian, American, Canadian and New Zealander which relate to countries to which over 200,000 former Fiji citizens have migrated after the three racist coups since independence.

Bainimarama, by giving them a common name, equal citizenry and value for their vote, has changed the contours of Fiji’s communal electoral arrangements that were integral to the three previous Constitutions.

Towards democracy For the first time in Fiji’s Constitution, we have an electoral system of one person, one vote, one value. This is common in mature democracies—in Fiji it creates anxieties in communal politicians who have thrived by raising imaginary fears in their communities. They came first, their communities second, and the country was placed last. It was difficult to think outside the boxes in which the communal constitutions had placed them. It had become the nation’s way of thinking and manufacturing consent.

The present Constitution goes even further: in a bold and imaginative leap, Fiji will now have only one constituency and every voter will have a single vote, as it is in Israel and the Netherlands.

Voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18—a much larger constituency for the youth of the nation and a daring device to empower them with a ballot paper. Fiji has perhaps the most educated youth population, both men and women, in the South Pacific.

There are no special parliamentary seats for any group; this has done away with the bane of the country’s past that led to several political compromises for myopic gains.

The number of elected members of Parliament has been reduced from 71 to 50. There is no second chamber like the Senate. The President is elected by Parliament. And the Leader of the Opposition’s position is substantially strengthened as the alternative Prime Minister.

The term of the elected Parliament will normally be for four years, not five as in the previous three Constitutions. The Parliament is the supreme body for legislation and amendments.

Social justice The land issue—the fear of land alienation from native owners—has been put to rest in the preamble of the 98-page document.

A very significant feature of the new Constitution is the emphasis on social justice. The three coups have harmed the economic development of Fiji in a variety of ways—poverty has increased demonstrably. Political instability is given as the main cause; the other is the massive haemorrhage of skilled people to more open societies which give migrants security and self-respect as citizens.

The present Constitution, for the first time, has provisions for multiple citizenships and permanent residency, from which Fiji’s larger neighbours have benefited enormously. This will encourage many former citizens to return to Fiji for business or work or to simply enjoy living in the land of their birth in the climate in which they grew up. Those with Fiji citizenship have also the right to vote; to stand for an election, however, you have to have only Fiji citizenship.

Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in Fiji and now many tourists are the descendants of the girmityas who had to leave the country following the coups. The Fijian diaspora has its own momentum and energy, as diasporas often do. And this will make a difference to Fiji’s emergence as a genuinely, democratically pluralistic society.

The Constitution is originally written in English, but the document has been translated into the Fijian language and Hindi. It makes three languages—English, Fijian and contemporary Hindi— compulsory in schools, with English as the pre-eminent language of communication and education, nationally, regionally and internationally. Fiji is surrounded by English-speaking nations.

The new Fiji Constitution has elicited a generally positive response in the region, despite some Fijian politicians’ protests.

New elections Bainimarama has indicated that he will lead a new political party in the next general election, scheduled to be held no later than September 30, 2014.

Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama has shown himself to be a courageous and modern leader. His greatest challenges lie ahead in dealing with the political forces in Fiji with the ability of a confident, caring statesman. And in becoming the elected Prime Minister of Fiji.

The new Constitution offers all Fijians equality of citizenship and a home to cherish without the fear of being evicted overnight or becoming homeless in their own homeland. This is an achievement of momentous importance.

It is an optimistic beginning for a nation that has suffered the consequences of self-inflicted wounds over 27 years, because of race and religion, origin and ethnicity. Fiji needs all the help to make this new enlightened Constitution part of its political psyche and daily practice—as daily as a loaf of bread or the daily newspaper.

Paradises lost can be regained but only after suffering and expulsion. Fiji has been through a lot. It has been terrible to witness a young, vibrant nation undoing itself with unnecessary coups.

Fiji can be another four-letter word for hope and home.

The new Constitution offers possibilities and opportunities, unimagined and unexperimented until now.

Satendra Nandan was a member of the Bavadra Cabinet in 1987 and of Fiji’s Constitution Commission, 2012. A full-time writer,he lives in Canberra and travels frequently to his ancestral village in Nadi. /AFP

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