Citizenship and belonging
24 September, 2022, 4:45 pm
In this article in this series, I focus on the struggle for political legitimacy in order to tackle the issue of citizenship, belonging and acceptance for Fijians of Indian descent in Fiji. The approach taken here uses lessons of history and is ultimately aimed at attempting to illuminate the difficulties in finding common ground among the two major communities that make up this country.
Struggle for political legitimacy
The last girmitiya arrived in Fiji aboard the SS Sutlej on November 11, 1916. This was Sutlej’s fifth and final trip to Fiji.
It carted 888 bedraggled, yet hopeful miserable human beings, largely from South India. Indenture was halted shortly afterwards in March 1917 under the Defence of India Ordinances.
World War I was in full swing. This meant that the number of girmitiya would disappear by 1921 – they would exist in Fiji as “free” people.
From 1890, these newly-freed girmitiya had begun to “float” around on the fringes of existing girmit clusters. A largely politically ignored semiformal labour population was beginning to grow around sugar enclaves in Fiji.
They thought they were part of the citizenry given verbal assurances that if they served two terms of girmit (10 years), they would either get free passage back to India or they could choose to stay as fully entitled inhabitants of the Crown Colony.
In fact, this was clearly recognised and articulated in the Salisbury Despatch of 1875, which read: “Above all things we must confidently expect, as an indispensable condition of the proposed arrangements … the colonial laws and their administration will be such that Indian settlers who have completed their terms of service to which they are agreed as return for the expense of bringing them to the colonies, will be in all respects free men, with privileges no whit inferior to those of any other class of Her Majesty’s subjects resident in the colonies”.
It needs to be noted that this was an assurance given by a senior member of the British Government prior to the departure of girmitiya from India.
In fact, this was given four years before Leonidas arrived in Fiji in May 1879.
And yes, it referred to all girmitiya who left India and not only those who came to Fiji. However, in 1910, the Crewe Commission, after investigating the situation of the girmitiya in Fiji wrote: “The present administration itself fully recognises the value of the Indians as permanent settlers and is willing to concede them the enjoyment of equal civil rights.”
It is clear that right from the outset, the newly-freed girmitiya had to struggle for political legitimacy in Fiji.
They realised early that they had to participate in the political process where the laws were made because of their deprived and castigated experience with girmit.
After all, the agreement that they referred to as “girmit” (because of pronunciation problems) was a heavily one-sided document.
With the number of “free” Indians increasing considerably, later arrivals – business immigrants, etc. – bolstered the numbers further.
There were now educated Indians as well as those with leadership qualities in Fiji.
One such person was Manilal Doctor who arrived in 1912 at Mahatma Gandhi’s behest and made a political representation in the legislative council a priority.
When the colonial government bypassed Manilal for nomination in 1916, he became ostracised and ultimately removed from Fiji in 1920 for being a trouble causer.
The person who did get to represent the Indians in the legislative council was Badri Maharaj who was unpopular and seen as a collaborator.
That set the tone for politics in Fiji. The Indians would not collaborate, were not to be trusted and, most of all, were to be kept away from the cockpit of decisionmaking.
In 1963, when the Federation Party was formed and AD Patel ascended to its leadership, the struggle for political legitimacy had matured.
A little later when the “National” was added to the party’s name (with Isikeli Nadalo’s inclusion in 1968), the party was still seen as an Indian party with Indian agenda.
Patel made exemplary progress, with ups and downs linked to a fractious Indian community, up to constitutional talks aimed at independence for Fiji.
In 1969, he argued for cane farmers and walked out of court victoriously with the acclaimed Denning Award.
A D Patel also managed to convince the then heavily racially divided legislative council to accept the setting up of a pension scheme for Fiji’s workers – the Fiji National Provident Fund.
This was a case where Ratu Mara expressed appreciation for Patel’s foresight. Later, he was to acknowledge Patel’s advocacy as being exemplary.
Thus A D Patel had managed to win cross-cultural respect if not acceptance. His dogged insistence on a common roll, however, became his biggest yoke with one Sahib snidely calling it “toilet roll”.
The chimera of political permanency
History tells us that the politics of Fijians of Indian descent has been characterised by those who considered political collaboration as the best option and those who felt adversarial politics was the only path to gaining legitimacy in Fiji as unquestioned entitled citizens.
The problem was that those who preferred collaboration were not trusted by the Indian community. There were sound reasons for this.
On the other hand, those who adopted the path of advocacy failed to understand that indigenous Fijian politics was based largely on a consensual system of decision-making. Few realised that juxtapositioning a foreign system of governance on top of an established traditional system, amid a multi-cultural populace, would spew out unpalatable and offensive realities that would damage cross-cultural relations so badly, over time, that Fiji would hemorrhage as a country.
This is exactly what happened in May 1987. The Indo-Fijian community had been relying heavily on what they considered to be iron-clad constitutional provisions of permanency in the meticulously negotiated 1970 constitution.
They had allowed huge concessions in that constitution to ensure that they were not seen as a political threat in Fiji.
These concessions included a two-tier (or bicameral) system of government with a House of Representatives that was made up of 52 representatives: 22 Fijian, 22 Indo-Fijian and eight “general electors” (other races).
These eight “others” were meant to ensure that no Indo-Fijian Bill could make it through the house without the consent of indigenous Fijian members.
Furthermore, a Senate was set up with an overwhelming indigenous Fijian majority.
Any Bill that came through the House of Representatives had to go through Senate before it could evolve into an Act and subsequently become part of the law of the land.
In addition to this, bills dealing with Fijian land and customary rights had special safeguards that required higher levels of support from both houses.
This negotiated constitutional existence was meant to ensure that Fijians never felt threatened in what they considered their own country.
On the other hand, it was supposed to provide a permanent entitled existence for the Indo-Fijian in his adopted land. So it becomes inevitable to pose the question: what went wrong? The answer lies in 1987.
What happened in 1987?
After the 1982 elections, the writing was on the wall that Ratu Mara’s Alliance Party could not last, as it was under threat from two sides: ethnonationalists who supported Sakeasi Butadroka and Indo-Fijians who continued to reject his rule.
When the Labour Party emerged in 1985, it had a critical mass of workingclass Fijian supporters.
The badly hemorrhaging NFP formed a coalition with the increasingly popular FLP in the lead-up to the 1987 elections.
They won against the expectations of many. However, key people had foreseen that loss and decided that it had to be reversed.
This thinking had its genesis in the evaporation of good faith from Ratu Mara and his Alliance Party. The unthinkable had happened!
This issue will form the core of my next article where I will delve again into the fear of temporariness among Fijians of Indian descent, despite their love for this country.
• DR SUBHASH APPANNA has been writing occasionally on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed in this article are his alone and not those of The Fiji Times or his employers.