OPINION: Citizenship and belonging

Return to Paradise - a book by James A. Michener. Picture: www.amazon.in

The last article in this series highlighted how a sterling opportunity to share the reins of power, within a constitutional framework that actually mandated it and provided guidance on how to make it work, went begging because the Rabuka-Reddy vision was rejected by the electorate in 1999.

That was the last in a string of opportunities that were missed over the years.

In saying this, I do agree that institutional constraints with questionable motivations were placed along the path over the years.

These impeded better awareness, understanding and at some stage, accommodation between the two major communities in Fiji.

We can debate the above and lay blame “without” for as long as we want.

This, however, will not help resolve the key issue of belongingness.

Copious volumes can and have been written about the trials and tribulations of the girmitiya in Fiji.

At this juncture, I believe, we need to look beyond the girmitiya, who were constrained on all fronts.

Surely, the descendants of the girmitiya would have matured by 1987.

Many say that the tree that the girmitiya so painstakingly planted was just about to bear fruit when it was cut cruelly in 1987.

Well, 1987 is far in the past – 35 years it has been. In those 35 years the same descendants of the girmitiya have made so much progress that their offspring are now toying with conspicuous consumption in a consumerist society.

This is not really my concern here.

What concerns me is that Fijians of Indian descent have forgotten to look for initiatives and solutions within themselves to address the issue of belongingness that so pricks them when it rears its ugly head at inopportune times.

Fijians of Indian descent seem to forget that when we judge others, we get judged in return.

That when we show insensitivity to others, we actually end up being insensitive to ourselves.

I wish to share here an excerpt from a book by James A. Michener called Return to Paradise.

His is an ethnographic account of what he saw in Fiji when he revisited in 1951.

He had visited earlier in 1947 when he wrote another masterpiece, Tales of the South Pacific.

Michener’s account of what he saw in Fiji can be criticised from the anthropological perspective like any ethnography.

In fact, he so incensed the Indian community that he faced a public protest when he visited Fiji in 1986.

What needs to be acknowledged is that he interpreted in his own way what he saw and experienced in Fiji in 1947 and then in 1951.

Sure, the anthropological lenses he used were foreign, American to be more precise.

Nevertheless, when we are earnestly concerned about issues such as belongingness, we need to be receptive to different perspectives on ourselves.

It is these different takes (from whatever sources) that help craft appropriate responses that are strategically aimed at addressing the issue of belongingness. Here is what Michener wrote about the Indians in Fiji in 1951.

Imagine a group of islands blessed by heaven, rich in all things needed to build a good life, plus gold mines and a good climate.

Add a white government that works overtime to give honest service.

Top it all off with a democracy that enables dozens of different levels of society ….. to have a fine time.

There’s only one thing wrong with that picture of Fiji.

The Indians.

Nobody can stand the Indians.

When threepenny bits were recently issued in an unconventional form, bankers experienced a phenomenal run.

They discovered that Indian sharpsters were buying in quantity and scurrying to remote regions where the new coins were sold to gullible natives as sovereigns.

The Indians made a profit of 7700 per cent on each sale.

Of 7000 criminal cases tried in one year, 5000 had Indian defendants although they represent only 50 per cent of the population.

In the same year they accounted for 80 per cent of the income tax penalties.

Christian church schools are overrun with Indians who, when they are graduate, ignore the religion…

It is almost impossible to like the Indians of Fiji.

They are suspicious, vengeful, whining, unassimilated, provocative aliens in a land where they have lived for more than 70 years….

It is impossible for a traveler to spend a week in Fiji without ever seeing an Indian smile ….

The question of what to do with these clever Indians of Fiji is the most acute problem in the Pacific today (Michener 1951, pp.123-4).

Readers might ask why I am quoting one of the most nakedly scathing attacks on the Indians of Fiji in this series.

I totally agree that there are many explanations (and excuses) for what Michener encountered.

He went on to detail the life of Rahmat Singh, a descendant of the girmitiya, a cane farmer on native leased land … and an aspirer to political leadership in Fiji.

This part of his observations largely supported what he recorded earlier.

What is important for this series is that it shows us what has blocked our ardent expectations and intermittent insipid attempts to address the issue of belongingness.

It clearly tells us that much more needs to be done from the Fijians of Indian descent side in order to overcome this persistent yoke.

Missed opportunities

Readers might get the impression that Indo-Fijians were denied real opportunities to bridge the ethno-cultural gap between the two major
communities in Fiji.

Nothing could be further from the truth as we shall see in the ensuing discussions.

This understanding has its genesis in the colonial period when the Indian was seen as a mere factor of production because of the need for labour to help make the colony economically viable.

After 1970, however, things changed promisingly when Ratu Mara took the reins of power.

He worked in close consultation with Mr S M Koya and invited him to key national functions in an attempt to forge inclusion.

This alliance came to an abrupt end in 1973 when he proposed affirmative action for Fijians in education where they were lagging behind glaringly.

From there onwards, after a lull, there were numerous opportunities that arose and were missed by Indo-Fijians.

In 1979, Government set aside a handsome amount of money for the Girmit Centennial celebrations to be held throughout Fiji.

The whole program was chaired by Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, the Tui Cakau and paramount chief of the Tovata confederacy.

It was an excellent opportunity to create awareness and disseminate knowledge about girmit to all stakeholders.

After the festivities ended, nothing of real consequence followed.

I do not know whether it was for lack of persistence or the ongoing leadership crisis within the NFP, the principal Indo-Fijian political party at that time.

Later, the 1997 constitution provided an excellent opportunity for the two communities to work across the political-ethnic divide.

At the 1999 elections, the Indo-Fijian electorate bloc-voted and totally ignored this sterling opportunity to explore pathways to forging belongingness.

Rabuka, the Fijian leader at the time, had been consistently working with Reddy since 1994.

The Indo-Fijian electorate chose Chaudhry and his abrasive shortsighted politics against Reddy’s vision of cooperation and belongingness.

Here is what Reddy said at that time: “I offer a vision which sees this beloved land of ours united in its diversity, forged out of adversity and built on trust. I offer you a vision of Fiji of which historians will say that, in the midst of our tragedy, we found courage and wisdom, and foresight and determination, to lead the nation away from the precipice into a prosperous future. I can only hope that my vision for this most wonderful of nations will fulfil its promise”.

He was offering a solution from within the Indo-Fijian community.

What was coming from outside was Fijian acceptance and goodwill through Rabuka.

That was another opportunity missed.

What went wrong, we might ask?

I guess we need to extend this series to answer that question.

Here is wishing each and every one of you well in the coming week as it is a week in which you will plot the co-ordinates for the path that Fiji will follow from here onwards.


• 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 employer.

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