The Fiji Times » Citizenship and Belonging

In this article in this series, I focus on the struggle for political legitimacy to address the issue of citizenship, belonging and acceptance of Fijians of Indian descent in Fiji. The approach adopted here uses the lessons of history and ultimately aims to try to shed light on the difficulties in finding common ground between the two great 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 voyage to Fiji.

It carried 888 miserable, scruffy, but hopeful human beings, largely from southern India. The Deed of Trust was terminated shortly thereafter in March 1917 under the India Defense Orders.

The First World War was in full swing. This meant that the number of girmitiya would disappear in 1921 – they would exist in Fiji as “free” people.

From 1890, these newly liberated girmitiya had begun to “float” on the fringes of existing girmit groups. A largely politically ignored semi-formal working population was beginning to grow around the sugar enclaves in Fiji.

They believed they were among the citizens who received verbal assurances that if they served two terms of girmit (10 years) they would either get a free return to India or they could choose to remain as separate inhabitants whole of the Crown Colony.

In fact, this was clearly recognized and articulated in the Salisbury Dispatch of 1875, which said: “Above all things we must confidently expect, as an indispensable condition of the proposed arrangements…colonial laws and their administration shall be such as Indian settlers who have completed their terms of service to which they have agreed in return for the expense of bringing them to the colonies, shall in all respects be free men, with privileges not inferior to those of any other class of Her Majesty’s subjects residing in colonies “.

It should be noted that this was an assurance given by a senior British government official prior to Girmitiya’s departure from India.

In fact, this was given four years before Leonidas arrived in Fiji in May 1879.

And yes, it was referring to all the girmitiya who left India and not just 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 recognizes the value of the Indians as permanent settlers and is prepared to concede to them the enjoyment equal civil rights.

It is clear that from the start the newly liberated girmitiya had to struggle for political legitimacy in Fiji.

They realized early on that they had to participate in the political process where laws were made because of their private and castigated experience with girmit.

After all, the agreement they called “girmit” (due to pronunciation issues) was a strongly one-sided document.

With the number of “free” Indians increasing dramatically, late arrivals – business immigrants, etc. – further bolstered the numbers.

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 the request of Mahatma Gandhi and made political representation in the legislative council a priority.

When the colonial government bypassed Manilal for his appointment in 1916, he was ostracized and eventually expelled from Fiji in 1920 for causing trouble.

The person who succeeded in representing the Indians in the legislative council was Badri Maharaj who was unpopular and considered a collaborator.

This set the tone for politics in Fiji. Indians would not cooperate, should not be trusted and, above all, should be kept out of the cockpit of decision-making.

By 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 name of the party (with the inclusion of Isikeli Nadalo in 1968), the party was still considered an Indian party with an Indian agenda.

Patel made exemplary progress, with ups and downs tied to a grumpy Indian community, all the way to constitutional talks aimed at independence for Fiji.

In 1969 he argued for the sugar cane growers and emerged victorious from court with the acclaimed Denning Award.

AD Patel was also successful in convincing the then racially divided Legislative Council to agree to the establishment of a pension scheme for Fiji workers – the Fiji National Provident Fund.

It was a case where Ratu Mara expressed his appreciation for Patel’s foresight. Later, he was to recognize Patel’s advocacy as exemplary.

Thus, AD Patel had succeeded in gaining cross-cultural respect if not acceptance. His stubborn insistence on a common roll, however, became his greatest yoke with one Sahib slyly calling him “toilet roll”.

The chimera of political permanence

History tells us that the politics of Fijians of Indian descent was characterized by those who saw political collaboration as the best option and those who believed that adversarial politics was the only way to gain legitimacy in Fiji as citizens. undisputed.

The problem was that those who preferred collaboration did not have the trust of the Indian community. There were good reasons for this.

On the other hand, those who took the advocacy route failed to understand that indigenous Fijian politics was largely based on a consensual system of decision-making. Few realized that the juxtaposition of a foreign system of governance over an established traditional system, in the midst of a multicultural population, would spit out unpleasant 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 relied heavily on what they saw as ironclad constitutional provisions of permanence in the meticulously negotiated 1970 constitution.

They had allowed huge concessions in this 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 consisting of 52 representatives: 22 Fijians, 22 Indo-Fijians and eight “Electors General” (other races).

These eight “others” were intended to ensure that no Indo-Fijian bill could pass through the House without the consent of indigenous Fijian members.

In addition, a senate was created with an overwhelming majority of native Fijians.

Any bill submitted to the House of Representatives had to pass through the Senate before it could evolve into law and subsequently become part of the law of the land.

In addition to this, the bills dealing with Fijian Land and Customary Rights had special safeguards which required a higher level of support from both Houses.

This negotiated constitutional existence was intended to ensure that Fijians never felt threatened in what they considered their own country.

On the other hand, it was meant to provide a permanent existence for the Indo-Fijian in his adopted land. It then becomes inevitable to ask 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 threatened from two sides: the ethnonationalists who supported Sakeasi Butadroka and the Indo-Fijians who continued to reject his rule. .

When the Labor Party emerged in 1985, it had a critical mass of working-class Fijian supporters.

The hemorrhaging NFP formed a coalition with the increasingly popular FLP ahead of the 1987 elections.

They won against the expectations of many. However, key people had foreseen this loss and decided that it should be undone.

This thought has its genesis in the evaporation of the good faith of Ratu Mara and his Alliance party. The unthinkable had happened!

This question will be at the heart of my next article where I will dive back into the fear of the interim among Fijians of Indian origin, despite their love for this country.

• DR SUBHASH APPANNA writes occasionally on matters of historical and national significance. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of the Fiji Times or his employers.

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