ETHNIC RELATIONS IN FIJI:
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PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE AND THE RECENT SHIFT
IN THE ETHNIC BALANCE
by Stephanie Sienkiewicz
- Chapter 3
- The Colonial Encounter
- Indian "Importation" to Fiji
- The Effect of British Colonial Policy on Ethnic Separation
- A Political History of Fijian Indian Interaction
- The History of Fiji's Land Issue
In understanding Fijian ethnic identity and relations between Fijians and Indians, it is important to know the history of colonialism in Fiji, post-colonial politics and also the land situation. These issues are central to Fijian Indian interaction. This chapter will trace Fijian history as it relates to these topics.
Colonialism influenced Fijian ethnic identity and Fijian life as a dominant presence in the islands. It also had a major impact because Britain brought Indians, as indentured servants, to the country. As a nation, Fiji was, therefore, drastically altered as a result of colonialism. British colonial policy also inadvertently shaped society and affected Fijian ethnic identity through its policies and underlying notions about both the indigenous and immigrant citizens. One of the main issues between the three ethnic groups in Fiji, the Fijians, Indians and Europeans, was land ownership. This topic has again emerged in politics and national thought in the late 1900s and early 2000s. A major colonialist theme which has endured is the notion of a plural society, wherein ethnic groups are dealt with as separate entities, Also, the stereotypes that Fijians are highly "cultural" people who cannot work hard and do not care about money, and that Indians lack "culture" and community values and consequently care only about money, have also remained intact since colonial times. This chapter will also describe changes since the 1987 political coup and the current land lease issue since these scenarios demonstrate how the plural society model could be breaking down.
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The Colonial Encounter
Prior to colonization, several "confederacies" comprised Fiji. A mataqali (patrilineal lineage) was grouped with other mataqali into a yavusa (clan). Yavusa joined together in vanua ("states"). And, vanua combined to form matanitu ("confederations") (Stanley 1999: 50). While for most of pre-colonial Fiji, political control was centered locally, just prior to contact with the West these "confederations" began to vie with each other for power over the islands which make up the country of Fiji. The governmental system was far from uniform throughout the islands, however. In some areas, "confederacies" were unknown. In precolonial times, Fiji was not a unified political entity as it now exists. Britain imposed unification upon various diverse islands. In fact, the common dialect of the Fijian language is called Bauan and originated from the tiny island of Bau (now part of eastern Fiji) and most of Fiji's leaders have come from the east. Colonialist leaders gave considerable importance to the eastern Fijian provinces with whom they allied to unite the Fijian Islands (Lawson 1996: 54).
Britain gained control of the Fiji Islands on October 10, 1874. Europeans had begun living in Fiji, however, since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first to come were traders and missionaries but soon agents of imperialism arrived. Dutch explorers were the first to "sight" the Fijian Islands in 1643. The British were second in 1774. Intensive trade and contact with Europeans occurred beginning in 1800. Politically during this time, the matanitu ("confederations") were competing between themselves, and also with a Tongan chief, for control of the area. The main contest transpired between the Tongan chief Ma'afu and Ratu Seru Cakobau, "'war lord' of Bau and self-styled king of all Fiji, or Tui Viti" (Lal 1992: 9). The American government held Cakobau responsible, however, in paying back debt which was supposedly incurred for Fijian looting of American residences in the islands. Cakobau could not pay this debt nor would he accept Ma'afu's offer of financial help. Britain rejected an offer to receive 200,000 acres of land for paying this debt. Then, in the 1860s, Britain established a "native government aided by the counsels of respectable Europeans (Morrell 1960: 137)" (Lal 1992: 10). This government fell through in 1867, however, and Fiji was split into two kingdoms, one controlled by Cakobau and one by Ma'afu. The Americans insisted the debt be paid at this time and the Polynesia Company, of Melbourne, paid the debt for 200,000 acres of land and the freedom to help develop Fiji as a mercantile state; the company was granted a site in Suva in 1868. After this, many European settlers arrived and demanded more land and cheap labor. In the mid-1860s, 1,649 Pacific Island laborers were imported to work on European-owned plantations (Lal 1992: 10). Cakobau's government collapsed under the pressure of violent outbursts against European authority in the islands and abuses of the labor trade. Cakobau decided to hand over Fijian affairs to the British government. He said,
If matters remain as they are,
Fiji will become like a piece of driftwood in the sea, and be picked up by the first passer-by
Of one thing I am assured, that if we do not cede Fiji [to Britain], the white stalkers on the beach, the cormorants, will open their maws and swallow us [Derrick 1950: 248]. [Lal 1992: 11]
Although the Islands became the unconditional property of Britain, the colonialists agreed that Fijian chiefs would retain some power, though colonialists held most of this. Clause 7 of the Deed of Cession contained the following regulation: "the rights and interests of the said Tui Viti and other high chiefs the ceding parties hereto shall be recognized so far as is and shall be consistent with British Sovereignty and Colonial form of government" (Lal 1992: 12). The first Legislative Council, elected in 1904, consisted of six elected Europeans and two Fijians, who were nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs. The governor appointed an Indian to the council in 1916; and in 1929, each of the three communities in Fiji, the Europeans, the Fijians and the Indians, were granted five seats. The other branch of the colonial legislature was the Executive council. This was made up of the governor, heads of government departments and some appointed members; this was the cabinet. Non-Europeans did not join this body until the 1940s. The first colonial governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, arrived in 1875, and was responsible solely to the Cabinet in London. A later section of this chapter will demonstrate the significant effect which Gordon's ideologies had on the colony. Gordon was responsible for initiating the Indian labor trade which will be discussed in the next section of this chapter. Also, under Gordon, the colonial secretary, Sir John Thurston (later to succeed Gordon as governor), convinced the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), based in Australia, to set up a sugar mill in Fiji. This increased the demand for indentured labor to work Fiji's sugar plantations.
Gordon's main goal was to maintain the Fijian system of government under the British colonial system. He established the Council of Chiefs which was a group of high-ranking Fijian chiefs to advise him on Fijian affairs in the colony. The Native Administration, later called the Fijian Administration, was another initiative of the Gordon-Thurston system.
In keeping with Gordon's philosophy, as well as the exigencies of colonial bureaucracy, the administration was to operate through what was thought to be the traditional chiefly system, with certain modifications to ensure compatibility with the functions of colonial government. [Lawson 1996: 46]
Gordon and Thurston believed that Fijian culture should be undisturbed and preserved. Their policies enforced this. They created a colonial government which dealt with Fijians through their traditional systems of government. Chiefs retained their power, then, and the colonialists controlled them. Law passed from the colonial government, through the chiefs and down to the Fijian people.
Colonialists began to believe, however, that the colonial attitude toward Fijians, namely having Fijian government advisors and endorsing "traditional" Fijian government systems, created lazy Fijians who need not perform work or leave their villages. Grievances within the colony led to the downfall of the Gordon-Thurston system, as it was called, in the early twentieth century.
Protests against the Gordon-Thurston system, and particularly the abuses and excesses of the rigidly defined communal way of life, gained a sympathetic ear in the government, where the view was widespread that ordinary Fijians were being exploited by the chiefs and the system itself. [Lal 1992: 19]
The governor who took office after Thurston, Sir George O'Brien, called the Fijian (Native) Administration, a government "by the Chiefs and for the Chiefs" (Lal 1992: 19). Consequently, "a concerted, though ultimately unsuccessful attempt was made to wean Fijians from the strictly regulated, chief-led, village-based communal system to one based more on individual enterprise and initiative" (Lal 1992: 17). Aspects of the communality of Fijian life were inspected. For instance, the government halted the practice of lala, the custom of giving the first fruits of a land to the chief. Governor O'Brien instituted a "Program of Work" which included annual work schedules for villages. In 1905, labor laws changed to allow married Fijian men to work longer than three months at a time; women and children under 15 could not work at all. Then, the Fijian Labor Ordinance of 1912 made it possible for any unmarried Fijian to enter into an employment contract. Between 1915 and 1944, the colonial influence was direct and downplayed the role of chiefs (Lawson 1996: 46). To combat this anti-"traditionalist" movement, Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna introduced the Fijian Affairs Bill, which argued for more chiefly power and less democratic influence, to the Legislative Council in 1944. However, two government reports about Fijian development in the colony criticized the chiefly system and claimed that Fijians had missed opportunities because of their communal lives. The government encouraged individual farming for Fijians; but this industry failed to meet government expectations and led, therefore, to disappointment.
A tripartite system of governor, Legislative Council and Executive Council lasted until the mid-1960s. Indians in Fiji had pushed for independence while Fijians looked upon the colonialists as their protectors and allies against the Indian population. Nevertheless, in 1965, a Constitutional Convention took place in London to promote Fijian self-government. As a result of this meeting, a Fijian Constitution was established in 1970. Fiji became an independent nation on October 10, 1970. Ratu Sir George Cakobau, the great grandson of Ratu Seru Cakobau, was appointed governor-general of the country in 1973.
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Indian "Importation" to Fiji
As mentioned in the previous section, Fiji's first colonial governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, instituted the system of Indian indenture or girmit. He had witnessed the use of Indian labor elsewhere in British colonies. In order to preserve and protect Fijian culture, Gordon and his successor, Sir John Thurston, banned Fijians from entering into employment in the rapidly expanding sugar industry. Since European planters needed a supply of cheap labor, however, other Melanesians, from the Solomon Islands for example, were captured from their homes and brought to work in Fiji. When this practice was outlawed in 1872, the governor and his secretary turned to India.
The girmit system began in 1879 and lasted until 1920. "By 1916, when the importation ceased, 60,639 Indian men, women, and children had arrived in the islands" (Lal 1992: 14). Stanley counted 63,000 Indian girmitya (Indians brought to Fiji under the girmit system) by 1916 (Stanley 1999: 34). When Indians signed the labor contract, the girmit, they agreed to cut sugarcane for their masters for five years. They had to work on the plantations nine hours per week day and five hours on Saturdays. They received meager earnings (men received more than women) and had to purchase housing and medical care from their employers. The indenture system was not as advantageous to Indians as they had thought it would be when they signed contracts in India, however.
The 1890s were the darkest days of the indenture experience, a time of heart-rending rates of infant mortality, of excessive discipline and repressive legislation, and of a general unwillingness of the government's part to guard the rights of the laborers. [Lal 1992: 41]
It is also important to note that the British recruited Indians from varying castes and intentionally mixed these social classes to destroy the caste system. This stripped the known social order from the new Indian community.
When their five-year contracts expired, girmitya were free to lease plots of land from Fijians and to farm upon these. They also had the option of returning to India, at their own expense, or at the government's if they first served another five-year residence. After working in Fiji, 24,000 Indian laborers returned to India (Lal 1992: 39). Most of the girmitya, however, stayed in Fiji and did not reenter the indenture system after their five-year contracts expired. Most leased land and became independent agriculturists. In urban areas, the government helped Indians to settle on Crown land. In rural areas, Indians found land to lease from Fijians and did so "wherever they obtained leases to fertile land, without regard to their own social, cultural, or religious considerations" (Lal 1992: 40). In 1911, 10,357 of the 25,976 Indians in Fiji were agriculturists (Lal 1992: 39). Some Indians, however, shifted away from agricultural work and chose new occupations.
In 1887, for example, 20 of 49 hawkers licenses issued were held by Indians; and in 1900, 229 were licensed to set up shops, 225 to practice hawking, and 46 to work as "watermen," providing water to laborers in the fields. [Ali 1976: 8]. [Lal 1992: 39]
British colonialists had given into the needs of European settlers and also to the desire for a strong Fijian economy when they initiated the system of Indian indenture. They, in fact, predicted the collapse of Fiji's sugar industry with the end of the girmit system. But the government of India recognized that the system created atrocities for many of its subjects and that Indian culture was eroding under it. The "importation" of Indians not only had consequences for Indians, though. It greatly impacted Fijian history as well.
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The Effect of British Colonial Policy on Ethnic Separation
The British notions about Fijians and Indians respectively, impacted how each of these groups came to view each other and themselves. A major contribution to the current ethnic situation in Fiji, that between Fijians and Indians, was the emphasis of separation. British ideas about the Fijian and Indian communities influenced ethnic separation during colonialism. Colonial policy dictated that the two ethnic groups should remain separate and that they should each perform a different role within the country. This is called a plural society. J.S. Furnivall defined a plural society as one in which there are various ethnic or racial groups with each of the groups interacting only in economic contexts and otherwise maintaining separate lives (Furnivall 1954: 304). This definition conforms well to the British vision for Fiji. In addition, the British encouraged the idea that each group had its own role to play in society and each had its own strength. This impacted both Fijian and Indian cultures in Fiji and is partially responsible for the current ethnic divisions.
British views of the nature of Fijian and Indian cultures also had a lasting influence on the ethnic identity of these two groups, as I will show in subsequent chapters. The British believed the Fijians to possess a valuable culture which should be protected from the outside. The colonialists were likely motivated by the desire to preserve the traditional political system with an intent to keep order in the colony. This kind of policy was typical of indirect rule in British colonialism. The British, however, saw the Indians as people who had come to work and were not concerned with preserving their culture, possibly because the British did not perceive the preservation of Indian culture as key to maintaining order in the colony. British colonialists deemed Fijians "cultural" specimens who should be insulated from the encroaching capitalist economy. The colonialists felt that Fijian culture was in danger of extinction from contact with Western culture. Britain, therefore, implemented policies to separate Fijians from the British and from Indians. The views of Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the first resident colonial governor of Fiji, on Fijian cultural preservation are summed up by author Brij Lal,
The interests of the Fijian people as Gordon perceived them - should not be sacrificed to political expediency or to the needs of the settlers, as had been the case in other colonies
The best policy in the circumstances Gordon proposed - was one that insulated the Fijian people from
the competitive, dehumanizing pressures of the modern world and that preserved their traditional values, ways of living, and political institutions. [1992: 14]
Fijians should be isolated in their own communities and maintain their "cultural" lives in their traditional manner. Colonialists believed that putting Fijians to work would destroy their "culture." In policy, Gordon restricted the extent of Fijian employment for reasons he described. He said,
If the Fijian population is ever permitted to sink from its present condition into that of a collection of migratory bands of hired laborers, all hope, not only of the improvement but the preservation of the race, must inevitably be abandoned. [Lal 1992: 13]
The British not only did not want to destroy Fijian "culture," but colonialists felt "that Fijians were unsuited to individual enterprise and belonged instead in their communal villages" (Lal 1992: 71).
The British thought that Indians were suitable for a working role in Fiji. A British official named Morgan Finucane described Indians as "skilled agriculturists, industrious and shrewd" (Lal 1992: 39). Brij Lal, in Broken Waves : A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century, also quoted another British official who expressed the stereotype of the industrious Indian. The following quote came from the Colonial Secretary's Office in Suva in 1899,
I was struck by the signs of the industry of the "free" Indian settlers. In fact it is not possible to travel up the river without noticing on either bank evidences of the aptitude, push and perseverance of the ubiquitous "free" Indian, with his stores, farms and smiling plantations. [Lal 1992: 40]
The British believed that Indians were so suitable to labor that they feared the complete collapse of Fiji's sugar industry with the end of the indenture system in 1920.
British colonial officials, in addition to deeming the Fijians unsuitable for hard labor and labeling Indians as perfect for labor, also mapped out a model of ethnic separation by emphasizing that the Fijian and Indian ethic groups should not have much contact with each other since they were so different. Lawson has described this plural society phenomenon as it occurs in Fiji,
Plural societies are characterized generally as displaying an immutable systemic disassociation between culturally distinct groups which are themselves assumed to be relatively homogenous. In Fiji politics, for example, the respective communities of indigenous Fijians and Fiji Indians have frequently been depicted as monolithic, unified cultural/ethnic entities. Strength of attachment to these groups by their respective members is reinforced by the very existence, within the boundaries of the nation-state, of the "other" group, which thereby produces a "two-nation ideology." [1996: 42]
The British believed that all Fijians were inept at working hard but also that they should be spared from servitude in order to preserve their "cultural" lifestyles. Both interaction with Europeans and contact with Indians endangered this conservation since these communities were very different from Fijians. Although later revoked, an 1891 law, which restricted Fijian commercial activity, aimed to isolate Fijians from the harsh dominance of European plantation owners and also to separate Fijians from life among the lines of working Indian indentured servants. An aspect of the plural society, and certainly of Britain's colonial policy, was the belief that two such distinct cultures as Fijian and Indian, should be forever cleaved and never melded together.
Colonialists also believed that their culture could never mesh with the Fijian or Indian cultures. The British initially banned all Fijian, Indian and part-European children from attending schools for children of full European parentage. However, part-European children and sons of Fijian chiefs were allowed entrance before Indian children were allowed to attend such schools. The manager of a sugar company wrote to the colonial secretary in 1914,
We most emphatically do not require an Indian community of highly educated laborers, with the attendant trouble which the "baboo" class has brought to the Indian Government, teaching and preaching sedition and looking generally for immediate treatment on a parity with educated Europeans accustomed to self government for many centuries. [Lal 1992: 34]
The British in Fiji were not just racist toward the Indian community however. They discriminated more toward the Indian community than the Fijian community, as was to be expected since the Indians occupied a servant class. But the Europeans in Fiji felt that they were racially superior to both Fijians and Indians and that it was their right to remain separated from the other two ethnic groups. This is evident because British schools in Fiji initially only accepted children with European parents. Lal wrote,
This policy was supported by colonial officials. Governor May, for example, heartily endorsed segregated education, noting in 1911 the undesirability of "contact with colored children whose precocity in sexual matters and whose less careful upbringing at home is a real danger to white children." [1992: 34]
The British enforced a model of labor separation along ethnic lines as they designated Indians the working role, Fijians the "cultural" role, and themselves the governmental/overseer role. Europeans were the minority in Fiji, yet colonialists manipulated the non-European residents of Fiji through legislation, living arrangements, and so on. Governor May's words to the Colonial Office in 1911 indicate how the British viewed their role in Fiji as a controlling body that need not have much interaction with the local, non-white community,
I hold the view very strongly that Europeans inhabiting the tropics are entitled to have set apart for them in towns inhabited by Asiatics and natives of colored races an area in which they can reside in surroundings not rendered insanitary and otherwise undesirable by persons of the races mentioned. [Lal 1992: 35]
And another colonialist, James Borron, expressed the view that, "Fijians should not be allowed to occupy land within three-quarters of a mile of the Grand Post Office in central Suva" (Lal 1992: 35).
The British thought of themselves in the ruling/controlling "niche" in Fiji as they considered Fijians too incompetent to profit from their land. While Indians were still under the indenture system, and shortly after this time, when they were still handicapped by the system's legacy, disagreements over land policy occurred between Fijians and Europeans. The British felt they had the right to control land within Fiji as they were racially superior. They wanted, therefore, more land which was under Fijian control to be released from that ownership and to be put up for sale. The British felt that this would attract upstanding European citizens to Fiji. They thought the Fijians too enamored with their "culture" and traditions to effectively handle land ownership. Colonialists, therefore, accepted a ruling role for themselves while designating the traditional lifestyle role to Fijians.
It is again evident that the British believed themselves to occupy the ruling "niche" in Fiji since the colonialist government did not allow Fijians or Indians to vote. The right to vote for Legislative council members was given only to literate British subjects of European descent, who were 21 years of age or older, owned property, and earned a certain amount of income per year. Indigenous Fijians weren't given the right to vote until 1963. The British saw both Fijians and Indians as unfit for the governmental position in the country; the British therefore took this role upon themselves.
The British tried themselves, and encouraged Fijians also, to keep Indians out of the Fijian government. Lal wrote that, at a meeting of Europeans in 1923, and according to the Colonial Secretary's Office in 1922, the following was declared,
[Europeans] will resist, and will also encourage the native Fijians to resist with all means at their disposal, the contemplated attempt to admit Indian residents of Fiji to the body politic or to granting to them any measure however small of political status. [1992: 87]
Colonialists clearly felt that Indians should be excluded from any governmental role in Fiji.
The British argued the notion that it was okay for different ethnic groups to occupy different "niches" in society and that it was acceptable for these groups to remain out of contact with each other while filling their different roles. They believed in the notion of a plural society, thinking that the different ethnic groups would inevitably remain separate and could never amalgamate. Based upon this belief, the British took upon the administrative role in the colony of Fiji. In accordance with the stereotypes and beliefs they held about the Fijians and the Indians, they designated each of these a suitable "niche" in the country.
Because they believed that Fijians were caught up in tradition and a primitive way of life, they thought they should work to "preserve the race" of Fijians. The British thought that contact with Western ways would influence the Fijians to desert their former way of life, losing all "culture." In order to prevent this from happening, colonialists enforced regulations against the Fijians such that they would remain in their communal villages and live as they had in the past. The British wanted the Fijians to hold on to their customs. The Fijian "niche" in the country, as colonialists saw it, was to preserve their "culture" by remaining separate from both Europeans and Indians.
As the British allotted this position to Fijians, so they considered Indians in the labor role of the country. They brought Indians to Fiji so that the Fijians would not be tainted by plantation life. The Indians could do the work to keep Fiji's economy running. And the role of the British, through colonialist eyes, was to oversee all of this. The British thought that they should remain separate from the other ethnic groups within Fiji but should rule over them since they considered Europeans to be racially superior. This British model of ethnic separation has persisted in modern Fiji.
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A Political History of Fijian Indian Interaction
With the end of the indenture system, the Indian population in Fiji rose dramatically. In 1921, there were 60,635 Indians in Fiji; in 1936, there were 85,002 (Lal 1992: 74). And in the 1920s and 1930s, small but constant numbers of free Indians emigrated from India to Fiji. About this overall increase in population, Lal has written,
This was a change of more that statistical significance. It signaled a profound social, cultural, and psychological transformation in the Indo-Fijian community. Before the 1920s, the Indo-Fijians tended to be socially isolated, economically dependent, culturally disoriented, and politically disorganized and voiceless. They lacked independent leadership of their own, their interests in the higher echelons of the colonial government being represented, insofar as they were represented at all, by the agent general of immigration and his staff
the Indo-Fijians were told to accept as permanent and proper their place at the bottom of the Fiji social hierarchy. [1992: 75]
Indians were also settling on their newly-leased lands. The amount of land upon which Indians could settle also had increased; the CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company) had broken up its lands into small shares and leased this out to Indian tenant farmers. Religious practices and traditional festivals from India reemerged with the settling in of Indians to their new homes and lands; these had been postponed during indenture. The combination of all of these factors led to the beginnings of political organization for Indians to coincide with their agitation over their lack of influence in the government. The Colonial Secretary's Office, in 1910, noted that "petitions were sent to the government concerning a variety of issues, including social problems, land policy, and political representation" (Lal 1992: 40-1).
This increased Indian presence scared both colonialists and Fijians. As a result, the government took action to prevent the possibility of Indian political prominence. Lawson wrote that,
It is within this context, and the general framework set by plural society ideas, that another important doctrine, also initiated in the time of Gordon, developed in Fiji. The paramountcy doctrine arose at a time of colonization and rested on a loose interpretation of the Deed of Cession
The most important consequence for the doctrine for contemporary politics is that it regulates Fiji Indians to a subordinate status in the hierarchy of rights and interests. This underscores the notion
that Fiji Indians (either individually or as a group) have no legitimate claim to the exercise of political power on a basis of equality with indigenous Fijians. This despite the many assurances given to Fiji Indians that their status, as British subjects, would be equal to that of any other colonial subjects. [1996: 52]
A secretary of Indian affairs was appointed, however, regardless of such discrimination. And, Indians earned some representation in the government.
The administrative instrument of indenture had been the Suva-based agent general of immigration, assisted by resident inspectors of Indian immigrants in important district centers. This machinery was now obsolete and ineffective. At the behest of the government of India and over the initial objections of both the Fiji government and the Colonial Office, a secretary of Indian affairs was appointed in 1929
The secretary of Indian affairs was usually an experienced civil servant
who functioned for the Indo-Fijian community much as the secretary of native affairs functioned for Fijians. The office was certainly useful in representing Indo-Fijian concerns and aspirations in the Executive Council. [Lal 1992: 79]
The ethnic separation established in British colonialism was, not surprisingly, mirrored in postcolonial politics. Fiji achieved independence in 1970 with a British parliamentary style of government. The major postcolonial political parties have all had distinct ethnic bases of support; political parties were divided along ethnic lines. The first political party in Fiji was created in 1954 by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. He formed the Fijian Association to support the British governor against Indian demands for equal representation. In response to this Fijian organization, Indian cane growers formed the National Federation Party (NFP); this soon gained broad Indian support because many Indians held grievances about European class domination.
In 1966, in a seemingly non-characteristic cross-ethnic unification, the Fijian Association joined with the General Electors' Association (which represented Europeans, part-Europeans, and Chinese) and with the Fiji Indian Alliance (also called the Fiji National Congress; it was a minority Indian group) to form the Alliance party. The party did not really stand for ethnic unification however. It was formed in response to the formation of the Indian NFP and was led by the Eastern Fijian chiefs, most notably, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who headed the party through independence and until the 1987 coups. He was also elected prime minister after independence. The Indians who had joined the Alliance party were minorities in the Indian community.
One former member of the Alliance party, who was not yet expelled at this point, called for British funds to send all Indians "back" to India. Sakiasi Butadroka said that, "the time has come when Indians or people of Indian origin in this country be repatriated back to India" (Lal 1992: 235). And although his idea was rejected, and he was exiled from the Alliance party, he formed his own party in 1975. This was the Fijian Nationalist Party. One leader of the Alliance claimed that Butadroka was not as irrational as many people might have thought; there were probably many Fijians who would have agreed with him. Lal described what this member of the Alliance party, Ratu David Toganivalu, said,
Butadroka, Ratu David said, might be "echoing the soul of the Fijian people" because "all Fijians consciously, but mainly unconsciously, feel at times in terms of what is expressed in the motion. There is no hiding about it: this is how we feel at times; at certain moments in times of anger this is what we say. He is not the first to say it. It has been said before. I have got to say this
because if you have got to vomit, vomit properly, right on the floor, and examine why certain members of our community are vomiting." Indeed, some Fijian members of the House, though avoiding Butadroka like a plague in public, seemed privately pleased by the strong assertion of the principle of Fijian paramountcy. [1992: 235-237]
Butadroka's Fijian Nationalist Party gained enough votes from former Alliance members to injure the Alliance's support. It was the NFP, then, which won a majority in parliament in April 1977. Koya, the Indian Muslim leader of the NFP was supposed to take office as Prime Minister, then, but the Governor General of Fiji, within his constitutional rights, instead appointed Ratu Mara, the Fijian leader of the Alliance party.
The minority Alliance government lasted from April to September, when it fell to an NFP-led vote of no confidence. New elections were held in September, and the intervening period was one of much activity. The Alliance pulled out all stops to get back its Fijian voters
Having witnessed the dramatic events of April, many Fijians, especially those who had voted for the Fijian Nationalist Party in protest against the Alliance's lethargy, returned to the Alliance fold. [Lal 1992: 241]
The NFP also experienced a split between its Hindu and Muslim members, which helped the Alliance to reclaim the majority in the new September 1977 elections.
The Alliance party did use ethnic campaigning to win support, though not so drastically as the Fijian Nationalist Party had. Because of the Alliance party's chiefly connection, its link to the eastern chiefs, any criticism against the party could turn into an attack on the institution of the Fijian chiefdom. This criticism was, then, seen in opposition to all of Fijian culture, since chiefs were the embodiment of the people. In the 1982 elections, for instance, as written in Islands Business News, the Alliance party said that a piece of NFP propaganda ridiculed Fijians "in a fashion never to be forgotten or forgiven" (Lawson 1996: 61). The NFP again lost to the Alliance party in 1982.
Ethnic tensions erupted in the mid 1980's, culminating in a coup by indigenous Fijians against a government with some Indian supporters, in 1987. My analysis of this coup and the events preceding it will show how Indians and Fijians continued to work within the plural society model set up by the British well after Fijian independence. The coup was a response to the election of a political party which attempted to unite people along class interests rather than along ethnic lines. The coup, therefore, shows that many Fijians were not ready for such a model.
The ineffectiveness of the NFP in combating the Alliance party's political control in the 1982 elections led to the formation of the Fiji Labor Party in July of 1985; the president of the party was Dr. Timoci Uluivuda Bavadra. The Labor party oriented itself less along ethnic lines and more toward economic concerns, namely those of lower socioeconomic groups. "Labor therefore set out to appeal to groups across the ethnic spectrum and to divert the old racially-oriented emphasis of political discourse in Fiji to a broader consideration of economic class and social justice issues" (Lawson 1996: 62).
Calling itself "democratic socialist" in orientation, the FLP advocated promoting social justice, balanced economic development, and regional equalities in Fiji
In short, the FLP proposed new visions and new directions to take Fiji away from the policies of communalism and ethnic separatism that had become a way of life under the Alliance. [Lal 1992: 258]
The FLP gained support from disheartened NFP members and also from urban working class Fijians. It therefore gained support not through appeals to ethnic loyalties but along social and economic class lines.
In 1986, the Labor party and the NFP joined together as the Coalition party, with Timoci Bavadra as their leader, in hopes of defeating the Alliance party in the next elections. The Alliance party clung to its promotion of ethnic separation and allegiance to one's ethnic group, however. In response to the formation of the Coalition, the Alliance continued
to warn Fijians against the dangers of a non-Alliance government. In 1986, they year before the next general elections, Alliance leaders and spokespeople concentrated on land and related issues, with Mara once again asserting that unless proper Fijian leadership was supported by the body of Fijian people, rights to land would be endangered. Another senior Fijian argued that: "[T]he chiefs represent the people, the land, the customs. Without a chief there is no Fijian society. When Fijian chiefs are attacked or criticized in whatever capacity personal or political it is the Fijian vanua which is also being criticized" [Fiji Sun 1986: 4]. [Lawson 1996: 62]
The 1987 election was primarily a contest between the NFP-FLP Coalition, a political party that chose not to focus upon ethnicity, and the Alliance party, which primarily organized around ethnicity. The focus of Coalition campaigning was on the corruption of Alliance officials, namely Prime Minister Mara, rather than on ethnic divisions. The leaders of both parties, Mara and Bavadra, were Fijian, a unique feature of that election year. "Consequently, racial fears did not play as large a part in 1987 as in previous campaigns" (Lal 1992: 263). The Coalition vowed change and the Alliance preached tradition. Lal summarized the opposing parties' policies,
One vision promised democratic socialism with multiracial cooperation; the other promised to continue Fiji's communal past. One promised reform and rethinking; the other proposed the steady-as-it-goes policy. One promised the possibility of change; the other sought to restrain it. [1992: 265]
In April of 1987, the Coalition won 28 of 52 House of Representatives seats, leaving 24 to the Alliance. Out of the 28 elected Coalition members, 19 were Indian. The Fijian people wondered if, as in 1977, rule would be reclaimed from the minority victors (Lal 1992: 265). But Bavadra was sworn in as Fiji's second Prime Minister on April 13, 1987.
Many Fijians feared this new non-ethnically focused rule and seemed to think that a breakdown of the old policy of ethnic separation would lead to a breakdown in Fijian control of land. Shortly after the election results were announced, Ratu Mara's eldest son led a protest in Suva while a chief on the western side of the mainland set up a road block on the main highway. And on April 21, 2000 Fijians gathered around Bavadra's house claiming that Fijian rights were in danger (Lal 1992: 272). This resistance was termed "The Taukei Movement." The rhetoric of the Taukei expressed vividly the influence of British thinking on Fijian attitudes toward their culture and nation.
By late April, the Taukei Movement, a loose coalition of anti-Coalition taukei [(Fijian landowners)], had formed. It became the chief planner and perpetrator of anti-Coalition activities in the country and the sole indigenous Fijian voice to the outside world. The movement sought to portray itself as the voice of a people faced with the same plight as the politically and economically marginalized indigenous people of Hawai'i, New Zealand, Kanaky, and Australia. It was waging a fight for Fijian self-preservation and dignity to ensure that the taukei "are not overwhelmed into oblivion in the fields of commerce and business, education and leadership in local government and their tradition not replaced by a totally strange and foreign one imposed on them through a constitution that does not guarantee Fijian security and interests" [Bole 1987]. [Lal 1992: 272]
On April 24, four thousand Fijians marched through Suva to declare opposition to the Coalition. Their signs and shouts said, "Fiji for Fijians," "Kai Idia Go Back (Indians Go Back)," "It Is Time to Fight for Our Rights," and other similar messages (Lal 1992: 273). Some violent acts, aimed at Indians and the new government, occurred during this time. Gasoline bombs, for example, were thrown at government offices.
On May 14, Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka ordered a military coup in defense of Fijian paramountcy in politics and land matters. Lawson said, "In the weeks and months following the coup, violence and civil disorder in Fiji reached levels previously unheard of" (1996: 63). Rabuka's followers detained the Coalition members of Parliament and Rabuka told the Governor General of Fiji, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, that his power would be suspended for a short time. Rabuka then held a press conference and publicly announced the coup. "He disclosed the suspension of the constitution and his plans for an interim cabinet to return Fiji to civilian rule" (Lal 1992: 275). This cabinet largely contained members of the former Alliance government, who believed in ethnic separation, and included Ratu Mara. The Governor General denounced Rabuka's actions as illegal but shortly thereafter swore him in as the new head of the Fijian government. On May 19, Coalition members, who had been kidnapped, were freed. Rabuka's temporary cabinet was replaced with a caretaker Advisory Council appointed by the Great Council of Chiefs which would govern until new elections were held. Two seats were offered to the Coalition, but they refused.
While it is tempting to attribute this coup to ethnic hostilities and the inability for the two groups to merge under the government, this may not entirely be true. Lawson pointed out that the hegemonic colonial model of a plural society could have broken down at the time of the 1987 elections, had Rabuka not manipulated people's fears. Lawson wrote,
To the outside world, these troubles may have appeared to confirm the notion that Fiji's political problems were indeed the result of deep-seated ethnic animosity. But it must be emphasized that increasing violence (ethnic or otherwise) became a problem only after the initial propaganda campaign by the Taukei movement in the aftermath of the election, and that it escalated further under Rabuka's regime. Indeed, Rabuka's own propaganda campaign can only be interpreted as a manipulation to maximum advantage of the plural society syndrome. [1996: 63-64]
Rabuka used the issue of land to scare Fijians. The Taukei Movement rested upon the idea that a disturbance of ethnic separation would lead to Fijian loss of land control. By inflaming the land issue, then, Rabuka scared Fijians into believing that ethnic separation had to endure to keep land under Fijian authority. It is not surprising, therefore, that violence increased after Rabuka's second coup, and the installation of more fear, in which he declared himself "head of state." In September, talks had begun over constitutional reform and had focused upon new elections. This dialogue included both Alliance and Coalition party members. Rabuka's second coup, on September 25, 1987, resulted from his fear for his own position in a new government. The second coup was harsher than the first, with an imposed curfew, ban on travel, stopping of the presses, government control of radio stations and detainment of government officials. Rabuka denounced the 1970 constitution, declared Fiji a republic on October 7, 1987, and chose 21 advisors. In response, Governor General Ganilau resigned and two days later the British government expelled Fiji from the Commonwealth.
Rabuka appointed Ratu Ganilau president and Ratu Mara Prime Minister of the new republic once he realized military rule would not work for Fiji. He had told the country that he would step down when these two positions were filled. "Monarchism, however, did not cause Rabuka's government to collapse. Of more concern was its poor performance" (Robertson 1998: 38). One of the rash and detrimental implementations of the military government was the immediate return of both freehold and Crown land, that is, the small fraction of the land of Fiji which was not registered as an inalienable possession of Fijian lineages, to Fijians.
Mara found his position as Prime Minister in the new government a difficult one to balance because at least five of the 21 members on the new cabinet were Taukeists (Robertson 1998: 40). And, the Taukei Movement lingered in later coup attempts with the desire for racial conflict and military rule. There was also talk of Indian violent resistance or takeovers. Robertson, who was himself forced to leave Fiji during the post-coup period, described this as a time of martial law. Protestors were cruelly imprisoned, the media was censured, homes and businesses were raided. The Internal Security Degree (ISD), implemented in June, 1988, allowed "preventative detention without trial for up to two years" and to detain people for 48 hours for questioning if a person was suspected of illegal weapons possession or distribution (Robertson 1998: 47). In addition, the ISD performed a great deal of anti-Indian raiding, such as attempting to burn Hindu temples because they were possible meeting places for political conspiracy.
Fiji adopted a new constitution on July 25, 1990 which legally enforced ethnic separation. The heated debates which had taken place over the form that the Fijian government should take reflected the entrenchment of the plural society model of the British. As the coup showed, people were capable of questioning the plural society model but feared that their economic position in the country would be undermined if political pluralism was eliminated. The debates over the constitution showed that this was not just a matter of people being locked into a colonial mentality. Colonial policy had set up a situation where Fijian livelihood depended on ethnic pluralism and so, Fijians felt they needed to maintain this pluralism at lease in the political arena. Robertson commented on the first re-workings of the 1970 Constitution. He quoted from the draft of the Taukei Movement Constitution: "Portions of the Constitution to be Amended." The movement expressed the desire for and the belief in the imminence of ethnic separation within Fiji and separate rights for separate ethnic groups.
The Taukei Movement had produced the first alternative to the 1970 Constitution in its submission
at the time of the May 20 riots in 1987. It then demanded that all references to democracy be deleted from the Constitution on the grounds that liberty and equality were foreign values and "contrary to the Fijian way of life where liberty exists only within one's social rank and equality is strictly constrained by a fully developed social hierarchy. [Robertson 1998: 54]
The Great Council of Chiefs reviewed the Taukei Movement's proposed constitution. The chiefs argued that Fiji should become a Christian state and that
only Fijians should become President, Prime Minister, Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Industry, and Home Affairs, [Fiji Military Forces] Commander, Police Commissioner, Chair of the Public Service Commission or Secretary to the Cabinet. [Robertson 1998: 56]
Before any of these changes could take effect, however, Rabuka's second coup proposed its own military constitution. This held that 36 of the 67 parliamentary seats would go to Fijians, that "Sunday laws" would be observed (prohibiting work on Sundays), and that the constitution would be renewed every 10 years. However, the downfall of Rabuka's military regime also negated his constitutional proposals. The interim government, which took over after the fall, had to choose between the military constitution and the Taukei/Great Council of Chiefs constitution. The final constitution was recommended to the President in August, 1989. The contstitution
restored a bicameral system, and retained the description "sovereign democratic Republic of Fiji." A House of Representatives would now have 69 seats: 37 for Fijians
, 27 for Indians, 1 for Rotuma, and 4 for General Electors. A 34-member Senate appointed by the President would contain 24 Chiefs, 1 Rotuman, and 9 representatives of non-Fijian communities. [Robertson 1998: 59]
The new Constitution lifted the Sunday ban, enraging many Fijians, but it declared Christianity the official religion of Fiji and did restrict high government offices to indigenous Fijians. Under this, the Fijian chiefs would appoint the President who would then appoint a Prime Minister from among ethnic Fijians. Voting was communal, wherein only members of a certain ethnic community are allowed to vote for a representative of that same community. In addition, the President, who had to be Fijian, would determine who held Senate offices, including non-Fijian offices. Lawson said about the 1990 constitution,
The primary intention of the parliamentary structure is clearly designed to exclude Fiji Indians as a group from any meaningful share of political power. Given previous patterns of communal voting, and the fact that no crossvoting seats (which had proved the downfall of the Alliance in 1987) were included, it is almost impossible for any Fiji Indian candidates to be returned directly as members of a majority party and therefore as members of a government
Also, the inflated number of Fijian communal seats, combined with the strictly communal voting restrictions, mean[t] that governments c[ould] be formed without the support of a single Fiji Indian voter or, for that matter, a single voter from the "other communities."
The version of Fijian "democracy" reflected in the new constitution, then, appear[ed] to represent a form of political apartheid on the one hand, and the attempted institutionalization of a one-party state on the other. [1996: 66]
The 1990 constitution received wide criticism, similar to Lawson's, both within Fiji and around the world, for its exclusionary and communalist characteristics.
The increase in rival Fijian political parties after the adoption of the constitution led to the formation of a new party in 1990 which hoped to consolidate all the rival factions. Lawson has argued that the splintering of Fijians into various parties occurred because Indians had no chance of attaining political power under the constitution and therefore Fijians had no "other" to unify themselves in opposition to (Lawson 1996: 69). The Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) party (often called the Fijian Political Party) was established with many of the same members and policies of the Alliance party.
Rabuka, during this time, became involved in non-military politics. Prime Minister Mara had offered Rabuka a civilian post in the cabinet, that of Minister of Home Affairs, if Rabuka would leave the military. Although Rabuka initially rejected this, he later accepted it and President Ganilau's son became the new army commander. Rabuka eventually became head of the SVT after Ratu Mara became Vice-President of Fiji. Mara had retired from politics just prior to the 1992 elections and was subsequently made the Vice-President. Rabuka vied with Mara's chosen successor, Josevata Kamikamica, for the presidency of the SVT. Rabuka attained this position largely because of support from the FLP. The FLP president pledged support for Rabuka if he would immediately review the constitution. Rabuka replied, "I have considered your proposals favorably and agree to take action on all the issues, namely the constitution,
on the basis suggested" (Robertson 1998: 98). With such support, Rabuka became Prime Minister of Fiji in June, 1992. SVT received 30 of the 37 indigenous Fijian seats in parliament.
Rabuka's SVT government lasted only 19 months. Rabuka's previous rival, Kamikamica, had led seven SVT members away from the party preceding an SVT budget defeat in the House of Representatives in November, 1993. These breakaway members formed a new Fijian political party called the Fijian Association Party (FAP). The SVT still won the majority of seats, 31 to FAP's 5, in the new elections of February, 1994, and Rabuka remained Prime Minister. In addition, Kamikamica lost his seat. Rabuka had lost some support, however, with the death of President Ratu Ganilau in December, 1993, and Ratu Mara's rise to the Presidency.
Since the constitution was due review before 1997, a commission was formed in 1995 and its report submitted in September, 1996 for constitutional reform. The constitutionally-instituted plural society model had decreased Indian political power to the extent that Fijians no longer had anything to oppose. Robertson explained the need for reform of the 1990 constitution,
No demographic basis existed for Fijian fears of Indian domination. Already the Indian population had declined to 44 percent; by the turn of the century it would be less than 42 percent. In other words, the premise for a discriminatory constitution did not exist. An electoral system based on proportionality would ensure a Fijian majority and avoid international condemnation. Eventually some of these views would be adopted by Rabuka and incorporated into his proposals for constitutional reform, in particular the idea that the constitution need not specifically state that a prime minister be Fijian. [Robertson 1998: 177-178]
The constitutional reform committee, therefore, suggested that some parliament seats be elected communally and for others to be elected from an ethnically mixed pool of voters, called common role voting. It also recommended that the Prime Minister be the leader of the political party with the most parliamentary seats rather than necessarily an indigenous Fijian. It said that the President should be nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs but elected by Parliament.
The number of guaranteed seats for indigenous Fijians in the lower house was reduced from 37 to 23, and voting across racial lines was instituted in another third of the seats. The prime minister was to be required to form a cabinet comprised of ministers from all parties in proportion to their representation in parliament. [Stanley 1999: 43]
the Report on constitutional reform recommended that citizenship and ethnicity be no longer defined patrilineally, that all citizens be called Fiji Islanders, [and] that the constitution include a Compact of Understanding for the conduct of government as well as a comprehensive Bill of Rights overseen by a Human Rights Commissioner. [Robertson 1998: 182]
President Mara declared the new constitution law in July, 1997.
Rabuka accepted this new constitution and became uncharacteristically vocal in his support for a multiracial society rather than one strictly divided along ethnic lines. Presumably, he recognized the danger of continuing to support the notion of a strict plural society in a time in which this notion was not prominent because Indians had virtually no political power. After the 1987 Constitution, that entrenched Fijian political dominance, people were more easy going over non-land-oriented aspects of pluralism; they no longer mattered as much as they had when Indian power was possible. Rabuka's SVT party, which had been formed mainly by former Alliance members, aligned in coalition with the Indian-dominant National Federation Party, NFP, for instance. Rabuka's popularity rose significantly with his acceptance of an idea of multiracialism in Fiji, especially among members of the Indian community.
By May 1997 Rabuka's popularity as Prime Minister rose from 35 percent just four months before to 42 percent. While his Fijian support remained static at 48 percent, Indian support jumped from 25 percent to 37 percent. [Robertson 1998: 184]
But, although his popularity was high at the end of 1997, it soon waned.
Without a strong political rival, Rabuka could afford to treat the polls lightly, but in the long term he could not so easily dismiss the impact his own government's dismal performance had on public confidence in him as a leader and in his party. Indeed, by mid-1998 his popularity had fallen to 29 percent, with Fijian support plummeting to 31 percent. [Robertson 1998: 188]
Robertson noted that even Fiji's reacceptance into the British Commonwealth in 1997 did not restore Rabuka's reputation since Fiji was in the midst of an economic slump (Robertson 1998: 188).
Mahendra Chaudhry led the FLP, or the Labor party, at this time. This was the party against which Rabuka had reacted with his coups.
The Labor Party had not survived well, a victim of the communalism it once fought so hard against. At the end of 1997 Chaudhry's dominance of what remained of Bavadra's multiracial party seemed uncertain [Robertson 1998: 194]
This was Rabuka and the SVT party's only competition in the 1999 elections however. The Labor party gained support going into the 1999 elections, and, Chaudhry also seemed confident. A newspaper article from The Straits Times of Singapore reported on the election. "Labor leader Mahendra Chaudhry
fancies his chances
Labor, he says, has a lock on the Indian communal seats as well as a good number of the open seats. With contributions from his Fijian partners, he reckons he can form the next government" (Cheng 1999: 50). The Canberra Times, an Australian newspaper, also covered the elections,
Perhaps the most creative moment in Indo-Fijian politics took place on May 18: Mahendra Chaudhry was installed as Prime Minister of Fiji by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, President of the Sovereign Republic of the Fiji Islands. [Nandan 1999: 9]
The 1999 elections were the first held under the new 1997 constitution. This was, therefore, the first time in which it had been possible for an Indian to achieve the post of Prime Minister. But this takeover was not without issue. Various Fijians thought that the acceptance of an Indian Prime Minister would lead to political instability. Some suggested Chaudhry step down. An article in The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, relates uncertainty,
Mr. Mahendra Chaudhry, took over from the general [Rabuka] as Prime Minister on Tuesday - but not without stirrings of discontent from his own indigenous coalition partners. Race-blind laws or no, politics in Fiji is still driven by ethnic and tribal concerns. All that makes it risky to conclude that the country has passed the test of inter-racial co-operation. Hence, advisedly, only a threshold being crossed. There are long days and nights yet to come in this South Pacific island nation which can induce passion of the wrong kind. It is to be hoped the verdict is accepted gracefully. For now, the mere fact that Fiji has climbed back from those desperate days of coups and strongman rule only a dozen years ago is cause enough for celebration. [1999: 72]
The Fijian Association Party, one of Chaudhry's coalition's own member groups, demanded that he relinquish power to an ethnic Fijian. President Ratu Mara, however, appealed to the party, asking it to back Chaudhry in an attempt at national unity, even though,
A senior Fijian Association Party official told The Associated Press that Mara urged Chaudhry to install an ethnic Fijian as prime minister to reduce the risk of a backlash from the Fijians, who are half the country's 800,000 population. [Reid 1999]
Chaudhry, sworn in as prime minister today, promised his native Fijian "brothers and sisters" they had nothing to fear from the Indian-dominated government" (Reid 1999). Chaudhry's Labor Party took 37 seats, which made for a majority in the 71-seat House of Representatives. The coalition of the Labor party, the Fijian Association and other partners, controls a total of 52 parliamentary seats.
Some coup threats have been made since Chaudhry's placement as Prime Minister, but none have become serious enough to warrant concern. Fiji will continue to undergo this test of multiculturalism and multiracialism, however, for years to come. The 1987 coups demonstrated that Fijians have equated the colonial notion of ethnic separation with Fijian land control and that possible jeopardy of the plural society ignited Fijian fear over their control within the country. With the political institutionalization of a plural society though, Indian political power became an impossibility. This allowed Fijians to relax about issues of paramountcy and led to the prospect of a multicultural society, one not separated along ethnic lines.
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Sienkiewicz Table of Contents | Student Papers
The History of Fiji's Land Issue
I will argue in later chapters that much of Fijian identity is shaped by colonial policy about land. Therefore, I will here focus specifically on the Fijian land issue. In pre-colonial Fijian society, land was controlled communally, by mataqali (lineages) or, in some cases, tokatoka (sub-lineages / subdivisions of a mataqali). Fijians were (and continue to be) grouped into yavusa (clans) which can claim descent from a common ancestor; this ancestor is legendary however and the relationship cannot be traced. The yavusa is subdivided into ranked mataqali. Fijians continue to assert the unity of community and land as a result of this type of ownership. The Fijian word for land is vanua. But the translation of vanua to English expresses more than that, it is "land, people and custom" (Ravuvu 1983: 122). Land then, is integral to Fijian social identity. Ravuvu explained the close personal connection of Fijians to their land,
The Fijian term, vanua, has physical, social and cultural dimensions which are interrelated. It does not mean only the land area one is identified with, and the vegetation, animal life and other objects on it, but it also includes the social and cultural system the people, their traditions and customs, beliefs and values, and the various other institutions established for the sake of achieving harmony, solidarity and prosperity within a particular social context
It provides a sense of identity and belonging. One feels good and comfortable when he feels that he belongs to a particular vanua or a social unit identified with a particular territorial area in which its roots are established
is an extension of the concept of the self. To most Fijians, the idea of parting with one's vanua or land is tantamount to parting with one's life. [Ravuvu 1983: 70]
The Tui Viti (big chief/king of Fiji), Ratu Seru Cakobau, ceded the islands to Britain in 1874. The Tui preferred Britain to any other European power whom he was certain would soon take over Fiji. The Deed of Cession proclaimed that the Fijian chiefs had unconditionally given the sovereignty of the islands to Queen Victoria and would rely upon her justice to deal with the people appropriately. The lieutenant governor of New South Wales signed the deed along with the chiefs. He stated, in clause seven of the Deed of Cession, that "all claims to title to land by whomsoever preferred
shall in due course be fully investigated and equitably adjusted" (Lal 1992: 12).
At the time of cession, the land in Fiji was divided between the Fijians, with their traditional system of ownership, European settlers, who had purchased land before the cession, and the British Crown. When Europeans first came to Fiji, in pre-colonial times, some purchased land from Fijians. Land was often exchanged for alcohol, firearms or at a very low price. This was one of the reasons that the Tui Viti feared European takeover in pre-colonial Fiji. Europeans were allowed to keep this land after Fiji became a colony. This became Freehold land, the only kind of land in Fiji that can be freely bought and sold by individuals. The land which did not belong to Europeans nor which was claimed by any chief or tribe was claimed by Britain; this is called Crown land. Clause four of the Deed of Cession explains this,
The absolute proprietorship of all lands not shown to be now alienated so as to have become bona fide property of Europeans or other foreigners or not now in actual occupation of some Chief or tribe or not actually required for the probably future support and maintenance of some chief or tribe shall be and is hereby declared to be vested in Her Majesty, her heirs and successors. [Lal 1992: 29]
Crown land was, and continues to be, divided into two categories, Crown Schedule A and Crown Schedule B lands. Crown Schedule A land is that claimed by the Crown which was unclaimed by Fijians at the time of cession. Crown Schedule B land is land which at one time belonged to a Fijian mataqali that has become extinct since cession; Britain claimed this land rather than letting it revert to another mataqali in the same yavusa as the extinct mataqali. "Both types of land are Crown property under the terms of the Deed of Cession" (Nayacakalou 1978: 125).
The first resident colonial governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, ensured that most of the land in Fiji remained under Fijian control. This plan was part of Gordon's efforts to preserve Fijian culture. He felt that the Fijian way of life would die out if they were not allowed to continue living their traditional way of life in villages.
Land laws were formulated to make further alienation of land impossible and to vest the control of all non-fee simple [non-freehold] and non-Crown land in the colony 83 percent of the total land area in Fijian hands. [Lal 1992: 14]
The Native Lands Commission was created under Gordon. This would "assess the validity of settler land claims and
authoritatively determine the structure of indigenous land ownership" (Lal 1992: 14). Land was registered under mataqali names. While the land laws kept land in Fijian control, they did not exactly resemble the traditional land-owning system in Fiji. The land laws imposed were inflexible when the rules of land ownership had varied across pre-colonial Fiji. Land had not been owned by the mataqali in all situations. Also, Gordon chose various local ideas and practices concerning land and applied them all over Fiji.
Subsequent governors in Fiji thought that Fijians were unproductive and wasteful because of the excess land in their possession. Governor Sir Everard im Thurn attempted land reform during his time in office, between 1904 and 1908. He believed that Fijians lacked opportunity to think for themselves because of the chiefly system and strict laws. His main goal in reform was to determine exactly what land had or had not been ceded to the Crown by Fijian chiefs. Governor im Thurn advocated the Fijian right to lease their land. He said,
It is already clear to me that the natives have a great deal more land than they can use; that there are many persons ready to use this spare land and pay the natives rent for it; and that the natives would be much better off if they had the money. [Lal 1992: 29]
He effected a series of laws which relaxed the controls on Fijian land use ownership. His legislation "while upholding the principle of customary (inalienable) tenure, permitted the sale of native land with the consent of the governor-in-counsel" (Lal 1992: 30). Other legislation allowed the government to acquire native lands, through the right of eminent domain, for public purposes. His laws also restricted the ownership and leasing rights of individual Fijians. Consequently, between 1905 and 1909, this allowed the sale of 20,184 acres, increasing the amount of freehold land in Fiji (Lal 1992: 30).
Governor im Thurn's successor, Sir Henry May, reopened the issue of Crown ownership of unused land in 1911. The resulting land policy declared that all non-Crown and non-freehold land, occupied or not, was property of the Fijians. No Native land could be sold. And land could only be leased with the permission of the government. Sales were only allowed under special circumstances and with the approval of the secretary of state in London.
The land issue resurfaced in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The governor of the time, Cecil Rodwell, asked the Colonial Office to authorize the sale of Crown land. He believed this would benefit the Fijians.
The natives are awakening to the fact that they have far more land upon their hands than can possibly be required, either for their present or for their future needs, and that by keeping it out of the market they are losing a considerable revenue which might be made available for educational development, the extension of medical facilities and the general improvement of their condition. [Lal 1992: 98]
Some Fijians also approved of the sale of land. Ratu Deve Toganivalu, the Roko Tui Bua (the Fijian head of the administrative province of Bua) said,
What is the use of your land lying idle and being in a state of poverty? It would be better if you gave your land to be leased or sold, and thus acquire money. It is no use doing nothing with waste land of no use to you. [Lal 1992: 98]
But the Colonial Office rejected the idea of selling Fijian land. This was the last serious attempt to persuade the government to allow the sale of native land.
Shortly after this attempt, Fiji's land issue shifted from the topic of the alienation of Fijians from their lands to an issue of land tenure. It was at this time that Indians became involved in the Fijian land issue. After the end of indenture, Indians were spreading around Fiji as farmers who needed land to work upon. They did not press to buy land but instead for long-term leasing. The prior leasing procedure had been long and complicated and the leases short-term. In the 1920s, the process was simplified, although efforts to attain leases still often involved bribing the Fijian heads of mataqali.
By the 1930s, the system was changed again, largely because of the push from CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company). The company wanted longer leases; they felt that sugar industry growers, mostly Indians, would be more dependable if they had the longer leases. Indians themselves desired more secure leases, compensation for improvements they made to the land while leasing when the leases expired, and laws regulating landlord-tenant relations. And, in response to the Indian push, Fijians reacted defensively. This issue sparked vocal tension between the groups. In the Legislative Counsel in 1933, a Fijian chief, Ratu Sukuna, said,
The Indian community, having shown us the way and given us the example, can hardly expect to continue to hold all the agricultural land in the sugar districts, in places where the plough mints money. They will recognize that Natives, in their own country, have a right to some of the good things of this life, and it is for this reconciliation of community interests
that I plead. [Lal 1992: 100]
Author Brij Lal wrote that the colonial government had been disinclined to pressure Fijians into leasing out their lands but that government eventually began helping out tenants (1992: 101). The government helped reduce rent on Native (Fijian) and Crown land and wanted to keep it down further during emergencies. The prohibition on Indians owning more than 10 acres of agricultural land was removed. Applications for leases were made dependent upon merit and ability to work land, replacing the prior complicated procedures. And the limit on leases to 21 years was eradicated; leases were then fixed at 21 years with the option for renewal for another nine years if at least one-fourth of the land had been cultivated continuously.
Indians remained unsatisfied with leasing procedures though. At the same time, Fijians wished to reform the system because they felt it had become corrupt. The agreement on the need for additional alterations made change possible. Ratu Sukuna said,
We cannot in these days adopt an attitude that will conflict with the welfare of those who like ourselves wish to live peacefully and increase the wealth of the Colony. We are doing our part here and so are they
if we obstruct other people without reason from using our lands, following the laggards there will be no prosperity. Strife will overtake us
You must remember that Fiji of today is not what it used to be. We are not the sole inhabitants, there are now Indians and Europeans. [Lal 1992: 101-102]
The agreement between ethnic groups in Fiji led to the Native Lands Ordinance of 1937. This placed all responsibility for the leasing of Fijian land in the hands of the Native Land Trust Board, and ensured the reservation of sufficient land for Fijians. "The alienation of Fijian land, by sale, transfer, or exchange, was forbidden except to the Crown" (Lal 1992: 134). The Board kept 25 percent of rent on leases as its administrative fee.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the land issue focused on the reserve policy, which set aside land exclusively for Fijians to ensure they had enough for their future use. But by the 1960s, the issue shifted again to that of tenure. In attempt to give tenants greater security and therefore boost the country's agricultural production, the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA) was passed in 1966. This lengthened the possible lease period from 10 to 30 years, a minimum of 20 year leases with a further automatic extension of 10 years. All existing leases, taken out before ALTA, were extended by 30 years. ALTA also created a rent board to ensure fairness. It is these ALTA leases which are currently expiring in Fiji. From the year 2000 to 2005, 28 percent of these will expire and another 19 percent from 2006 to 2010 (Stanley 1999: 53).
The last invasion of the land issue into the political scene, before the controversy over the expiration of the ALTA leases, was over Crown land in 1979. Ratu Mara, the leader of the Alliance political party, won the post of prime minister after Fiji's independence in 1970. In 1979, Ratu Mara's party implemented a policy reserving large portions of Crown land , including Crown Schedule A land, leased land, and government project land. His secretive action concerned the Indian community. In response to their anger, he said,
All the best Fijian land today is under lease and the majority of the tenants on the best lands are Indians. Most of the most valuable properties in urban areas are now acquired by the Indian people. Their ownership, like the tentacles of an octopus, has embraced retail, commerce, industry and transport. The Fijians in the name of equity have not asked for an equitable share in these
Yet we are told
that if any Indian tenancy is terminated in accordance with the law, they must in the name of equity be given perpetual leases on Crown land
And will such equity preserve the peace and prosperity of Fiji for the future of those who have properties? [Lal 1992: 226]
Land had become a major issue again in this case, igniting animosity between Fijians and Indians.
Historically, land issues have highlighted the cultural gap between the Fijian and Indian communities in Fiji. Fijians have always wanted rights to land because they were the original inhabitants of the islands. Europeans wanted land as they felt they were the more suitable people to develop it. And, Indians have had to fight for greater security in a country in which they have little hope of owning land. The land lease issue notes this difference of origination of the ethnic groups and has therefore lead to animosities between them. The issue of land in Fiji has been the forum for the clash of the ethnic groups.
The history of land in Fiji is important to understand when looking at the current ethnic situation in Fiji. Currently, ALTA leases are expiring. They have been since 1997 and will continue to do so for a decade. With the threat of so many expiring leases and the threat that Fijians will not renew the leases and there will be many dislocated Indian farmers, the government has proposed ways to help. The Fijian government has promised that it will provide $28,000 to Indians who must relocate, to help them start a new business, attempt to lease land elsewhere or to try to buy some freehold land (although unlikely because it is scarce). And, to ethnically balance this assistance, the government has also pledged that it will give $10,000 to Fijian farmers who are beginning to farm their land which was previously leased to Indian tenants. Fijians must, therefore, decide if they wish to renew the leases or if they will turn their Indian tenants away to find a new home in a different location. Just as past land issues have brought ethnic differences, stereotypes and hostilities to the forefront of Fijian-Indian interaction in Fiji's history, so too is the current issue again raising ethnic problems.
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Fiji's history is full of events which drastically altered the previously existing culture. The first of these events was the impact of colonialism on the precolonial, indigenous society. Colonialism enforced arbitrary political boundaries on the Fiji Islands and, therefore, caused Fijians, who had never before thought of themselves as "the same as" other peoples who were now Fijians, to search for a common culture between them. Fijians "constructed" their past and present culture against the colonial opposition, a force of domination.
Colonialism secondly influenced Fiji in a drastic way when it introduced the "importation" of Indian indentured servants. From this point on, Fiji would struggle with the concepts of communalism and the plural society, as opposed to the idea of multiracialism. Fiji's post-colonial political history highlights the ethnic divisions which the British colonialists instituted.
Fijian-owned land has been leased out to Indian tenants for decades. In many cases the Fijians who own land are not the same people who leased that land out years before. Fijians repeatedly told me that their grandfathers had leased out their land. In this situation, Fijians had little opportunity to prove their industrious nature or to prosper economically while the Indians who leased land had such an option. In addition, the Fijian education system has lagged behind the Indian. And, through the 1970s, the government required Fijians to get permission to leave their villages. Fijians were also discouraged from employment since law mandated they produce a quota of traditional crops such as dalo (taro root). They could be beaten and fined if they did not produce accordingly. Indians have, therefore, throughout Fijian history, had more advantages in achieving economic prosperity.
British colonialists initiated the stereotype of Fijians as highly "cultural" people who should focus on preserving that culture and should remain in their village communities. I will show, in the next chapter, that Fijians have accepted view for themselves. In a later chapter, I will argue that they have done this because they have not had the opportunities for economic development which Indians have had. With such meager chances for economic prosperity, they could, instead, see themselves as too immersed in their culture to care about artificial things like money and see themselves spending their energy developing human relationships instead. Fijians could take the "moral high-ground" and present the notion that their focus on community, sharing and tradition was more valuable than attaining wealth. This, therefore, made their culture superior to any other.
Also, colonialists deemed Indians efficient laborers and paid no heed to any Indian community during the time of indenture. Indians have, as a result, seen themselves with such characteristics since colonial times. I will argue, that they have accepted these stereotypes and this role for themselves because they can then claim to be smarter than the Fijian population. They do not reject the notion that they lack culture because they have come to view culture as an unfavorable entity. They view Fijian communal restrictions and ties as backward and the reason for Fijian poverty and note their lack of these cultural restraints as the reason for their prosperity.
On to Chapter 4...
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