Indian Fijians

Location: Fiji, western Pacific
Population: 350,000
% of population: 49%
Religion: Hindu, Muslim
Language: Hindustani, English

The islands of Fiji are inhabited by Melanesians and by descendants of Indians from the Indian subcontinent who were brought to the country to work the sugar plantations. More than 320 islands, of which less than half are inhabited, are spread over some 259,000 square kilometres of ocean and mark a crossing point between the Polynesian and Melanesian cultures of the South Pacific. According to a 1987 estimate, the population totalled about 715,000. Of these 350,000 were Indian, 336,000 were Fijians and Rotuman Islanders and the remaining 29,000 people were European, part European, or Chinese. Around 51% of the population was Christian, 40% Hindu and 8% Muslim.

European contact with Fiji began in the seventeenth century; in 1774 the islands were visited by Captain Cook and British merchants soon followed. Inter-tribal fighting and fears of domination by European traders led Fijian leaders to appeal to various European powers to assume control of the region, and a deed of cession to Britain was signed in 1874.

Introduction of indentured labour

Fiji’s modern history has been irrevocably marked by the decision to introduce Indian migrants to work the sugar plantations between 1879 and 1916. Native Fijians showed little enthusiasm for the extremely harsh conditions of plantation labour and preferred to continue their subsistence agriculture. Indian immigration to Fiji was stopped in 1931 but the beginnings of inter-racial conflict had by then been established. The first Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, took specific measures to protect the Fijians from the disruptive impact of immigrant traders and planters. A prohibition was placed on the purchase of Fijian land by outsiders and a provincial and village based system of native administration was created. A limited amount of land was given to the Australian Colonial Sugar Refining Company which after a time found it more economical to abandon its plantations and rely on the produce of Indian labourers who had formerly been indentured. The Indians thus became the major producers of sugar as independent farmers, but they depended for their livelihood upon the availability of leaseholds on Fijian-owned land.

Independence and after

By the 1960s Indians had become the majority race in Fiji accounting for 51% of the population. This was due in part to the earlier age of marriage and thus higher birthrate amongst Indians, and was also a result of the earlier decimation of the Fijian population by European diseases such as measles and influenza. When Fiji became independent in 1970 the new constitution specifically safeguarded the interests of the Fijian minority: Fijians retained ownership of some 83% of land, which could be leased out by the Native Land Trust Board only if not required by its Fijian owner; Fijians were guaranteed a majority in the upper house (the Senate) and the electoral system ensured that Fijians would be assured of almost half the seats in the lower house (the House of Representatives), since an equal number of members from each race were to be separately elected by Indians and Fijians. The balance of seats were to be held by representatives of the other racial communities. Fijians were also assured of fair treatment in recruitment to the civil service. The army was almost totally Fijian since Indians had earlier refused to join the army unless paid at the same rate as Europeans.

Despite these safeguards many Fijians continued to fear Indian dominance. Their fears were given political voice by the Fijian Nationalist Party (FNP), formed in 1975. This was explicitly anti-Indian and called for the repatriation of Indians. The native vote was split between the Alliance Party, which called for recognition of the distinc-tiveness of the two communities, and the FNP. The Indian-led National Federation Party (NFP) was thus enabled to win a majority in parliament in 1975 but internal disputes led to new elections and the Alliance Party soon regained power.

During the 1980s it became apparent that the Indian population was declining relative to the Fijian. This was due in part to an increased rate of Indian emigration and also to a rise in the age of marriage amongst Indian women. It was estimated in 1976 that of approximately 715,000 people living in the islands, slightly less than 50% were now Indians for the first time since censuses began.

The coups of 1987

In 1985 the multiracial Fiji Labour Party was formed by Dr Timothy Bavandra, a native Fijian. After winning the 1986 municipal elections it went on to win the general election of April 1987 in an alliance with the NFP. Although sensitive posts relating to land and education were retained by Melanesians, some remained hostile to the government, fearing Indian domination both politically and economically. On May 14, 1987, a military coup led by the Melanesian Fijian nationalist, Col. Sitveni Rabuka, failed to achieve immediately its more extreme aim (that the constitution be changed to prevent Indians from ever controlling government), but resulted in the formation of an interim government in which most of the posts were held by Melanesian members of the Alliance Party.

Fluctuating prices on the sugar, copra and fish markets, along with a decline in tourism, led to a recession in the Fijian economy during 1987, a situation exacerbated by the six week strike by Indian plantation workers. There were attacks on supporters of the Bavandra government and Indian-owned businesses by Melanesian youths, allegedly at the behest of the militant Melanesian Taukei movement. In September 1987 the Governor-General succeeded in organizing a caretaker coalition government of the Indian-based former government coalition and the Melanesian Alliance Party, but this was aborted when a second coup was quickly staged by Colonel Rabuka. Leaders of other parties were arrested and, reportedly, were also at times ill-treated. On October 1, Rabuka declared a Fijian republic despite the likelihood of expulsion from the Commonwealth and condemnation of his actions by several governments.

Again the Governor-General tried for a compromise solution. However Rabuka proposed that there should be a single-chamber parliament with 36 seats reserved for Melanesians, 22 for Indians and eight for other communities, thus giving the Melanesians a permanent majority. The Alliance Party accepted these terms but the Labour Party and the NFP did not. In the weeks following there were reports of torture, rape and harassment of Indian citizens by Fijian soldiers, while the dismissal of the judiciary (which had remained independent of Rabuka) and the imposition of an Internal Security Decree (in 1988) removed some basic human rights protection from all communities. In December 1987 an interim civilian government was installed by the military with the former Alliance prime minister as Prime Minister, the former Governor-General as President and Colonel (now Major-General) Rabuka as Home Affairs Minister. It was proposed to hold elections at an unspecified time within two years but to date these have not taken place.

The future for Indians in Fiji is problematic. Large numbers of Indian professionals have emigrated, most commonly to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Half the lawyers, 40% of the doctors, 30% of the accountants and 20% of the school teachers have left, as have managers and skilled tradesmen from the Fijian Sugar Corporation. This has had grave effects on the Fijian economy. Yet most Indian Fijians are poor and unskilled and are unlikely to be accepted as immigrants. Few wish to return to India where their links are weak after a century of exile. Unlike Melanesians, Indians do not have land or a native village to return to. In addition, Indians feel increasingly threatened by the growth of militant Methodist fundamentalism which General Rabuka wishes to enshrine in the new Fijian constitution. Ironically the same forces of repression, religious intolerance and economic decline also threaten indigenous Melanesian Fijians, many of whom are increasingly opposed to the present regime.

(See also East Indians of the Caribbean in South and Central America)