Victor Lal Asks Questions about Indo-Fijian Identity
GOPIO meeting and question of identity in Fiji
By VICTOR LAL
The appearance of some to be “Fijians” at the Global Organisation of Peoples of Indian Origin (GOPIO) in Chennai, India, if the recommendations of the Peoples Charter is accepted on the issue of a common name (Fijian) for all Indo-Fijians, should be of great concern to the National Council for Building a Better Fiji, and the Interim government, which wants to make Fiji a truly non-racial island.
If our immediate neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, are imperialists and colonialists and, therefore, have no right to meddle in our internal affairs, why should India be allowed to poke its long nose from faraway South Asia into the affairs of Fiji, and even has reportedly paid the airfares of the citizens of Fiji to attend the GOPIO conference in Chennai. On what grounds did some participants qualify for invitation from the Indian government to attend the GOPIO conference?
On the other hand, why are Fijian institutions, like the Great Council of Chiefs and other highly sensitive and symbolic i-taukei Fijian institutions, being smashed by the military-cum interim regime in the name of non-racialism, and yet a group of most high-profile Indo-Fijians, have been allowed to publicly parade their “Indianness” in solidarity with people of other Indian origins through GOPIO, a worldwide organization founded in 1989 looking after the interests of people of Indian origin (PIO) living outside India.
It is only right and proper to ask why the suspended Great Council of Chiefs must follow the military edict and not hold their meeting to discuss the coup which is drastically affecting their subjects, when a group of Indo-Fijians could travel thousands of miles to rub shoulders with GOPIO members simply on the basis of their “Indianness”?
What is so special about Indo-Fijians that they should be given a free rein to run to India with the problems of Fiji, and for India to publicly and brazenly meddle into the internal affairs of Fiji? I have never come across an occasion where my extended family members of Chinese ancestry have run to “Mother China” to brief the Chinese leaders and the Government in Beijing about the plight of the Chinese community in Fiji.
Former interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, University of the South Pacific Vice-Chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra and businessman Y.P Reddy were present at the recent GOPIO convention in Chennai. According to the director of the Indian Cultural Centre of Fiji, Dr Mahabir Singh, the Indian Parvasi Diwas is a very significant event for India as it is associated with the return of Mahatma Gandhi after completing his studies in South Africa.
“This event also signifies how much India cares for its people outside India and sometimes honour awards are given to those Indians outside India who have contributed to the development of their community,” Singh said. “This event is a great opportunity for meeting and plenary sessions and provides platform for meeting and exchanging ideas.” The Indian Parvasi Diwas has been celebrated every year since 2003 from January 7-9.
Looking at the notes of the recent GOPIO meeting, one of the sessions concluded that, “Children should visit India at least once in two years, and become part of extended family which they really miss. Grown up children should be sent alone to visit their kith and kin in India. This itself is an education. Visits to India give a sense and feeling of security.” What nonsense, if applied to Indo-Fijians?
A vast majority of them cannot even trace their ancestors, except Mahendra Chaudhry in Haryana and a few others, and possibly the Gujarati members of my extended family. What has Mahatma Gandhi’s coming to India from South Africa to do with Indo-Fijians? We need to be celebrating and reflecting on our ancestors’ arrival in Fiji in 1879?
According to the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, Chaudhry and Chandra had been invited by the Indian Government to address the Indian Parvasi Diwas held in Chennai, India. In his address, Chaudhry told the GOPIO gathering of about 1500 delegates that India could become a major player in the Pacific, much in the way that China has been doing for sometime now. He said that a lot can be done to benefit both India and the Pacific. “India, we believe, can and should enhance further its sphere of influence in the Pacific region, much as China has been doing,” he said.
Chaudhry suggested three ways in which Fiji and India can engage in furthering their relationship. “These are in technical assistance and cooperation, trade and investment and cultural exchanges.” He said that existing trade with India, restricted largely to clothing and jewellery, is negligible but could be developed further. I know distance and transport costs are a deterrent in developing closer trade links but this can easily be offset against the lower costs of Indian goods. To encourage these developments, we need to establish better air and sea links between India and the Pacific Region. I believe this should be given some priority. Improved connectivity has to be an essential first step to establishing closer political and commercial ties,” he said.
Comparing the 25 million people of Indian origin in the Diaspora, Chauhdry said the 500,000 strong Indo-Fijians represented a miniscule element in the overall scheme. “However, do not be misled by the small number as they are capable of making themselves heard and acknowledged when it matters,” Chaudhry told the GOPIO delegates. He said the convention theme -Engaging the Diaspora- gave a clear message that despite the troubled times, the Diaspora continued to be regarded as a close and significant feature in the plans and policies of the Government of India.
“We are pleased to note this, however, let me underscore at the very outset that the interests and well-being of the Diaspora are very closely intertwined with India’s own national security and sovereignty, added Chaudhry.
Let me jolt the memory of the readers who might have forgotten the role of GOPIO in the internal affairs of Fiji. We may recall that in 2006 I had condemned GOPIO in one of my columns for calling on the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to boycott the then Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase’s trip to India. Led by its founder and chairman Dr Abraham Thomas, GOPIO called Qarase’s trip a political gimmick to win votes and had urged Prime Minister Singh to call off the invitation. It dubbed Qarase a racist who has discriminated against Indo-Fijians.
We may also recall that in responding to Professor Satendra Nandan who had described the 2006 coup as the best of all four coups and that Qarase had indulged in “racial terrorism”, I pointed out that Chaudhry was the greatest beneficiary of racism in Fiji – becoming multi-millionaire by secretly hiding $2million in his Australian bank account from the Indo-Fijians which he had got from the Indian government following the 2000 coup.
Meanwhile, we are also told by the FLP acting general secretary Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, that Chaudhry met with Prime Minister Singh and updated him briefly on Fiji’s situation. Chaudhry is also expected to meet with India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Valayar Ravi. He is expected to travel to New Delhi next week, where he is expected to hold further meetings before returning to Fiji.
Now, Chaudhry is again talking about security, and has reminded the Chennai GOPIO delegates that “that the interests and well-being of the Diaspora are very closely intertwined with India’s own national security and sovereignty”.
Well, what about the sovereignty of the i-taukei Fijians in their own land? What about the inter-linkage of the chiefs and their commoner subjects? Meanwhile, maybe Dr Singh of the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji should find out and tell us who is Harbhajan Lal of Haryana, for Chaudhry has yet to reveal his identity? And, why, Dr Singh, was the $2million secretly transferred through the Indian Embassy in Sydney?
In conclusion, I began by stating that the high-profile presence of Indo-Fijians at the recent GOPIO conference and their un-restraint support for India and her involvement in Fiji, should force us to define who is a Fijian?
Here, I am reminded of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had categorically stated in 1948 that those Indians abroad (including Indo-Fijians) who were clamouring to attach themselves to the saree of Mother India, should be regarded as “aliens” and be given the best treatment reserved for the host population.
Perhaps the NCBBF should recall its Peoples Charter which the Interim regime is trying to shove down the throats of the people of Fiji, and revise the section which recommends that everyone be called Fijians.
And at no cost must the -taukei Fijians allow the Indo-Fijians to become the “fifth column” of India in the South Pacific.
Or to use the novelist James A Michener’s famous phrase, for Fiji to become the “Little India” through the machinations of GOPIO and the Indian government.