Since their arrival on May 14, 1879, racism has been the scourge of our people in Fiji. The British used it both mentally and physically to overwhelm the Girmitiyas during the Girmit era (1879-1919) to create a mindset that they were serfs born to serve the interests of their white masters. To give vent to their evil intent, they even enacted legislation, “Masters and Servants Ordinance” to legitimize their privileged position as ‘masters’ and define the place of Indians as ‘servants’. If there was any doubt, the whips that they ritually bore on their backs in the toiling fields made them realize and accept their servitude. It was a deeply brutalizing and dehumanizing experience and when Girmit ended on December 31, 1919, the whips ceased but the toil for their livelihood, in the new era, 1920-1970 remained onerous. As if this were not enough, they became victims of systemic racism that hounded successive generations until 2006. It was a long and heartbreaking walk to reach this destiny.
Struggle for survival was the narrative that echoed from the rural hamlets of Indo-Fijian farmers. The sole beneficiaries of their struggles were the CSR Company, Government and Europeans, as poverty and indebtedness challenged them endlessly. The CSR Company, in collusion with the Government, systematically robbed the farmers of their income from sugarcane that they supplied to the mills and Europeans had endless supply of cheap Indian labor as cooks, gardeners and menial workers. Comfort and luxury to the sahibs and memsahibs were available at the click of the fingers. Fiji was indeed a paradise to them and cheap Indian labor was part of the package. To one was luxury and wealth and to the other poverty and struggle for survival. I have lived this life (1950-mid1960) and its distressing memory will endure to the end, as my eyes still well with tears when I recall that painful era.
The whole village was a manifestation of poverty. Families worked hard and long to ensure food on the table. It was never easy. Sometimes neighbors borrowed sharp, rice, tea, sugar, salt, or lentils to cook a meal. Every family was in debt either to the shopkeepers or moneylenders. How they survived was lost in the mist of time but their struggles gave economic stability to Fiji. It gave us endurance, resilience and fortitude. We became soldiers of peace and warriors of toil. We were, of necessity, hardworking, frugal, prudent and economical. From sparse resources, Indo-Fijians built primary schools to educate their children. They were obsessed with education of their children, as they felt that it would give their children a better future. Education of Indian children was not a priority for the Government, as it wanted them to remain a laboring class, serving European interests. It could not prevail and Indian primary schools sprouted all across the rural villages wherever they lived. Numerous secondary schools also emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Indo-Fijians progressed by the sweat of their brow and not through the generosity of anyone.
Nomads in the land of their birth
Then, success became their greatest offence, as Europeans despised and demeaned them, fearing challenge to their dominance. It did not end there, as they propagandized to the iTaukei that Indo-Fijians posed a grave threat to their land ownership, customary and traditional rights. With this propaganda a new alignment was made with the iTaukei chiefs who were used to resist Indo-Fijians to arrest their advance in various ways to protect and promote European dominance. The cruelest of all was the eviction of Indian tenants from leased land to make them vulnerable and destitute. Destitution made them weak and compliant to the colonial oligarchy. In 1963, for example, large tracts of land under sugarcane plantation in Korobubu, Ba were reserved and Indian farmers were relocated in the hilly regions of Namada to begin life anew on leased land. Deeply forested land was soon made cultivable, as Indian farmers worked hard to restore their broken lives. The landowners who took over the land in Koronubu, barring just a few, failed and land reverted to bush. Those that had built their homes in Namada were again evicted as their thirty-year leases expired in the 1990s. Many now live in shacks and shanties in the squatter settlements around the country. The land that they occupied has reverted to bush. Their great misfortune was that they belonged to an ethnically despised race. In a nation that was rife with racism, Indo-Fijians had become nomads in the land of their birth.
Racism, an unending pain
The pain of racism on Indo-Fijians is like a suppurating wound that is not allowed to heal, as racist bigots lurk in the shadows to pounce on them at every turn. I share the heartfelt cry of Shyana Ali of Suva who wrote, in the letters to editor column (Fiji Sun 10.08.2014), decrying the racist comments made by former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, which I hope penetrates the hearts and minds of our iTaukei brothers and sisters, particularly those who derived pleasure in the persecution Indo-Fijians. Referring to the Girmitiyas, Shyana Ali wrote, “So they came in the thousands, some made it some didn’t, only to be tortured and enslaved. Then when they were finally reassured everything was going to be ok they stayed thinking they were accepted, they were loved and that this was their country now, their home – little did they know. I don’t know where I belong. I can’t go to India, I’ve never been, I can’t afford the trip plus I don’t even know which part of that vast country my ancestors came from? Where do I begin to look for my family in the world’s second largest population? I didn’t ask to be born here but I was always proud to have been! I cheered for the home team, I wore the colours with pride, I paid my debts, I helped and watched the economy grow.” Such feeling of pain and frustration ravaged our hearts and minds. We wiped our tears. We lived in hope but were wrapped in despair, as forces of evil challenged us endlessly. In recent times, Indo-Fijians had no champions, as their own leaders were opportunistic and self-serving.
Racial onslaught yet again.
In this election, land, religion, and race are coming into play again to manipulate the minds of the iTaukei voters. Former Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase is at the forefront of the onslaught as he seeks to oust his arch enemy Prime Minister Bainimarama who, as the Army Commander, had deposed him and his Government from office on December 5, 2006. He cannot stand in the elections, as he was convicted and jailed for abuse of office but he wants his party, SODELPA, to defeat Bainimarama’s FijiFirst Party and form the next Government. SODELPA is SDL (Qarase’s party) reincarnated. The new cover cannot hide its content as it has reverted to politics of race yet again. Qarase has touched on every raw nerve to ignite a frenzied response from his chosen audience and the recent claim of superiority of the iTaukei over every other community has stunned many. The 1970 and 1997 constitutions, endorsed by the international community, enshrined equality except the 1990 Constitution, which advocated positive discrimination against Indo-Fijians.
Interestingly, Qarase won two terms under the 1997 Constitution and was comfortable with the provision of equality and Fiji being a secular state. On accepting office, following the 2006 elections, he endorsed equal basic rights for all. He said, “This election outcome is consistent with what I’ve always said, that in promoting national reconciliation and unity in Fiji, it is not enough and, in fact, it is totally unrealistic to regard society in Fiji as nothing more than a collection of individuals with equal basic rights and freedoms. We have to recognize that we are a society of communities with differences in the way they look at their security and confidence in living in Fiji. The task before me and my government in the next five years is to dedicate ourselves to the service of everyone in our nation, irrespective of their political loyalties, their ethnicities and cultures.” This was a saintly discourse from a person whose duplicity is incontestable. During the campaign period he becomes obsessed with race and religion and uses them to entice his flock, aware that this is what segregates them instinctively to vote for his ethnic party. Once the victory is attained, Qarase changes his ethnic cloak and emerges as a saint, advocating multiracialism, unity and equality for all. This is chameleonic politics at its worst. Leaders without morals, ethics or principles should really be assigned to the dustbin of history to save Fiji from their predation.
Constitution okay if the oligarchy wins
Again, true to his mission, Qarase recently claimed that Christianity should be the predominant religion and Fiji is not a secular state. He ruled Fiji as Prime Minister for one full term of five years (2001-2006) and his second term was prematurely terminated through a military coup but in six years when he was the elected Prime Minister he never claimed that Fiji was not a secular state and that Christianity was the predominant religion. In addition to this, following the defeat of the iTaukei oligarchy at the polls in 1999, the interim Qarase Government had rubbished the 1997 Constitution as against the interests of the iTaukei and had strongly advocated that it be reviewed despite it being unanimously approved by the Parliament, Senate and Great Council of Chiefs. However, the great irony was that when Qarase got elected with a majority under the same 1997 Constitution in 2001 and later in 2006, he never raised the issue that the 1997 Constitution was against the interests of the iTaukei and that it needed to be reviewed. What was clearly evident was that the as long as the iTaukei oligarchy was elected and comprised the government the provisions of the operative constitution did not matter but only when they lost such election! And the mother of all ironies is that Qarase and his acolytes are now advocating the restoration of the 1997 Constitution!
(Rajendra Prasad is the author of Tears in Paradise – Suffering and Struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879-2004.