Fiji’s Indian population is on the wane, warns Chris Pritchard, causing an alarming brain drain as Indian families seek greater opportunities elsewhere
Fiji has just marked the 137th anniversary of an event that was to change the history of the South Pacific island. On May 14th 1879 the Leonidas docked with 463 Indian passengers who had endured appalling conditions on the voyage from Kolkata. The promise of a better life in Fiji had enticed them aboard for a voyage to a tropical destination of which they knew nothing.
Britain, ruler of both India and the far smaller Fiji, had succumbed to pressure to admit indentured labour for back-breaking work on sugar plantations. Across the British empire, it was an activity shunned by local populations: imported labour from India was admitted to several territories, including South Africa and British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America, allowing important sugar crops to be harvested, but unintentionally altering the ethnic make-up of unborn nations. The communal tensions that resulted in those territories have persisted up to the present day.
In Fiji rivalry between Indians and indigenous Fijians, who are mainly Melanesian, has in recent times resulted in outbursts of unrest and at least three of the four military coups the small multi-island state has experienced, twice leading to its suspension from the Commonwealth. Fijian Indians, once a majority in the country, have departed steadily since the two coups in 1987 and the third, in 2000, that ousted the government of Mahendra Chaudhry, the only Indian ever to become Prime Minister. Fiji’s Indian population is now only 37.5 per cent, and still declining, even though the current leader, Josaia Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama, who has dominated politics for the past decade and a half, has renounced communalism and appealed to those who have emigrated to return. A culture with unique characteristics may slowly be ebbing away towards extinction.
From 1879, 42 ships – sailing vessels initially, yielding to steam – completed 87 voyages, some as long as 73 days, from Kolkata and Chennai (then Madras) to Fiji. The 60,552 Indians they delivered were a thorough mix of castes and regions. Indentured labour was abandoned after 1916, but some independent immigrants continued to arrive, as well as those whose passages were paid by the colonial government or private companies. These tended to be people with in-demand skills.
Fijian Indians came to be known as girmitiyas, a corruption of a Hindi word for contract. Intermarriage with non-Indians has been rare, but within the community, marriages between castes and different places of origin on the subcontinent were common. As time passed, connections with India became increasingly tenuous, and many girmitiyas lost touch completely with family members back home. Most are Hindus (about 75 per cent), with Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities of around 16, six and one per cent respectively – along with a tiny number claiming no religious affiliation. Indigenous Fijians are overwhelmingly Christian; the Methodist church, which dominates, plays an important role in politics, and its support has even been sought by coup leaders.
Adult men almost all sweated on sugar plantations, ensuring the colony remained an efficient and low-priced producer. Even today some Indians continue to harvest sugarcane, an increasingly mechanised operation, and some plantations belong to Indian landowners. However, thanks in large part to their parents’ emphasis on acquiring an education, the sons and daughters of early indentured labourers soon rose up the social scale.
Within a few decades Indians came to dominate professions (particularly law, medicine and accountancy) and commerce (ranging from tiny village stores to some of the country’s smartest resort developments). This aroused resentments in the indigenous population, a situation common in many other British colonies, from east Africa to the Caribbean.
On independence in 1970, Britain’s solution was to put in place provisions that guaranteed indigenous Fijians would not lose their land or political dominance. The country’s army, large in proportion to the 900,000 population, has always been overwhelmingly indigenous. Notwithstanding these inbuilt advantages, the perception among those of Melanesian descent that Fijian Indians were increasingly in control caused the military to step in, triggering an Indian “brain drain” that has held the economy back for decades.
This matters not only to Fiji but to neighbouring island states, which are less developed and have even smaller populations. To them Fiji is a regional giant and an economic hub. Ironically enough in a country where military intervention has caused emigration and diplomatic tensions, an important income earner for Fiji is sending its troops on regular United Nations peacekeeping efforts in distant parts of the world. Many Fijian ex-soldiers have also worked as private military contractors in Iraq and other trouble spots.
The Indian exodus has also had an impact on tourism, one of Fiji’s major industries. Departing Fijian Indians have mainly settled in New Zealand, the closest developed nation, with others going to Australia. The two countries are the source of most holiday visitors to Fiji, but relations have been up and down since Bainimarama, then the Fijian military commander, staged the latest of the country’s coups in 2006, setting off a period of turmoil which triggered the second suspension of the country by the Commonwealth. His belligerent attitude alienated Wellington, Canberra and other key aid donors, but a man once regarded as dictatorial, mercurial and anti-Indian when he first came to power has transformed his image in recent years.
Although he failed to hold elections as promised by 2010, in that year Bainimarama suspended emergency regulations, lifting restrictions on public gatherings and the media. When elections were finally held in 2014, the former military chief won convincingly in a poll certified as fair by foreign observers.
And he has gone out of his way to reassure Fijian Indians. Once the term “Fijian” meant only indigenous people, but under Bainimarama’s new constitution all citizens are so called, with indigenous inhabitants known as iTauke, a word taken from their own language. The opposition to this change from members of his own community showed how far the Prime Minister has travelled.
During a visit to New Zealand shortly before his election, Bainimarama told a newspaper aimed at residents of Indian origin: “We are not iTauke, Indians, Chinese or anything else. We are all Fijians and let us be proud of being so. I would also like to ask our people who chose to go overseas to return and help us rebuild Fiji.” Such comments have created the belief, or hope, that he could spearhead development of a peaceful, prosperous and multicultural Fiji. With indigenous Fijians again a comfortable majority, some analysts in Suva, the capital, foresee good relations between its two main communities.
While there hasn’t been a large-scale return of Indians who have put down roots in other countries, Fiji is seeing a boost in investment from these exiles, thanks to another Bainimarama innovation: dual citizenship, coupled with tax breaks and other incentives. The South Pacific nation may not be able to lure back those who have left, but it is increasingly providing a welcome home for their money.