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A Spate Of Spite

Indians in the Pacific isle despair as its indigenous people assert themselves

A Spate Of Spite
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It's a failed multicultural experiment. Yet another sorry sample of the British colonial legacy that leaves behind a trail of suspicion in its wake. Unpacific tensions between indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians - originally brought here as labourers by the British - has effected yet another political upheaval.

The May 19 coup against the democratically-elected Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, and the decision of the unelected but highly influential Great Council of Chiefs representing indigenous Fijians to concede coup leader George Speight's demands has once again demoralised and unnerved the island nation's Indian population.

Indians make up 44 per cent of Fiji's 800,000 population but run most of the businesses on the island, some of which are four generations old. The looting of 200 shops and the gutting of 20 others by indigenous Fijians has left them despairing. As has the cavalier way democracy has been discarded by the Great Council. And the recent constitutional amendment allowing Indians for the first time to be elected prime minister will now probably be reversed. Indigenous Fijians, unfazed by the prospect of expulsion from the Commonwealth - as after a similar coup in 1987 - prefer the exclusion rather than an integration.

A fourth-generation Indo-Fijian engineer, Navneet Charan, says on phone from Fiji's capital Suva: "We're very afraid these days. Nobody goes out alone, we move in groups. We have also closed down the plant where I work until things settle down."

Officials assess the damage at $30 million but unofficial sources say it's closer to $80 million. A senior Indian diplomat reveals that a delegation of Indo-Fijian MPs have approached the Australian High Commission in Fiji to request refugee status. "They believe Australia has the moral responsibility to take care of those people who worked for the Australian-owned Colonial Sugar Refining Company until about 1970," he says. India is not an option. "Most Indo-Fijians regard India as a Third World country they have no connection with anymore," says a source in Fiji. As in 1987, the countries most likely to receive requests for immigration from Fiji are New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US.

The more affluent Indo-Fijians, who have a second passport, will find it easier to move. But that, says Robert Keith-Reid, publisher of the Fiji-based monthly magazine, Islands Business, is part of the problem. "One of the things that annoys indigenous Fijians is that Indians often boast of having overseas passports and saying they have one leg out of Fiji." Another resentment is the Fijians' reputation of being laidback and unable to handle money. "Fijians just don't know anything about money - if someone asks them for something they'll just give it away instead of selling it," says Keith-Reid. Consequently, Indo-Fijian businessmen are loath to hire indigenous people.

More power to indigenous Fijians, in fact, was the reason behind the coup Col Sitiveni Rabuka led 13 years ago against the then premier, Timoci Bavadra. Back then, the Parliament was evenly divided between Indians and Fijians to the discomfort of Fijian hardliners. Rabuka had declared Fiji a republic. Indians, however, continued to believe they could exclude Fijians from responsible positions in business. This, many say was a mistake. But Teresia K. Teaiwa, a lecturer in Pacific studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, sees continuing resentments as "irrational". "It's caused by the displacement of indigenous Fijians' own repressed insecurities and anxieties about the viability of their traditional social system in a modern world. "

The situation isn't so bad in the cities where the Fijians might eat 'curry', send their children to Indian-run schools, drink the local kava and shop in their stores. It's the rural areas that are more segregated. The concept of democracy and equal rights means little to a people whose whole identity is derived from the land on which they live. "They're very suspicious and not ready for constitutional changes that might give more power to immigrants," says civil servant Keresi Finiasi.

But some observers believe that the Indo-Fijian community has been unnecessarily blamed over the years for coveting land that always belonged to the indigenes. "Indians never wanted the land in the first place, they were happy to lease it from indigenous landowners," says Nicholas Cornelius, a Fiji-based journalist. In any case, asks he: "Why weren't Fijians farming their own land when the British set up cane farming? Why were the Indians brought in?"

More than 70,000 Indians had left Fiji following the 1987 coup. But as Prof Brij V. Lal, an Indo-Fijian academic who was among those who left to Australia, says: "The year 2000 is not 1987. This time there was much greater violence and looting. Last time, the army maintained order on the street. Many more people are going to leave this time around." Lal, in fact, was involved in rewriting the Fiji constitution in 1997 after Rabuka set up a commission for reviewing its racially-based provisions. This had resulted in the possibility of having an Indian prime minister. In the elections in March 1999, Chaudhry's Fijian Labour Party had won 70 per cent of the seats in a coalition with two other parties and he'd become Fiji's first-ever Indian premier.

Gloom has taken root among Indo-Fijians in the last week. They're distressed that an unelected group of chiefs is deciding everything without taking into account the needs of half the population of Fiji, namely themselves. And while the Indian High Commission in Suva has been promised added security by Fiji's foreign ministry during these times of uncertainty, nothing has been done so far.

Yet the Indo-Fijians dare not protest too much for fear of further alienation. Their quiet desperation, however, is steadily forcing them away from what they once decided to call home.

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