Any school child in Fiji will tell you that Fiji was ceded to Queen Victoria by the chiefs of Fiji in 1874. Five years later, in 1879, the first Indians were brought to Fiji by the British government to work in the plantations.
After 96 years of colonial rule, the Fijians still did not want independence. This was because they were afraid of the numerical supremacy of the Indians whose numbers kept increasing until they overtook the Fijian population. That, coupled with the Indians’ ever persisting demand for common electoral roll, convinced the Fijians that what was best for them was British rule.
So, even after countries like Samoa became independent, Fiji continued to be a colony and it was only after A D Patel, the Indian leader at that time, gave a solemn assurance that the Fijians’ rights would not be questioned that the Fijian chiefs agreed to self government.
Then, before independence in 1970, all the members of the Legislative Council went to London for a constitutional conference that took longer than anticipated (because according to RD Patel, one prominent Indian member, who was a lawyer, they made sure that all the ‘t’s were crossed and all the ‘i’s were dotted) .
It was a constitution that guaranteed the rights of the Fijians in many ways. They had more seats in the Senate and the power to veto any legislation that they thought affected Fijian rights. So Fiji became independent in 1970 and soon became the Paradise of the Pacific and remained so till 1987.
Subhash Apanna is quite right when he says that the girmitiyas’ (indentured labourers’) role in building Fiji could only be discredited by the devious and dishonest.
Indian labourers worked hard as indentured labourers and as free labourers. After five years of indenture they became free; so from 1884, there were indentured and free labourers. And the number increased every year as more indentured labourers became free and more were brought from India until 1920 when the indenture was abolished and everyone became free.
“Peace, progress, prosperity” was the slogan of the Alliance Party that ruled Fiji till 1987. In spite of the abolition of indenture, Fiji did not progress or enjoy prosperity for the next 50 years. There was prosperity but that was enjoyed only by the European planters, not by the Fijian land owners or Indian workers.
There was no progress. I say this because the majority of Fijians and Indians lacked basic amenities. It was only in Suva city and the towns that there was electricity. Most of the villages lacked even piped water supply. The roads were not tar sealed, including the major highways. I remember going to Suva from Nadi by the Queens Highway at the end of 1966 and starting from Nadi early in the morning and arriving in Suva late in the afternoon covered with dust.
Fiji had a peaceful transition to independence in 1970. Indians had been demanding it. Britain had been eager to get rid of her. And finally Fijians agreed to independence. Soon there was progress in all directions. There was electricity for everyone; there was piped water; and roads were steadily getting tar sealed. There was a boom in the tourist industry. University of the South Pacific was established with the main campus in Fiji. Pine plantations were being established.
Most of all sugarcane farmers were enjoying a boom which was the most important reason for the prosperity of Fiji. This was not because the farmers had suddenly started working hard. They had always been working hard. There were three people who were responsible for this boom in the sugar industry. They were Swami Rudrananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, A. D. Patel and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.
Soon after he arrived in Fiji, Swamiji started his fight to stop the exploitation of farmers by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). Soon he was able to get A. D. Patel, a brilliant lawyer, involved in this fight. There was an arbitration and the arbitrator, Lord Denning, agreed that the profit sharing formula used by the CSR was indeed unfair to the farmers.
However, Lord Denning was not the first one to point out the unfairness of the system. There had been others before him but CSR used to threaten to withdraw operations if any changes were made and the colonial government used to give in to them. But now Fiji was going to be independent and there was an elected leader in Ratu Mara who was prepared to take over the industry and the Fiji Sugar Corporation was born.
Swamiji was one person who was grateful to Ratu Mara for what he did for the farmers. Otherwise things would have continued as before, he had said. Ratu Mara also managed to get a much higher price for Fiji sugar than the world market price.
The girmitiyas worked very, very hard to make Fiji what it became at independence but they did not enjoy the fruits of their labour. By 1970, there were very few girmitiyas left to see the transformation of Fiji. However, their descendants enjoyed the legacy they left behind. Unfortunately even that was short lived. I don’t think Fiji would ever be what it was from 1970 to 1987 – a model of multiracial harmony and peace. There will always be suspicion and fear in the minds of the Indians because there will always be the memory of what happened in 1987.
The colonials never wanted to see the Indians and Fijians coming together and Fiji progressing with the Fijians and Indians enjoying the prosperity. They were waiting to see things go wrong in Fiji.
And they have had the last laugh.