[Fiji holds a special place in my heart: I spent some of the best years of my youth there, in the 1970s. Though I could revisit it only once, in the late 1980s, I continued to take interest in it from a distance. This column in Business Standard of 18 September 2001 was written in anticipation of return of democracy to the island, which proved transient. I still miss drinking a coconutshell full of yagona (pronounced yangona) with a Fijian chief and his male cohort.]
A STORY OF PARTIES
In 1972 I received an offer out of the blue of a chair in the University of South Pacific in Fiji. I flew to the capital, Suva, and soon encountered Bhagwan Singh, our High Commissioner to Fiji – then the newest member of the Commonwealth, and one of the smallest with a population of 700,000. An irrepressibly cheerful and amiable man, he told me how I got there. He had met Colin Aikman, Vice Chancellor of the USP (who later came to India as High Commissioner for New Zealand) at a party. Aikman was complaining about the difficulty of getting a good professor of economics. So Bhagwan Singh said, “Why don’t you take one of ours?” Aikman said he would if Bhagwan Singh could find a good one. Bhagwan Singh wrote to the Secretary (Pacific) or whatever. His request passed to various senior bureaucrats, who all suggested their friends. The entire list of them was rejected by the USP. So was the next one. On the third one, my name got in by chance (I suspect Manmohan Singh suggested me), and the university asked for me. I was not keen to go to the remote Pacific island. But breaking protocol, Bhagwan Singh wrote to S Bhoothalingam, my boss, told him the story of the rejected lists, said that the Vice Chancellor was no longer speaking to him, and asked him to send me to save his honour.
Bhagwan Singh’s grandfather, Ram Chandra Singh, left his village Jhingara near Agra around 1884 and went to Fiji as a Girmitiya worker. There he had a fight with another labourer, was falsely accused of having set fire to his house and imprisoned. He was released after three years on persistent petitions of his wife, and returned to Jhingara. Against his wishes, his son Bere Singh also went to Fiji and worked in the government. There he had brushes with racist whites. When he retired and earned a pension, he returned to Jhingara.
His son, Bhagwan Singh, was born and left in India by his father; so he grew up with great curiosity about the far-away island. He joined the army in World War II. After independence he was taken as an emergency recruit into the Indian Administrative Service. When Fiji became a dominion in 1970, he was posted as India’s first High Commissioner. At his house I met his children, Ajay and Shubha. Both returned to India with him. But Shubha retains her family’s interest in Fiji, and has written a book about it, Fiji: A Precarious Coalition (Har-Anand, Rs 295). It is the best introduction to this eventful island one can find.
Fiji was a great place for parties; Bhagwan Singh used to give some of the best. He told Shubha that whatever the time they came, Fijian guests had to be given whisky or gin. I had a beautiful bungalow; I too used to give parties on my lawns for 200 people, including the Prime Minister. One of my favourite guests was Ratu Sir Edward Cakobau (pronounced Dhakombau). As he drank glass after glass of Scotch, he would stack them up in his left hand; by the end of the party he would be holding a few feet of glasses in his hand. I still remember a story of his. Once he was going to Britain on an Australian ship. There, Australian passengers would keep pointing to him and whispering, “He is the grandson of the cannibal king.” One day in the dining room, he called the waiter and said loudly, “Waiter! This menu is boring. Bring me the passenger list!”
His grandfather, Seru Cakobau, was the leading chief of Fijian tribes in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was sorely harassed by white adventurers: they cut down sandalwood trees, took away land for cotton and coconut plantations, tried to enslave Fijians, and were pretty lawless. King Seru converted to Christianity, employed European guards, but could not subdue white ruffians. Finally, in the 1860s, he offered to cede the island, first to the British, and then to the Americans. His offers were rejected, but finally in 1874 the British took over the island. Cakobau was invited to Sydney with his two sons, Timoci and Josefa. There they got measles. On their return, measles swept through the Fijian population and killed off a third of it.
The British protected the Fijians from alienation of their land as well as from forced labour. They set up an official machinery to lease land to white planters and distribute the rent to the Fijian communities that owned it. As a result, the Fijians had much affection for them. The British arranged to bring Indian labourers on indenture. Indentured workers were badly maltreated; so they were not too fond of the British and the Australians. Although indenture ended in 1916, the bad feeling endured.
At the end of indenture, the leased land was converted into ten-acre homesteads, which were leased to Indian cane farmers. Landless Indians took jobs in the towns. Soon, Gujaratis and Chinese came and set up shops. When I went, three Australian companies dominated the economy: Morris Hedstrom and Burns Philp handled much of foreign trade, and Colonial Sugar Company (CSR) had a monopoly of sugar making. Tourism was just beginning to pick up, and various foreigners were setting up hotels. Tourists thronged to the duty-free shops, which were owned by Gujaratis. Fijians were in their villages; those in towns were either manual workers or in the government. There was a bicameral parliament with a complicated structure. The lower house had communal seats with communal vote, communal seats with cross-voting across the two major races, seats for minorities, and general seats. The upper house was nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Council of Rotuma, an outlying island. The Alliance Party, a coalition of Fijians and whites, ruled.
Outside the university, race was palpable. The local Australians were not fond of Bhagwan Singh or me, but we entertained all races, and received equally warm treatment. I left in 1976. I went back for a visit ten years later and invited all the people I had known to a party. All the Indians came; only one Fijian came. I could smell trouble.
Next year, the Alliance Party (which was an alliance of whites and Fijians) was defeated and a coalition of Indians and dissident Fijians came to power. Soon, the army staged a coup. The economic impact on the trade-dependent country was devastating. Finally, Sitiveni Rabuka, the army commander who had staged the coup, made a compromise with the Indians and reintroduced democracy. In 1999, a new party called Fiji Labour Party won, and Mahendra Chaudhury became Prime Minister. Last year there was another coup: a half-Fijian wheeler-dealer rushed into Parliament with half a dozen armed men and took the entire cabinet hostage.
Now Fiji has had another election under a third constitution. Contrary to the spirit of the new Constitution, Lasania Qarase, a Fijian leader, has cobbled together an anti-Indian coalition. The sufferings of Fiji are obviously not over.