From the colonial period to even the present time in independent Fiji, Hindus continue to be treated as 2nd class citizens.
Anhad Jakhmola resides in Delhi and is a postgraduate scholar in International Relations. Since an early age, he had shown a keen interest in Sanathan Dharma and how it was interpreted, while also intrigued about the condition of Hindus outside of India. With a sharp inclination towards Western conservatism as well as post-colonial societies, Anhad has written a dissertation on secularism and it impacts on South Asia as part of his curiosity to examine the impact of the West over the East. An ardent fan of Chanakya, Machiavelli, Tilak and Savarkar, he is now working as a research intern at Upword Foundation.
In December 2017, a Hindu temple was vandalised by suspected Christian fundamentalists in Fiji. The Tirath Dham temple in Nadi was attacked just before Christmas while other such attacks on temples also took place near Suva, the latest in February. The desecration included graffiti inciting racial hatred, paint poured on murtis and donation boxes stolen. Prior to this, there had been no major incident, apart from the attack on a temple in Ba by arsonists, in 2008. However, the trend, since December has increased to around 3-4 such cases of vandalism a month. Opposition parties have demanded answers from the ruling party under Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Shree Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha, Fiji’s largest Hindu organisation has spoken about security arrangements being made, CCTV cameras installed and a higher level of cooperation by the government. Hindu leaders have asked people to stay vigilant and have assured that action will be taken. Virendra Lal, the Secretary of the organisation remarked that “worshippers had not been put off going to pray and perform their normal rituals at the temples and it has made Hindus more united and stronger”. When asked what could have motivated people to target Hindu temples again, he answered, “It is probably because of the elections”.
While such incidents are not uncommon as they serve political interests, Fiji has had such a communal and racist divide before as well. Historically, after gaining independence and as recent as 2011, Indians, mostly Hindus have been targeted. What exactly is the origin of this religious and racial issue and why has Fiji not come to terms with this?
Fiji or Republic of Fiji is an island nation situated near Australia and is considered one of the richest countries in the Oceania region. In the South Pacific Ocean. It is part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Fiji is home to diverse and multi-religious communities. The population is split primarily between two main ethnic groups: Indigenous Fijians (Melanesians) constitute approximately 57%, and Indo-Fijians constitute 38%. Most Indo-Fijians practice Hinduism, while the majority of indigenous Fijians follow Christianity. The largest Christian denomination in Fiji is the Methodists, although the Roman Catholic Church and other Protestant denominations also have significant membership. The Methodist Church is supported by the majority of the country’s leaders and remains influential in the ethnic Fijian community, particularly in rural areas. Other ethnic communities include the Chinese, Rothmans, and other Pacific Islanders.
- In Fiji, before Europeans settled, small communities near ridge forts practiced a slash-and-burn type of agriculture. Traditional Fijian society was hierarchical where leaders were chosen according to rank, which was based on lineage as well as personal achievement. Organised through residence and kinship, Fijians participated in a flexible network of alliances that sometimes brought communities together and at other times, caused them to oppose one another. By alliance or conquest, communities might form confederations led by paramount chiefs; warfare was common in their history.
- The first Europeans to sight the Fiji islands were the Dutch as explorer Abel J. Tasman passed the northeast fringe of the group in 1643. By the 1860s, Fiji was attracting European settlers intent on establishing plantations to capitalise on a boom in cotton prices caused by the American Civil War. In order to provide cheap non-native labour for the plantations, the government looked to the crown colony of India. From 1789 to 1916 over 60,000 Indians were brought to Fiji as indentured labour. Today, the descendants of these labourers make up approximately 44% of the population of Fiji. Native Fijians account for about 51% of the population. The rest are Chinese, Europeans, and other Pacific Islanders. Hindus are the second largest religious community in Fiji, comprising approximately 28% of the total population and approximately 76% of the Indian community. Hindus who were initially brought to Fiji in 1789 were finally set free from being indentured labour, a practice akin to slavery, as it was finally abolished in 1916,
- Disputes ensued over land and political power within and between European and Fijian communities, and problems arose with labourers introduced from other Pacific islands. Those factors contributed to violent confrontations. It led to the implicit instability of Fijian society, and ensured that no Fijian chief could impose his rule on the whole group. European attempts at government were doomed by factionalism of their members and by the interference of European governments and consuls.
- On October 10, 1874, Fiji became a British crown colony. Fiji's first Governor under British rule was Sir Arthur Gordon. It was Sir Arthur's policies that were to set the stage for much of the Fiji that exists today. In an effort to protect the Fijian people and their culture, Sir Arthur forbade the sale of Fijian land to non-Fijians. He also instituted a policy that allowed native Fijians much more say in their own affairs. A council of chiefs was formed to advise the government on matters pertaining to the native people. From the late 1800s until the 1960s, Fiji remained a racially divided society, especially in terms of political representation. Fijians, Indians, and Europeans all elected or nominated their own representatives to the legislative council.
- During World War II Fiji was occupied by Allied forces and a battalion of Fijians saw service as scouts in the campaign for the Solomon Islands. Indians, whose history as indentured workers in Fiji had provided them with grievances regarding their unequal treatment in society, refused to serve on political grounds, including the fact that army volunteers from Fiji were offered lesser wages and conditions than were Europeans; consequently, the army, which was retained after the war, remained exclusively Fijian except for a handful of European officers. Those actions led to the prejudice, related to disloyalty being applied to Indians by the other ethnic groups. After the war, the colonial authorities restructured the Fijian administration, reinforcing chiefly leadership and thus consolidating the conservatism of Fijian society.
- The 1966 constitution represented a compromise between the principles of parliamentary democracy and the ethnic divisions within the country. The franchise, previously exercised by Europeans and some Indians, was extended to adults of all ethnic backgrounds, including Fijians, who until then had been represented by their chiefs. Fijian land rights, guaranteed by the “Deed of Cession” in 1874, were given constitutional protection, while Fijian chiefs were given effective veto powers in all important matters affecting the status of Fijians and in changes to the constitution itself. Although Indian leaders had since the 1930s argued for an electoral system using a common roll of voters, they now faced the political reality and accepted the new system. Voters were classified according to non-Fijian, non-Indian ethnicity. Legislative representatives were elected from Indian and Fijian rolls (communal rolls) and from cross-voting rolls, which presented candidates as members of their ethnic constituencies who were then elected by voters of all ethnicities. Despite “race riots” during by-elections in 1968, independence was achieved in a spirit of cooperation on October 10, 1970, the 96th anniversary of cession.
- The independence movements of the 1960s around the world led to total political independence for Fiji on October 10, 1974. Despite, gaining independence, discrimination against Hindus continued, abetted by the state. Due to the British policy of separate communal developments that prevented Indian labour and indigenous Fijians from becoming a unified community, both communities lived and grew separately for over 70 years. The disparities were further reinforced by religious and linguistic differences. When British colonial rule ended, the large Indian minority was left at the political mercy of the majority native Fijians. Though Indians constituted 40% of the population, 87% of the land was given to the native Fijians under the colonial system. The political mantle was exclusively transferred to the Fijian political elite, which wanted to declare Christianity as the State religion and institute a constitution that allowed only native Fijians to hold political office.
- Early years of the new republic continued to see a racially divided government, with the ruling Alliance Party dominated by native Fijians. Pressure from numerous internal and external sources resulted in the formation of the Labour Party in 1985, which, in coalition with the predominantly Indian National Federation Party, won the election of 1987. However, the new government was quickly overthrown in a military coup. Lt. Colonel Rabuka also issued an order for Indians to convert to Christianity during the coup. Many temples were destroyed in the unrest of 1987. Rabuka introduced the Sunday Observance Decree after the second coup in 1987 to prohibit work, trade and social activities on Sundays, but not to promote religious activities of Christianity. The Decree stayed in force until October 1995; its retention for a long time a litmus test of Rabuka’s authority over the interim government and a means by which Rabuka garnered support from Methodist fundamentalists. The governor-general declared a state of emergency and assumed control of the government. He then negotiated a compromise with political leaders that would have maintained civilian rule pending a constitutional revision and new elections. Dissatisfied with the progress of negotiations, however, Rabuka led a second coup in September and re-imposed military rule. Toward the end of 1987, he declared Fiji a republic and revoked the 1970 constitution. As a consequence, Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth. Rabuka was thus forced to appoint a new civilian government. A new constitution, designed to concentrate power in the hands of Fijians, primarily in the hands of the Council Of Chiefs was promulgated on July 25, 1990.
- Under the 1990 constitution, Rabuka was elected to parliament and went on to become prime minister in 1992. Two years later a Constitutional Review Commission was established that was charged with recommending changes to lessen the ethnic bias built into the constitution. Work on the constitutional revision was the political focus throughout the mid-1990s, and a number of Fijian nationalist groups organised to oppose Rabuka and the work of the commission, which later published its recommendations in September 1996. In 1997, Fiji was re-admitted to the Commonwealth over the objection of Fijian nationalists and many Indians. The proposed constitutional changes were approved that year and took effect in 1998. The 1990 Constitution, under Rabuka, effectively barred any Hindu from holding the office of Prime Minister. However, continued international pressure and domestic unrest resulted in amendments to the Constitution in 1997, making it more equitable. The Constitutional review, led by Sir Paul Reeves, removed the discriminatory practices embedded in the Constitution, thereby paving the way for a new era in Fijian political history. This commission recommended another new constitution which was adopted a year later. This constitution provided for recognition of minority interests and established a mandated multi-party cabinet.
- Following a historic election in which prominent Indo – Fijian leader, Mahendra Chaudry defeated Sitiveni Rabuka, the former trade union leader became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister on 19 May 1999. Unfortunately, once again civilian rule was short-lived. On May 19, 2000, elite army units and racialist gunmen led by businessman George Speight seized power with the backing of the Great Council of Chiefs, an un-elected assembly of traditional land-owning chiefs. According to a Fiji Labour Party internal report, George Speight described the takeover as a civilian coup, to protect the rights of the indigenous people of Fiji. He claimed to have the support of the army and the police and hoped to announce his government shortly. Soon after the takeover in Parliament, an orchestrated campaign of violence broke out in the streets of Suva. A majority of Indian shops throughout the city were torched, smashed, looted and ransacked among them the Yatulau Holdings building in Rodwell Rd. Total damage was later estimated at $30 million. While the rioting shocked the people of Fiji, what astounded them more was the complete lack of police attempts to stop the rioters. Police Commissioner Isikia Savua was nowhere to be seen until almost three hours later when the rioting was almost over. There was no sign of the police riot squad nor did the military come to the assistance of the people. That same afternoon terrorist attacks began on Indian farmers living in the rural settlement of Muaniweni in Tailevu. George Speight and his main band of rebels come from this area. Chaudry and his cabinet were held hostage for several weeks.
- The crisis of 2000 was ended by the intervention of military commander chief Frank Bainimarama, a native Fijian. He negotiated with the Fijian council as well as Chaudry’s cabinet. As a result, Chaudry was forced to resign from his position, Speight was eventually arrested on treason charges. Laisenia Qarase, also an indigenous Fijian was subsequently elected prime minister. After weeks of tension and threats of a coup, the Fijian military, once again under the command of now Commodore Frank Bainimarama seized power on Tuesday, December 5, 2006, in a bloodless coup. Bainimarama dismissed Prime Minister Qarase and assumed the powers of the president from President Ratu Josefa Iloilo with the promise that he would soon return power to Iloilo and a newly appointed civilian government. CNN notes that the coup was apparently prompted by Qarase's proposals which would have benefited native Fijians to the detriment of minorities, especially the ethnic Indians. Bainimarama opposed these proposals as unfair to minorities as the military was angry at a government move to introduce legislation that would grant amnesty to those involved in the (2000) coup. It also opposes two bills that Bainimarama says unfairly favour majority indigenous Fijians in land rights over the ethnic Indian minority.
- A general election took place on 17 September 2014. Bainimarama's FijiFirst party won with 59.2% of the vote, and the election was deemed credible by a group of international observers from Australia, India, and Indonesia. Commodore Frank Bainimarama, current Prime Minister of Fiji, justified the overthrow of the Qarase regime as an attempt to end corruption and curb state-sponsored racism against Indians and Hindus.
- General elections were held in Fiji on 14 November 2018. The result was a victory for the ruling FijiFirst party of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, which received just over 50% of the vote and 27 of the 51 seats in Parliament, a loss of five seats. The main opposition party, Social Democratic Liberal Party, gained six seats, whilst the National Federation Party retained its three seats.
So, a brief understanding of history will show you that the problem Indo-Fijians face, especially Hindus, as the main target is down to colonial circumstances and religious clashes. From the beginning, Indo-Fijians have been viewed as “outsiders” by ethnic Fijians and for reasons spanning from politics, economics, and gradually, religious it’s no surprise that Christianity took the lead against Hinduism. Most ethnic Fijians are Protestants and monotheist cultures will more or less face-off against a polytheist culture without thinking twice. The racial bias in British policies is now ingrained in Fiji society. Earlier, it was racial, now the Christian church as the dominant sect wants Christianity as the state religion. Hindu American Foundation(HAF) in a 3 volume report states that, "Fiji has improved its condition of differential treatment towards ethnic Fijians and the current administration has enacted many policies to curb private groups from trying to promote Christian beliefs and remove legislative measures that favoured ethnic Fijians in government as well as academic areas." However, racial divisions still stay between both Fijians and Indo-Fijians and with most Indo-Fijians being Hindus, it’s obvious that their religious places will be targeted. In one incident that is being quoted above, the Secretary of the Shree Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha, mentions the role of politics as a major reason for this though, under the administration of Frank Bainarama, such incidents have decreased. But, it’s interesting to note that cases of vandalism in Fiji have not touched the Churches of any particular Christian denomination. It may sound very harsh, but in Fiji, ethnicity is seen in racial terms and with the Hindu religion it is seen from a racial angle as well.
HAF further reports that the population of Indo – Fijians has drastically fallen due to the racial and communal lines being drawn in the society. Former Prime Minister and LT. Rabuka’s The SODELPA party promised to restore the Great Council of Chiefs within a hundred days if elected and to consider changing the electoral system to restore communal constituencies. They also promised to bring back the Council of Chiefs and the 1990 constitution, which allowed the chiefs to choose the president. Such examples show that a deep-rooted historical division remains between the Indian - Fijians and the ethnic Fijians which politically motivates people to this day. The current administration, while not openly favouring any community, also suppresses many rights of its citizens. HAF also reported that earlier, Hindus had to take a permit for having gatherings which exceeded a certain number of people. And temples were not allowed to function unless they were a part of Shree Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha. These restrictions have been lifted now by the Bainimarama administration. HAF recommends that the government must continue to pursue policies that treat all ethnic and religious groups equally, including further reforming land ownership legislations to provide equal ownership rights to Indo-Fijians. Furthermore, the government must take necessary steps to stem discrimination and religious intolerance by non-state actors. Finally, law enforcement should continue to protect Hindus from violent attacks, closely monitor hate speech, and institute permanent safeguards to protect Hindu temples and institutions.
In conclusion, one can only keep an eye for political aspects and gradual reduction of religious and ethnic differences. The Indian government must take a far more proactive stance in voicing its concerns regarding the Indo-Fijians in Fiji.