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Fiji’s Complex Fate: Being a Fijian

Fiji’s Complex Fate: Being a Fijian
Satendra Nandan
October 10
11:36 2017

Exactly forty years ago, in my passion for politics of equality, justice and in pursuit of a sense of non-racial belongingness to the country of my birth, I’d penned a seminal essay titled: “The Indian-Fijian: A Complex Fate”.

It was published in the Fiji Sun as a supplement to a political party’s national convention. I spoke to it at the convention with two learned men–one a pioneering educationist from Fiji, the other a professor from London.

My talk was broadcasted on two Saturday evenings on FBC. It seems to have said something which no-one had dared to say it like the love that dared not speak its name, once upon a time.

That talk was liked by the then Leader of the Opposition and the then Prime Minister. It was republished in a magazine in India, and in 2001 in my first book of essays, Fiji: Paradise in Pieces.

That talk catapulted me into politics and for years I wrote speeches for a couple of local politicians.

I’d in my piece looked at the state of the Fijian-Indian historical fate and a migrant’s psyche. I’ve never liked the term Indo-Fijians.

I’ve always wanted to put Fiji first — the land, rivers, trees, birds, bees, fruits, fowls, soil, seas, sky, air and its innumerable minerals that flow in the marrow of our bones and the memories of our dreams and streams.

Above all, the people with whom we played and prayed lived and loved.

The place of your birth is as sacred as the womb. I’d grown up in Fiji but had left, in my teens, to study in Delhi on a scholarship. I’ve never forgotten my birthplace nor did the visionary generosity of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) establish by the then Indian Education Minister, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, and Pundit Nehru, the first prime minster of free India.

Despite their horrendous problems, after a brutal vivisection of the subcontinent with an imperial fiat, India offered scholarships to many in the Third World.

I studied at Delhi University with many students from the dismantled British colonies.

In today’s monetary value the monthly stipend was approximately FJ$8.  The brightest Indian kid in my college received approximately FJ$4 as his scholarship per month.

Every time I have a cup of coffee in Canberra, I feel a bit guilty as a cup of coffee here costs FJ$7.

So I encourage others to buy me a cup–which they do most willingly.

I, however, often buy them lunch or give a book in return.

It’s a fair exchange: one should always give more than one receives.


Meaning of Fijian-Indian

In my essay in 1978, I’d tried to imagine a definition to my idea of what it meant to be a Fijian-Indian.

Then we didn’t have a common name, although we’d attained a kind of independence in 1970 on the iconic date, 10 October, in 1970.

I’d missed both Independence Day and the subsequent elections.  It was only in 1982; I participated and voted in a Fijian General Elections when I was a candidate.

In my piece I’d attempted to give some value, according to my knowledge and wisdom, on how to belong to a nation.

And how the nation is internalised in its citizens’ consciousness, especially when ones ancestors had come from another world.

It’s like learning another language–the grammar of your first language is inaudibly present in your linguistic structures and accents.

Learning a new tongue is a long journey with many challenges and pitfalls but with immense and exciting creative potentialities. It’s a bit like developing meaningful relationships with others.

Fijian-Indian has that insurmountable hyphen. To get rid of it we’ve been through several coups and crises.

It’s only in the 2013 constitution we’ve managed to delete it on paper.

It’ll take longer to make it integral to our national consciousness and deepen it into our individual conscience. And conflate it into a single word: Fijian.

I’d studied in India, England and Australia. These three countries matter to me profoundly. And I’ve some understanding of their national struggles to give a common citizenship and a national identity to their people, with ancient roots and modern aspirations.

They are still struggling towards it.

Fiji had given me these opportunities.


Divided Nation

In 1978 we were a divided nation: crude racial categorisation in the constitution was most obvious; but despite these divisions, Fiji had experienced considerable social harmony and communal goodwill.

Fiji was the homeland, though not all of us were called by the epithet derived from that magical four-letter word FIJI.

‘Fiji for the Fijians’ had an unaccommodating ethnic ring to it that alienated half the citizens.

In 1970 I was a voice in the wilderness criticising the constitution but in the euphoria of independence who would listen to a Preliminary lecturer at USP? In September I left for England; in October Fiji gained its independence.

But there was a price to pay–and we’ve been paying for it for the past decades.  Freedom doesn’t come cheap.


Long Journey

From being a ‘Fijian-Indian’ to be a ‘Fijian’ has been a long and tumultuous journey.

Three racist coups; religious intolerance and vandalism of holy places; the dying of many decent people; the emigration of many more.

A Paradise Perished, A Pariah Born.

It’s only after the 2013 constitution that we’ve acquired a common name, common citizenship of equality and of equal value.

‘One person, one vote, one value’ is an extraordinary achievement on which democratic structures are created and must be sustained.

This, I feel, is a singular achievement in a small, muddled polity of a plural society like Fiji.

Fiji of course deserved better but the colonel intervened.

It took the courage of a commodore to give us back the dignity of a common citizenship, a sense of security, and a sense of belongingness to the land.

Today’s young are more fortunate than many of my hapless contemporaries.

Above all, there is a functioning Parliament after what we did to the Fiji Parliament in 1987 and 2000.

It’s a tragedy that those who desecrated the Parliament twice want to be in it enjoying parliamentary privileges.

One hopes our people will see through them, even darkly.

The discontents of a democracy are many; it flaws more. No democratic country seems contented — and that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

I was often told by my secondary school teacher: It’s better to be dissatisfied Socrates than a contented pig!

I had no idea of Socrates but pigs I used to see daily.


Values in a Society

Perhaps it’s time for us to consider what the most priceless values in a society are. One can be easily misled–Brexit, Trump’s triumph, ethnic politics, religious fundamentalism comes easily to the mind. There are no certitudes in life.

Life’s always in a flux and you can die crossing a road or by a bomb dropped from the blue sky or blown to bits by a terrorist sitting next to you or killed by a stray bullet.

Our people have gone through great suffering inflicted by a misguided Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) colonel and subsequently by a group of morally bankrupt individuals.


Fijian Diaspora

It’s important to remember that during the two coups in 1987 and 2000, there was a great deal of international sympathy and empathy for the people of Fiji.

Since then the Fijian diaspora has extended itself to many parts of the world, especially with societies with which we share values and virtues and an historical experience with a brighter vision.

To many it has been a strengthening experience coupled with new hope. In that sense the misfortunes of the coups were fortunate-for many forged relationships with others and built new worlds for themselves and their children and parents.

But not all were so lucky — homes broken, lives traumatised, people betrayed and bullied, relationships embittered, a nation maligned.

We were used to nature’s disasters which healed in time and things grew again with the natural beauty and benevolence of a blessed land.

The inhuman cruelties of the three coups in Fiji were vile and full of the viciousness of racism.

They polluted our lives with so much pain and dislocations.

So many of our decent citizens left with a feeling of disgust and disillusionment.

They had seen and suffered the political bestiality that was unleashed in the peaceful landscape of islands and seas.

Luckily many remained and built a broken nation from the fragments of a wreck.

They have not only survived but thrived. All one can say is ‘Good Luck’ to them.


Fiji Today

Fiji today with Voreqe Bainimarama’s change of government is a turning of a page, a bit blotted but not without clear possibilities and a common destiny, a defined path towards progress, prosperity and peace.

Nothing is perfect.

It’s taken time but, I think, despite complaints and dissents–and these voices are the very stuff of democracy-Fiji has once again acquired national self-respect in the comity of nations.

And the people have a deeper sense of security in the land and safety in their homes: a positive feeling for the future in their hearts.

The image of RFMF has regained much of its damaged prestige and respect.

These are not small achievements when you consider what we went through in the first two decades after 1987.

A man suffers three heart seizures–some dramatic changes in diets and exercises become essential for his survival.

Countries, too, go through heart attacks – think of the draconian laws against terrorism in many democracies.

One threat and the laws are passed to curtail so many civil liberties.

It’s a world-wide phenomenon.

And we, too, in Fiji have paid a price for those who introduced a kind of terror in the Fiji Parliament and terrorised people on the darkened streets and defence less villages.

We may not have dropped bombs but the language we used to describe our differences was terribly ugly and explosive.

And who can forget the guns and gasmasks on 14 May, 1987.

In the name of false freedom, licentiousness and vilification should not be allowed.

This is not political correctness.

It’s simply the correct thing to do for the sake of our present and future.

We lost so much of our past: do we want to lose the future too?

That’s the question that haunts many minds today. And that question can only be answered by being Fijian and understanding its deepest meanings and definitions, rights and responsibilities.

It ought to be part of our conversation with ourselves, from the classrooms to the Parliament, from the kitchen to our places of worship.

It’s been such a long, fraught journey: it will be yet longer for our grandchildren if we lack that wisdom which can heal past wounds, mostly self-inflicted.

That journey needn’t be as exhausting as my generation has been.

God save the gracious Queen!

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