The East Indians in Fiji have four of the factors that increase the likelihood of persistent future protest: significant political restrictions; the transitional and unstable nature of Fiji's government; recent repression against the group; and diplomatic support from kindred in India.
The future of the East Indians will likely depend on whether they are able to convince the native Fijians to negotiate a political compromise. To date, the Fijians have rejected any electoral victories by the East Indians. It remains to be seen if the majority community is willing to reach an agreement that would allow the institutionalization of a power-sharing agreement that would give a voice to both of the two groups who comprise the country's population.
The East Indians are widely dispersed across the country, although many are laborers on the country's sugar cane plantations. There has been no significant migration among regions within the country.
Group members speak Hindi which is in contrast to the Fijian language that the majority community uses (LANG = 1). The East Indians follow different social customs than the native Fijians, and they are also primarily Hindus or Muslims while the majority group is mainly Methodist Christian (BELIEF = 3). As they are descendants of Indians who moved to Fiji from India, the East Indians are also racially different from the indigenous Fijians who are of Melanesian or Polynesian descent (RACE = 3).
When the British colonized Fiji in 1874, they chose to govern through indirect rule, following divide and rule policies that favored the indigenous Fijians to the disadvantage of the East Indians. By cooperating with the British, traditional Fijian chiefs were able to maintain their political and economic advantages. In order to exploit the potential of Fiji's sugar cane resources, the British required a large workforce. As a result, from 1879 to 1916, some 60,500 Indians were brought to the country to work as indentured servants on the plantations.
The politicization of ethnicity in Fiji came to the forefront in the 1940s when Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna, paramount chief of the Bau, demanded that the traditional chieftaincy system be maintained as democratic rule could threaten the political dominance of the indigenous Fijians. By this time, the East Indians were reported to outnumber the native population. In 1966, the Alliance Party (AP) was formed with the mandate of protecting the political rights and interests of the native Fijians.
The Alliance Party ruled Fiji for the first seven years after independence (1970-77). However, the Indian-dominated opposition emerged victorious after the 1977 elections. Fearful of how the native community would react, the opposition did not form a government. In the mid-1980s, the Fiji Labor Party (FLP) was created as a result of a coalition between East Indians and labor organizations. The FLP went on to win the 1987 elections with Timoci Bavadra becoming the country's first East Indian Prime Minister. Bavadra's rule was to be short-lived as his government was overthrown in a military coup by Lt-Col. Sitiveni Rabuka, who alleged that his actions were undertaken to preempt communal violence. What followed was widespread communal violence along with demonstrations pressing for the reinstatement of Bavadra (PROT85X = 2). Thousands of East Indians left the country after the coup.
The native Fijian Great Council of Chiefs approved the country's 1990 constitution which entrenched indigenous political domination through the reservation of legislative seats for each community. Rabuka became Prime Minister. Through the first half of the decade, the East Indians protested against the racially-biased constitution while extremist indigenous groups supported the government's actions (PROT90X = 3). In 1997 a new constitution was approved. It increased the size of the House of Representatives while reducing the number of seats reserved for each community. Further, while the Prime Minister could be a Fijian of any race, the position of President was reserved for a native Fijian. Extremist Fijians responded by firebombing the country's main power plant.
Elections held in 1999 were won by the Fiji Labor Party and once again the country was going to be ruled by an East Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. The FLP coalition won 52 out of 71 parliamentary seats and some native Fijians responded by engaging in arson attacks and anti-government demonstrations which included calls for the expulsion of the East Indians. In addition, the indigenous community protested by refusing to renew the land leases that East Indians held and which were due to expire between 1996-2024. The native Fijians own 80% of the land that houses the country's sugar cane plantations while the East Indians produce some 90% of the crop under long-term land leases. This situation leaves East Indians, although in many ways they are economically advantaged (ECDIS01-03 = 0), in a precarious position. In 2000-2001, thousands of East Indian families were refused renewal of their leases and left homeless as a result.
A year after the Chaudhry government assumed office, an extremist native Fijian group led by George Speight seized Parliament in May 2000 and held the Prime Minister and his cabinet hostage until July. Although Speight and some of his supporters were subsequently arrested, an interim civilian government retained power, even after the Fijian court ruled it unconstitutional. Transnational diplomatic efforts by the Commonwealth, the UN, various NGOS, and India, the US, the UK, and Australia in favor of the restoration of the Chaudhry regime also were unsuccessful. Elections for a new government were held in August 2001. The United Fiji Party, headed by interim Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, won the most seats (31) and formed a government with coup-leader George Speight's ultra-nationalist Conservative Alliance Party. Ousted PM Mahendra Chaudry's Labor Party won 27 seats. Qarase, although constitutionally obligated to offer cabinet posts to Labor, excluded them from a cabinet dominated by ethnic Fijians. Courts then ruled that Qarase had to include ethnic Indians in his cabinet; however, at the end of 2003, Qarase had not complied with court orders (POLDIS01-03 = 4).
The vast majority of East Indians are seeking equal civil rights and status and a role in political decision-making at all levels that is representative of their population within the country. In addition, they are concerned about their ability to freely express their religious and cultural beliefs along with seeking protection against attacks by the majority native Fijian community.
Group members are solely represented by conventional political parties that represent group interests. The major party is the Fiji Labor. The vast majority of group members support this organization. The East Indians are a strong identity group, and there were no reports of any intragroup hostilities from 1998-2003 (COHESX9 = 5).
Relations between the indigenous Fijians and the East Indians erupted in violence during the 1998-2000 period. Along with anti-East Indian demonstrations by native Fijian groups, communal attacks against the group members have occurred since the April 1999 installation of the East Indian Prime Minister. States of emergency were in force in Fiji in the year 2000. In 2001, sporadic violent attacks were recorded against the East Indian community. In 2002, no attacks resulting in fatalities were reported, and by 2003, intercommunal conflict had decreased to the lowest levels in recent history (COMCON01 = 3, COMCON02 = 1, COMCON03 = 0).
Lawson, Stephanie. 1996. Tradition Versus Democracy in the South Pacific: Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lexis/Nexis news reports. 1988-2003.
Premdas, Ralph R. 1993. Ethnicity and Development: The Case of Fiji. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.
The Far East and Australasia. 1999. London: Europa Publications
U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Fiji. 2001-2003.