Colour, Class and Custom

Two: The Racial Explanation

In 1986, indigenous Fijians comprised only 46.2 per cent of Fiji's population of 700,000, compared with 48.6 per cent Indians (the remainder being Europeans, Chinese, and other races).[16] Many among the Fijian community resent the 'immigrant race', as Indians have been labelled,[17] and periodically this resentment has risen to the surface. Much of it is founded on half-truths and racial stereotypes, but it is enough to have an effect on Fijians' perception of politics and the economy. Not surprisingly, then, some observers' reaction to the coup was that it was a demonstration of Fijians' resentment at being governed by an 'Indian-dominated' Coalition.

Racial stereotypes are a feature of Rabuka's narrated account of his coup, No Other Way (Dean and Ritova 1988). 'You can't tell with Indians', he says, 'if they're lying or not (ibid.:120). Their basic failing, as he sees it, is that they are not Christians. A strict Methodist (and lay preacher), Rabuka talks of the coup as 'a mission that God has given me' (ibid.:11). To Rabuka, Christianity is the foundation of Fiji. He sees the conversion of Indian 'heathens' to Christianity as a valid solution to racial problems (ibid.:121).

The Indian threat to Fijian culture is, in Rabuka's eyes, religious and political; population and economic concerns do not seem to come into it. He is quite happy for Indians to 'remain to make money' (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:102). In fact, after it became obvious that many Indians were not staying after the coup, his government advertised for skilled Asian immigrants to take their place (Pacific Islands Monthly March 1988, p.15). Rabuka sees room for at least 100,000 such immigrants (Dean and Ritova 1988:124), possibly from Hong Kong (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:102). Even at the simplest level of race, then, it is questionable whether Rabuka's views would be shared by many Fijians.

Stereotypic views are held by both Fijians and Indians, as Lal describes:

The Indians frequently [see] Fijians as lazy and improvident, living for today with little thought for the needs of tomorrow. The Fijians [regard] the Indians as pushy and insensitive, perennially dissatisfied with their condition and forever demanding a larger share of the cake (Lal 1988a:59).

Foremost among Fijian fears is that Indians are determined to break the Fijian hold on land ownership. Fijian mataqali, or 'clans', own 82.16 per cent of land in Fiji, and the crown owns 9.45 per cent (ibid.:24).[18] Indians work land leased from the mataqali.

An explanation for these stereotypic views lies in Fiji's history. The Indian presence in Fiji stems from the policies of Fiji's first British governor after Cession in 1874, Sir Arthur Gordon. Gordon believed that 'native races had been shamefully exploited in other parts of the British colonial empire' (Roy 1987a:5). To shelter them from this exploitation, Gordon encouraged Fijians to 'live their traditional lifestyle under the watchful care of their village chiefs' (ibid.).

Unfortunately, this precluded the use of Fijians as plantation labourers, without which Fiji's colonial economy would have collapsed. A solution was found in the example set by other British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean: Indian indentured labourers. The first Indians arrived in 1879, and recruitment ceased only in 1916. Approximately 40 per cent of the 60,000 Indian labourers brought to Fiji returned to India after their indentures expired (Gillion 1962:190). Those remaining formed the basis of today's Fiji Indian population.

This influx was presented as a fait accompli to Fijians. To avoid possible conflict which might arise from Fijian resentment of this fact, the colonial government physically separated the Indian and Fijian populations. Restrictions on areas of Indian settlement were in place until the late 1920s, and even today most Indians live in the west and north of Fiji. Political representation for non-Europeans, when it was (gradually) introduced, was communal, with electors voting only for representatives of their own race. A similar system was carried on after independence.

Impediments to integration exist at all levels of society. In 1960 only 6 per cent of schools were officially described as racially mixed (Norton 1977:27). Little has changed since. Primary schools, where attitudes towards other races are made or unmade for life, remained 'mostly racial' after independence (ibid.).

Interaction between races among the general population remains slight. The majority of Fijians, over 60 per cent of whom still live in a rural or village environment,[19] would have little contact with the large numbers of Indian cane farmers, city dwellers or unemployed. Their contact with Indians is usually limited to that with local small businessmen. As this is almost their only experience of the world of business, a realm in which they feel at a distinct disadvantage, it reinforces the 'Indian control of the economy' stereotype.

A partial explanation for Fijians' view of Indians as 'untrustworthy' has been given by Roy. During World War II, in response to an imminent Japanese threat, Fijians rushed to join the Royal Fiji Military Forces, secure in the knowledge that 'the collective nature of Fijian society provided adequate care for [their] dependants' (Roy 1988:52n). Indians had no such safety-net, and 'were thus virtually bound to their plots'. Unfortunately, their then-leader, A. D. Patel, obscured this 'quite reasonable explanation of their failure to enlist' with an ill-timed direction to Indians not to join up unless their pay was on the same scale as the British Army. This has 'ever since been regarded as evidence of [Indians'] disloyalty or even treachery' (ibid.). Significantly, it also led to the RFMF becoming a Fijian preserve.

Roy is one adherent to the view that this long history of 'two human communities ... placed cheek-by-jowl in a situation of enforced collaboration' (1987a:9) caused the coup. He notes other explanations, but says 'none seems to be sustainable on any but the most flimsy circumstantial evidence' (ibid.).[20] The Indian community, he says, 'sought control by manipulation of a constitutionally-based representative system and had the economic power to back its endeavors', while Fijians, 'lacking such resources, fell back on the power of the gun' (ibid.).

The most prominent academic argument in favour of the racial factor is Scarr's Fiji: The Politics of Illusion (1988a). Scarr's logic is basically that there are significant racial tensions within Fiji and that therefore the coup was inevitable. He never convincingly demonstrates that one follows from the other; instead, he attempts to place beyond all doubt that Indians and Fijians mistrust and dislike one another. To do this, he sometimes resorts to anecdotes (such as Fijian boys knocking Indian boys down in school playgrounds) (ibid.:49) and personal observations of day-to-day life in Fiji. His underlying message is spelled out in the book's introduction:

To have watched and intermittently lived in Fiji for twenty-five years was to know how amiable relations were between the two races on the surface. ... But it was also to know what private reservations were entertained, what active dislike quietly revealed, what Fijian resentment existed, and how little really intimate contact between Fijians and Indians occurred (ibid.:xiv).

Were Scarr (and, for that matter, Roy) discussing a mass uprising of Fijians against the Coalition, his analysis would be a telling one. But the coup was the action of a few, not of many, and it is not at all clear that the sections of the Fijian community whose support ensured the coup's success represented all Fijians.

In his quest to demonstrate Fijians' support for the coup, Scarr examines the role of the Taukei Movement, which was formed in response to (and in opposition to) the Coalition's victory in April 1987. This supposedly-popular movement has, however, been discredited as such by other observers. Robie has revealed that although not officially endorsed by the Alliance, the Movement contained Alliance party members and politicians, as well as chiefs, Methodist clergy, police, and members of the military (1987:12). And although it cloaked itself in anti-Indian rhetoric, the Movement was, say Robertson and Tamanisau, essentially anti-Coalition and pro-Alliance: 'Its leaders were mostly commoners on the fringes of the Fijian establishment who saw the Coalition's election as dashing forever their chances of patronage or power' (1988:99).[21]

Nevertheless, the Movement's anti-Indian rhetoric obscured its Alliance links and won it support from some easily-swayed Fijians: 'The Taukeist mixture of fact and myth produced results in a nation where the level of communication is low' (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:103). Furthermore, the Movement 'drew upon the Alliance's communal support for its own purposes. This enabled it to claim substantial Fijian support' (ibid.:100). The image of public dissent manufactured by the Movement provided Rabuka with a pretext for launching his coup.

But despite increasingly frantic attempts by the Taukei Movement to stir up trouble, opposition to the concept of a Coalition government had been on the wane by early May 1987. Pacific Islands Monthly was able to report that 'the "movement" against the government has lost much of its appeal'. More significantly, it reported that:

The new Government also won support from two prominent Fijian backed political groups ... the Western United Front headed by Ratu Osea Gadivi and the Fijian Nationalist Party led by Mr Sakeasi Butadroka. They urged their followers to accept the new Government because that was the choice of the people (Pacific Islands Monthly June 1987, p.20).

Scarr himself has admitted that the Taukei Movement 'was in effect the nationalist wing of the Alliance Party' (1988a:62). This may at first seem to contradict the thrust of his discussion of the Movement: that it was a strong sign of Fijian discontentment with Bavadra's government. It does not, however, because Scarr identifies the Alliance completely with Fijians, and vice versa. To Scarr, only the Alliance truly represented Fijians. He regularly derides the small size of the Coalition's Fijian vote (9.6 per cent, or, as he stresses, 'only 6 per cent of the total voting strength'). He ignores the point that, as a sign of shifting Fijian attitudes, this vote was highly significant. The figure of 9.6 per cent compared with a 0.8 per cent Fijian vote for the NFP in 1982. Furthermore, the percentage of Fijians who turned out to vote dropped from 85 in 1982 to 70 in 1987 (Lal 1988b:91). Many of those staying away would have been people who could not bring themselves to vote Coalition but nevertheless wished to protest against the Alliance, a further sign that not all Fijians identified with that party (ibid.).[22]

Most observers writing on the influence of race, other than Scarr and Roy, argue that race was not the most important factor in the coup. Those who so argue include Robie, Lawson, and Kenneth Bain (1989).[23] Robertson and Tamanisau, in particular, go almost to the opposite extreme to Scarr. Race, they say, is 'the most comfortable explanation for the coups. It neither challenges the intellect nor poses disturbing questions' (1988:144). Plentiful examples of 'racial accommodation and harmony' existed before and after the coup, they claim, but 'made poorer copy than the stories of racial violence journalists expected and fed upon' (ibid.:45).

Robertson and Tamanisau stress that the 'Coalition government was far from being Indian dominated' (ibid.:1). The government was half Indian NFP and half multiracial Labour; the prime minister and half his cabinet were Fijian, making the cabinet the most evenly balanced, racially, that Fiji had seen. They also argue that the dominant stereotype of Indians as 'rulers of Fiji's economy' had little basis in fact, citing a World Bank report which revealed that in 1977 Indian families earned an average $4003 per annum, while Fijian families earned $3998—a difference of only $5 a year (ibid.:32). In addition, of the 13 per cent of the population unemployed in early 1987, Indians comprised two thirds. Besides, Robertson and Tamanisau argue, 'if Fijians were marginalised, they were marginalised during Fijian rule' (ibid.:1). For the Fijians' economic problems, 'Indians became the scapegoat, despite the fact that trans-national businesses and not Indians dominated the country's major economic sectors' (ibid.:14). The vast majority were 'working class or cane farmers with incomes roughly equal to their Fijian counterparts' (ibid.:1).

Robertson and Tamanisau acknowledge that irrational Fijian fears exist, quoting one Taukei Movement member's claims that 'the Indians will rig the election so that they will always stay in power. They are a very clever and selfish people' (ibid.:100). But they balance these claims by quoting more moderate Fijians, such as former MP Kolinio Qiqiwaqa: 'The Indians here are our friends ... they won't spoil anything' (ibid.:103). As for the Indians' views, they argue that

accommodation was as much a feature of Indian relations with Fijians in the past as it was in 1987. This best explains why, immediately after the coup, a kind of fatalism enveloped many Indians: they talked not of struggle, but of emigration (ibid.:102).

Ropate Qalo, in a 1984 study of local government in Fiji, similarly concluded that Indians seemed to have been successfully convinced of the importance of maintaining the paramountcy of Fijian interests. He cited several examples of this Indian 'accommodation', and quoted K.C. Ramrakha, a former Opposition Whip:

We Indians hope that the Fijian community will remain united and that we will be able to deal effectively with a leader, or at the very most with a homogeneous group of leaders ... if the chiefs go, or are divided, who will fill the vacuum that must ensue? (quoted in Qalo 1984:51).

The relatively muted Indian response to the coup and events since seems to support this picture. Karin von Strokirch has given various reasons for the 'low level of popular protest and resistance [and] the lack of co-operation across racial lines' (1987:37). Among these are lack of leadership for such a campaign (with Coalition MPs initially detained after the coup), the 'combined effect of the emergency regulations and a massive propaganda campaign on the part of the Taukei and the RFMF', and perhaps most importantly an 'overwhelming desire for return to normal life' (ibid.:37, 40, 39).

Before proceeding too much further, however, it should be stressed that race has proved important in Fiji's politics in the past. In the 1977 elections, to take a prominent example, a strong showing by the extremist Fijian Nationalist Party split the Fijian vote and lost the Alliance crucial national seats under the first-past-the-post electoral system.[24] The NFP won 26 of the 52 seats in parliament, and was the largest party in the House (the Alliance won 24). The governor-general, Ratu Sir George Cakobau, did invite them to form a government, but then, 'in a period of 45 minutes between the time he agreed to swear in the leader of the NFP and the time the latter turned up for his appointment' changed his mind (Ghai and Cottrell 1990:175). He instead appointed Mara as prime minister, as the member who appeared 'best able to command the support of the majority' (as the constitution required). Certainly, the NFP was seriously divided at the time. But some have hypothesised that the real reason for Cakobau's action was his fear of Fijian unrest; many Fijians had already reacted to the election result with hostility (ibid.). Yash Ghai and Jill Cottrell, however, have made the interesting point that:

One might equally argue that the Governor-General's behaviour in 1977 contributed to the sense that an Indian dominated government was unacceptable, a sentiment that was to have such grave consequences ten years later (ibid.).

Fiji citizens who followed their country's politics were constantly reminded of the importance of race by political players who had a vested interest in keeping it important. In 1977, Sakeasi Butadroka, leader of the minority FNP, moved in the Fiji parliament that all Indians be deported from Fiji. The motion was lost, but did not go unnoticed by the public. A similar spectacle occurred in a 1982 meeting of the 72-member Great Council of Chiefs, which passed a motion urging that Fijians' majority in the House of Representatives be raised to two thirds (Islands Business December 1982, p.18). (As a point in multiracialism's favour, however, this motion, although passed, 'couldn't be held to be the majority view of the Council, since more than 30 members abstained or were absent when votes were counted, and 15 votes were cast against it' (ibid.). That this was so in the Council of Chiefs, the voice of the Fijian aristocracy, is not insignificant.)

Mara himself was quite prepared to manipulate racial fears to guarantee Fijian support for his Alliance Party, despite his regular rhetoric about 'multiracialism'. When parliament defeated Butadroka's 1977 anti-Indian motion, Mara abstained from voting. When the Great Council of Chiefs voted on their anti-Indian motion in 1982, Mara again abstained. In September 1986, with an election in the air, Mara was warning a meeting that to vote for Labour would destroy Fijian paramountcy (Pacific Islands Monthly November 1986, p.23). Until 1987 this policy of 'playing the racial card', to use Robertson's and Tamanisau's term (1988:5), worked well, consolidating Fijians' support for the Alliance.

At the heart of Fijians' fear of 'Indian domination' was a concern for their land. Scarr, naturally, stresses the importance of this concern. Robie, although he is far from being an advocate of the racial explanation, has noted that 'in traditional Fijian political language, "land" also means "people": "The people are the land, the land is the people", says a proverb' (1989:205).

Lal, although not dismissive of the importance of race in Fiji, has disputed claims that Indians were ever a real threat to Fijian-owned land (1988a: chapter 1). Even had Indians wanted to take over Fijian land, he says, they would have been unable to do so. Attempts by Indians to gain any sort of racial advantage would have been blocked by the upper house: 14 of the Senate's 22 members were nominated by the leader of the opposition and the Great Council of Chiefs. Furthermore, any attempt to change the clauses in the constitution which protected Fijian land rights would need a three quarters majority vote in both houses to succeed. Indians alone, with only 22 of the 52 seats in the House of Representatives, could not come anywhere near that majority.

Norton, in a 1977 study, noted that the composition of the Senate was not a ruling which had been forced upon Indians. The largely-Indian NFP had played an important role in setting up the 1970 constitution of Fiji. The NFP first suggested that the Council of Chiefs be made the basis of the upper house, with veto power over 'any legislation threatening the Fijians' land or institutions' (Norton 1977:134).

Scarr (1988a:22) has echoed post-coup Taukei Movement claims that these safeguards could have been negated by the Crown Acquisition of Land Act, which permitted the compulsory acquisition of any land 'in such a manner as to promote the public interest', a definition 'open to interpretation by the government'. But Lal (1988a:28) counters that this would need express Supreme Court authorization, and only two of the Court's seven members were Indian.[25]

Then, of course, there is the fact that not all Coalition government members were Indian. Three Fijian Coalition members crossing the floor could defeat any bill which changed land laws purely to Indians' advantage. In the circumstances, this would have been a likely result. Labour wished to see a more equitable distribution among Fijians of land rents, but would not have looked favourably on an NFP 'land grab'. The Coalition was united, but not enough to withstand such extreme pressures from within.

Such extreme-case scenarios assume a fierce determination by Indians to dominate Fiji. But the NFP, and especially its leader in the 1970s and early 1980s, Siddiq Koya, persistently denied there were such aims (Norton 1977:133). Although some inevitably complained about land, most of the complaints arose from the situation of an effective monopoly of land lessors being able to raise rents somewhat arbitrarily, and the insecurity arising from most leases being of ten years duration rather than twenty or more.

Showing that Fijians' fears of Indians were largely unfounded, however, does not prove that those fears did not exist. Regardless of the widespread poverty among Indians, prosperous Gujerati businessmen were all too visible to Fijians. Neither was the Constitution a comfort to most. Prior to the coup, no Fijian translation of the document existed. Few knew the extent of its protection for Fijian land rights. Even then, constitutional safeguards, as Scarr points out, were not the point to some Fijians: 'It was the lewa, the rule, that counted' (Scarr 1988a:62).

Scarr ends his book with supposedly incontrovertible evidence in favour of his racial argument. On 31 May 1988, twelve tonnes of arms were discovered in a container in Sydney, bound for Lautoka. The middleman for the arms shipments was identified as 'reputed well-known Fiji-born criminal, Mohammed Rasic [sic: Rafiq] Kahan', who quickly fled to the UK (ibid.:147). Scarr repeats the allegations made by the military-backed government that the arms were intended for use by Coalition supporters, and concludes:

The object of this gun-running seems clear: massive bloodletting. The preparations for civil war should at least have shown Fijians that the Indian community was not as supine as too many Fijians assumed (ibid.:149).

Fiji's military and police detained 43 suspects in raids, and eventually charged 21 with arms offences. Three former Coalition ministers were arrested and later released without charge. Rabuka then introduced the retrospective Internal Security Decree, which allowed for the detainment of anybody suspected of 'subversion' for up to two years without charge, with an indefinite number of two-year extensions possible (Robie 1989:249-50).

Serious doubt has been cast on claims that the arms smuggling was Coalition-backed. Robie (1989:250) notes Kahan's 'close ties with several leading Alliance politicians, including Apisai Tora, Taniela Veitata and Ahmed Ali', all of whom have been prominent members of post-coup regimes.[26] More significant is the scenario outlined by Christopher Harder.[27] Harder's account of events indicates the involvement of elements of the post-coup government in the affair, and suggests that it was the result of a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Rabuka and Mara, each of whom feared that the increasing power of the other would make himself redundant.[28] This scenario has been publicly supported by Butadroka, who 'charged the pro-Mara faction in association with the Alliance Party and Muslims with responsibility for the smuggling' (Robertson and Tamanisau 1989:227).

Even if the claim of Coalition-backing for the arms shipments is accepted, it lends only limited support to the racial explanation of the coup, as do most of the examples of racial conflict which have occurred since May 1987. Most of this conflict was caused by the coup, not a cause of the coup. The coup has sent Fiji down a path where racism is accentuated and encouraged by those in power, to the extent that Rabuka publicly praises South Africa's system of apartheid (Government of India 1989:18; Robie 1989:251). The racism seen now is far more extreme than any seen in the years immediately before 1987.

What conclusions can be drawn from this study of the arguments for and against the race factor? The first is that it should not be dismissed out of hand as being unimportant to Fiji's politics. The second is that it should not be embraced as the primary explanation for the coup. I would suggest a more integrative explanation: race was an important consideration for the elements of the Fijian community who were behind the coup, and provided them with a powerful rhetorical weapon, but the coup was not caused, as some suggest, by a near-unanimous Fijian antipathy towards Indians.

The Bavadra government's Indian associations did affect it in the eyes of the Fijian public. The surprise, if not shock, at this dramatic turnaround in Fiji politics must have been profound. But most Fijians were, before the coup, prepared to give the Coalition a chance to govern. To some Fijians, however, its perceived Indian domination was one of a number of concerns which caused them to seek its demise. Those Fijians were the chiefs and the staunch supporters of the chiefly system.

Lal gives a clue which points to this explanation. After discussing historical examples of anti-Indian sentiments expressed by Fijians, he puts them into context by noting that 'we are, for the most part, listening to the words of chiefs and particularly the traditionalist eastern maritime chiefs with little or no experience of multiracialism' (1988a:63).

It was the chiefs, in fact, who had the most to lose by any increase in Indian power, and the chiefs and their supporters who, as a result, harboured some of the most anti-Indian sentiments. But, as will be shown later, the chiefs were out of touch with Fijian society. Their extremism was not shared by many Fijians. The post-coup regime seems to have been genuinely surprised to learn this:

The military noted the growth in the forces of opposition and were worried. They expected Indian opposition, but not dissent from among Fijians (Robertson and Tamanisau 1988:125).

The army had made the same mistake as Scarr: they had assumed that the Fijian community was homogeneous, and was behind them all the way.

Race did, however, provide a rhetorical justification for the coup. It provided the coup-makers with legitimacy in the eyes of many politically-naive commoner Fijians. Such Fijians were prepared to put aside any pre-coup grievances against chiefs and the Alliance in the face of the serious threat they had been hearing so much about. Much of this 'threat' stemmed from blatantly false allegations made by Rabuka's regime with the intention of discrediting the Coalition. Before the coup these allegations were made by the Taukei Movement; afterwards they were made by the military and others in power, and appeared in the Fijian newspaper Nai Lalakai and the Fijian programme of Radio Fiji rather than their English-language counterparts (ibid.). The fear they provoked tapped into a reservoir of Fijian disquiet concerning Indians, and thus prevented a large Fijian backlash against the overthrow of the respected institutions of government and law.

The tragedy of the coup's reinforcement of racism is that seventeen years of independence and 'multiracialism' had, until then, been steadily changing Fijian attitudes. The emergence of Labour, a genuinely multiracial party (a fact which many more familiar with the older Fiji refuse to accept), was merely the first sign of this change. Among young (and particularly young urban) Fijians, multiracialism was more than rhetoric, it was the way of life in Fiji. A sign of this was a post-election and pre-coup poll of Fijians, which showed that supporters of the Coalition government comprised 80 percent of those aged between 16 and 30 years, and 45 per cent of those between 31 and 35 (ibid. 1988:66).[29] Significantly, however, older Fijians did not support the Coalition at all. It can be argued, then, that in another ten years Rabuka's coup would not have succeeded; it would have faced not only Indian opposition but opposition from a clear majority of Fijians. As it was, it received tacit support from an unclear majority. This suited the coup-makers well, for, as the following chapters show, they had many other goals they wished to see achieved by the coup.

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