Despite having visited many places
from Suez to Bali that showed the influence of Indian culture and
cuisine, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the depth of
India's impact on a few islands located in the Pacific Ocean. On
my recent Air Pacific flight from Sydney to Nadi in Fiji, the
friendly airhostess brought a tray of drinks and a bowl of besan
ke sev, a popular savoury in India. It was a reminder that the
distance of 13,000 km did not prevent the commencement of links
with India in the 19th century, which continue to flourish even
Our hotel in Nadi belonged to a Fijian of Indian origin. Some of
the personnel who helped us organise the lecture series that had
taken my colleague and me to Fiji were named Nikhil, Rajnail Singh
and Rajesh. The words 'namaste' and 'dhanyabad' were heard around.
The very first meal served to us included dishes from northern
India. We had temporarily left India, but while in Fiji I felt
India had not quite left us.
As a British colony for nearly a century, Fiji opened its doors to
labour from India, as workers were needed on sugarcane
plantations. Between 1879 and 1914, about 60,000 people from Uttar
Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were brought for
Known as 'girmitiyas' - after distortion of the word permit or the
contract of employment - they and their descendents worked under
terrible conditions. But they succeeded in building a nation with
their sweat and sacrifice. Others followed later as free migrants.
Fiji changed them considerably as they, eating and living
together, overcame their caste prejudices and developed a common
language - Fijian Hindi. Also, they changed Fiji in many ways.
Fijian Hindi is one of the three official languages of the
country, English and Fijian being the other two. Fiji had Mahendra
Chaudhary as its prime minister although a military coup of May
2000 led to his removal. Vijay Singh, the ace golfer, is known for
successfully challenging Tiger Woods, displacing him from the
number one ranking for quite some time.
Indo-Fijians numbered about 51 percent of the country's population
in 1966, i.e., four years before Fiji gained independence, but it
went down to 38 percent in 2007 and is projected to decline
further to 26 percent by 2030. Their large-scale migration to
Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere for economic reasons is a
cause of worry to Fiji. Happily, relations between Indo-Fijians
and indigenous Fijians known as 'itaukei' appear to be much better
today than in the past.
During a morning walk just outside Nadi, I ran into a friendly but
curious native Fijian. "Are you from India?" On my confirming
this, he promptly invited me to his home. I could not resist the
temptation to ask him how relations between native Fijians and
Indo-Fijians were. "Now they are good," he said. Another answer
from an educated Indian woman to the same question was: "Now we
are all Fijians."
India can perhaps contribute to reconciliation by strengthening
and deepening India-Fiji relations as part of a long-term plan to
enhance ties with the Pacific island countries. Trade offers only
limited possibility, but Indian companies can invest more in the
main sectors of the economy - tourism, fisheries and services that
cater not only to Fiji but also to neighbouring countries. The
government of India has been striving to expand its development
It was heartening to note that Vinod Kumar, India's new high
commissioner, has been focussing on healthcare, education,
renewable sources of energy and space science as new areas of
cooperation. The Fijian high commission in Delhi asserts that Fiji
considers India as "its major strategic development partner" and
has been engaged in the task to "nurture and fortify" bilateral
cooperation, trade and investment with India.
People-to-people relations encompassing both streams - Fijian and
Indo-Fijian - need to be expanded further. An effective way would
be to strengthen institutions such as the National University of
Fiji, by deputing suitable Indian experts for short periods.
Getting more youngsters to visit India for education, training and
tourism would be another useful method.
Of 14 officials from eight Pacific countries who attended lectures
delivered by us, two were from Fiji - both women of Indian origin
working in the Foreign Office. I found them smart, attentive and
articulate as students. Their dream was to represent their country
as "diplomats" and also "to visit India some day."
An Indo-Fijian settled in London but visiting Nadi wanted my help
in locating his father's relatives in Bihar. "A part of my heart",
he said wistfully, "still lives in India." Indeed the angst of our
diaspora remains an abiding bond.
(A former Indian ambassador to several countries, the
author visited Fiji recently to impart training to diplomats of
several Pacific countries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)