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Fiji - where the heart still lives in India

Wednesday February 02, 2011 11:53:32 AM, Rajiv Bhatia, IANS

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 today.

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 this purpose.

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 cooperation.

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






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