A stormy relationship: a quick overview of the Indo and Indigenous Fijian history.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Markus Garvey

For those who are reading my blog posts with the hope on entertaining anecdotes of my travels, I have to warn you that the following post does not include any. You will have to bare with me and my history graduate ways for this one. If you are interested in learning about the conflicts between the two largest ethnic groups in Fiji, which are still present today, then please, read on!

One of the first things that you will notice, upon arriving in Nadi and Suva, or other large Fijian towns, is the presence of two different groups of people and cultures. There are the Fijians and the Indo-Fijians (who make up about 40% of the population). This is more noticeable in Nadi and Suva because Indo-Fijians live mainly in the “Sugar Belt” and in cities and towns on the northern and western coasts of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Fijian law also dictated that non-Fijians could not live in Fijian villages, which inevitably enforced segregation.
The origin of the Indo-Fijians is as a consequence of British colonial rule, as the British bought over Indian girmitiyas (indentured labourers) between 1879 and 1916 to work on the sugar cane plantations. Their contracts required them to work in Fiji for 5 years. The living conditions were very poor and after 5 further years as a girmitiyas or khula (free labourer), they were given a (false) choice of returning to India at their own expense, or remaining in Fiji. With little money to afford the transport home, many chose to stay and leased small farm plots or went into business in the towns which were springing up. The indenture system affected the Indian culture through forcing different castes to live, work and eat together. The small population and shortage of women also contributed to marrying outside of castes. Their own language was also developed, (a koiné language a.k.a. Fiji Hindi).

There have been tensions between the Indo-Fijians and the indigenous Fijians which have even included conflicts over the right to be called “Fijian”. During the 1910s, there was unrest as Indo-Fijians fought for better work and living conditions. Such conflicts continued through the mid-twentieth century and complicated preparations for Fiji Independence which was granted by the UK in 1970. Such issues which have arisen include those which are based around political representation and electoral policy. These tensions were further exacerbated by the fact that ethnic Indians outnumbered indigenous Fijians from 1956 through the late 1980s due to the death toll of indigenous Fijians (1/3 of the population) from a smallpox outbreak, contracted from Australia.

In 1987, there were two coups which removed an Indian-supported government from power and, for a time, ushered in a constitution that discriminated against them in numerous ways. In 2000 there was another coup which removed the first Indo-Fijian prime minister, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry. He spent 56 days in captivity before embarking on a world tour of protest to rally support. Laisenia Qarase took over as PM until he too was ousted in a coup in 2006 due to disagreements with the powerful Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF). Frank (Voreqe) Bainimarama (an ethnically indigenous Fijian, who held the position of commander of the RFMF until 2014) has held the office of PM ever since. Despite potentially self-interested reasons such as a bill intending to nationalise maritime resources, Bainimarama argued that his main reasons for the 2006 coup were that the government was corrupt, and interestingly, that it was creating and enforcing racially discriminatory policies against Indo-Fijians. In 2009 he stated:

My vision for Fiji is one that’s free of racism. That’s the biggest problem we’ve had in the last 20 years and it needs to be taken out. It’s the lies that are being fed to indigenous Fijians that are causing this, especially from our chiefs who are the dominating factor in our lives. And the politicians take advantage of that. We need to change direction in a dramatic way.”


Despite this optimistic statement, there is still resentment of the lack of democratic representation. For example, Indo-Fijian historian Professor Brij Lal was a campaigner for democracy in Fiji and critic of the 2006 coup. After airing these views in 2009 with radio New Zealand, he was “advised” to leave the country within 24 hours. In March 2015, Defence Minister Timoci Natuva announced that Lal was prohibited indefinitely from returning to Fiji because his actions were “prejudicial to the peace, defence, public safety, public order and security of Government of Fiji“. Another example of the lack of democratic representation is Bainimarama’s decision to disband the Council of Chiefs which used to hold a fair amount of political power and represented the smaller Fijian Islands and islanders (Viti Levu and Vanua Levu being only 2 of the 106 inhabited Fijian islands).

As well as clear examples of the lack of democracy in Fiji, there is still resentment and anger residing between the two Fijian ethnicities. Inevitably, tourism marketing keeps these issues relatively under wraps, and I doubt whether many tourists flying in for a couple weeks in the sun, in the resort filled Yasawas or Mamanucas islands, will be aware of these tensions. Therefore despite the friendly, sega na lega (no worries) attitude that is projected, there are still troubled and stormy relationships hiding within the beautiful tropical paradise.


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