The term diaspora did not have the kind of acceptance among people of Indian descent in the past, as it does now: Shubha Singh

At the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in 2003, some delegates from South Africa had voiced their discomfort with being referred to as Indian diaspora, says Shubha Singh, eminent Journalist from Fiji in conversation with Dr. Mahalingam of GRFDT

Your family connection with Fiji goes back to your great grandparents days. Your father and brother were posted as India’s High Commissioner to Fiji after its independence. You have lived and worked there. Could you share your reminiscences about your stay there?

Shubha Singh (SS): My father, late Sh Bhagwan Singh was India’s High Commissioner to Fiji Islands from 1971 to 1976 and my brother, Ajay Singh was High Commissioner to Fiji from 2005-2007. I lived in Fiji for four years from 1972-76; I taught at the DAV Girls College for two years and was Lecturer at the Fiji School of Medicine for two years.

Fiji Islands become independent in 1970 and the 1970s was a period of euphoria and deep satisfaction for having made the peaceful transition to independence. Fiji was seen as a shining example of a thriving democracy in the South Pacific region in that period. It was an exciting time to be living in Fiji and the air of optimism was infectious. 

How does the Indian community prefer to call itself ‘Fiji-Indians’ or ‘Indo-Fijians’? Why?

SS: During the colonial period, indigenous Fijians were known as Fijians. The Indian community was known as Fiji Indian which was later modified to Indo-Fijian. These were the terms used in official documents. Under the 2013 Constitution, the term Fijian is now applied for all Fiji nationals, and the indigenous Fijian community is referred to as ‘i-taukai’, the term they have traditionally used to describe themselves. This constitutional provision provides a single term to describe every citizen of Fiji.

Fiji is known for its political instability and coups. For instance, following independence four elected governments were overthrown, twice in 1987 and once each in 2000 and 2006. Could you describe about each coup nature and characteristics and its impact on Fiji-Indian population?

SS: The first coup in Fiji took place in 1987, exactly one month after an Indian dominated coalition government headed by Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian was elected. Col Sitiveni Rabuka deposed the Bavadra government in a military coup in order to keep political power in the hands of indigenous Fijians. Indians in senior and middle level positions in government were sacked or forced to quit. The volatile and sometimes violent situation forced thousands of Indians to leave the country.

In May 2000 an armed gang led by a former banker, George Speight stormed Parliament and took hostage Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian origin, and his entire Cabinet. Speight and his armed gang that included some former army officers aimed to restore power to the ethnic Fijians. The hostages remained in captivity for 56 days till they were released under a deal negotiated by military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama which involved installing an interim government led by Laisenia Qarase. Indians were attacked in several places and Indian shops in the capital, Suva were burnt down in the riots that followed the coup. Indian migration from Fiji increased after the violence of 2000 coup

The third time an elected government was deposed in Fiji was in 2006. It was the result of a dispute between the military commander, Commodore Bainimarama and the elected Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase over three legislative bills that were opposed by the military. The bloodless coup did not affect the Indians in the same way as the earlier two coups as it did not have any racial overtones. Indians felt a greater sense of security as the law and order situation improved after the army took control.

Fiji’s Prime Minister of Indian origin Mahendra Chaudhary was deposed in 2000. What was the reaction of India at that time?

SS: India strongly condemned the overthrow of the Chaudhary government and worked to get Fiji suspended from the Commonwealth. 

The land question has always been a bone of contention between ethnic Fijians and Fiji Indians.  It is still not heading anywhere.  Why is that so?  Elaborate please.

SS: Agricultural land in Fiji is owned collectively by the ethnic Fijian tribes and cannot be sold according to Fijian law. It was given on long term leases to Indian farmers to grow sugarcane. The leases came to an end in the period from 2007 onwards. The indigenous Fijians refused to renew the leases and the Indian farmers lost their farms and the houses that they had built on the land. After losing their livelihood as sugarcane farmers, Indians have turned to other occupations; some farmers have taken up market gardening. A few leases for sugarcane farming have also been renewed. The agricultural land issue is no longer an acute problem as it was a few years ago.  

In wake of military coups, discriminatory legal provisions and rising ethnic fundamentalism, the Indo-Fijian community was forced to flee the country.  They have been categorized as ‘twice migrants’ in the diaspora literature. At present, they are part of a large Indian transnational community. What kind of a relationship or connection do they have with Fiji? Is there any prospect for them to return back?

SS: There has been a steady migration of Indians from Fiji since the coups in 1987 and 2000. At the time of independence, the Indian origin community was larger than the indigenous Fijian population; people of Indian origin now constitute 34 percent of Fiji’s population. Many of these emigrants have an emotional connect with Fiji. There are a very few Indians who have returned to Fiji. Though Fiji has a new elected government, its economy has not grown enough to offer economic opportunities for Indians to return. Most of them are settled in their new homes in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.

In 2013, a new constitution was drafted in Fiji. What are the salient features of the new constitution? Are the concerns of Indo-Fijian Indian community taken care of?  Could you tell us about the outcome of the recently held election?

SS: The new constitution promulgated in 2013 is racially equitable and provides for all Fiji citizens to be called Fijians. For the first time in its history, Fiji’s electoral system is based on a one-man, one-vote principle.

The recent election gave a resounding victory to Frank Bainimara, who quit his post as military commander to contest the elections. He received 59 percent of the votes and his Fiji First party won 32 of the 50 seats in Fiji’s National Assembly.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Fiji recently. How was the reception from the Indo-Fijian community? What kind of bilateral agreements were signed between the two heads of states?  Elucidate please.

SS: Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a warm and emotional welcome in Fiji. Thousands of people lined the roads from Nausori Airport to Suva city to welcome him.

During his visit, PM Modi announced Indian assistance in the construction of Fiji’s Parliament library, a line of credit for US $ 70 million for a Co-generation plant, US $ 5million for promoting small businesses and village enterprises, assistance for developing the rice, coconut and dairy industry and visa on arrivals for Fiji nationals.

Three memoranda of understanding were signed during the visit. An MOU for extending a line of credit for setting up a Co-generation plant in Fiji, MOU on cooperation in the field of training of diplomats and an MOU on allotting of land for diplomatic missions in the respective capitals.

The diplomatic relationship between Fiji and India has been marked by twists and turns. Could you assess the level of diplomatic relationship existing between both the countries at present?

SS: Fiji and India have warm and friendly diplomatic relations. There was a time when diplomatic relations were strained after the coup in 1987 when the Indian diplomatic mission was shut down and again after the 2000 coup. The Indian High Commission was opened in 1999 after democracy was restored under a new constitution was adopted and an elected government took office. Diplomatic relations can be gauged by the special attention paid to Prime Minister Modi’s visit. He was received at the airport as a special gesture by Prime Minister Bainimarama and his entire Cabinet in the early hours of the morning. 

Another book of yours ‘Overseas Indians: The Global Family’ was published in 2005. Why did you use the term ‘Overseas Indians’ instead of ‘Indian Diaspora’?  Is there any specific reason for it?

SS: I used the term ‘Overseas Indians’ since I was writing about Indians living abroad, whether they were people of Indian descent, Non-resident Indians and  Indian expatriates in the Gulf region. The term diaspora did not have the kind of acceptance among people of Indian descent in the past, as it does now. It is in recent years that more and more countries are acknowledging the  multi-ethnic nature of their societies and encouraging their immigrant or minority populations to celebrate their cultural practices. At the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in 2003, some delegates from South Africa had voiced their discomfort with being referred to as Indian diaspora.   

There is a perception that the Indian government‘s Diaspora engagement policy only shows keen interests in the prosperous Indians living in the western countries. The People of Indian Origin (PIO’s) in the global south are not given due consideration.  Comment please.

SS: It is true that there is a perception that the Indian government pays greater attention to the diaspora in the developed countries. Some PIOs from smaller countries have even complained at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas meetings. But the diaspora in the west comprises more recent migrants, many of them have closer and more active connections with India and are frequent travellers to India. They are also more vocal in their demands and expectations from the Indian government unlike the older diaspora that has an emotional connect with India.

As a journalist, you have covered the foreign affairs for decades, has India really succeeded in leveraging upon the ‘soft power’ of Indian Diaspora in diplomacy?  Illustrate please.

SS: The most successful leveraging of the Indian diaspora’s power was during the negotiations for the Indo-US agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation when Indians in the US mounted an effective campaign to lobby the US Congress on the agreement. Indians in the US effectively utilized their lobbying power to restore communications in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests when the Indo-US diplomatic ties went into a deep freeze. Indian diplomacy has been successful in leveraging diaspora soft power on many other occasions, but it can be leveraged more effectively. 

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Shubha Singh is a journalist and has worked with two leading Indian newspapers for over two decades. It is her family's connection with Fiji Islands spanning four generations (her great grandparents went to Fiji in 1885) that has kept alive her interest in the Indian diaspora. She has lived and worked in Fiji in the 1970s when her father, Bhagwan Singh was posted as India's High Commissioner to Fiji. She has travelled extensively as a journalist, taking special interest in regions that have large settlements of overseas Indians, such as Mauritius, South Africa, the Caribbean, USA, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The May 2000 coup in Fiji led her to undertake a closer analysis of the reasons why multi-racial governments in Fiji had been overthrown twice within 13 years. In 2001 she wrote a critically acclaimed book titled Fiji: A Precarious Coalition. She has also produced a 54-minute documentary film titled Crosscurrents: A Fijian Travelogue. 
Shubha Singh was awarded the Chameli Devi Award for best woman journalist in 1995 for her "perceptive and analytical writing on foreign affairs". She was the fellow of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata. She is now a columnist, writing on foreign affairs and politics for two Indian newspapers. 

 

 

 



Interview Date:   Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015
Person Name:   Shubha Singh

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