Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Fiji's Bigotry of Domain

Fiji's Bigotry of Domain

Author: Salman Rushdie
Publication: The New York Times
Date: June 8, 2000
''They are trying to steal our land.'' Such is the accusation made by a gang of usurpers against Fiji's Indian community in general and the deposed Indian-led government, whose ministers it now holds hostage, in particular. By one of the bitter ironies of the age of migration, the insistence of the gang's leader, the failed businessman George Speight, on the basic cultural importance of land is very easy for people of Indian origin to grasp. However, he gives the land what might be called racial characteristics, plainly assuming that it is, in its very nature, ethnically Fijian -- and so tips over into bigotry and folly.

Land, home, belonging: to Indians these words have always felt more than ordinarily potent. India is a continent of deeply rooted peoples. Indians don't just own the ground beneath their feet; it owns them, too. An orthodox Hindu tradition goes so far as to warn that anyone who crosses the ''black water'' -- the ocean -- instantly loses caste. The so-called Indian diaspora, which has taken Indian communities and their descendants from their overpopulous country across the world in every direction and as far as, well, Fiji, is therefore the most improbable of phenomena.

Yet the journeying of Indians all over the planet is one of the great sagas of our time, an epic replete with misadventures. Idi Amin's vicious expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, the tensions between the black and Indian populations of Trinidad and South Africa, ''Paki- bashing'' in Britain, the tough treatment of Indian workers in gulf states, and now Fiji: it's tempting to conclude that the world has it in for these hard-working migrants and descendants of migrants, that their single- minded dedication to bettering their families' lot somehow comes across as reprehensible.

In the United States, many Indians speak almost shamefacedly of their lack of racially motivated trouble; not being the target of American racism, they have been until recently almost invisible as a community.

But there have been triumphs, too. With each generation, Indians and the descendants of Indians have become more fully a part of Britain without losing their distinctive identity; while in America, the enormous success in Silicon Valley of Indian whiz kids has got people's attention and earned their admiration.

In Fiji itself, the century-old Indian presence has been a success story. Indians have built the sugar industry that is the country's main resource; and, as the ethnic Fijian opposition to the Speight coup demonstrates, relations between the communities are by no means as bad as the rebels make out. In the Fijian Parliament, the government of Mahendra Chaudhry was supported by 58 out of 71 members; 12 out of 18 members of the sacked cabinet were ethnic Fijians.

Even among Mr. Speight's hostages, 14 of the 31 prisoners are ethnic Fijians. Thus the Chaudhry government was in no sense a sectarian government of Indians lording it over Fijians. It was a genuine cultural mixture. Since its deposition, however, the Speight rebels, abetted by the craven Great Council of Chiefs and by the martial law regime of Commodore Bainimarama, have dragged Fiji back toward its racially intolerant past.

Under all this nonsense, the fundamentals of the land question have been thoroughly obscured. The truth is that after 100 years, Fiji's Indians have every right to think of themselves as being, and to be treated as being, fully as Fijian as ethnic Fijians.

Preventing Indians from owning land was and is a great injustice: though most of the land on the main island of Viti Levu is controlled by Indians, they hold it on 99- year leases, many of which are coming up for renewal, with Fijians retaining ownership. The Speight idea of taking over the sugar farms as the leases expire compounds the injustice.

British Indians have fought to be recognized as British; Uganda's Indians were grievously wronged when Idi Amin threw them out as foreigners. Migrant peoples do not remain visitors forever. In the end, their new land owns them as once their old land did, and they have a right to own it in their turn.

We don't want Fijians fighting Fijians -- our common enemy is the Indians, Mr. Speight says, but the unintended consequence of his stand is that his brand of ethnic cleansing is leading Fijians and Indians in western Fiji, the most prosperous part of the country, with most of the sugar cane operations, some gold mines and the best tourist resorts, to make common cause against him. Secession is being seriously discussed.

The choice facing Fiji's remarkably inept political class may therefore soon become a stark one: abandon the fundamentally racist notion that your land is ethnically tied to one racial group, or lose the best of that land to those who find your bigotry, and your weakness, impossible to bear.

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