India should lift its game with Fiji

As a Non-Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council this year, India will look out for allies to support its candidature for Permanent Membership in the near future.

Prior to achieving this feat, India must graduate from being a Regional Power in South Asia to a Great Power in Asia Pacific.

India should strengthen its relations with the South Pacific countries including the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Fostering relations with Fiji would be critical, since people of Indian origin account for 40% of its population.

Fiji needs India’s support now more than ever. It suffers isolation following suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (May 2009) and the Commonwealth of Nations (September 2009).

Fiji’s quest for better relations with India is buttressed by the fact that though it expelled Australian and New Zealand diplomats in August 2010, it is ready to court India through a ‘Look North Policy’ understanding the real politick.

A Dismal Record

However, India’s interest in the South Pacific region has been dismal; a by-product of its inability to identify geographic and cultural overreach.

Though the country shows the characteristics of both continental and maritime country, its policy makers have concentrated on the former. New Delhi has had to overstretch its diplomatic initiatives vis-à-vis Pakistan since Independence in 1947. But with impressive economic growth and a secured place in world affairs, the country should now start re-linking its historical maritime and cultural contacts politically through ‘Cultural and Naval Diplomacy.’

Relations between the two countries date back to 1879, when Indian indentured labourers were sent to Fiji to work on sugarcane plantations by the colonial British after subjugating the Islands as a colony in 1874.

Incidentally, the cultural ties between South Pacific and India goes back to the age of trade link between the Cholas kings in Tamil Nadu and the Polynesians as pointed out by the famous Indian Historian V R Ramachandra Dikshitar in his book ‘Origin and Spread of the Tamils.’

Independent India established its diplomatic presence in Fiji through a Commissioner in Suva in 1948 before that country’s independence. India was also a crucial ally for Fiji in its independence struggle. In fact, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru joined hands with New Zealand’s statesman and PM, Peter Fraser in Commonwealth Nations while championing Fiji’s independence.

India-Fiji ties strengthened with Fiji’s first Prime Minister and late President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s visit to India in 1971.

Culture of Compliance

However, India does not have the ‘Culture of Compliance’ and failed to understand Fiji, which had come out of a colonial rule in 1970. The visit of Indira Gandhi (the only Prime Minister to date) in 1981 is still remembered by many Indo-Fijians with fondness. India accepted the western stereotype that since Fiji is ruled frequently by military rulers since 1987, it is ‘Banana Republic.’

This notion is wrong as the Fiji’s streets have less armed men than any city in India. But that does not mean there are no fissures in the Fijian society.

These fissures were the result of the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule,’ which exploited both the native community and Indo-Fijians. The latter bore most of the colonial misadventures, despite contributing handsomely to Fiji’s thriving economy.

Indian Newslink columnist Rajendra Prasad brings out these facts vividly in his book, Tears in Paradise. Fiji’s low pitch of nationalism failed to bind the society, overlooking ethnic differences.

However, Indo-Fijians have assimilated the Pacific culture along with the native Fijians, enabling a functional society unlike the civil- war torn African countries.

The country needs India’s mentorship in fostering ideals of democracy, national spirit and social and cultural solidarity.

The Coup Culture

Indo-Fiji relations can be better understood and appreciated from the historic perspective but just over the past 34 years. In April 1987, an alliance led by Dr Timoci Bavadra, a native Fijian backed by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election. Less than a month later, Fiji’s first coup took place with Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka removing Prime Minister Bavadra from office. The reason for the 1987 coups was clearly to keep Indo-Fijians from having political power.

India condemned the coup, imposed trade sanctions and severed diplomatic ties with Fiji. It also used its influence in the Commonwealth of Nations and the UN to marginalise Fiji. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians fled their homeland, to settle in Australia, New Zealand, UK, US and Canada, resulting in loss of human capital.

But the Indian Government did not lose interest in Fijian affairs. It welcomed the 1997 constitutional reforms, which promised better treatment to Indo-Fijians.

The victory of the Fiji Labour Party and election of its Leader Mahendra Choudhry as Prime Minister in May 2009 was to have been a new chapter in the long struggle of Indo-Fijians for dignity and self-determination but by quirk of fate, it became the last. A year later, on May 19, 2000, George Speight, a failed businessman stormed the Fiji Parliament and staged a civilian coup.

Indian Support

Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, the present Fiji Prime Minister, then Head of the Interim Military Government staged a ‘counter-coup’ to establish a functioning state in Fiji. The Indian government condemned the coup and called for a return to democracy. India was also dismayed at the attacks against Indo-Fijians that occurred in the weeks following the coup.

When Mr Bainimarama staged another coup in December 2006 ousting then Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, India did not impose sanctions, since the Indo-Fijian community was not the target.

India has conscientiously followed a policy of closer ties with Fiji, which was pronounced during the visit of Mr Qarase to India in 2005, and the establishment of the Foreign Office Consultations (FOC).

New Delhi appears to understand the need for higher levels of engagement, spelt by financial aid, military assistance and information technology support.

India can enhance the value of India-Fijian ties if it strengthens the Indian Cultural Centre established within its Mission in Suva in 1971. The current programme of 25 scholarships to students from Fiji to pursue higher education in India and training of 18 civil servants has been working well and new initiatives should be considered.

Diplomatic Outreach

India can reach out to other South Pacific countries through friendly countries like Australia and New Zealand. The appointment of former Naval Chief Retired Admiral Sureesh Kumar as High Commissioner to New Zealand in December 2009 was strategic use of Naval Diplomacy.

New Zealand will host the next Pacific Islands Forum in Wellington in September along with the Rugby World Cup matches. India should utilise the opportunity and participate in the Forum with a high-level delegation.

Balaji Chandramohan is Editor, Asia for World Security Network and Correspondent for World News Forecast.

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