Why Indo-Fijians did not join Fiji army during the wars: What Girmitiya descendants need to know
Thakur Ranjit Singh, Auckland, New Zealand
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Fiji marks a memorable day. That is Remembrance Day on 11th November each year. Americans call it Veteran’s Day. Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Historically, arguments have raged since the wars on reasons why Indo-Fijians did not join the army in numbers. Since Fiji’s history fails to tell this, descendants of Girmitiyas (indentured labourers) need to be told the reasons why their forbears did not join Fiji army.
Every now and then Fijian (read I-Taukei) leaders in all sizes and shapes have levelled accusation at Indo-Fijians for being disloyal to Fiji by not joining the army during the world wars. Among others, a Fijian nationalist academic who was behind the racist 1990 constitution, late Dr Asesela Ravuvu had accused Indo-Fijians of not being interested to fight for the maintenance of democratic rule in the world and were selfish while Fijians gave their lives for this cause. He accused Indo-Fijians of demanding more pay and special protection for their families and property. It was such non-cooperation, according to him, that partly contributed to difficulties in acquiring trust and acceptance of the Fijians as good neighbours and countrymen.
Dr Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian academic and one of the Commissioners behind the 1997 constitution wrote about the reasons and I take liberty to quote him to inform the world that deserved to know this a long time ago.
It is agreed that while to some extent, government’s refusal to grant Indo-Fijians the same conditions of service provided to European soldiers is one of the reasons for them not being in the military, there are others which need to be clarified to counteract accusations of Fijian nationalists who castigate a whole race for something they were not guilty of. The reasons why Indo-Fijians did not join in the World Wars in the Fiji army are the following, among others:
1) Recruitment for Fijians was well-organised and even supported by chiefs, including Ratu Sukuna in his military uniform. His support and efforts perhaps was because, he was a beneficiary of the things that came from
hence the need to protect them. Furthermore, by recruiting greater number of
Fijians, there was an intention to display Fijian loyalty to the British to win
their support for the Fijian community, as pressures were being exerted by the Indo-Fijian
community for more say in the government. Britain
|RATU SIR LALA SUKUNA: Recruitment for Fijians was well-organised and even supported by chiefs, including Ratu Sukuna in his military uniform. INDIANS WERE DISCOURAGED FROM RECRUITMENT THROUGH OBJECTIONS FROM FIJIANS AND EUROPEANS|
2) Easier access to Fijian villagers to recruit, as they lived in stratified structure collectively and were more easily accessible than scattered Indo- Fijians.
3) While Indo-Fijians said they would fight if Fiji was attacked, they refused to fight for the empire in the other parts of the world unless government acknowledged the principle of equality between European and non-European soldiers. What they said was that an Indo-Fijian life should be valued same as a European life.
4) The government was reluctant to recruit Indo-Fijians because of objections from Fijians and Europeans, as they did not wish them to be equipped with this skill. There have been instances where Indo-Fijians were requesting their sons to be recruited, but were refused. One Indo-Fijian is reported to have gone to New Zealand to enlist in the Maori regiments because the Fiji army was not taking in Indo-Fijians.
5) Europeans were fearful of Indo-Fijians because of Gandhi’s ’Quit- India’ campaign and Subhash Chandra Bose’s collaboration with the Japanese.
6) There was reluctance by CSR (sugar millers) to grant leave for the farmers to fight the war, as they needed to meet their contractual arrangements on the cane farms. Indo-Fijians were not unemployed and “free’ like most of the villagers who were not fully utilised and were available for military without any constraints elsewhere. Indo-Fijians had a difficult choice of selecting between enlisting for war and keeping their farms. Fijians on the other hand did not have the difficulty of such a choice, as they had no farming obligations.
7) The government proclaimed that the most important contributions the Indo-Fijians could make were to increase the production of foodstuffs and maintenance of essential agricultural interests. This had been their contribution to the war, as soldiers do and cannot fight wars on a hungry stomach.
8) Membership in the British Empire was no badge of honour for the Indo- Fijians. Local Europeans owed their power and prestige to British colonialism, and Fijian chiefs were grateful for the security and privilege they and their people enjoyed as a result of British policies. On the other hand, Indo-Fijians had been subjected to most inhuman racial humiliations and denigrations on a daily basis during indenture (girmit), and fighting a war for the British would have meant a fight for preservation of a system that was oppressive and humiliating.
The conclusion by Dr Brij Lal in analysis of the above reasons is that the Indo-Fijians were neither seditious nor disloyal. It was the European propaganda and the exuberance war efforts of the Fijians that made them appear so. It was concluded that there was no evidence of any opposition to war by Indo-Fijians who had displayed full loyalty for the government with a fervent hope for the victory of the Allied Nations. It is obvious that a vacuum in the true historical facts have clouded this issue.
The question that I pose here is would Fiji’s history have been different if the British had encouraged racial balance in the Fijian Military during the wars? What may be the history of Fiji if Indo-Fijians were encouraged and even forced to join the army during the two world wars?
The answer perhaps lies in the next question and answer.
Papua New Guinea and India,
despite being so divided on regional, provincial, language, cultural or ethnic
lines have little chance of success of a racially-instituted military coup that
Answer: This is because their military do not have the type of racial, ethnic, traditional or religious polarisation that
military has. In those countries the diverse make up of the soldiers would
thwart, discourage and even prevent uprising based on racial, religious or
regional superiority. Fiji
For argument sake, assume if Fiji military in 1987 had, say 30 to 50 percent Indo-Fijian soldiers distributed equally in all ranks, would Rabuka still have been able to topple the then Commander (now Fiji’s President) and institute a racially-based coup?
The chances would have been slim, and may even have resulted in a mutiny as comradeship in the military transcends race and reason may have come out of such a treasonous suggestion.
The bottom-line is, to remove coup culture in Fiji, for the military to venture on racial balancing of the Fiji Military forces and encourage Indo-Fijians to join the military service. There is no shortage of such people to join, the only problem is that, like in those colonial days, they are not taken in, and in turn are blamed for lacking patriotism.
I hope Indo-Fijians will learn the reasons why they are not represented in the Fiji army, and rebut any uninformed people who accuse us of lack of patriotism towards Fiji.
(About the Author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is a political analyst and a media commentator, based in Auckland, New Zealand. He graduated with Masters in Communication Studies (MCS) from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in 2011 and the above was an extract from a project paper he had done on coup culture in Fiji)