How Indo-Fijians negotiate identity and relationship with their ancestral homeland

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Indo-Fijian culture both within Fiji and abroad.

Dr Aditya Anshu

Indo-Fijians are a group of people who migrated to Fiji from India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They faced many challenges in adapting to their new home and creating a sense of belonging in a foreign land. Over time, Indo-Fijians developed a unique cultural identity that blended Indian and Fijian traditions. However, they also faced discrimination and marginalization from the indigenous Fijian population, which led to tensions and conflicts between the two groups.

This article explores into the double diaspora situation of Indians who are descendants of indentured laborers in the Fiji Islands but, due to their socio-economic aspiration and political situation have decided to migrate to countries like Australia and New Zealand. 

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The majority of Indo- Fijians have long ago lost all personal contact with India. During their stay in Fiji, their social, cultural, and religious practices have undergone many changes. Their experiences with subcontinental Indians are limited and their views of India and of subcontinental Indians are largely based on ignorance, indifference, and stereotypes.

Recent efforts of the Indian Government at fostering relations with its 30 million strong Diaspora are aimed primarily at wealthy Indian migrants in the West and descendants of indentured Indians have attracted comparatively little interest in India.

Many Indo-Fijians have left Fiji and resettled in the developed Pacific Rim countries, especially Australia. In the wake of this secondary migration, Indo-Fijians have realized that their social and cultural distance from subcontinental Indians is too great to be narrowed by a shared ethnicity. 

In the process, they have developed a Pacific identity. Over the last one-and-a-half centuries, many Indo-Fijian families have undertaken two migrations, the first, from India to Fiji, occurring in colonial times. A few generations later, many families undertook a secondary migration to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. 

The historical circumstances of these two migrations were very different. The Indian presence in Fiji was first and foremost a product of the imperial connection, a part of a system of indentured migration from India to many plantation colonies, introduced in response to labor shortages following the abolition of slavery in 1834. From these, two points can be highlighted!

First, it was a matter of colonial government policy, overtly concerned with preserving traditional Fijian culture, to keep ethnic Fijians away from the wage labor and plantation systems of sugarcane production, so that from the start, the migrant community was held apart. Secondly, though the working and living conditions under indenture were appalling enough for the Indians to call them “narak” (hell), at least if indentured workers spent another five years in the colony they were entitled to a free return passage.

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However, or the later history of Fiji the most important provision in the scheme was that immigrants could, if they wished, remain in Fiji after completing their indentured labor service’. This provision laid the foundation for a permanent Indian presence in Fiji.

On the day they left home, most indentured Indians severed for good all contacts with their relations in India. In the sailing ship era of the late nineteenth century, a voyage between India and Fiji took some 40 days and even after the introduction of steamships, few indentured laborers intended to return to India but due to less or no linkage with the homeland. 

From colonial times, ethnic Fijians were over-represented in the army and police force. A classical contemporary legacy of colonial rule in Fiji is the continuing record of manipulation of ethnicity by members of the political élite, of all ethnic groups. This, ultimately, is the root of the Indo-Fijians’ predicament in postcolonial Fiji.

Since Fiji’s independence in 1970, race relations have dominated Fiji politics. In 1987, and again in 2000, Indo-Fijian-dominated governments were removed in coups and since 2000 Indo-Fijians have largely been excluded from political power.

Within Fiji’s economy, the roles of Indo-Fijians and ethnic Fijians have remained different. While the diversification into trade, commerce, industry, and professions had already started in colonial times, about half of the Indo-Fijians are still farmers or working in agriculture and today, their situation is grave. Large numbers of Indo-Fijian farmers have had to leave their farms, exacerbating social problems such as rural-urban drift and poverty.

The political and economic situation in postcolonial Fiji, the lure of a higher degree of security and a higher standard of living abroad, and facilitation by their transnational kinship networks, have caused an estimated 150,000 Indo-Fijians to undertake a secondary migration. The vast majority have resettled in the developed countries of the Pacific.

Being geographically closest, Australia and New Zealand are particularly important for resettlement: Australia today hosts the largest overseas community of Indo-Fijians, estimated at some 40,000 at the turn of the millennium Most emigrants, though, remain attached to Fiji.

Fiji is the place of their childhood memories, fondly remembered as a beautiful country offering a relaxed lifestyle. Many migrants have close kin in Fiji, further strengthening their emotional links. For many of them, Fiji is the place to which they would like to return if it offered more political security and better economic opportunities. Being resettled close to it is a partial consolation, allowing the opportunity for regular visits.

One of the most significant cultural practices of the Indo-Fijian community is the celebration of Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights that symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. This festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm and involves the lighting of thousands of diyas (oil lamps) in homes and public spaces throughout Fiji.

Another important aspect of Indo-Fijian culture is the cuisine, which features a fusion of Indian and Fijian flavors and ingredients. Some popular dishes include roti (flatbread), curries, and chutneys, as well as traditional Fijian dishes like kokoda (raw fish marinated in lemon juice and coconut milk).

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Indo-Fijian culture both within Fiji and abroad. This has led to increased awareness and appreciation of the unique contributions of this community to Fijian society and culture.

Overall, the emergence of distinct Indo-Fijian culture is a testament to the resilience and creativity of this community in the face of adversity. It serves as a reminder of the importance of cultural diversity and the richness it brings to our world.

In the past, the attitude of the Indian government towards its diaspora has at times given every appearance of ambivalence. Within the last two decades, however, its relationship with parts of its global diaspora has become closer, since the Indian government has realized the potential benefits of enhanced economic cooperation. Nevertheless, relations with Indo-Fijians and other Indians of indentured origin are not a high priority!

The Indian government’s efforts at fostering cooperation with the diaspora have to a large extent targeted wealthy Indian migrants in developed countries who have money to spare for investments in India. Descendants of indentured Indians, because of their less favorable socio-economic status, have attracted comparatively little interest in India.

On their own behalf, few descendants of indentured Indians have established economic links to India. Indo-Fijians in Australia have day-to-day or emotional links to at least three countries: India, Fiji, and Australia.

Most migrants regard Australia as their new home and have little intention of leaving a country where they can build a more secure future and are treated as equals.

The Indo-Fijian case demonstrates how descendants of migrants have moved away from their ancestral homeland as a result of the loss of personal links and cultural changes. Since most Indo-Fijians have little idea of either their caste, regional background or their exact origin in India, they have lost the parameters to locate themselves in relation to other Indians.

Being unable to link back to Indian society, Indo-Fijians increasingly stress their emotional and day-to-day links to the Pacific. Their social and kinship links often incorporate several Pacific Rim countries as well as Fiji. While India retains emotional importance, Indo-Fijians have emerged as a Pacific population in self-perception and in practice.

Further research may determine whether parallel developments have occurred in other countries where the paths of India-direct migrants and secondary migrants cross. Moreover, comparative studies could explore whether the situation is specific to Indians or whether there are similarities with other Diasporas such as that of the Chinese.

Contributing Author: Dr Aditya Anshu (PhD) is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Abu Dhabi University in UAE.

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