Indians in Fiji

Indo-Fijians भारतीय फ़ीजी
Total population
40% of the population of Fiji (2001)
Regions with significant populations
 Fiji 313,798 (2007 census)[1]
 Australia 48,141 (2006 census)[2]
 New Zealand 37,746 (2006 figure)[3]
 United States 30,890 (2000 figure)[4]
 Canada 24,441 (2004 figure)[5]
 United Kingdom Unknown
Fiji Hindi (lingua franca),
Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Odia, Marathi, Tamil, Kutchi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu
Hindu  (76.7%),  Islam  (15.9%), Sikh  (0.9%),  Christian  (6.1%),  Other  (0.4%)[6]

Indo-Fijians are Fiji citizens who are fully or partially of Indian descent, which includes descendants who trace their heritage from various parts of the Indian subcontinent.[7] They number 313,798 (37.6%) (2007 census) out of a total of 827,900 people living in Fiji.[8] They are mostly descended from indentured labourers, girmitiyas or girmit, brought to the islands by Fiji's British colonial rulers between 1879 and 1916 to work on Fiji's sugar cane plantations. Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister on 19 May 1999.

Early ancestors of Indo-Fijians

First Indian in Fiji

Main article: Lascars in Fiji

Indians had been employed for a long time on the European ships trading in India and the East Indies. Many of the early voyages to the Pacific either started or terminated in India, and many of these ships were wrecked in the uncharted waters of the South Pacific. The first recorded presence of an Indian in Fiji was by Peter Dillon, a sandalwood trader in Fiji, of a lascar (Indian seaman) who survived a ship wreck and lived amongst the natives of Fiji in 1813.[9]

First attempt to recruit Indian labourers

Before Fiji was ceded to Great Britain, some planters had tried to obtain Indian labour and had approached the British Consul in Levuka, Fiji but were met with a negative response. In 1870 a direct request by a planter to the Government of India was also turned down and in 1872, an official request by the Cakobau Government was informed that British rule in Fiji was a pre-condition for Indian emigration to Fiji.[10] The early ancestors of Fiji Indians came from different regions and backgrounds from India and other neighbouring countries. However, most came from rural villages in northern and western India.

In January 1879, thirty-one Indians, who had originally been indentured labourers in Réunion, were brought from New Caledonia to Fiji under contract to work on a plantation in Taveuni. These labourers demonstrated knowledge of the terms of the indenture agreement and were aware of their rights and refused to do the heavy work assigned to them. Their contract was terminated by mutual agreement between the labourers and their employers. In 1881, thirty-eight more Indians arrived from New Caledonia and again most of them left but some stayed taking Indian wives or island women.[11]

Arrival under the indentured system

The colonial authorities promoted the sugar cane industry, recognising the need to establish a stable economic base for the colony, but were unwilling to exploit indigenous labour and threaten the Fijian way of life. The use of imported labour from the Solomon Islands and what is now Vanuatu generated protests in the United Kingdom, and the Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon decided to implement the indentured labour scheme, which had existed in the British Empire since 1837. A recruiting office was set up especially around Calcutta and the South, West and North later, especially a lot in rural village areas in different farming regions, land and areas.

The Leonidas, a labour transport vessel, disembarked at Levuka from Calcutta on 14 May 1879. The 463 indentured workers who disembarked were the first of over 61,000 to arrive from South and East Asia in the following 37 years. The majority were from the districts of eastern and southern provinces, followed by labourers from northern and western regions, then later south eastern countries, they originated from different regions, villages, backgrounds and castes that later mingled or intermarried hence the "Fijian Indian" identity was created. The indentured workers originated mostly from rural village backgrounds or were dispossessed peasants. While the women on the other hand being either kidnapped, prostitutes or young widows. Some were even brought as kidnapped child labour.[12]

Life during the indenture period

The contracts of the indentured labourers, which they called girmit (agreements), required them to work in Fiji for a period of five years. Living conditions on the sugar cane plantations, on which most of the girmityas (indentured labourers) worked, had poor standards. Hovels known as "coolie lines" dotted the landscape.[13]

End of indenture

Public outrage in the United Kingdom at such abuses was a factor in the decision to halt the scheme in 1916. All existing indenture was cancelled on 1 January 1920.

Emergence of the Fiji Indian identity

After a further five years of work as an indentured labourer or as a khula (free labourer), they were given the choice of returning to India at their own expense, or remain in Fiji. The great majority opted to stay because they could not afford to return under the low pay (even in many instances they were denied paid wages) of the British government or were refused to be sent back. After the expiry of their girmits, many leased small plots of land from Fijians and developed their own sugarcane fields or cattle farmlets. Others went into business in the towns that were beginning to spring up.

The indenture system had two positive effects on subsequent generations. Firstly the need for people of different castes to live work and eat together led to an end of the caste system. Furthermore, shortage of females resulted in many marrying outside their caste. Another positive was the development of a new koiné language, known as Fiji Hindi that was formed from different languages and dialects of India. The speakers of these languages originated from different regions in India that supplied a lot of slave labourers. Music too, was important, with a distinct Fiji Hindi culture that some commentators have described as a forerunner to both bangla and jazz. For the most part, these people came from in certain rural or village areas. The language was further heavily enriched by the inclusion of many Fijian and English words. The language is now the mother tongue of almost all Fiji Indians and is the lingua franca of not only all the Fiji Indians but also of all Fijian communities where ethnic Indians are in a majority.

Free immigrants

From the early 1900s, Indians started arriving in Fiji as free agents. Many of these paid their own way and had previously served in Fiji or other British colonies or had been born in Fiji. Amongst the early free migrants, there were religious teachers, missionaries and at least one lawyer. The government and other employers brought clerks, policemen, artisans, gardeners, experienced agricultural workers, a doctor and a school teacher. Punjabi farmers and Gujarati craftsmen also paid their own way to Fiji and in later year years formed an influential minority amongst the Fiji Indians.[14]

Indian Platoon during the Second World War

In 1916, Manilal Doctor, the de facto leader of the Fiji Indians persuaded the colonial government of Fiji to form an Indian platoon for the war effort during the First World War. He sent the names of 32 volunteers to the government but his requests were ignored. As a result, a number of Fiji Indians volunteered for the New Zealand Army while one served in Europe during the First World War.

In 1934, Governor Fletcher, enacted a policy which warranted an Indian Platoon within the Fiji Defence Force consisting entirely of enlisted-ranked Indians. Governor Fletcher encouraged Indians to regard Fiji as their permanent home. One could say this was Governor Fletcher's insurance policy against an anticipated anti-European revolt at the hands of the Native population, which subsequently took place in 1959.

While the Fiji Indian troops had the Europeans as their commanding and non-commissioned officers, the Native Fijians had Ratu Edward Cakobau, a Native Fijian, as their commanding officer. Prior to World War II, soldiers served voluntarily and were paid "capitation grants" according to efficiency ratings without regard to race. In 1939, during the mobilisation of the Fiji Defence Force, the British Royal Military changed its payment system to four shillings per day for enlisted men of European descent while enlisted men of non-European descent were paid only two shillings per day. Indian platoon readily disputed this disparity in pay. The British, fearing this dissidence would eventually be shared by the Native Fijians, decided to disband the Indian platoon in 1940 citing lack of available equipment, such as military armour, as their reason.

The name debate

Indians are defined by the constitution of Fiji as anybody who can trace, through either the male or the female line, their ancestry back to anywhere on the Indian subcontinent and all government documents use this name. However, a number of names have been proposed to distinguish Fiji-born citizens of Indian origin both from the indigenous inhabitants of Fiji and from India-born immigrants. Among the more popular proposals are Fiji Indian and Indo-Fijian. These labels have proved culturally and politically controversial, and finding a label of identification for the Indian community in Fiji has fuelled a debate that has continued for many decades. Other proposed names have been Fiji Indian and Fiji Born Indian.

Fiji Indians versus indigenous Fijians

In the late 1960s the leader of the National Federation Party, A. D. Patel, who used the slogan, "One Country, One People, One Destiny" suggested that all Fiji's citizens should be called Fijians and to distinguish the original inhabitants from the rest, the name Fijians should be used for native Fijians. There was widespread opposition to this from the native Fijians who feared that any such move would deprive them of the special privileges they had enjoyed since cession in 1874. The Fiji Times started using Fiji Islander to describe all Fiji's citizens but this name did not catch on.

The United States Department of State gives the nationality of Fiji citizens as "Fiji Islander" and states that "the term "Fijian" has exclusively ethnic connotations and should not be used to describe any thing or person not of indigenous Fijian descent."[15]

As the labels carry emotional and (according to some) politically loaded connotations, they are listed below in alphabetical order.

Fiji Indian

For a long time Fiji Indian was used to distinguish between Fiji citizens of Indian origin and Indians from India. The term was used by writers like K.L. Gillion and by the academic and politician, Ahmed Ali. The late President of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, also used this term in his speeches and writings. The term was also used by the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma, Fiji's largest Christian denomination, which had a Fiji-Indian division.


This term has been used by such writers as Adrian Mayer and Brij Lal. Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, Fiji's Vice-President from 2004 to 2006, also used it in his speeches.

In 2006, Jone Navakamocea, Minister of State for National Planning in the Qarase government, called for the use of the term "Indo-Fijian" to be officially banned. He declared that the term was "unacceptable", and that Indo-Fijians should be referred to only as "Indians". The Hindustan Times reported Navakamocea had "alleged that the Indo-Fijian term was coined by Indian academics in Fiji to 'Fijianise' their Indian ethnicity", which, in Navakamocea's view, undermined the paramountcy of indigenous rights.[16] Navakamocea lost office in the 2006 military coup when the army accused the Qarase government of anti-Fijian Indian racism and overthrew it.

Political participation: early 20th century

The colonial rulers attempted to assuage Indian discontent by providing for one of their number to be nominated to the Legislative Council from 1916 onwards. Badri Maharaj, a strong supporter of the British Empire but with little support among his own people, was appointed by the Governor in 1916. His appointment did little to redress the grievances of the Indian community. Buttressed by the Indian Imperial Association founded by Manilal Maganlal, a lawyer who had arrived in Fiji in 1912, the Indians continued to campaign for better work and living conditions, and for an extension of the municipal franchise; literacy tests disqualified most Indians from participation. A strike by Indian municipal workers and Public Works Department employees, which began on 15 January 1920, ended in a riot which was forcibly quelled on 12 February; Manilal, widely blamed for the unrest, was deported. Another strike, from January to July in 1921, led by Sadhu (priest) Vashist Muni, demanded higher rates of pay for workers of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), the unconditional return of Manilal, and the release of imprisoned 1920 strikers. The authorities responded by deporting Muni from Fiji.

Demands increased for direct representation in the legislature. In 1929, Indian immigrants and their descendants were authorised to elect three members to the Legislative Council on a communal roll. Vishnu Deo, James Ramchandar and Parmanand Singh were duly elected. Agitation continued for a common roll, which the colonial administrators rejected, citing the fears of European settlers and Fijian chiefs that a common electoral roll would lead to political domination by Indians, whose numbers were rapidly increasing.

Religious and social divisions: 1920–1945

Two major Hindu movements attracted widespread support in the 1920s, and relationships between Hindus and Muslims also became increasingly strained.

The Sri Siva Subramaniya temple, a South-Indian type temple in the Indo-Fijian town of Nadi.

The Arya Samaj in Fiji advocated purging Hinduism of what it saw as its superstitious elements and expensive rituals, opposed child marriage, and advocated the remarriage of widows, which orthodox Hinduism didn't promote at that time. The Arya Samaj also encouraged education for girls, which wasn't the norm at the time. The Arya Samaj began by establishing schools and by using a newspaper of one of its supporters, the Fiji Samachar founded in 1923, to expound their views.

The traditional Sanatan Dharma, was more orthodox than the Hindu-reformist Arya Samaj. It affirmed traditional Hindu rituals and prayers. However, Fijian Indians who practice Sanatana Dharma also do not have child marriages, as it is unheard of until the youths reach maturity age or level.

Developments since 1945

Saris on sale in Lautoka, Viti Levu.

A post-war effort by European members of the Legislative Council to repatriate ethnic Indians to India, starting with sixteen-year-old males and fourteen-year-old females, was not successful, but reflected the tensions between Fiji's ethnic communities.

Differences between ethnic Fijians and Indians complicated preparations for Fiji independence, which the United Kingdom granted in 1970, and have continued to define Fiji politics since. Prior to independence, Indians sought a common electoral roll, based on the principle of "one man, one vote." Ethnic Fijian leaders opposed this, believing that it would favour urban voters who were mostly Indian; they sought a communal franchise instead, with different ethnic groups voting on separate electoral rolls. At a specially convened conference in London in April 1970, a compromise was worked out, under which parliamentary seats would be allocated by ethnicity, with ethnic Fijians and Indians represented equally. In the House of Representatives, each ethnic group was allocated 22 seats, with 12 representing Communal constituencies (elected by voters registered as members of their particular ethnic group) and a further 10 representing National constituencies (distributed by ethnicity but elected by universal suffrage. A further 8 seats were reserved for ethnic minorities, 3 from "communal" and 5 from "national" constituencies.

In 1987, shortly after a coalition government was formed that represented both communities, two military coups were staged by low-ranking Fijian officers that aimed at sidelining the Indian community in politics.[17]

Ethnic Indians outnumbered indigenous Fijians from 1956 through the late 1980s. This was due to the death of 1/3 of the indigenous population, mainly male and children, that died from smallpox contracted when King Cakobau and other chief leaders returned from a trip from Australia during which they caught smallpox. The percentage of Indigenous female population increased as a result, and the native male population was scarce at one stage,[18] but by 2000 their share of the population had declined to 43.7%, because of a higher ethnic-Fijian birthrate and particularly because of the greater tendency of Fijian Indians to emigrate. Emigration accelerated following the coups of 1987 (which removed an Indian-supported government from power and, for a time, ushered in a constitution that discriminated against them in numerous ways) and of 2000 (which removed an Indian Prime Minister from office).

Political differences between the two communities, rather than ideological differences, have characterised Fijian politics since independence, with the two communities generally voting for different political parties. The National Federation Party founded by A.D. Patel, was the party favoured overwhelmingly by the Indian community throughout most of the nation's history, but its support collapsed in the parliamentary election of 1999, when it lost all of its seats in the House of Representatives; its support fell further still in the 2001 election, when it received only 22% of the Indian vote, and in the 2006 election, when it dropped to an all-time low of 14%. The party currently favoured by Indians is the Fiji Labour Party, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, which received about 75% of the Indian vote in 2001, and won all 19 seats reserved for Indians. Originally founded as a multi-racial party in the 1980s, it is now supported mostly by Indians.

Impact of the Church and religious/ethnic politics

The Church plays a major role in Fiji politics.[19] Often some leaders appeal to Fijians addressing them as "Christians", even though Hindus are 33% of the population in Fiji, compared with 52% Christians.[20] The 2000 Fijian coup d'état that removed the elected PM Mahendra Chaudhry, was supported by the Methodist church.[21]

Some Methodist Church authorities have continued to advocate the establishment of a Christian state. In a letter of support from the then head of the Methodist Church, Reverend Tomasi Kanilagi, to George Speight, the leader of 19 May 2000, armed takeover of Parliament, Reverend Kanilagi publicly expressed his intention to use the Methodist Church as a forum under which to unite all ethnic Fiji political parties.[22] The Methodist church also supported forgiveness to those who plotted the coup in form of so-called "Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill".

In 2005, Methodist church general secretary Reverend Ame Tugaue argued that practice of Hinduism and other religions should not be guaranteed in law:

"Sodom and Gomorrah were only destroyed after the Lord removed the faithful from there and not because of a few would we allow God's wrath to befall the whole of Fiji. It was clearly stated in the 10 Commandments that God gave to Moses that Christians were not allowed to worship any other gods and not to worship idols. One thing other religions should be thankful for is that they are tolerated in Fiji as it's naturally a peaceful place but their right of worship should never be made into law."[23]

Following the military coupin Fiji, which deposed the government of Laisenia Qarase (which Indians claimed as unsympathetic to Indian interests), Reverend Tuikilakila Waqairatu of the Fiji Council of Churches and Assembly of Christian Churches has stated that the coup is "un-Christian" and is "manifestation of darkness and evil". He claimed that "52% of Fijians are Christian and the country's Christian values are being undermined."[24]

Demographic factors

Indo Fijians are concentrated in the so-called Sugar Belt and in cities and towns on the northern and western coasts of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu; their numbers are much scarcer in the south and inland areas. The majority of Fijian Indians converse in what is known as the Fiji Hindi language that has been coined from the eastern Hindi dialects mixed with native Fijian and English words,[25] with some minorities speaking Gujarati, and Punjabi, among others. Some people still speak Tamil as their mother tongue with less fluency.[26] Almost all Indians are also fluent in English.

According to the 1996 census (the latest available), 76.7% of Indians are Hindus and a further 15.9% are Muslims. Christians comprise 6.1% of the Indian population, while about 0.9% are members of the Sikh faith. The remaining 0.4% are mostly nonreligious.

Hindus in Fiji belong mostly to the Sanātana Dharma sect (74.3% of all Hindus); a minority (3.7%) follow Arya Samaj. Smaller groups, including The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and numerous unspecified Hindu sects, comprise 22% of the Hindu population. Muslims are mostly Sunni (59.7%) or unspecified (36.7%); there is an Ahmadiya minority (3.6%). Indian Christians are a diverse body, with Methodists forming the largest group (26.2%), followed by the Assemblies of God (22.3%), Roman Catholics (17%), and Anglicans (5.8%). The remaining 28.7% belong to a medley of denominations. There is an Indian Division of the Methodist Church in Fiji. About 5000 Indians are Methodist.[27] They are part of the Methodist Church in Fiji and support the position of the Methodist Church in Fiji,[28] rather than the rights of Indians.


Former Prime Minister Chaudhry has expressed alarm at the high rate of emigration from Fiji, especially of Fiji-Indians, and also of educated indigenous Fijians. "If the trend continues, Fiji will be left with a large pool of poorly educated, unskilled work force with disastrous consequences on our social and economic infrastructure and levels of investment," he said on 19 June 2005. He blamed the coups of 1987 for "brain drain" which has, he said, adversely affected the sugar industry, the standard of the education and health services, and the efficiency of the civil service.

Health issues

Fiji Indians face major obstacles when it comes to health. They are often cited in research articles as a group that has a higher than normal prevalence rate of Type 2 diabetes.[29]

List of notable Indo-Fijians

See also


  1. Fiji Islands Bureau of Statistics
  2. – Australia: Stock of foreign-born population by country of birth, various years, 1991 to 2006
  3. QuickStats About Culture and Identity
  4. People born in Fiji
  5. Migration facts, stats and maps
  6. Population by Religion and by Race
  7. Girmit by Suresh Prasad
  8. "Fiji population up 50,000 in 10 yrs". Fijilive. 31 October 2007. Retrieved 4 November 2007.
  9. Davidson, J.W. (1975). Peter Dillon of Vanikoro: Chevalier of the South Seas. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-19-550457-7.
  10. Gillion, K. L. (1962). Fiji's Indian Migrants: A history to the end of indenture in 1920. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-19-550452-6.
  11. Gillion, K. L. (1962). Fiji's Indian Migrants: A history to the end of indenture in 1920. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. pp. 68–69. ISBN 0-19-550452-6.
  12. Girmit by Suresh Prasad
  13. Girmit by Suresh Prasad
  14. Gillion, K. L. (1962). Fiji's Indian Migrants: A history to the end of indenture in 1920. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. pp. 130–131. ISBN 0-19-550452-6.
  15. US Department of State
  16. "Ban the term Indo-Fijian: Minister", Hindustan Times, 5 August 2006
  17. Victor Lal, "The Fiji Indians: Marooned at Home," in South Asians Overseas: Migration and Ethnicity Cambridge University Press, 2010
  18. Biotechnology for beginners By Reinhard Renneberg, Arnold L. Demain
  19. Let us pray, churches say, Fiji Times Online, 29 November 2006
  20. Background Note: Fiji, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, September 2006, U.S. Department of State
  21. Fiji military dismisses GCC and Methodist support for reconciliation bill, Radio New Zealand International, 25 August 2005
  22. International Religious Freedom Report 2003, Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State
  23., extract from Fiji Times, 27 March 2005
  24. Fiji military monitoring the media, Radio New Zealand, 6 December 2006
  25. Moag, Rodney F. (1977). Fiji Hindi: A basic course and reference grammar. Canberra: Australian National University. ISBN 0-7081-1574-8.
  26. Languages of fiji.pdf, Sangam conventional Magazine, 2003
  27. Methodist Church In Britain
  28. Pray, Indian Methodists urge – Fiji Times Online
  29. Ethnicity, Type 2 Diabetes and Migrant Asian Indians, Indian Journal of Medical Research, 6 March 2007

External links

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