The name Sitiveni Rabuka means nothing to Indians even though he singlehandedly snatched power from 6,00,000 people of Indian origin in Fiji after they had won the 1987 election on a multicultural platform. This was anathema to the Melanesian-Fijian chiefly order who owned all the lands, something the offspring of Indian indentured labour could never even dream of.
Today Rabuka, on his third spell as Prime Minister, is a household name. But in 1987 when I turned up to cover the military coup led by him, searching for him was like looking for the Yeti.
What had happened was this. After the first ship bringing Indian labourers to Fiji under the indenture system in the 19th century, clearly devised to circumvent the abolition of slaves in 1833, the Indian population just grew and grew. There was plenty of work on the sugar plantations and plenty of Ngona, Fijian bhang, to relax on.
The imperial centre of authority began to decolonise — but not if colonies rejected freedom. Fiji refused to accept independence in the 1960s: “Please let us be with you,” the chiefly order implored the Queen.
Willy-nilly, in 1970, Fiji was free, creating space for the six lakh people of Indian origin to dream of elections. Finally in 1987, the occasion found the man — Timoci Bavadra, a Fijian medical doctor, gave Indians equal participation in the Labour Party he founded. Mahendra Chaudhry and Dr Satendra Nandan were others in the vanguard.
Then the historic Cabinet was announced — eight ministers of Indian origin and eight local, Melanesian Fijians. Just when the island was celebrating multiculturism for the first time in history, came the rumbling of armoured carriers. Parliament House was pulverised. Slowly, hotels were filled with journalists from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the usual Western news centres. Even though the entire story was about disenfranchising Indians, not a solitary Indian journalist showed up.
Silly of me to have hoped that Indian journalists would show up. They never do. It is an article of faith with Indian journalists that they never will see world events with their own eyes.
Ever since power came into the hands of TV channels, things have become much worse. Each one of the channels has an arrangement with CNN, Reuters, BBC, Fox News and so on. Indian channels cover Indian news while the international channels dole out footage on major events like the Ukraine war at its peak. Well before the takeover of NDTV by Adani, the channel with inexplicable obsequiousness, telecast a weekly, prime time programme by BBC. “Atmnirbhar” (self sufficient), did someone say?
As I said, if six lakh people of Indian origin were to be disenfranchised overnight, it is unlikely the news would make a splash. Remember 1987 was about five years away from the channels explosion. Against this backdrop, for me to exert every muscle to interview the coup leader, Rabuka, made little sense. But then some of us are habitual journalists, competing against ourselves for stories.
My meeting with Rabuka took shape quite accidentally after my meeting with the governor general, Ratu Penaiya, a man so tall that his shank muscles looked the size of Mughal columns. I have always wondered why cricket was never introduced in the most “loyal” of British colonies. In Fiji, Joel Garner would be counted among players of moderate height. If a Melanesian fast bowler, 7+ in height, delivered the hard cricket ball from the height of a minaret, injury to any batsman would be fatal. I suspect that is why the British discouraged the native Fijians from cricket. Instead, they were encouraged to play rugby.
The Rabuka interview was manufactured on the way out of the governor general’s mansion. I was being escorted by one of Ratu Penaiya’s staff, wearing kilts like a Scottish highlander. When I turned to him for the phone number of Rabuka’s staff, he somehow thought that I had the clearance from CG to obtain the top secret number. To secure the interview, I made a call from the CG’s office. In the chiefly system this would be persuasive.
In the context of times, the interview revealed a great deal. It was elementary that a system controlled by Melanesian chiefs who owned all the lands, would never accept an Indian parity, leave alone Indian preponderance in the power structure. Yes, Rabuka said it in so many words. There was no guile or diplomacy about everything else he revealed.
In the Cold War, ANZUS, a defence arrangement involving US, Australia and New Zealand, was crucial. Fiji was too strategically important to be “sub contracted to Indians.”
Fiji’s geopolitics today is conditioned by different players.
In 1987, the Cold War was with the Soviet Union. Today Rabuka sees himself as a bulwark against ever increasing Chinese investments. For instance, one Chinese company owns the goldmines. Another is well on its way to monopolising bauxite. Chinese concessional loans are responsible for new roads and bridges, poking Australia in the eye, Quad or no Quad.
In 1987, the audio cassette containing the interview was priceless for Australia and New Zealand. I can never forget the eager face of Graeme Waters, New Zealand high commissioner in New Delhi, imploring me for a copy of the interview. The Australians were chasing me through their high commission in New Delhi. Sonia Shand was the political secretary most interested in what Rabuka said.
I thought I would share it with my Indian friends first. It turned out, that none of them were interested in the affairs of a remote island in the Pacific. But six lakh people of Indian origin? The Indian population now has shrunk to 3,50,000. These were progeny of Indian indentured labour, two generations removed. The diaspora in the US would be another kettle of fish. How can you compare, silly — isn’t the US the land of milk and honey where we like to park all our offspring and ourselves?...