Column | How a Malayali lawyer became one of independent Fiji’s founding fathers

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In the early 1900s, agents from Madras came to northern Kerala in search of young men from the depressed classes of society. After finding them these agents sang praises of the Fijian archipelago, which was colonised by the British. Moving to Fiji was presented as a golden opportunity to escape from poverty and deprivation in the Malabar and start a new life. They were told of easy work and quick money in a beautiful tropical paradise. A few thousand Malabaris, mainly Muslims, agreed to move to Fiji, where they would work in tough conditions as indentured labourers in sugarcane plantations.

Sidiq Moidin Koya, better known as S M Koya, was a child of Malabari immigrants and a member of the first generation of Malayalis born in Fiji. By the time he was born (1924), the indentured labour system had already been discontinued, but those Indians who chose to not return to their country of birth, such as Koya’s father, faced immense financial hardships. Koya was forced to drop out of school after the sixth standard, but managed to get an education later and eventually became a law graduate from Tasmania.

Involvement in cultural & political organisations
Even after the end of the indentured labour system in Fiji, the colonial authorities continued to exploit both the indigenous peoples (iTaukei) and the Indo-Fijians. Armed with a knowledge of the legal system, Koya was seen as an asset by movements looking to bring about economic and political reforms. His exploits became well known from the 1940s when he became the founding vice-president of the then India Maunatul Islam Association of Fiji. The association, whose members are mostly Malayali Muslims, survives to this day and has been renamed the Maunatul Islam Association.

Koya was also actively involved with the Kisan Sangh, the first farmers’ union formed in Fiji. He briefly served as the vice-president of the union in the late 1950s, but was pushed out over internal squabbles. After leaving the union, Koya became one of the founding members of the Federation of Cane Growers, which was set up to ensure fair pricing for produce sold to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company.

Leader of the opposition
The British stayed in Fiji till October, 1970, thanks largely to political bickering between Indo-Fijians and the iTaukei. With demographics favouring the Indian-origin residents of Fiji, the iTaukei were vary of an independent Fiji with universal suffrage, where they would hold lesser political power than the Indo-Fijians. At that time, ethnic Indians formed almost 50 per cent of the population of the archipelago.

Koya was elected as the president of the National Federation Party, which primarily represented the interests of the Indo-Fijians, in 1969. He was able to break the political deadlock with the iTaukei chiefs. Under Koya’s leadership an agreement was reached between the two ethnic groups that paved the way for Fijian independence. The agreement for independence and the drafting of the constitution involved heavy compromises by the Indo-Fijian community.

Under the accepted political formula, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara became Fiji’s first prime minster, while Koya became the leader of the opposition.

“The smooth transition of Fiji from a British Colony to an independent nation in October 1970 was possible because of Mr Koya’s vision of national interest taking paramountcy over personal interests,” the Fiji Sun wrote in a 2010 article.

Koya’s opponents within the National Federation Party accused him of selling out Indian interests, but the position of the Indo-Fijian community was precarious at that time. If the iTaukei were not given political and economic privilege, there is every chance that they would have seized it and indulged in mass violence against the Indo-Fijians. In the 1960s, some of the right-wing fringe groups openly called for the expulsion of all Indians from Fiji.

W F Newton, a British researcher who lived in Fiji in 1970, had his pulse on the plight of the Indo-Fijian community. In an article for the March, 1970, issue of the Australian Quarterly, Newton suggested that the Indian community was keener on protecting its economic interests than having political power. “The Indians form the business community in Fiji are prospering, but they know that the slightest suspicion of internal strife would be to their disadvantage because it would kill the tourist trade and stop the flow of investment capital,” Newton wrote. “The Fijians, who have almost no stake in commerce, know this too and this increases their bargaining position.”

The almost PM
Racial politics prevented Koya from becoming the prime minister of Fiji in 1977, even though the National Federation Party won the elections. If the rule of law was upheld in Fiji, Koya would have become the first person of entirely Malayali origin to become the head of government of a country, but this was not meant to be. At that time, some iTaukei politicians warned of mass violence if an Indian became prime minister.

Since independence, governments dominated by Indo-Fijians have regularly come under attack in Fiji. The country’s first Indian-origin prime minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhry was ousted in a coup in 2000.

Koya remained active in Fijian politics until the mid-1980s. He passed away at the age of 68 in 1993. He is seen as one of the founding fathers of an independent Fiji, a country which still has a strong racial divide.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, primarily based in Mumbai)


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