Socio-political life in the post-colonial state that is the Fiji Islands has often been imaged in the media--indeed, in light of the recent political crises, ever more pointedly so--as marked by tensions and divisions between (and within) the ethnic groups living there. Yet it is possible to see tensions and divisions as processes and politics of (partial) dis-connections and (new) connections, provided, that is, the focus is put systematically on relations. Thus the contributions to this volume, which build on a long series of prior studies of Fiji by the social sciences, address a broad spectrum of relations, turning the spotlight especially on the cultural modalities that are instrumental in shaping these. Relations between ethnic groups do not flow from a '"natural" order of things' (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:59f.). Rather they are to be seen, as is also the case with other kinds of relations--for instance, between the members of a society, between people and their resources (material and immaterial), cultural traditions or global discourses--as the product of a historically constituted 'cultural order of things'.
We therefore operate on the assumption that social actors in Fiji do not just passively accept extant relations, but that, guided by their interests, they actively work on these thereby pursuing cultural and political strategies. (1) Correspondingly, we place our emphasis on how people, as cultural actors, thematicise, reflect on and utilise relations. We argue that transformations, positionings and articulations, in respect of how relations are handled, have a two-fold relevance: on one side, actors (individual and collective) move within relations that are already transformed, positioned and articulated; on the other, actors themselves actively articulate, transform and position these relations in order to shape their identity and place in Fiji. Yet in neither case can any fixed order of precedence be noted in these transformations, positionings and articulations. Rather these processes stand in a wechselwirkung (dialectic) of mutually interlocking dynamisms. If, then, in these introductory words we approach the topic of this volume via articulations leading us to transformations and positionings, this is only one of several accessways we could have chosen.
The most important relations to detain us in this volume are, first, relations between past and present; second, relations between people and land; third, relations between people. Based on recent anthropological research, the authors of these essays analyse how aspects of these relations are culturally articulated among the two largest groups living in Fiji, the autochthonous Fijians (2) and the Fiji Indians, (3) as well as among one of the country's ethnic minorities, the Fiji Banabans.
Many of the preconditions for the ethnic positionings and politico-economic power relations in contemporary Fiji were created during the era of British colonial rule (cf. e.g. Jolly 1992a; Kaplan 1988, 2004; Kelly 1988; Kelly and Kaplan 2001; Norton 1993:746-747, 2002; Rutz 1995). After the islands became a British colony in 1874, the agents of the colonial power proceeded according to the maxim of civilising the Fijians, while preserving, as best they could, many of the traditional structures of the local people. In this connection, three historical matters were of particular importance. The British colonial administration, with its system of indirect rule, harnessed the hierarchical structures of Fijian society to colonial interests, thus legitimising the authority and power of a Fijian elite which until now dominates the country and its political institutions. In order to protect Fijians generally from expropriation and impoverishment, a large part of the country was listed as inalienable, communal property, so that until recently some 83% of the land was in the hands of local descent groups (see France 1969; Lal 1992:28-33,97-102,224-227; Ward 1995). (4) One of the stipulations of the protectionist policies the colonists practised was that Fijian labour was not to be exploited; therefore, the British between 1879 and 1916 imported Indian indentured labourers to work in the sugar cane plantations. Although the descendants of these migrant workers from the Subcontinent, who by 1946 had become one of the largest ethnic groups in Fiji, (5) have contributed in no small way to building up the country, they have been repeatedly denied their due participation in the exercise of political power--first by the colonial administration and later by its Fijian counterpart.
Relations between ethnic Fijians (we will call them Fijians for short) and Fiji Indians (or, Indo-Fijians) are predicated on oppositional identity constructions, these having been constituted and consolidated by colonial discourses and practices harking back to British times (see Kaplan 1988, 2004; Kelly and Kaplan 1999). Thus, the Fijian population came to identify with a code of morals and conduct stressing communality, collective ownership of land, the authority of the chiefs, and being part of the Christian fold. (6) This Fijian self-image has found itself up against an ethos of individualism vested in a heterogeneously constituted group of Indo-Fijians, who uphold their own religious traditions and seem the very personification of capitalist striving. During the colonial era, the Fijians sought by aligning themselves closely with the British to ensure that the demographic, economic and political dynamism of the Indo-Fijians did not undercut the traditional foundations of their own lifestyle and paramountcy. The colonial power, in turn, supported the Fijians in their power claims, British favouritism being linked to a policy of discrediting the emancipatory and anti-colonial forces presumed to be at work among the Indo-Fijians. Finally, in the constitution-building process, the British gave independence to Fiji at the price of enshrining into law privileged political status for the Fijians, particularly their chiefs (see Kelly and Kaplan 2001:150; also Lal 1992:195-213; cf. Norton 2002). (7)
This ethnically based power hierarchy (under the hegemonic control of chiefs from the eastern regions of Fiji) first had its foundations rocked when the coalition between the National Federation Party (a primarily Indo-Fijian party) and the relatively young Fiji Labour party won the election of 1987 and named the Labour party leader Dr. Timoci Bavadra, a nonchiefly Fijian from western Viti Levu as the new prime minister. But this democratically elected government was deposed a few weeks later by two military coups carded out by the Fijian Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Claiming his hand was forced because the Indo-Fijian-dominated coalition government was threatening the political interests of the Fijians, he restored to power the principals of the former Alliance party government led by Ratu Mara (Kaplan 1993:35,47-48; Lal 1992:258-315; cf. Norton 2000:84-85,109). Although the political crisis of 1987 pointed up also socio-economic divisions (8) and political rivalries within Fijian society, it was the tensions in inter-ethnic relations that were emphasised in popular debate at the time. In particular, hostile statements and other excesses by militant Fijian ethno-nationalists against the Indo-Fijian segment of the population deepened the rift between the two principal ethnic groups. It is therefore hardly surprising, as the implications of these events sank in, that a considerable number of Indo-Fijians decided to turn their backs on the country, to get out while the going was good (see Lal 2000:283).
Under the constitution of 1990, amended to shore up power in the hands of Fijians, the former coup leader, Rabuka, rose to become prime minister several years later in the first democratic election of the post-coup era. Under local and international pressure, he consented to another constitutional reform, one seeking to do greater justice to Fiji's multi-ethnic realities (Norton 2000:89-91; cf. Lal 2001). Soon after the amended constitution of 1997 took effect, in the elections of 1999 the Fiji Labour Party won an absolute majority; it then formed, with Fijian-dominated parties, a coalition government and named its Indo-Fijian chairman, Mahendra Chaudhry, to take over as prime minister. A civilian coup in May 2000, led by the businessman George Speight and orchestrated to great media effect, with governmental ministers being held hostage in Parliament House in Suva, Fiji's capital, brought this coalition government to a violent end. Although the coup leaders employed rhetoric emphasising ethnic conflict between autochthonous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, what chiefly marked the months of political crisis that followed were colliding interests in how Fijians related to each other; at the same time, Indo-Fijians were exposed to massive animosity and often came under attack--on a scale far exceeding, in terms of violence and destruction, anything seen at the time of the earlier coup in 1987 (see Lal 2000; Kaplan 2004; Kelly and Kaplan 2001:chapter 6; the contributions in Lal and Pretes 2001; Robertson and Sutherland 2001; Trnka 2002). (9) Free parliamentary elections brought forward to August 2001 finally gave the country yet another Fijian-dominated government, this time under the Fijian prime minister Laisenia Qarase. The Great Council of Chiefs--originally set up by the colonial British authorities and long one of the country's most influential political institutions--publicly apologised in mid-May 2004 to all Indo-Fijians for the wrongs perpetrated during the coups 1987 and 2000. (10)
Antithetical identity constructions, unequal power-sharing, ethnic confrontation, but also instances of co-operation between Fijians and Indo-Fijians, have, beyond all doubt, shaped Fiji's political history ever since colonial times. And yet, in this connection three important points should not be overlooked. First, despite the fact that Fijians officially make up about 54% of the population and together with the Indo-Fijians, who make up about 38% (their numbers …