How a Malayali lawyer became one of Fiji’s independent 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 the praises of the Fijian archipelago, which was colonized by the British. Moving to Fiji was touted as a golden opportunity to escape poverty and deprivation in Malabar and start a new life. They were told about easy work and quick money in a beautiful tropical paradise. A few thousand Malabaris, mostly Muslims, agreed to settle in Fiji, where they would work under harsh conditions as indentured laborers on sugar cane plantations.

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

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

Koya was also actively involved in the Kisan Sangh, the first farmers’ union formed in Fiji. He briefly served as vice-president of the union in the late 1950s, but was expelled due to infighting. After leaving the union, Koya became one of the founding members of the Federation of Sugar Cane Growers, which was formed to ensure fair prices for products sold to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company.

Leader of the Opposition
The British remained in Fiji until October 1970, largely due to political wrangling between the Indo-Fijians and the iTaukei. With demographics favoring Indian-origin residents of Fiji, the iTaukei were a kind of independent Fiji with universal suffrage, where they would hold less political power than Indo-Fijians. At that time, ethnic Indians formed almost 50% of the population of the archipelago.

Koya was elected chairman of the National Federation Party, which primarily represented Indo-Fijian interests, 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 Fiji’s independence. The independence agreement and the drafting of the constitution involved heavy compromises by the Indo-Fijian community.

According to the accepted political formula, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara became Fiji’s first Prime Minister, while Koya became the Leader of the Opposition.

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

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 this time. Had the iTaukei not been given political and economic privilege, chances are they would have seized it and engaged 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.

WF Newton, a British researcher who lived in Fiji in 1970, had his pulse on the fate of the Indo-Fijian community. In an article in the March 1970 issue of the Australian Quarterly, Newton suggested that the Indian community was more eager to protect its economic interests than to have political power. “Indians form the business community in Fiji is thriving, but they know that the slightest hint of internal conflict would be to their disadvantage as it would kill the tourist trade and halt the flow of investment capital,” Newton wrote. “The Fijians, who have almost no interest in trading, know this too and it increases their bargaining power.”

The almost PM
Racial politics prevented Koya from becoming Prime Minister of Fiji in 1977, even though the National Federation Party won the election. If the rule of law was upheld in Fiji, Koya would have become the first person of all-Malayali descent to become a country’s head of government, but it wasn’t meant to be. At that time, some iTaukei politicians warned of mass violence if an Indian became prime minister.

Since independence, Indo-Fijian-dominated governments have come under regular attack in Fiji. The country’s first Indian-born prime minister, Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, was overthrown in a coup in 2000.

Koya remained active in Fijian politics until the mid-1980s. He died aged 68 in 1993. He is considered one of the founding fathers of an independent Fiji, a country that is still experiencing a strong racial divide.

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

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