It’s literally a journey across oceans, mixing diplomacy and friendship with history, culture and civilizational memories. Located thousands of miles away in the South Pacific Ocean, but kindred in spirit, Fiji, a string of 800-plus stunningly picturesque coral islands, is intimately linked with India by over 300,000 persons of Indian origin who have made this Pacific nation their home for over a century.
Kindling new fire in old ties
Call it the Pacific Bonding, if you like. The multi-hued ties between India and Fiji are set to get a new sparkle as Suva rolls out the red carpet for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 29. This will be the first prime ministerial visit from India to Fiji after Indira Gandhi visited the Pacific nation 33 years ago in 1981.
The timing of the visit is propitious as Mr Modi visits the island nation weeks after Fiji held multi-party elections, which was judged as largely free and fair by the international community. India has welcomed Fiji’s re-embrace of democracy and backed the election process by providing indelible ink and training. India also participated in the Multilateral Observer Group (MOG) for the Fiji elections as co-Chair (with Australia and Indonesia). The restoration of democracy after eight years of military rule and the promulgation of a new constitution that guarantees equality to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity have kindled new hopes about Fiji’s economic prospects and India has signalled its willingness to partner the island nation in its project of national renewal.
The warmth in India-Fiji ties under the new dispensation in Suva is palpable. Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama was among the first world leaders to felicitate Mr Modi after his party won the national elections in May 2014 with a clear margin, ending a quarter century of coalitions in the country. “I am confident that the true spirit of friendship and cooperation that provides the unbreakable bond between our two nations and its people will be further strengthened in the years ahead,” Bainimarama had said while inviting the Indian leader to visit Fiji at an early date. Ahead of his visit, Mr Modi has also struck an upbeat note, saying it will be a privilege to visit Fiji soon after this year’s elections in this Pacific island nation. “We also owe them a debt of gratitude for hosting our scientists on the island in support of our Mars mission,” he said. “We can build stronger economic cooperation and closer partnership in international and multilateral forums with our friends in Pacific Island.”
Against this backdrop of shared interests and a sense of renewed hope, Prime Minister Modi is set to have wide-ranging talks with his Fijian counterpart and underline India’s abiding commitment to development and resurgence of the archipelago nation. The talks will focus on scaling up developmental cooperation with Fiji and expanding engagement in areas such as health, education and capacity building. The two countries have identified IT, tourism and solar energy as key areas of future collaboration.
India has played a pivotal role in modernising the sugar factories in Fiji, and had extended $50.4 million Line of Credit in July 2005 for up-gradation of sugar mills in the island country. Besides sugar industry, tourism forms the anchorsheet of the economy of a country which is set to attract more globally-bound tourists with a new tagline: “Where Happiness Finds you.”
The visit will have a special emotive resonance for the vibrant community of Fijians of Indian origin, who act as bridge-builders between the two countries. India’s tryst with Fiji started when Indians were brought in as indentured labourers in 1879 to work in sugarcane plantations by the British in the island nation. Between 1879 and 1916 around 60,000 Indians were brought to Fiji. Called girmitiyas, after the name of the indenture agreement entitled girmit, the persons of Indian origin now comprise 37% of the 849,000 population (2009 estimates). The Fijians of Indian origin now permeate every sphere of life in Fiji and have enriched their adopted homeland with their multi-faceted talents. Be it business, politics, culture or entertainment, they have left their indelible stamp. Mahendra Pal Chaudhry has the unique distinction of becoming Fiji’s first Indian-origin Fijian prime minister after he won the elections in 1999. The community has integrated well with the Fijian way of life, but has retained vital cultural and spiritual bonds with the land their ancestors left behind decades ago.
Forging Pacific Partnership
India is also poised to launch a major diplomatic outreach to the Pacific community during Mr Modi’s visit to Fiji. In a first-ever summit with India, Prime Minister Modi is expected to meet the leaders of all 14 south Pacific island countries, which are achingly beautiful and boasts a unique culture and lifestyle. India has a special bonding with these Pacific countries as each of them has consistently supported New Delhi’s aspiration for a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council. Says Anil Wadhwa, secretary (east) in India’s external affairs ministry: “India and the Pacific Islands share similar challenges of climate change but also have great opportunities for cooperation in our development efforts. We have been participating in UN related bodies as well as in the Pacific region fora with the island states and we share a warm understanding. They look forward to our leadership role and support for policy, development assistance and capacity building.” The meeting is expected to address diplomacy deficit and culminate in an ambitious roadmap for acceleration of India’s ties with the Pacific island states, which have also attracted the attention of a neighbouring Asian giant.
Fittingly, Prime Minister Modi’s 10-day overseas trip that included big-ticket multilateral summits and dozens of bilateral meetings in Myanmar and Australia ends with Fiji and meetings with leaders of small but significant Pacific island nations that are set to loom large on India’s diplomatic agenda in days to come. With India’s proactive diplomacy forging and building up partnerships with nations, small and big, in pursuit of its development agenda and an inclusive world order, India’s Pacific bonding is set to cross new frontiers in days to come.
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story)
– This article was first published in www.mea.gov.in
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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