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“Politicians, vulagi and the English rose” (ed. in FT 27/7/2019)


Politicians, vulagi and the rose (FT 27/7/2019)

A sweet smelling Fijian frangipani, with her nose in the air, contemptuously told the introduced English rose: you are just a vulagi. The English rose quietly replied “a rose by any other name smells just the same” and continued to bloom, with her fragrance being enjoyed by all, just as they enjoyed the frangipani fragrance.

But last week in Fiji, a political furore (and furor) reignited once more over the use of the vulagi term by the former President of SODELPA, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, although his statement, as reported by the FBC was broader:

“Former SODELPA Party President Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu has labelled the National Federation Party and the Fiji Labour Party as the vulagi party that maintains its consistency over the years…. while I-taukei dominated party continues to change… Naiqama has challenged SODELPA Members to be consistent and for the party to remain for the coming years.”

[Students of English might wish to investigate the interesting and strange difference between the British (“furore”) and US/Canadian use of the word “furor”. I suspect that both meanings may be at work here].

Now why would commentators, both political (NFP and FLP) and academic (Dr. Nawi Raquita, Dr. Ganesh Chand) focus on Naiqama’s use of the term “vulagi” while ignoring the rest of his strange complaint that political parties dominated by indigenous Fijians continued to change while “vulagi” parties allegedly remained consistent.

Strangely, Ratu Naiqama was pleading with indigenous Fijian voters to remain true to  SODELPA, when historians know all too well, that it is the indigenous Fijian parties and politicians, including Ratu Naiqama, who have kept changing over the decades, like “chameleons” said Dr. Nawi Raquita (“Moving the taukei-vulagi debate”,  FT 13/7/2019).

Before I address the furore over the word “vulagi”, let us first note that some of the changes or “rebranding” of indigenous Fijian political parties have not just been cosmetic.

Political parties “rebranding”

Organizations the world over “rebrand” themselves, sometimes because of real changes in organization focus but sometimes purely as cosmetic PR exercises to satisfy the egos of CEOs and boards who wish to portray the image that they are doing “something new”. Fiji has seen both kinds (can you list them?).

Similarly, indigenous Fijian political parties have also gone through many name changes, some cosmetic (like “chameleons”), but some implying a real rebranding.

The Alliance Party of Ratu Mara, even though it represented the bulk of indigenous Fijian voters, did have explicit Fijian, Indian and General arms and was clearly intended to be multiracial.

But following the 1987 coup which removed an allegedly Indo-Fijian government, Rabuka’s Soqosoqo Vakavulewa ni Taukei (SVT) was clearly designed to focus purely on the needs of indigenous Fijian voters, as even the name indicated.

But when the SVT, following the 2000 coup, gave way to the newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), it still retained its ethnonationalist focus on indigenous Fijians, even if it excluded the core Rabuka group.

Then following the 2006 coup and the banning by the Bainimarama Government of “ethnic” names, SDL clearly did another cosmetic morphing into Social Democratic Liberal Party, with party wags noting that the SODELPA still included the initials “SDL”.

Along the way, whenever minor groups of indigenous Fijian voters and their leaders felt that the “Big Party” did not represent their interests adequately, they created others parties: such as Butadroka’s Fijian Nationalist Party,  PANU, Conservative Alliance-Matanitu Party, Fijian Association Party,  etc. Again, these were not cosmetic changes but reflected real differences of voter priorities on the ground,

But while Ratu Naiqama was correct in pointing out that the parties representing indigenous Fijians have been changing, he was wrong to allege that the “vulagi” parties (which I interpret him to mean those supported by Indo-Fijians) have not been changing.

Changing Indo-Fijian parties

Of course, the National Federation Party has not been “changing” in any substantial way in terms of its principles and objectives which have always included a belief in multiracialism. That was often demonstrated, as pointed out by Professor Biman Prasad, by NFP having many indigenous Fijians (including Ratu Naiqama’s own father) in prominent leadership positions  even if the voter support used to be largely Indo-Fijian.

But despite NFP faithfully serving Indo-Fijians for more than fifty years, Indo-Fijian voters deserted the NFP in droves to vote for the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) in the 1999, 2001 and 2006 Elections.

FLP still with largely Indo-Fijian voter support, was also avowedly multiracial with prominent indigenous Fijians in leadership positions.

But then, in the 2014 Elections, Indo-Fijian voters rejected both the FLP and the NFP and stampeded to Bainimarama’s Fiji First Party which managed to obtain more than 80 percent of Indo-Fijian votes, as well as around 40% of indigenous Fijian voters and the clear support of the military.

The voters moved not because NFP and FLP had changed but because very canny Indo-Fijian voters knew where their bread is buttered or more accurately, which party could put butter on their bread or ghee on their roti.

Along the way, small groups of Indo-Fijian voters also supported the New Labour Unity Party and People’s Democratic Party, as well as some forgettable smaller ones.

These Indo-Fijian voters are no different from large numbers of indigenous Fijian voters who also will support which ever party can deliver the goods to them, Alliance, SVT, SDL, SODELPA or FFP.

But why call one party vulagi and not another party, and why should anyone take offence?

Victims’ response to “vulagi

While a frangipani calling a rose vulagi can have no consequence on the well-being of the rose (which will continue to bloom), the harsh historical reality in Fiji has been that those labelled by ethnonationalists as vulagi have physically and mentally suffered as a consequence.

During the coups of 1987 and 2000, Indo-Fijian homes were burnt and ordinary decent law-abiding Indo-Fijians physically attacked by thugs who were being manipulated by ethno-nationalist Fijian politicians using the chant of “vulagi out”.

Indo-Fijian political leaders like Chaudhry and Jai Ram Reddy were removed from government by Rabuka’s 1987 coup; and Chaudhry was held hostage by thugs during the 2000 coup and not returned to government when the military eventually took control.

NFP Leader Professor Prasad not too long ago was taunted by a political leader that he would be running into the cane fields if it were not for the protection and racial equality policies of the Bainimarama Government.

Yet NFP has always been and is today even more a multi-racial political party than before, with both a strong indigenous Fijian voter base as well as representation in Parliament.

It is to be expected therefore that Indo-Fijian political leaders like NFP’s Professor Biman Prasad,  FLP’s Mahendra Chaudry and even FFP’s Rosy Akbar should passionately object to indigenous Fijian politicians calling them “vulagi”, to them a threatening term  and not purely a neutral Fijian cultural concept.

Not surprising given his acute awareness of Indo-Fijian sentiments, Prime Minister Bainimarama also condemned Ratu Naiqama for his use of the term vulagi, as also did many progressive indigenous Fijians of all political persuasions.

So while I have great respect for Ro Temumu Kepa who personally showed great courage in facing up to physical intimidation from Fiji’s “security forces” after the 2006 coup, she was somewhat unfair in chiding those who she thought did not understand the deep cultural significance of the Fijian term “vulagi, despite being in Fiji for more than a hundred years.

Academics, linguists,  and vulagi

Dr. Rakuita argues in his FT article that Ratu Naiqama should not be condemned for using the term vulagi to describe the parties that were “in the main backed by non-itaukei population in Fiji”; that he would have been equally condemned if he had used other terms like “Indian” or “Indo-Fijian”; and that the public should just look at the “character and the integrity” of the person uttering the term.

But I suggest that “character and the integrity” of the speaker, while important, are not enough, and that the political message of the speaker is just as important.

Ratu Naiqama’s use of the concepts of vanua and vulagi was clearly intended to appeal on an ethnic basis to indigenous Fijian voters to remain true to SODELPA to serve their interests, with the implicit message that NFP and FLP were serving the interests of the vulagi only.

Interestingly, Dr. Raquita did not ask why Ratu Naiqama did not refer to Fiji First Party as a vulagi party, even though more than fifty percent of FFP supporters are now Indo-Fijians.

While I can agree with Dr. Raquita’s conclusion that we should not try to “demonize an indigenous Fijian term that still serves a useful function in all Fijian vanua”, equally and sadly, that cultural term can be and is also used by racist politicians as a harmful political tool, even if Ratu Naiqama did not intend that.

Unfortunately also, Dr. Rakuita’s article did not bring out the enormous range of subtleties of the term, within Fijian society.

Fijian vulagi and itaukei

Expert Fijian linguist Paul Geraghty is of the view  (email communication to me) that the term vulagi is capable of many subtle interpretations within Fijian society while there are many grey and complex areas especially when juxtaposed with the term “itaukei”.

Thus one indigenous Fijian may call an indigenous Fijian from the next village a “vulagi”; Tongans and Solomon Islanders who have settled in Fiji may be labelled as vulagi; while honoured visitors may also be referred to as vulagi. There is no derogatory sense associated with these usages.

Geraghty points out that while Tongans or Solomon Islanders or Indo-Fijians could be “technically referred to as vulagi, but they [could] function as itaukei.  by adopting the language and customs and (most importantly) carrying out the duties of the vanua and honouring the chief”.

Geraghty suggests that “What people don’t realise is that it’s a gradient – you can have vulagi itaukei and itaukei vulagi! And as someone pointed out in a letter to the FT, a newborn baby is called a ‘vulagi vou’ (new guest) so it’s hardly derogatory.”

So Dr. Ganesh Chand in his recent conference presentation may well have solid grounds for advising Indo-Fijians that they should just accept being called vulagi as in traditional Fijian usage.

But I suggest that even among itaukei themselves, the vulagi concept can be used as a political tool against perceived “outsiders” who may have settled recently among the local itaukei, such as from the outer islands to the mainland.

Some historians suggest that following the 2000 coup which removed Chaudhry’s government, there was “a coup within a coup” when Ratu Mara (a Lauan and brother-in-law of Ro Temumum Kepa) was pushed from his presidential office by itaukei forces from the “mainland”, with the military abysmally failing to protect his office. That sad and sorry story, including the the involvement of some very close to the late President himself, has yet to be definitively told to the Fiji public by historians.

I suspect that those who object to the term vulagi being applied to them (whether Indo-Fijian, European, kailoma, or Chinese) probably do so because of the implicit message that they are being branded as “outsiders” who “do not belong” to Fiji or are inferior in some sense to those doing the branding.

The future is vulagi

There is no doubt that there is great unease in the indigenous Fijian community when they see many leadership positions on boards, civil service etc. being occupied by not just vulagi but foreigners.  Are there no qualified local citizens, they justifiably ask?

But I suggest that it is high time that Fiji rebrands the term vulagi itself by emphasizing all that is good about vulagi.

For instance, no one disputes that the well-being of all Fiji residents, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, depends on the economic, social, cultural contributions of the hundreds of thousands of people who may be classified vulagi in Fijian cultural usage, and of course iTaukei.

There have been thousands of vulagi entrepreneurs and companies, big and small, like the Patels, Punjas, Solankis, Seetos, Khans, Yees, Halabes, Austens, Prasads, Reddys etc., offering employment and incomes to thousands of Fiji citizens, itaukei and vulagi alike, just as increasingly there are indigebous Fijian entrepreneurs like Dr. Mere Samisoni.

There are thousands of vulagi professionals like doctors, engineers, architects, lecturers, teachers, environmentalists, linguists etc. whose daily work, and that of itaukei professionals, makes life better for all in Fiji- including the itaukei.

[It has been a source of amusement to me that over the years, I have come across at least two vulagi who were the acknowledged experts on the Fijian (itaukei) language. Everyone today knows Paula Geraghty, but forty years ago there was also a Dr. Ross Renner, a  mathematics colleague of mine at USP, who also happened to be married to Fiji table tennis rep, Akisi Renner.  Quite a few prominent Fijians at the Union Club were not amused at being corrected in their use of the Fijian dialects by a kaivalagi– a relative of vulagi no doubt?].

Note of course that emigrating itaukei and Indo-Fijians also make life better for their adopted countries abroad, even if there, they can also be labelled as “vulagi” and told to “go back where you come from”.

(Note that this is today a popular refrain in Trump’s USA and Pauline Hanson’s Australia, although American Indians and Australian aboriginals would probably like to tell a much bigger group of vulagi (including Trump and Pauline Hanson) to go back where they came from).

As a FT letter writer pointed out, we are all vulagi on this planet.

While famous economist Lord John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long run, we are all dead”, in the meantime, we ought to heed the advice of some progressive Fiji commentators (Dr. Navi Raquita and Peter Knight) who plead with our citizens to look to the good commonalities between us all, while celebrating the positive differences that make Fiji such a beautiful multicultural society.

Surely, we can all appreciate the fragrance of Fijian frangipanis and vulagi roses, regardless of how long they have been in Fiji.

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