Response to "Kerosene and Water", Fiji's Racisms

There are many discussions on the issues of race, ethnicity, and nationalism in Fiji. Many politicians, activists, and scholars are concerned about the cultural differences and social relations between the two demographically numerous ‘ethnic groups’ - the iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians. This is especially so because of the series of coup d’états (1987, 2000, 2006) which have occurred since Fiji’s independence in 1970.

We are now observing more discussions on these issues as the nation-state prepares for elections in September, 2014. Indeed, my own work is caught up into the discourse by seeking to (re)present perspectives and experiences from ‘Part Indian-Fijians’.  

The below is actually a response to an article (click here for article) by one of Fiji’s brilliant and ardent scholar Wadan Narsey:

On MIDA’s Hate Speech Announcement: 
"Kerosene and Water"

I uphold the positives of their “hate speech” statement. Whereas I am sure Ashwin Raj is conscious of the fact that claiming ‘hate speech’ tends to politicize issues more, it sends a clear message to the media and politicians to be careful about their words and (re)presentations.

As I had indicated in a previous discussion, I am surprised that the kerosene metaphor is becoming so popular to describe the cultural relations between 'Indians' and the iTaukei. On Friday, I had spoken to an iTaukei (native) taxi driver, asking for his opinions on the term Fijian being used for everyone. He then said: “Kerosene and water don’t mix”. “It’s an old person saying” he said. He expressed discontent for Bainimarama and says Bainimarama will lose. If he does not lose, he said, there will be another coup. I just listened…

At the time, I did not know that there had been a controversy over this metaphor. I realized this until later after I had seen a number of discussions about this issue on Facebook and the news.


The words deemed hate speech are translated by MIDA as follows:

“From the past experiences, this group of people, known in Tebara as the Vasu (referring to Indo-Fijians) will try to pacify you, and assuage you just to have their aspirations met. These people do not want you to lead them. They only want a constitution and other investment initiatives done. Let me warn you that the upcoming elections will be a tough one. Because even though we have lived together for a long time, we can’t mix water with kerosene.”

This is an important issue, if language and discourses, as I believe it is, are what shapes our perspectives on issues. Our notions and stereotypes of the Indian and Fijian are shaped by our interactive use of these forms of phrases and also by the hegemonic representations popularized by politicians, activists, and the media.

See in this light, the taxi’s driver common sense phrase is not simply ‘common sense’ thinking.  It is informed by ideological underpinnings. Remember the statement “Fiji for Fijians” in 1987.

On the issue of indignity: 

As a person who has been critical of colonial projects after studying history, I am also now critical of the indigenous movements.

The post-colonial perspective tends to say that what was before colonialism was better. There is nostalgia to reclaim rights and culture. However, these claims to ‘roots’ are also claims to ‘routes’.

Missing in this discussion is the need to reflect upon the ‘articulators’ of cultural identity. We need to question the power relationship and interests that are involved in the indigenous movements (as well as among any political party in Fiji/Belize).

Moreover, many scholars of indigenous philosophy have become too functionalist, -theoretically supporting the status quo. In Fiji, they say Fijians are born to do this or that; and that to know your place in society is the way things should be. This is a very essentialist form of identity which promotes the status quo. In order words, one’s behavior should follow some inner core or cultural identity that one presumably inherits.

For example, Nabobo-Baba in her book Knowing and learning: An indigenous Fijian approach (2006) gives us descriptions of those iTaukei who have the right to speak about issues (as they are born into particular clans); about how important traditional knowledge is for the wellbeing of the native; of not challenging elders; of respecting the chief’s authority; and of the vitality of understanding one’s place in society. Such forms of treatises promote a romanticist views of ‘indignity’ limiting the practices of inequality within the social order; dis-acknowledging the expressions of resistance by the ‘under-class’, and thus in a sense supporting the status quo.

I take note you cited the UN’s Declaration on Indigenousness, I would say that discussions of power and inequality within indigenous populations and movements are also absent from that discourse. There is a need to re-examine the supposed universality of that declaration in face of Fiji's context or the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar. 

On the issue of Indo-Fijian racism: 

You said that internal racism is more pervasive among Indo-Fijians. We really cannot gauge the degree of internal racisms. Also, as I am sure you would agree, overt racism is a much greater a concern and problem than covert racism.  

Now, do not get me wrong, I am not convinced that Bainimarama is a social radical. I actually think his claim of “We are all Fijians” is a cultural/ideological argument for his hegemony (along with his guns [military]).

We are dealing here with “ideologies without guarantees” (Stuart Hall, 1985). This is to say that while there is a moral vision or rhetoric to end racism, there is no necessary correspondence that this is a good practice, or will be interpreted as a good practice, or that it translates into better social relations among citizens (which we hope it would). 

You are also very right that realities of these groups i.e. “Indian” and “Fijian” are much more complex and heterogeneous than we tend to take them. There are many subtle social boundaries among persons within these ‘two groups’ by: religion, color, class, language, and location, among others.

Just as scholars have interrogated the ethno-nationalist ideology of past politicians; we must also interrogate Bainimarama’s rhetoric of ending racism as an ideology to win power. This is where your writings and activities have been quite positive and commendable.  

Comments

  1. The indigenous identity is is not static it also has evolved. What we have today is voluntary system where people offer themselves to be part of the system for which they see stronger tie of sharing and caring then the communities produced by what some would say is a self-destructive capitalist ideology.


    Sorry I would just caution on comment on overt racism being a greater problem than covert. Overt is easy to deal with as people get out of their system so its clearly visible. Covert is harder to deal with but no doubt has its victims. It has victims from generation to generation as being hard to deal with it lives on and becomes systemic. I would rather overt as you have something you can directly deal with.

    The underlying thrust of comments by traditional leaders like Mr Vesikula is that they want to be consulted about changes to what is theirs. This they are being denied as are the rights of all peoples in Fiji. If the regime wants to be taken seriously it must be civil and democratic and provide this platform where the people will choose the change that they want. Otherwise its just dictatorship

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    Replies
    1. I agree. The challenge is how to integrate/accommodate liberal frameworks and opportunities and indigenous ways.

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