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When I met the coup leader who expelled me

By T P Sreenivasan
April 29, 2014 15:27 IST
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Sitiveni Rubuka with T P SreenivasanT P Sreenivasan was India's high commissioner in Fiji in 1987, when Sitiveni Rabuka toppled the Indian-dominated government there.

Ambassador Sreenivasan stayed on for two years after the coup, fighting for the rights of the people of Indian origin before he was expelled by Rabuka.

'Meeting Sitiveni Rabuka, who had overthrown a democratically elected government, discriminated against the Fiji Indians, brought untold humiliation and suffering to them, tried to disenfranchise them, ordered me out of Fiji and closed down the Indian high commission was a difficult decision to take even after 25 years,' notes Ambassador Sreenivasan who eventually caught up with Rabuka over a game of golf.

Many people in India may remember Sitiveni Rabuka, a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Tamil Nadu, and the third ranking officer of the Fiji army, who ousted an Indian-dominated Fiji government in a bloodless coup in 1987.

As the High Commissioner of India to Fiji at that time, I was instructed not to recognise the military regime and to fight for the rights of the Fiji Indians. After two years of a diplomatic battle, Rabuka asked me to leave Fiji in 72 hours. The Indian high commission and the Indian Cultural Centre were closed down within six months.

Fiji, having lost its innocence, had at least three more coups since then, one even by a civilian. There were as many constitutions and elections, many of them loaded against Fiji Indians whose strength has been reduced to 37 percent of the population on account of migration.

Even today, Fiji has a government headed by a former commander of the navy, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who has been prime minister since 2007 and has worked with the communities to adopt the first non-racial constitution, under which elections will be held in September 2014.

Commodore Bainimarama has apparently the support of the majority of Fiji Indians, but parties like those of Commodore Bainimarama and Rabuka are yet to take shape. The grand old party of the Fiji Indians, the National Federation Party, may become a multi-racial party.

The Fiji Labour Party, which won the elections in 1987, appears to have lost its prominence. Bainimarama is poised to win the elections, though the scene is not yet clear.

Meeting Sitiveni Rabuka, who had overthrown a democratically elected government, discriminated against the Fiji Indians, brought untold humiliation and suffering to them, tried to disenfranchise them, ordered me out of Fiji and closed down the Indian high commission was a difficult decision to take even after 25 years.

Many friends suggested a meeting or a game of golf on which he was keen and we had an hour-long conversation at the Suva Golf Club, where we once played golf together. Rabuka looked the same as I last saw him except for his white hair and bulkier frame.

I thanked him for not declaring me persona non grata (the diplomatic device used to expel me was downgradation of the mission to a consulate) as such a declaration may have made it impossible for me to visit Fiji again.

I also thanked him for allowing my wife Lekha to stay back for nearly two weeks to pack and ship our belongings. He was totally on the defensive and said he did not order me out and that he was 'over-ruled' in this matter, suggesting that real power was in the hands of former prime minister Ratu Mara, who had lost power after 17 years.

Rabuka also revealed that it was not the pro-Fiji Indian speeches I made that provoked them, but intelligence reports that I was holding meetings in my house to collect money to smuggle arms into Fiji. I said that while India had not recognised his government and managed to get Fiji out of the Commonwealth on account of racist policies, India had not supported any armed struggle.

I had specifically opposed any suggestion of the use of force, as peace was possible only by racial harmony. He said he knew that the reports were wrong, but he could not help it.

I made it a point to tell Rabuka that his coup coincided with the time when Rajiv Gandhi had begun to count on overseas Indians to participate in building a modern India. Gandhi felt his new policy would not be credible unless he stood by Indians in trouble anywhere in the world.

It was for this reason that he instructed me to stay on in Fiji and fight for the rights of the Fiji Indians even at the risk of my being expelled. My struggle for the Fiji Indians was under instructions, I said.

Rabuka found an opening here to draw a parallel between him and me. He said he too was acting under instructions right from the beginning, confirming the general impression that it was Ratu Mara, who had instigated the coup.

"The mistake I made was that I listened to the politicians," he said repeatedly and suggested that he did not have his heart in the coup. But once he was asked to do a job, he did it with conviction, just as I had done. In other words, he absolved both of us of personal animosity.

Another interesting observation that Rabuka made was that the two people, who were actually against me had come to grief -- Ratu Mara and his intelligence chief. He said as a believer, he held the view that God would punish those who did harm to those who did their duty. He said he was able to survive because he had no ill will even to those whom he hurt.

He was aware that he hurt many people, while carrying out his duties, but he could do no more than apologise to them. He admitted that Fiji lost time and resources in the turmoil in the country since May 1987, but he had little choice in the matter.

Rabuka was nostalgic about his days in India, particularly the Staff College. He said he had a great time in India and he had many friends in the Indian armed forces. Soon after the coup, he had called the Indian Army Chief General Sunit Francis Rodrigues, who was his commander in the Staff College, to assure him that he would no harm to the Indians in Fiji.

When I reminded him about an article written by Kumkum Prakash, wife of a future naval chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, entitled 'The Steve I Knew', he was very happy. The article had praised him for his human qualities, sense of fairness, tolerance and humanism and had suggested that the Fiji Indians were somehow responsible for transforming her friend, Steve, into the coup leader Rabuka. He spoke warmly of all his friends and said that his wife too was very happy with them. They called her 'Sai Baba's sister because of her Melanesian hairstyle!

Rabuka was ecstatic about a Gujarati doctor who operated on both his knees and looked after him in Baroda in 2007. He said his knees were perfect and his quality of life had improved since the operation.

As for his own political future, Rabuka said he had his political party, but since he was not a paid member, he may not be given a ticket. He said he was toying with the idea of a Republican Party, as he was the one who declared Fiji a Republic. He said Ratu Mara was against it, but the instructions came two days too late. He was not against the introduction of the common roll as long as it did not result in the loss of the rights of the indigenous Fijians.

As Rabuka's wife drove into the golf club to pick him up, Rabuka lamented that the prime minister had taken away his official car, his entitlement as a former prime minister and that his pension had been reduced. He had borrowed the car of a friend, who lived in Australia and he had to return it to his friend whenever he visited Fiji. He said the prime minister had benefitted from much that he had done, including the provision in the constitution for amnesty for coup leaders in certain circumstances.

Sitiveni Rabuka, who appointed himself to every high position in the country, including head of the council of chiefs, without being a chief himself, took the wheel and drove off, I felt pity for him for the first time for being powerless and friendless. But his emergence as a nationalist Fijian leader again cannot be ruled out, given the commitment and ruthlessness with which he championed the cause of his people for nearly ten years and then worked with the Fiji Indian leaders like Jairam Reddy and Mahendra Chaudhury. But the general mood in Fiji is to continue on the path thrown open by Commodore Bainimarama.

Image: Sitiveni Rabuka, left, with Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

T P Sreenivasan (Indian Foreign Service, 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

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