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A colossus who died lonely

By T P Sreenivasan
February 14, 2005 11:59 IST
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T P Sreenivasan, among India's most distinguished diplomats, continues his column based on his encounters with some of the world's most famous people.

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Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi were neck and neck in the race for the Man of the 20th Century, but when it came to the Man of the 20th Century from the South Pacific, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of Fiji had no competition.

He strode the region literally like a colossus, standing head and shoulders above his peers in the Pacific islands in physical and political stature. He shaped Fijian politics for more than half a century, first as a hereditary monarch of one of the island groups, then as a democratically elected leader and a champion of multiracialism and finally as a willing instrument in the hands of his army and the fanatic Fijians.

He died a sad man at the age of 83, a victim of his own machinations.

A sensitive post at any time for India on account of the Fiji Indians being half the population, Fiji was on the verge of a revolution when I met Ratu (Chief) Mara on my first call on him as the Indian high commissioner in 1986.

I had known that he looked at Indian diplomats with suspicion as he believed that some of them had incited the Fiji Indians against him. He had asked for the recall of a lady high commissioner, alleging that she had interfered in Fiji's internal affairs. Even my immediate predecessor, with whom he had a good equation for more than three years, was threatened with expulsion when he took up issue with Ratu Mara on some remarks he made on Indian democracy.

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I also knew that he treated high commissioners as members of his court rather than as representatives of sovereign states.

True to form, he delivered a long monologue about how some Indian high commissioners had fallen into the trap of assuming the leadership of the Fiji Indians and urged me not to fall prey to that temptation. He spoke of exceptions like Bhagwan Singh and A P Venkateswaran and asked me to emulate their examples.

By the time I reached Fiji, the election campaign for 1987 had already begun and Mara was facing the biggest challenge in his political career, when a Fijian, Dr Timoci Bavadra, became the leader of the Labour Party, which was aligned to the Fiji Indian party, the National Federation Party.

He was sore that the Indians wanted Bavadra, rather than him as the prime minister and told me each time I met him that no one had done more for Fiji Indians than him. He would have understood if they had backed an Indian as prime minister, he said, knowing well that previous efforts to make an Indian the prime minister of Fiji had not succeeded.

Our relations were cordial and whenever we met on the golf course and elsewhere, we had interesting conversations on India, Fiji and the rest of the world. Once our conversation turned to Burma, from where I had gone to Fiji. I told him about the proverbial forbearance of the Burmese people, who had put up with dictatorship for more than half a century. He asked me why they were so tolerant of autocratic rule. I speculated that their religion, Buddhism, had something to do with it.

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Mara was most interested in the conversation. At the end of it, he told me in a conspiratorial tone, "Why don't you take back all these Hindus and send me some Buddhists instead?" Although he said it in a light vein, his thought process was revealing in the context of Fiji.

Mara and I shared a passion for golf and the game brought us together often. Whenever I went to see the foreign secretary to convey messages to the prime minister, he used to say that since I met the prime minister more often than he did, I could as well give him the messages directly.

Mara set aside Wednesday afternoons for golf and even Ministers and high officials were free to take off from office on Wednesdays for a game. The Nadi Golf Club has a memento of Mara's prowess in golf. He is supposed to have scored a hole-in-one on a par 4 hole, a rare feat indeed. But some cynics believe that it was a hoax by Mara's Indian chauffeur and caddy, Babu Singh.

Mara indeed hit a long ball which grazed a tree close to the green. After several minutes of fruitless search around the green, Babu Singh found the ball in the hole. No one else had seen the ball falling into the hole, but Mara created history, as vouched for by Babu Singh.

As the election campaign gained momentum, I could see that Mara was becoming nervous and irritable. As more and more Indians expressed support to Bavadra, Mara became suspicious of India's role and mine in the whole process, even though we had scrupulously avoided interfering in it.

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Mara made no secret of his concern when he heard that I was present at a Hindu convention, which endorsed Bavadra. My explanation that I had also been to the Christian and Muslim conventions did not impress him.

Then came a request from Mara to visit India before the election. Simultaneously, Fiji Indian leaders told me a visit by Mara to India on the eve of the election would be inappropriate as the encomiums that would be showered on him by Indian leaders would be played up at election rallies.

I reported both and I was told that there was no way a visit could be accommodated before the election. Mara was displeased with the news and suspected that I was not sympathetic to his case.

He was totally devastated after his defeat in the election. He barely spoke to me when I met him on the golf course and expressed my sympathy and it was obvious that he believed that India and I personally did not do anything to get him Fiji Indian votes.

He had no qualms about diplomats interfering in the internal affairs of Fiji as long as they were on his side. India's new experiment with diplomacy, the art of maintaining an ambassador in a country, whose regime India did not recognise, was particularly painful for me as I happened to be at the centre of it.

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Ratu Mara responded to our policy by his own undeclared boycott of Indian functions and the Indian ambassador. We were at some functions together, even though we both tried to avoid such occasions and then it was hide and seek for several hours.

I was convinced that Mara had blessed Sitiveni Rabuka's coup, if not instigated it, not because I had any evidence to prove it, but because I knew that nothing important could happen in Fiji without his blessings.

He was the greatest loser in the election and he was the bitterest enemy of the Bavadra government. He was increasingly impatient outside office, as he saw himself as the rightful owner of the Fiji throne, which was usurped by democracy, which he once characterised as a 'foreign flower.'

He could not remain outside the military government for long and as the prime minister appointed by the coup leader, he fully colluded with the fanatic Fijians. He finally abandoned his multiracial mantle and revealed his true identity. The only alibi he could offer for his change of colour was that he simply could not see his country going down the drain on account of the coup and its aftermath.

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Ratu Mara maintained his links with many among the Fiji Indians, who were with him throughout and many of them tried to bring us together for a dialogue. I was not averse to it behind the scenes, but he was determined that he would have nothing to do with me.

He seized the opportunity of a speech I made at a gurdwara to ask me to leave on the ground that my speech had hurt communal harmony in Fiji. He issued my expulsion orders from Brussels on the basis of a report from Rabuka that my continued stay in Fiji would jeopardise the imposition of a new constitution.

Ratu Mara died a sad man, as he was disowned by his own people. He manipulated Rabuka to his advantage, but he had no such control over George Speight and others who overthrew Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry after democracy was restored and Mara became president.

The fanatics, who took over control of the country virtually exiled him to his Lau island and he died there. He was mourned by friends and foes alike as no other man had dominated Fiji and the South Pacific for nearly fifty years as he had done. Ratu Mara loved his country, but saw it as his inheritance, which he had to run in his own way.

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Independence, democracy, elections etc were necessary evils of modern times, but his own vision of his country was of a Dominion under the British Crown, with himself as the sole custodian of the laws of the land. He expected his people, Fijians and Indians alike, to pay obeisance to him and accept him as the overlord of the islands.

He was an excellent administrator, but he had no patience with dissenting opinion. He saw Fiji Indians as an essential ingredient in the Fiji milieu and he helped them to the extent that they felt comfortable enough to stay in Fiji and generate wealth.

He thought that he had found a formula for perpetual subjugation of the Fiji Indians when they accepted the 1970 constitution, but he was disillusioned by his own people, who sided with the Indians to overthrow his feudalism.

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Successive Indian governments saw through his game, but thought that he was the best bet for the survival of the Fiji Indians and played his multiracial game. In an earlier era, Ratu Mara would have been an ideal king, a benevolent dictator; he became an anachronism when the forces of change swept through the islands.

T P Sreenivasan was high commissioner/ambassador of India to Fiji from 1986 to 1989.

Encounters/T P Sreenivasan

Previously in the series:

A true friend of India

Dixit was short, his presence was giganticRao could stick to his guns

Image: Uday Kuckian

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T P Sreenivasan