Connecting through Language

The fact that the Fiji government is co-hosting the Hindi conference also shows the evolution of India-Fiji relations
Connecting through Language
Representational Pic

The 12th edition of the World Hindi Conference is being held in Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji on February 15-17. According to a recent press release of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) it is being organised by the Ministry in “collaboration with the Government of Fiji”. This is a curious formulation because normally a country collaborates with another and a ministry or organisation of a collaborating country is merely the executing body for an event or of the implementation of a policy. In this context, the Indian High Commissioner to Fiji, PS Kartigeyan got it right when he said that “the Indian and Fijian governments will co-host the event”. The distinction pointed out here is not a quibble because sometimes the loose use of words can cause misunderstandings between countries. Besides, in the past, MEA took pride in the professionalism of its drafting skills.

The MEA press release also states “The main theme of the conference is “Hindi: From Traditional Knowledge to Artificial Intelligence”. Hindi is, of course, a major global language spoken by hundreds of millions of people in India and by large sections of the Indian diaspora. There are foreigners too who are attracted to Hindi and some of them come to India to learn it. Hindi has numerous dialects and there is great literature in them. For instance, Tulsidas who lived in the 16th and early part of the 17th century, apart from being revered as a saint, is one of the great literary masters of all time. He was a master of Sanskrit but his greatest work Ramcharitmanas is written in Awadhi. He also wrote in Brajbhasha.

As with any widely spoken language of the world sometimes it is difficult for speakers of different dialects to understand each other. When movements of speakers of Hindi dialects became greater a common widely understood version of the language also developed. In Hindi this version was ‘Khari Boli’; it is ‘Khari Boli’ that is modern Hindi. The evolution of a commonly understood version is not unique to Hindi. It is present in all widely spoken languages. In Arabic, for instance, what is called modern standard Arabic, which is the now widely understood in the Arab world developed over the past century and a half. It is now the literary form of the language which is used through the Arab world. This writer who took a course in the Arabic language in Abu Dhabi in 1979 was told by his Palestinian teacher that she could not understand a word of the television programme on UAE TV which was in the dialect of the Bedouin tribes of the UAE!

The Indian diaspora also developed its own dialects. In Fiji, where this writer served as a diplomat with the Indian Mission from 1988-1990, it was called ‘Fiji Baat’. The last British colony to which Indian indentured labour was sent was Fiji. The process began in 1879 and continued till 1916. Most of the indentured labour that went to the South Pacific Island colony belonged to Eastern Uttar Pradesh and spoke the dialects of the area. Naturally, Fiji Baat’s vocabulary reflected these dialects but its structure was like Khari Boli. Some of the vocabulary consisted of words which were no longer in usage in modern Hindi. This writer was fascinated when one of Mission staff used the word ‘bhiyan’ for tomorrow instead of what is now widely used ‘kal’. Significantly, while indentured labour from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh also went to Fiji, though in smaller numbers than those from UP, they too took to Fiji Baat and no longer stuck to their original languages. Thus, Fiji Baat became the language of the entire Indian community in Fiji.

The fact that the Fiji government is co-hosting the Hindi conference also shows the evolution of India-Fiji relations. These have passed through turbulent times but have moved upwards in the past two decades. While the Indian community numbers in Fiji became similar in number, if not slightly more, than the indigenous population the British imperial authority kept them in water tight compartments. Besides, the culture of the two was so vastly different that intermingling was very difficult. As Fiji gained independence in 1970, the indigenous Fijians led by their traditional feudal chiefs ensured that ultimate political power remained in their hands though Fiji adopted a democratic constitution.

In the 1987 elections the Fiji Labour Party along with the Indian dominated National Federation Party won the elections and formed what was termed as an Indian dominated government though under the leadership of common Fijian, Dr Timothy Bavadra. The electoral defeat of the Fiji chiefs dominated party was not because the Indian community had changed its vote but because the Fijian community was evolving away from the feudal chiefly system. The Fiji Military Forces under Sitiveni Rabuka, an officer ironically trained in India, instigated by the chiefs staged a coup and ousted the government. A turbulent period in Fiji’s history and in Indo-Fijian relations began. Democratic governments alternated with military ones. All this was because equations within the ethnic Fijian community needed to be settled. This happened in 2012 when the political and constitutional role of the ethnic Fijian chiefs was abolished by the dissolution of the Great Council of Chiefs. A new constitution was adopted in 2013 which stipulated that while all communities would preserve their traditions all would be bound by a common Fijian citizenship. That has eased the situation and Fiji goes to the polls again on December 14 2022. In the past three difficult decades many Indians have migrated and the balance of power has shifted to the indigenous Fijians. India has also adjusted to this situation as is shown, inter-alia, by the convening of the Hindi conference.

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