November 23, 2014

The Telegraph India: Fiji mission land-deal niggle for Modi Govt glare on ‘unequal’ swap

Wednesday , November 19 , 2014

Nov. 18: As Narendra Modi’s one-day visit to Fiji gets under way on Wednesday, the Prime Minister will discover that 135 years after the first Indian indentured labourers landed on what is now a popular Pacific honeymoon destination, land is still an issue of contention between New Delhi and Suva, the island’s capital.

At issue since the BJP-led government assumed office is a decision taken by the government of Manmohan Singh without much application of mind to give away a precious plot of land in one of the priciest parts of the capital to Fiji.

The land is earmarked to construct its new high commission building after Suva opened its first diplomatic outpost in South Asia when bilateral ties were mended many years after a military takeover in May 1987 against Indian political domination of the island state.
Such allotments of land are normally done on reciprocity between governments: India has been similarly given a plot of land in Suva for its high commission. The mission was closed in May 1990 by Fiji after expelling the head of mission, T.P. Sreenivasan.

Sreenivasan was asked to leave the island in 72 hours for making an allegedly inflammatory speech in a gurdwara which was burnt and Sikh holy scriptures were vandalised by Fijian ultra-nationalists. The violence against the gurdwara was one of many incidents against Indian immigrants following the coup.

The Modi government’s hesitation in implementing its UPA predecessor’s reciprocal gesture is that land in Chanakyapuri, the prime diplomatic enclave in the capital, is worth many, many crores more than what India is getting in return in Suva, where property prices are a pittance compared to New Delhi.

With a finance minister who is increasingly scrutinising overseas expenses instead of accepting the discretion of the ministry of external affairs, Arun Jaitley’s nominee in South Block on deputation from his ministry feels that the Suva-Delhi deal to build high commissions in each other’s capitals is only doing lip service to reciprocity.

Auditors who annually inspect all Indian missions abroad are also of the view that India has lost hugely on the allotment of land in Chanakyapuri to the Fijians because it is getting much less in exchange in Suva.

Land is also scarce in Chanakyapuri after Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to give away entire streets as in Shanti Path in the heart of the diplomatic enclave to countries like China and prominent western countries. Nehru was so generous that Sri Lanka declined a portion of the huge parcel of land that it was gifted.

Because there is no more land available in Chanakyapuri, a number of countries born after the end of the Cold War are being exiled to Dwarka where land has been given on a reciprocal basis.

Several other countries that have opened missions in New Delhi more recently following a growing global acknowledgement of India as an emerging power are operating out of rented premises in posh residential areas like Vasant Vihar. They also hope to get land only in faraway Dwarka, near the airport.

Opinion is, therefore, crystallising within the Modi government that if at all any remaining parcels of land are to be given in Chanakyapuri, it should not be for Fiji. Instead, India could negotiate reciprocity in pricey European capitals, where its missions are on rented premises, and thus save millions of euros through hard bargaining.

It is not clear if the issue will come up at the highest level in today’s talks in Suva. Discretion on both sides may let the issue be discussed at official levels instead. But reciprocity in land allotment will be the elephant in the summit hall when Modi meets Fiji’s top leaders.

The issue will be a reminder to Modi that ever since 1879, when the first Indian labourer arrived in Fiji, land has been an issue between the two countries. Fiji’s constitution, which came into force in 1970, affirmed that native land was inalienable and Indians, even after generations, could only get long leases, not own it.

On the happier side of his visit, Modi will have the satisfaction of making a new beginning with Fiji not with ghosts from the past but after burying a distasteful bilateral baggage of many decades. Here, help from his native Gujarat, although unplanned and fortuitous, has come in handy.

In 2007, the young colonel who launched the anti-Indian coup, Sitiveni Rabuka, travelled to Gujarat. Of all the places in the world, even though Fiji’s government would have footed his medical bills anywhere in the world, Rabuka reached out to Bharat Mody, the well known anthroplasty surgeon in Vadodara who is known to the Prime Minister, to perform knee replacement surgery on him.

Inevitably, Rabuka’s choice of India, reckoned till then as the raison d’etre for an audacious coup, made news all over the Pacific, in Australia and in New Zealand. Gujarat benefited immensely.

A statement attributed to surgeon Mody on the website of Vadodara’s Welcare Hospital, where he is chief of the centre for knee surgery, at that time said: “Prime Minister Rabuka’s visit to Vadodara will give an overall boost to the city’s medical tourism. People will now turn to Vadodara for other medical treatments along with knee problems. And this is just the beginning.”

It is not certain at the time of writing if Modi’s path in Fiji will cross that of Rabuka. Sreenivasan’s judgement is that Rabuka “overthrew a democratically elected government, discriminated against the Fiji Indians, brought untold humiliation and suffering on them, tried to disenfranchise them, ordered me out of Fiji and closed down the Indian high commission.”

But these two men made peace in April this year. Sreenivasan was invited back to Fiji almost 25 years after his expulsion. They sat on the same chairs in the Suva Golf Club where they had their first conversation when Rabuka was a mere colonel and Sreenivasan was on the threshold of becoming a joint secretary.

That gesture made it easier for South Block to work on the Prime Minister’s visit. Rabuka told Sreenivasan that after the surgery in Vadodara, his “quality of life had improved”. Few things could please Modi more than that remorseful acknowledgement from someone who was once against Indians.

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