Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our Submission to the Constitution Commission

Submission to the 2012/13 Constitution Commission

By James Bhagwan and Maelin Pickering Bhagwan

October, 13th, 2012

Introductory Remarks

 Good morning.

My name is Maelin Pickering Bhagwan, I am here this morning on behalf of my husband, Rev. James Bhagwan – who is studying overseas and not able to be here in person, and my two children Francisco-Xavier and Antonia.

I would like to thank the Commission for giving me and my family the opportunity to present our submission. We make this submission as our responsibility as independent citizens of Fiji.

To give you a little understanding of the context in which this submission was prepared I would like to give you a little background of our family. I am of mixed Chinese, i-Kiribati, Samoan, i-Taukei and European heritage. My husband is of Indo-Fijian, and mixed Filipino /European Heritage. Our children, often called “fruit-salad,” contain the blood of almost all native Pacific Islander and migrant communities.

My husband is a Methodist and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji. I am a Roman Catholic and teach in a Catholic Girls High School. Our children are members of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia. We have extended family members who belong to many different Christian denominations and religious groups. Our family and friends come from all walks of life, age groups, genders, sexual orientation, abilities and ideologies.

My husband and I were both born within the first decade of Fiji’s Independence. Unlike our children, we remember when Fiji was still known as the way the world should be. We make our submission in the hope that Fiji will once again be the way the world should be.

We have followed the work of the commission and the submissions that have been made. We agree with many of the submissions that have been made in an attempt to take this nation forward, away from race-based politics, institutionalised structures of oppression and stereotype.

Our vision is of a Fiji where life, love, community, justice and peace are sacred values and a lived reality. Where every voice, no matter how small is heard, and everyone is connected in a relationship that is rooted in a sense of belonging to this place.

While we support the 11 pillars of the Peoples Charter for Change, Peace & Progress, we believe that this constitution while upholding universal principles and international conventions and norms, must reflect the uniqueness of our country. Some of our submissions are made in this context.

I now offer our small contribution to the Constitutional process.


With the understanding that the Constitution is a “Living Document” which will grow and change according to the needs of the people of Fiji, we, on behalf of our family and for the sake of our children, their children and the generations to come, off a proposal in the following areas for inclusion in our new constitution:

1.    Common Identity

2.    Common Language

3.    Citizenship

4.    Religious Tolerance and Human Rights

5.    Participation in Decision-making

6.    Religion and the State

1.     Common Identity

a.    All citizens of Fiji to be known as Fijians.
b.    Historical Identity of indigenous Fijians and Rotuma and resettled Ocean Islanders to be maintained through the use of Kai Viti, Kai Rotuma, Kai Rabi.
c.    Indigenous Fijians and their children to be registered in the Vola Ni Kawa Bula.
d.    Provincial Identity / relationship to the Vanua to be recognised for all citizens dependent on place of birth of both parents (Kai / Vasu) or, for naturalised citizens, place of residence/settlement.

As I have shared earlier, our family is of mixed heritage. In the last general elections my husband and I registered and voted in the General Electors Communal Constituency. My husband is sometimes classified as Others or Indian depending on which side of the family at which one looks. He has faced racism for being Kai Idia, and for not being full Hindustani. While I have been classified as Kai Loma, or Vasu, I have also been called Kai Jaina. Our children are being raised to recognise and celebrate every part of their ethnic heritage. Yet at the same time they cannot claim any one ethnic group or culture over the other. They and the future generations will need an identity that is suitable for all who make Fiji their home.

The common name of Fijian is important because that is nationality when we are identified outside of our country. We are people of Fiji, either by birth or choice. We deserve to be called Fijian regardless of when our ancestors arrived in these islands or from whence they came.

At the same time we believe that apart from our identity outside of this country or as citizens of the Republic of Fiji, we must recognise and celebrate our identity within this country. We recognise the first settlers of these islands, our indigenous brothers and sisters. Their arrival is shrouded in the mists of time and so we recognise them as Kai Viti, Kai Rotuma.

We recognise the right of the Kai Viti to the land, sea and traditions that they have been given stewardship over. We recognise that there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that Fiji will always remain the Vanua of the Kai Viti. The Vola Ni Kawa Bula is one such mechanism. It is our responsibility as Fijians to ensure that the Kai Viti are recognised as integral to the way of life in Fiji.

At the same time we believe that we who are born and raised here, or who have adopted Fiji as their home, must have a place within the Vanua. There is a need for a mechanism in which all Fijians regardless of their heritage may be able to part of the Vanua, as members of the community, with equal responsibility and recognition.

2.     Common Language

a.    Vosa Vaka Viti to be the National Language of Fiji.
b.    English, Fiji-Hindi, Rotuman and Vosa Vaka Viti to be classified as Official Languages of Fiji.
c.    Vosa Vaka Viti to be compulsory subject at all registered educational institutions. (Up to Certificate of Proficiency level.)

We believe that Vosa Vaka Viti is something that is unique and that we as a nation should not only strive to protect but share make use of. English of course is still the dominant language (the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese) and the language of education and international communication. Hindi-Urdu is the third most spoken language in the world, with some 333 million speakers, while the indigenous language of Fiji has not even one percent of that.  At the same time Fiji-Hindi, which is now being recognised as a separate language from Hindustani is also a language unique to Fiji and as such should also be recognised as such. The indigenous Rotuman language is also a language that needs protection.

In this process of nation building we are asking the indigenous people of these islands to share their name, their home and their resources with people who are descendents of settlers (some voluntary, some compelled) who also consider Fiji their home. 

While each cultural group has the right and should be encouraged to preserve their own traditions, the first step to living as one people is to speak one language. Language should not be limited to the foreign language of English (regarded by some as a language of imperialism and foreign domination) but should be the language that marks us all as people of Fiji. 

We believe that the time has come for every Fijian to speak the native language of Fiji.  This means there must be a concerted effort for conversational Fijian or Vosa Vaka Viti to be taught to all students at school, regardless of ethnicity. It also means that remedial language instruction is necessary for those who were not taught the language at primary school level. Community groups and civil society organisations have an important part to play in this process.

This is where a certificate of proficiency can be used as a standard to develop a wide-reaching curriculum. However it does not have to be just the work of the education ministry or civil society – including religious groups. This is something that individuals can do on a one-to-one basis or among a group of friends.

Maybe then we will be able to really understand one another. Maybe then we will come a step closer to being one people. Maybe then we will be truly worthy of the name Fijian.

3.     Religious Tolerance and Human Rights

a.    Office of Ombudsman to be retained and strengthened.
b.    Human Rights as per the Bill of Rights in the 1997 Constitution to be affirmed.
c.    Human Rights Commission to be retained.
d.    Establishment of Fiji Interreligious Council
                                          i.    All faith based organisations and registered religious organisations/groups to be members.
                                        ii.    Chair of Council to be appointed in rotation among religious bodies (not denomination) that hold membership. Duration of the chairpersonship is annual.
                                       iii.    General Secretary to be appointed through application with endorsement by members of the Council.
e.    Commission for Reconciliation and Peace-building to be established to work in conjunction with Human Rights Commission and Fiji Interreligious Council on issues of Restorative Justice.
f.     Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption to be a constitutional Commission
We believe that the Office of the Ombudsman was either limited or ineffective in the past. 

However, we believe in its necessity and call for it to be retained as per the 1997 Constitution.

The Bill of Rights as per the 1997 Constitution is a fundamental piece of the foundation of the Fiji we are trying to build. We call for its full retention.

The Fiji Human Rights Commission needs to continue to be independent of Government and should retain its status as under the 1997 Constitution.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This freedom was guaranteed in the 1997 Constitution’s Bill of Rights (Chapter 4 Section 35(Religion and Belief).

The time is right for us as a people to think deeply about the importance of religious tolerance in our country and how we can ensure that this issue that has been and maintains the potential for massive divisions in Fiji can be properly addressed in the process to develop a new constitution.

There have been many examples at the grass-roots level as well on a national level of positive influence by religious groups and institutions – social justice programmes, awareness campaigns, civic education – the promotion of high morals and compassionate behaviour and the like.

The seeds of religious tolerance have been planted through the recognition of significant holy days such as Christmas, Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday, Lent, Holi, Easter (both Good Friday and Easter “Resurrection” Sunday), Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, etc by convention as well as by legislation.

Is it not possible that religious tolerance is not only covered by the Bill of Rights, but also be enshrined in our new constitution; through a mechanism through which dialogue within and between religions take place? A permanent mechanism such as a Fiji Interreligious Council could not just provide a safe space for dialogue but also provide the platform for cooperation on social, health and other issues as well as assist in the mobilisation of communities in times of natural disaster.

The Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption should be placed under the Office of the Ombudsman to enable it to be independent of Government.

Given the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual pain suffered by so many in our country over the last 25 years, we also believe that there must be mechanism to help our people, individually, as communities and a society to overcome many obvious and unperceived acts injustice, intolerance and prejudice we all have endured.

While Truth and Reconciliation Commissions around the world have had mixed results, we must not ignore need nor the opportunity to engage in restorative justice and peace-building. 
This needs to be a national priority, not reliant on political policies, but as part of enshrining the Fiji Way. We believe, therefore, that provision should be made either under the Office of the Ombudsman or separately for an independent Commission for Reconciliation and Peace-building.

4.     Participation in Decision-making

a.    National Level
                                          i.    Parliament
1.    Only one House of Representatives made up of 1 representative for every 15,000 citizens. With the 2007 Census putting our population at 837,271, that would be approximately 55 or 56 seats.
2.    Constituencies to be determined and updated by the Constituency Boundaries commission.
3.    Representatives to be elected on a common roll.
4.    Representatives to be elected on the 50% +1 of votes principle.
5.    Prime Minister to be elected by House of Representatives. May only serve two consecutive terms.
6.    President to be elected by House of Representatives following public nominations and screening by selection panel. President to hold executive authority and remain Commander in Chief. She or he will also act as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

                                        ii.    Political Parties
1.    Each political party must not have more than 40% of any particular ethnic group as candidates.
2.    Each political party must not have less than 25% female candidates.
3.    Each political party must not have less than 10% youth candidates (ages 18 – 35).

                                       iii.    Eligibility of Candidates:
1.    Each candidate must be a registered voter.
2.    Each candidate must be nominated by more than of 10% of constituents, who are registered voters, through the collection of signatures, not merely the payment of a nomination fee.
3.    Each candidate must not have been convicted in a court of law in the last 10 years.
4.    Each candidate must not be an undischarged bankrupt.
5.    Each candidate must have been a citizen of Fiji for more than 10 years.
6.    Each candidate must have resided in Fiji for at least 5years prior to election year. Exemptions for those who have lived abroad for the purpose of study, national or military service.
7.    Each candidate must resign from Public Office upon nomination. Public office excludes the position of President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Member or any other position held by virtue of being an elected member of Parliament.

a.    Community Level
                                          i.    The Bose Levu Vakaturaga / Great Council of Chiefs is to be established as a Constitutional Office, not a part of a government administration.
                                        ii.    The Bose Levu Vakaturaga membership is to be limited to traditional chiefly leaders.
                                       iii.    Chiefly responsibility for all residents within the traditional boundaries for the maintenance of the Kai Viti culture, traditions and values and the social cohesion of all Fijians.
                                       iv.    The advice of the Bose Levu Vakaturaga is to be sought by the House of Representatives on any legislation that deals with Native Land, Qoliqoli and issues relating to the needs of Kai Viti as well as the Vanua.

We recognise that while the Great Council of Chiefs is an historic body, its origins lie in the British Colonial administration of the Kai Viti. Nevertheless we recognise the traditional leadership that the chiefly system of Fiji offers the Vanua.

The Great Council of Chiefs is an important institution of our nation that must be included in the governance structure of Fiji. However, we believe that it must be separate from Government and only deal with specific issues on a national level, as we have articulated above.

At the same time, and further to our submission on Provincial Identity, we humbly ask not only your consideration, but through your good offices, that the traditional leaders of the Vanua reconsider their understanding of both who they consider themselves leaders of and who constitutes the Vanua.

My husband and I are both from Rewa. My husband’s forefathers settled in Vuci and I have maternal links to Lomanikoro. My husband is also vasu i Macuata. While we teach our children about their diverse ethnic and cultural heritage, at the same time we want them to also be Fiji’s children and have their links to Rewa and Macuata recognised. We want them to know and understand who and what their vanua is, who their high chief, and understand what that means for them.

This is not just for the minorities who have some blood ties to the Kai Viti. We believe that this is important for all Fijians regardless of ethnic background as it adds to social cohesion through a sense of belonging and commitment to the wider community.

We believe that the Great Council of Chiefs could provide the mechanism that ensures that all chiefs practice inclusive leadership of all people in their villages, districts and provinces.

This, we believe, will not only help in the development of common identity and common or national culture, but also benefit the Vanua as many more people will be able to contribute to development and stewardship of its resources.

5.     Religion and the State

a.    Fiji to be a Civil Religious State.
The 1997 Constitution, in its section on State and religion holds that, “Although religion and the State are separate, the people of the Fiji Islands acknowledge that worship and reverence of God are the source of good government and leadership.” We submit that this should be retained in the new constitution.

I have shared with you the religious diversity of our immediate and extended family.

We believe that while a secular state may guarantee freedom of religious belief, there is also a possibility that, in the future, it may limit the manner in which the people of this country may wish to express and observe their faith. With most of the schools in the country funded by the state, there is no guarantee that schools which teach important values and traditions through their religious education curriculum and ethos will be able to continue to do so.

The same can be said for religious social welfare organisations that work with the state or participate in state-programmes.

We believe that the majority of the people of Fiji not only have a respect for the divine, but also for the sacred and that there are many non-traditional belief systems which are a source of positivity and goodness among our people.

We advocate for the state recognition of Civil Religion. In the tradition of Emile Durkheim and Robert Bellah, Civil religion is comprised of a sacred system of beliefs, myths, symbols, and ceremonies that give meaning to the concepts of "nation" and "state." Civil religion presents an understanding of a society's role in history and each person's role as a citizen. In other words, a civil religion is an expression of the cohesion of the nation. It transcends denominational, ethnic and provincial boundaries.
According to Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion must be independent of the church as such or it will merely be an ecclesiastical endorsement of the state, and it must be genuinely a religion, or it will simply be secular nationalism. There must be ultimate meaning and genuine feeling involved in order for it to function as a religion. Further, it requires a civil theology that is a religious way of thinking about politics—which supplies the society with a continuing sense of identity, interprets the historical experience of the people, and affords a source of dynamism, uniqueness and identity.

It is our view that Fiji as a nation already practices Civil or Civic Religion in some ways. Perhaps this has not been articulated before and is not common although it is practiced some form in America, Australia and Israel. This is a possible way for acknowledging those symbols, beliefs, rituals and meanings that are considered sacred and morally positive by our people, regardless of their particularities. We feel it is a more middle ground approach than the choice between the two poles of Christian State and Secular State.


Members of the Commission, I would like to conclude with words of thanks and appreciation for your commitment to this most difficult task. My late father-in-law Benjamin Bhagwan was a member of the 2000 Constitutional Review Commission. While he was called a traitor, outcast and opportunist by some, he saw it as a calling to serve his people, not only to hear their views but to engage with them help them understand a different perspective and break down walls of prejudice and suspicion.

We know it has not been an easy task and that there is pressure from many sides, so we thank you for your remaining steadfast to your integrity and the responsibility you have undertaken.
I thank you for listening to our submission, and offer it to you in the sincere hope that it may contribute to the positive and strong foundation on which we will rebuild our nation.

As is our tradition, we pray that God’s blessings will be upon you and those who will join in the process of creating this “sacred document”.

Vinaka vakalevu, Shurkyia, Thank you very much.

Mrs. Maelin Pickering Bhagwan –
Rev. James Bhagwan –

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