At the 1986 Census the ethnic Fijian population was 329,000 (46 per cent of the total) and the Indo-Fijian population was 348,000 (48 per cent), maintaining the numerical dominance of the Indo-Fijian population that was established after the Second World War. However, by 1996, after extensive emigration, the Indo-Fijian population had fallen absolutely and was just 38 per cent of the total whereas the Fijian population had grown to 45 per cent. The 2000 and 2006 coups have seen ongoing emigration of skilled trades and professional personnel, most of whom are Indo-Fijian, to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. According to the latest census in 2007, while the ethnic Fijian population increased to 475,739 (56.8 per cent of the total), the Indo-Fijian population was 313,798 (37 per cent).
Indo- Fijians comprise the second largest ethnic group and are culturally and economically diverse. More than 90 per cent are descendants of indentured labourers (Girmityas) and the remainder are descendants of free migrants. The majority are Hindu, and a minority are Muslim or Christian. A small number of Indo-Fijians can be defined as wealthy or engaged in business enterprises, but the majority of Indo-Fijians are workers and peasant farmers, and also include the poorest of the poor in the country. Indo-Fijian tenant farmers rely on leased agricultural land and since 1999 many of these leases have not been renewed, or are on the point of expiring, resulting in the lease-holders being displaced. As a result, Indo-Fijians are among the largest category of landless people in Fiji. This is a source of anxiety and hardship as they often have no other means of subsistence, and feel a real sense of political marginalization. As a group there has been a high degree of anxiety since the coups of 1987 and 2000; particularly after the events of 2000, in which many Indo-Fijians were beaten and raped, and their property looted and burnt, the community has been traumatized.
Indians were first introduced to Fiji in the 1880s, and between 1879 and 1916 over 60,000 indentured labourers came from various parts of India to work in the cane plantations. Many other Pacific islanders came at the same time, but most returned. The Indian migrants remained, primarily on the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
By the 1940s, Indo-Fijians made up the majority of the population, outnumbering indigenous Fijians. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that this situation was reversed. A key factor in their diminishing numbers in recent decades has been the country’s continued instability, particularly its succession of coups, and the occasional flaring of nationalist sentiment against them. This is illustrated by the dramatic increase in migration: while between 1978 and 1986, just over 20,700 Fijians left the country at an annual rate of 2,300, in the ensuing decade (1987-1996) the rate more than doubled to 5,005 every year. The overwhelming majority, roughly 90 percent, of these departing citizens were Indo-Fijian.
Indo-Fijians remain marginalized in most spheres, though they have regained substantial economic power, while the more prominent Fijian nationalist movements have lost some influence. Nonetheless the position of Indo-Fijians in Fiji remains problematic. Indo-Fijians remain in many respects marginal to the national political economy despite their relative success in business and trade. Critically, they remain landless and leases continue to be allowed to expire. Despite business success, they have been unable to achieve a similar status in the bureaucracy. At key moments of instability, such as 2005–06, they have been vulnerable to robberies, attacks and desecration of Hindu temples.
Nevertheless, research by MRG and others in recent years suggests a widespread perception that the situation has improved since 2006, with better inter-ethnic relations, and that policy changes such as the designation of a common name for all Fiji citizens, and efforts to find land for farming and other activities and to improve law and order, were seen to be positive contributions to inter-ethnic relations.