HISTORY: Manilal Doctor felt for the oppressed

Mona Doctor, granddaughter of Manilal Doctor, was recently in Mauritius to inaugurate a permanent exposition of various objects belonging to the emblematic personality.  On this occasion, the Prime Minister, Pravind Jugnauth, said something interesting: “Nos institutions devraient davantage s’engager à transmettre l’histoire”.  (Le Mauricien, 29 July, 2017, page 6)
It’s a pity that fewer people are today showing an interest in history.  Our younger generation is more interested in utilitarian and job-related subjects like Accounts, Travel and Tourism, and Business Studies.  History is not taught.  It is perceived as dry and dull.  Yet history can be an exciting subject.  In the light of our PM’s statement, it would be useful to consider what could be done to revive the study of history in our schools.
Simply taking our children on excursions, once a while, to visit historical places is not enough.  If we didn’t have, some years ago, sufficient students to take history as a subject at SC level, could it be that, among other reasons, too much rote-learning was involved? Or could it be that pupils had difficulty developing a sense of involvement with the subject? Historians, educators and pedagogues need to come up with ideas to encourage the young to take a real interest in history so that they can have a better understanding of our past.  We need not feel any complex about our past.  It is as rich as any other country’s past.  The PM’s statement must not remain just a wish.
As I was thinking over the PM’s words, by coincidence I came across a book “Manilal Doctor  -  his political activities in Mauritius” by Pahlad Ramsurrun and Sangeeta Ramsurrun-Nunkoo (Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, 2007).  This 276-page book traces the immense contribution of Manilal Doctor to the advancement of Indo-Mauritians.  He was deputed here by Mahatma Gandhi as there was a need for a barrister.  He arrived on 11 October 1907 and devoted himself to improving the sorry plight of the indentured labourers.
Harsh treatment
He went from village to village, visited the conditions in which people were living on sugar estates and took note of their difficulties.  He organised meetings, addressed his audience in Hindi, passed resolutions for their demands and subsequently submitted applications to the authorities for necessary action.
At that time, as the book details, Indians were treated harshly:  people were imprisoned for 3 months for simple things like stealing 4 kilos of manioc, 30 pieces of sugar cane, or a pig.  An innocent man was kept in custody for 9 days. Manilal Doctor successfully intervened by writing against such a miscarriage of justice.
In 1908 he founded the Young Men Hindu Association and the members opened a primary school.  As a visionary, he saw that without basic education, the workers would always be exploited.  Today we have our own universities and institutes and well-known foreign universities have set up campuses here.  Education is accessible to all.  We have to be grateful to all those who, like Manilal Doctor, laid the foundation many years ago.
The Hdouble cutdand acorvéec were “a tool in the hands of the sugar magnates which they used to declare workers as vagrants”.  They were sent to jail, handcuffed. We also learn that “out of this evil system the big planters were making huge financial gains” (introduction, page xvii).  The barrister played a key role in ending the unjust system.
He pursued his social mission by “telling the white planters and Government officers that Indians were not slaves.  They were also human beings like them.” (Introduction, page xxvii).  He wanted to end exploitation and to give back to the Indians the dignity they deserved.  In “History of Indians in Mauritius” by K. Hazareesingh (Macmillan Education Ltd, London, reprinted 1977) mention is made of Manilal Doctor bringing to the notice of the Royal Commission that Indians were “dead or starving in the streets of Port Louis” and that they were “sometimes forced to eat uneatable rice” (page 79).
Manilal Doctor launched The Hindusthani newspaper not only to keep in touch with the indentured labourers but also to break the monopoly of the francophone press.  By writing in foreign papers about the ill treatment of Indians, he hoped to raise international sympathy and awareness.  The newspaper aimed “to watch over the welfare and interest of the Indians and provide them ideal opportunities so that they may get the rightful place in this country” (page 92). He expected his newspaper to be an eye-opener.
The Indians felt they finally had a voice in Manilal Doctor.  “They had found a credible and reliable leader in whom they had confidence, and who was leading them to a safe port.” (page 46)
Manilal Doctor had adversaries from within the Indian community and from the oligarchs.  He was standing for the downtrodden. The Indians were living a precarious existence in conditions of extreme hardship and poverty. What Manilal was doing was viewed by the employers as being detrimental to their interest.  The book cites abundant extracts from newspapers of that time to give us an idea of the fierce opposition he had to face.  “He was opposed publicly and Indians were bribed to throw stones, rotten tomatoes and eggs at him” (introduction, page xxi).  However, nothing, no one could daunt his fighting spirit.
Setting the record right
A few historians had written on Manilal Doctor, but unhappy with their misdating, misreporting, flaws, imperfections and speculations regarding Doctor’s arrivals and departures, Pahlad and Sangeeta Ramsurrun set out to do some extensive research.  They came up with accurate data.  It just goes to show how meticulously-researched their text is.
This reference book is not only about the life and times of Manilal Doctor, it is also about colonial rule, immigration, capitalism and class conflict, human rights, the dignity of the individual, and the gradual emancipation of the labouring classes.