INTERNATIONAL TAMIL CONFERENCE IN MAURITIUS (23-27 JULY 2014): Tamils’ retrospective contribution in Mauritius

A number of Christian Tamils, many still bearing Indian surnames, came to what was Ile de France. During the British period starting 1810, free Tamil immigrants were traders, particularly in Port-Louis. Many others came to join their relatives engaged in commerce or government service. In 1822, Indian merchant Vellivel Annasamy bought a 765-arpent estate at Bon Espoir, Piton, with, later, Rama Tiroumoudy as his partner. Most of the Tamils later came in indenture. The licenced Tamil traders between 1828 and 1868 totalled 30, of whom many later left. Ramsamy Canabady, who established his company in Port-Louis in 1912, became the  country’s top Indian businessman, excelling in the import of rice. Some Tamil Christians, specially since 1952 when was set up the Indo-Mauritian Catholic Association, partly observe Hindu rites. But the large majority of non-Christian Tamils clings to Hinduism, mixed with Tamil culture.    
Mauritian World Tamil Gem (1994)
 In 1974, Mootoocomaren Sangeelee (1901-1996), who later became a government school inspector, translated into French the Thirukkural” (holy verses), or the “Kural,” of Thiruvalluvar. This most renowned Tamil sage/poet was honoured, upon Soopaya Mudaliar’s initiative, for the first time in Mauritius (1946) at a function chaired by Renganaden Seeneevassen, the other speakers being Permal Soobrayen, Canabady Narayanan and Ramoo Sooriamoorthy. M. Sangeelee published this world’s best “Kural” in French in second edition in 1988, prefaced by François Gros of Sorbonne. In 1994, the International Federation of Tamils bestowed upon him the distinction of “World Tamil Gem” for his propagation of Tamil culture. Besides his several school handbooks in French and English, he has written Ethique de l’Inde du Sud (a collected publication of six Tamil classics-1980), Bouquet de Sagesse, an anthology of Tamil poets (1988), Viveka Sintamani, a treatise of ethics, and Le Symbolisme dans l’Hindouisme (1994). He also translated into French the poems of the Indian Subramaniam Bharati, the most famous modern Tamil poet, and of Permal Soobrayen, which are read in Mauritius and Reunion. Upon Beekrumsing Ramallah’s initiative, M. Sangeelee became the secretary of the Manilal Doctor Memorial Committee, which erected in 1959 a statue in bronze of the revered Indian emancipator in the Company’s Garden, Port-Louis.
Manilall Doctor’s first collaborarors
Coomarasawmy Murdanaigum, landowner of l’Escalier, put his residence along Frère Félix de Valois Street, Port-Louis, at Manilal Doctor’s disposal. He also collaborated with him for the foundation of his paper The Hindustani and the Young Men’s Hindu Association (YMHA) set up in 1908. The YMHA aimed at promoting Hinduism and improving the Indian labourers’ working conditions. The generous landlord Srinivasagan Veerappa Padayachee became its first chairman.  
YMHA’s first secretary till 1914, Permal Soobrayen (1886-1952), a poor, orphaned and untutored intellectual, was in Ramsamy Canabady’s employ. Accompanying Manilal Doctor to his meetings, he addressed the audience in Hindi and Tamil. Promoting Tami, he opened six schools which he all managed personally. His was the first Mauritian’s work published in India; his translation into Tamil of the French novel “Ravengar” by Guy de Théramont came out in Madras in 1925. His “Deenabimaana Geetham” (Contemplative Songs), an anthology of Tamil poems, appeared also in Madras in 1932. When the pregnant labourer Anjalay Coopen was fatally shot in 1943, he wrote a poem in her tribute. Having worked for some time as court interpreter, Permal was at home also in Telugu. His students, the Sangeelee brothers (Mootoocomaren and Rajarethnum), at first primary school teachers of Tamil, later promoted this language. To Rajarethnum, who retired as school director, he bequeathed his library.
Tamil was the first printed Indian language in Mauritius, the letters being probably imported from Pondicherry. As from March 1843, an almost one-page announcements appeared in Tamil in the then Le Mauricien. Tamil types were used to publish the Tamil daily, Mercantile Advertiser. However, after its launch on 14 December 1868, it stopped appearing soon   afterwards. The weekly Mimic Trumpeter (English and Tamil), which came out in 1911, ceased appearing after a year. Its founder-editor-in-chief was the Indian Tulasinga Nayanar of Madurai. A polyglot scholar nicknamed Navalar (Orator), having come as a soldier, he used to give public lectures in Tamil. Permal Soobrayen, his sub-editor, having learnt from him both Tamil and journalism, became the first famous Mauritian Tamil poet.
Renganaden Seeneevassen (1910-1958): Accomplished Patriot
Renganaden Seeneevassen (intimately called Renga) was SSR’s junior by ten years. Yet, they were close, having much in common. Both were West-educated, sophisticated, brilliant professionals. Fresh from UK, in 1940, on the occasion of the Hindu Sankranti festival, Renga thus viewed his religion, as he spoke over Radio Maurice, with his text reproduced in the Indian Cultural Review of April 1941: “the interdependence of social life and religion” inherent “in the very nature of Hinduism” which, providing “a common platform whereon all the people (Aryans, Dravidians and others) widely differing in many respects could meet to be absorbed within the compass of one social structure (…), had to be a religion of tolerance.”
When the Consultative Constitutional Committee held its sessions in 1945 and 1946-1947, Renga was its youngest member, but among the most vocal, together with SSR, to plead successfully to have the voting criteria lowered. A group including Renga rallied around him, opposing the conservatives who were all adamantly against the extension of franchise. When the Committee met for the last time on 14 February 1947, SSR presented to the Governor a constitutional memorandum. Drafted mainly by SSR and Renga, it was a summary of the vital points put forward by the SSR-led group. On 5 March 1947, a letter signed by A.L.M. Osman, Harilal Vaghjee, Ramawad Sewgobind, Aunuth Beejadhur and Sookdeo Balgobin, besides SSR and Renga, was despatched to the Governor.
An outstanding lawyer, gifted orator reputed for his sense of humour, adored by the masses and distinguished legislator, first nominated (1947-1948), Renga was elected in 1948, becoming the country’s first Indo-Mauritian to represent Port-Louis in the legislature, and then in 1953. Renga was SSR’s faithful political lieutenant since the start until his premature death. He was among those who actively participated in teaching people to sign their names in the Indian languages used in Mauritius to allow them to become electors in 1948.
Renga had been successful in the capital’s municipal election from 1943, when he first experienced an electoral test, on the same platform as SSR, until his death. As the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) was not satisfied with the 1953 local contest, he moved in the legislature that the abusive electoral processes be enquired. The Keith-Lucas Commission concluded that neither any machinery to compile an accurate register nor any appropriate administrative mechanism to verify it was available. The creation of the office of an electoral commissioner was among the recommendations in the Keith-Lucas Report (1956). The Electoral Commission became responsible for the electors’ registration, besides the conduct of parliamentary and local elections. Renga was the driving force behind the MLP’s victory in the 1956 municipal elections in Port-Louis, winning 11 out of 16 seats for the first time.
Together with SSR, Renga took part in many national and important condolence meetings arranged in Gandhi’s memory after his murder in 1948. Further, he was at the airport in 1950 to welcome Manilal Doctor, chief guest of the India Republic Celebrations Committee chaired by SSR. They both prostrated at his feet, in gratitude for his battle for Indo-Mauritians’ cause from 1907 to 1911. Close to the workers and on behalf of the MLP, Renga, together with Veerasamy Ringadoo (later minister, mostly for Finance, and Sir), successfully and voluntarily defended the General Port and Harbour Workers’ Union before the Arbitration Tribunal in September 1954.
Renga excelled in his discussions with the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1955 and 1956. The latter offered a package deal comprising not only universal suffrage and responsible government but also proportional representation (PR) with a transferable vote. However, the MLP was against PR, lest it would divide the population communally and give rise to multiple political parties resulting in governmental instability. It argued that it would be a complicated mode of vote for the masses. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and his supporters also opposed PR. Beekrumsing Ramlallah’s Mauritius Times embarked upon a nation-wide campaign against PR. Renga was the MLP’s main speaker on it in the legislature and outside. The MLP won the by-election held after Guy Rozemont’s death in Port-Louis in 1956. The campaign had centred on PR. Dr. Willy Dupré (MLP) triumphed against the Parti Mauricien’s candidate Alex Bhujoharry, a reputed educationist in the capital. Renga played a key role in this election victory. After the London Conference of September 1956, attended by Renga and SSR, the idea for PR was abandoned. Instead, an Electoral Boundaries Commission was appointed, chaired by Sir Malcolm Trustram-Eve. Defending socialism and stressing the need for a one-nation, with the electorate voting along party lines, Renga championed the MLP’s cause, demanding 40 single-member constituencies. The 1959 general election was held on this basis. After being Liaison Officer for Health (1952-1957), Renga served as the first Minister of Education (1957-1958), who suddenly died after bequeathing a new code of education that is still valid.
In tribute in the Legislative Council to his departed companion whom he qualified as “a self-made man and a born leader of men,” the future Prime Minister SSR remarked: “The country is paralysed by this great tragedy and plunged in sorrow for the man everyone loved and admired. The immensity of this big public loss is hardly visible yet. It is only as the history of this island will unfold itself that the magnitude of this tragic death will be brought home to everybody.” In its obituary of Renga, the Mauritius Times of 6 June 1958 observed that he “was one of the greatest parliamentarians of his time. His marvellous way of speaking, the flowery and forceful language he would use, his subtle sarcasms, his constant desire never to strike below the belt and his readiness to consider the other man’s views are the greatest oratorical qualities he had. The way he steered the passage of the new Education Code in the Assembly (sic) revealed his detailed knowledge of, and faith in, parliamentary practice.” His bust at Place d’Armes, Port-Louis, perpetuates his memory.