MAURITIUS INDEPENDENCE : Marginalism and political control

With the implied and even active support of the Mauritian political class and through electors' behaviour, communalism will enter the Mauritian political lexicon with official recognition of four distinct communities : Hindus, Muslims, Chinese, and anybody not fitting in those three to a group euphemistically called General Population. Not only communalism but also casteism and, to cap it all, a clear demarcation of Hindus into Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi-speaking Hindus (Tamils, Telegu and Marathis). And the consequential effect of these practices will give rise, on the periphery of our political spectrum, to marginalised groups unable to make demands through the political process and legitimately share the economic spoils. Let us delve in our history and see how we came to this position of almost no-return.
To the political class elected to the Legislative Council in 1948, legislative debate was an new and learning experience few could properly assimilate. « They got power divorced from responsibility » is how Colonial Office described them. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal will be suspended and jailed in November 1948, while Millien would be sued. Guy Rozemont will be jailed three times : in 1950 for illegal picketing, in 1951 for contempt, and in 1953 for breach of law. But the mass of the electorate will admire their defiance of the Colonial authorities. Colonial Office responded by creating in April 1951 the post of Liaison Officers to initiate senior politicians in the art of political responsibilities. The appointment of Donald Mackenzie-Kennedy's successor, Sir Hilary Blood (September 1949 – January 1954) would make matters worse. Blood, by his appointment of nominees soon after the August 1953 General Elections, was seen as openly siding with the Franco-Mauritian conservatives and nullifying the result of the elections. This drove the MLP to ask for Constitutional changes. Communalism was becoming rampant an no community trusted another. The Ralliement Mauricien was formed in December 1952 and, three years later, it became the Parti Mauricien and was increasingly attracting creoles disenchanted by the MLP seen as an « Indian » party.
Governor Hilary Blood's successor, Sir Robert Scott (March 1954 – July 1959), assisted by his extremely capable Colonial Secretary, Robert Newton, met community and political leaders to solve the main political problem then facing Mauritius, « that of balancing or rectifying ethnic/communal representation ». Scott advocated for a « Boundaries Commission proposal » to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lennox-Boyd. In July 1955, in what was known as the First London Conference, Lennox-Boyd met eight Mauritian politicians and suggested Proportional Representation (PR). The Mauritius Labour Party flatly rejected it, the Parti Mauricien agreed. But politics in Mauritius was getting deeply communalised and polarised. The Muslim Committee of Action (CAM) was launched in 1957 and the year after, in April, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal formed his Independent Forward Bloc (IFB). Robert Scott was in London from November 1956 to April 1957 when, under local pressure – mainly by Renganaden's campaign against PR – the Colonial Office convoked the Second London Conference (February 1957). There were two main outcomes. On July 5, a ministerial system was introduced in Mauritius and an Electoral Boundary Commission was appointed. The Trustam-Eve Commission reported in January 1958, and we got the 40 single-member constituencies and Mauritians went to the General Elections twice on that system (9 March 1959 and 21 October 1963). But communalism got further entrenched and politics bi-polarised.

The advent of ephemeral People Socialist Party

In 1958 the MLP/CAM alliance was made official, and an unofficial pact existed between Parti Mauricien and IFB ! The Mauritius Labour Party was led by Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Guy Rozemont was dead and buried since March 1956 and the most likely contender, Renganaden Seeneevassen, also died in June 1958 at the young age of 48. A third London Conference called the « Constitutional Review Talks » was held from 26 June to 7 July 1961. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, leader of the majority party, MLP, became Chief Minister. But the inter-community relations were drifting to its worst ever in the colonial history. Following publication by Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO) in UK of a Colonial Office commissioned study « Indians in a Plural Society » by British anthropologist, Dr Burton Benedict, an important section of the Hindu community (what is known as the Vaishs, Ravived and Rajputs) openly declared war on Dr Ramgoolam's MLP, which they contended as being controlled by a high caste bourgeoisie. This bourgeoisie had, by and large, also implanted herself in the State administrative apparatus (la Bourgeoisie d'Etat), and, as a fact, controlled the Mauritius Labour Party. The contenders then set up a People Socialist Party (PSP) which became a force to be reckoned with. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the great political strategist, quickly accommodated some of PSP leaders – who then turned dealers – in his MLP in view of the 21 October 1963 General Elections. But two of the most prominent meneurs of PSP suffered humiliating defeat : Leekrajmanee Gungah lost to Franco-Mauritian Robert Rey in Moka, and Rabindranuth Ghurburrun – who was to become later vice-President of Mauritius Republic – was defeated by Wahab Foondun, the only Muslim IFB elected, in Bon Accueil.

At this juncture, the troubled conservative-led government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the UK was revising its colonial role and defence strategy in the Indian Ocean and wanted a coalition government in Mauritius. In the 1963 elections, the Parti Mauricien (PM) led by Jules Koenig, as well as Bissoondoyal's IFB, made a good showing. Gaëtan Duval, who was the then rising star in Parti Mauricien, was to be made Deputy Speaker. The high caste bourgeoisie objected. Parti Mauricien reacted by a strong press communique and called on its supporters in front of the Legislative Council. They gathered there on 19 November 1963, where they supposedly hailed their battle cry against a particular community. Police used tear gas to dispel the protesters. Soon the All Mauritius Hindu Congress (AMHC) will be formed and led by Premchand Dabee, a fiery ex-MLP councillor. AMHC will react tit for tat to Parti Mauricien's attacks, mainly conducted by its notorious rogues and young hooligans. The sad episodes of 1965 at Trois-Boutiques and Solferino are still vivid in the mind of some elders. A battalion of British Coldstream Guards was flown by Royal Air Force from Aden to Mauritius to maintain law and order. However, despite the tense communal situation, an All-Party Government was set up soon after discussions in London in February 1964 (the Mini-London Conference). The second stage of the 1961 Constitutional Review Agreement was put into operation by London, and on 12 March 1964 the Mauritius (Constitution) Order 1964 came into force. The British Government retained that same date, 12 March, for Mauritius Independence in 1968. Dr Ramgoolam became Premier, Koenig became Attorney General, and Gaëtan Duval, Minister of Housing. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Abdul Razack Mohamed also became ministers, as did Anerood Jugnauth from IFB, for a brief period, before he returned to the magistrature. After the September 1965 Mauritius Constitutional Conference (MCC), Parti Mauricien withdrew from the All-Party Government.

Independence and political control

At the Mauritius Constitutional Conference of 1965, Britain decided Mauritius should become independent. It also decided on the date. George Thompson, the then Commonwealth Secretary (the Colonial Office was now integrated in Foreign and Commonwealth Office) wrote an important six-paragraph letter dated 16 October 1967 (Ref 48/67) to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. It said : « HMG is ready to carry out Anthony Greenwood's 1965 undertaking to grant independence by 17 February 1968. It may be necessary to accept a slighter later date… in September the Premier (SSR) asked us to say. What would be the earliest practicable date, he has now told Lord Shepherd that he thinks that a date in April or May 1968 may be best … The timetable for Mauritius Independence has already slipped very badly due to procrastination by the Premier, and I consider it important that the date should not be unduly delayed. » Finally the date 12 March, as pointed out, was agreed.

On Tuesday 12 March 1968, at noon, a state was born with a nation in the making. But an important fringe of the Mauritian people, mainly Parti Mauricien Social Democrate supporters, sulked. The Mauritian quadricolor was conspicuously not seen in urban areas (safe Quatre-Bornes Town Hall) and not flown in Rodrigues for nearly a year. Earlier, Gaëtan Duval approached Bissoondoyal to form a Government in which Bissoondoyal would be Prime Minister and his party, IFB, hold key ministries. The IFB leader categorically turned down the offer and made it public. Instead SSR, the clever political strategist, will call all the slots. Thoroughly British « in intellect, in taste and behaviour », SSR always wanted to see Mauritius as an independent country within the Commonwealth and not a Republic. In 1976, he even sought a Life Peerage across High Commissioner, Sir Leckraz Teelock.

SSR's quest for a Life Peerage turned down

A Steering brief dated 28 July 1976 signed by Patrick Wright of Prime Minster's Office, 10 Downing Street, and addressed to James Callaghan, then British Prime Minister, for his meeting with SSR in the House of Commons on Thursday 29 July 1976 at 15.40 hrs says : « It is just possible that Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam may raise with you the question of a Life Peerage for himself. The High Commissioner has been a persistent advocate, but has been told, as recently as last month, that Life Peerages for Commonwealth Prime Ministers could only provoke dispute and controversy about the role of the Lords, which the Government would be well advised to avoid. I think that Sir Leckraz Teelock, if not Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam himself, now accepts that the idea of a Life Peerage is not on. » It is not clear whether SSR wanted to keep his primeministership with a Life Peerage in the House of Lords.

In the end, through retrospect, independence was about taking control of the administrative and political apparatus. As the best man, SSR won and he guided our fledgeling new state through the difficult path of nationhood.

Commentaires

Interesting article, but why is there no mention of those who elected during the elections of 7 August 1967 ? The names of those people should have been mentioned. Thank you.

ABOUT 12 MARCH 1968

Very interesting article.

I read years ago Navin Ramgoolam said in an interview with L'Express that the 12 March was chosen as Independence day because it was on a 12 March that Mahatma Gandhi led the SALT MARCH. I asked myself that can't be right, because the SALT MARCH had nothing to do with the Independence of Mauritius.

So it was fixed for the 12 March 1968, as per the above article.

I do not know why the 12 March 1968, but I think because 12 March is COMMONWEALTH DAY.

Firstly, Prof. Benedict Burton was an American; albeit an avowed Anglophile. Burton was de facto persona non grata in Mauritius for writing about "Indians in a plural society". An otherwise commendable and well researched piece, strangely lacked any mention of the 1968 riots. However, the clashes in Trois-Boutiques, 1965 are mentioned.

Navin's (alleged!)comment about the 12th March being chosen because it was the date of the 'Indian Salt March' (1930)needs clarifying. This was nothing but cheap politicking by Navin, implying that Mauritius's independence struggle was analogous to India's independence struggle, an attempt to pander to the Hindu electorate, even though Muslims, Sikhs and Chrisitians all played a prominent role. NB. 'Commonwealth Day' is designated to be on the second Monday of March.

Lastly, independence in Mauritius has turned out to be a lie. How can one be independent when one is being sold off to India, France, China etc.!