MORIS DIME | FINN ARIVE YER — l’IFB : “A Man of the People”, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal

Notre invité du jour, l’historien, ancien ministre et ambassadeur Satteeanund Peerthum, procède à une piqûre de rappel de certains faits historiques en rapport avec le parcours de Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, dont l’empreinte sur le paysage politique et éducatif à Maurice s’apparente à une lame de fond. Aussi l’historien s’appesantit-il sur le rôle de l’Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) dans la victoire du Parti de l’Indépendance au scrutin du 7 août 1967.

Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was born on 25 December 1908 at Tyack, Rivière des Anguilles and he passed away at the age of 69 early in the morning of 18 August 1977 at SSR National Hospital in Pamplemousses. This year marks the 40th anniversary of his death which unfortunately passed mostly unnoticed by the Mauritian people, the local press, and the Government of Mauritius, with only a simple wreath-laying ceremony on Labour Day 2017. Despite this fact, today, Mauritian historians, scholars, citizens, and former followers of the IFB consider him to be one of the great figures of 20th century Mauritius who has left an indelible mark on our country’s history.
 
Bissoondoyal in Politics & The General Elections of 1948
 
Sookdeo Bissoondoyal led an extraordinary and eventful public life and made significant contributions in the development of Mauritius. Between the 1940s and 1970s, as a teacher, pedagogue, journalist, book writer, parliamentarian, government minister, party leader and leader of the opposition, he exerted a major influence on the Mauritian political stage. He made his entry into politics in 1946, shortly after resigning as a government primary school teacher. He embarked on his long and illustrious career as a politician. During the first historic general elections of August 1948, he was elected as a representative for the Grand Port/Savanne constituency. 
In his biography of S. Bissoondoyal, P. Jeetah reproduced part of a speech which Sookdeo, while reminiscing about the 1948 general elections, had delivered at a meeting of the Legislative Council: “In 1948, on the 10th August, my friend, the late Guy Rozemont called at my place at 4 o’clock in the morning. The election was going to take place on that day. ‘My situation is difficult’, he told me. ‘I caused posters to be placarded and I had a demonstration of bullock carts carrying big blackboards. On one side there was ‘Votez Rozemont!’ and on the other ‘Votez Millien!’. Now, can this small occurrence be disregarded? Can it be said that such things will not occur in the future?”.      
   On the same day, Guy Rozemont, who was then leader of the Labour Party, was elected as a representative for the Port Louis constituency and he became a member of the Legislative Council. Equally interesting, Rozemont thanked Sookdeo for all his help. Thus, it is not surprising that a few years ago, in his brilliant book on Mauritian history, Sydney Selvon eloquently explained: “Basdeo and Sookdeo successfully helped Curé, through their Jan Andolan, to assemble vast crowds of Indo-Mauritian labourers under the banner of the Labour Party”. This is testimony enough to the fact to what extent Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal, his beloved elder brother helped the Labour Party, during the 1940s, and which continued during the 1960s.  
 
The People’s Representative during the 1940s & 1950s
 
As early as 1946, Sookdeo called on the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Colonial Office to grant universal adult suffrage to the Mauritian people. Between 1946 and 1956, in his many fiery speeches and memorable articles such as in his newspaper Zamana, Bissoondoyal helped shape public opinion and influence the thinking of the major political parties, when it came to this extremely important issue. He firmly believed that the all Mauritians formed part of one nation and they were mature enough and ready to be given this precious right. Unfortunately, the British colonial authorities did not share Sookdeo’s point of view, at least not until 1956. 
During that year, Lennox Boyd, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, sent an important dispatch to Governor Scott in which he clearly acknowledged that: “Since Mauritius enjoys as high a level of cultural and material attainment as other territories in which universal adult suffrage has been achieved, and despite the complexities of its racial, religious, and social structure, I would be unwilling to further delay the introduction of universal adult suffrage.” During the general elections of 1959, universal adult suffrage was finally introduced and it was a historic milestone in our country’s gradual process of decolonization. 
During his 28 years on the Legislative Council and later as Member of Parliament, Bissoondoyal proved to be an outstanding and a hardworking representative of the people. He is closely associated and credited with the following historic government decisions:
The move towards the country’s independence
Old-age pension 
State subsidies for all religions
The expansion of educational opportunities for primary school children
The creation of an Ombudsman to act as a guardian of public rights
A Police Enquiry Commission to investigate the abuse of power and corruption in the colonial police force
The establishment of the best loser system
The implementation of universal adult suffrage
The placement of thousands of poor Mauritian children in primary schools in 1956 and after
 
It is also interesting to note that Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was the first Mauritian politician to speak in Creole, French, English, Hindi and bhojpuri at his political meetings. He was the first member of the Legislative Council to be imprisoned three times while still in office which did not quench his determination and defiance.
 
The IFB & the General Elections of 1967
 
Sookdeo Bissoondoyal launched his Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) on 13 April 1958 which was clearly inspired from the patriotic Indian movement, the Forward Bloc of Subash Chandra Bose, the great Indian freedom fighter of the 1930s and 1940s. The IFB was able to elect several candidates in the general elections of 1959, 1963 and 1967. In 1967 alone, 12 of its candidates were elected. 
In 1963, the IFB joined government by making a political alliance with the Labour Party and Muslim Action Committee (MAC). A delegation of the IFB headed by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal played an active role at the London Conferences of 1961 and 1965. S. Bissoondoyal, as leader of the IFB, agreed to help Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam make the case for independence and introduce the word ‘independence’ in the official discussions.
Four years later, the IFB successfully fought for independence alongside the Labour Party and MAC in a political alliance which became known as the ‘Independence Party’. Shortly before the crucial and historic general elections of August 1967, it was Sookdeo Bissoondoyal who first called the political alliance of the Labour Party, the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB), and the Muslim Action Committee (MAC), the “Independence Party” or “Parti de l’Indépendance”. 
It was Bissoondoyal’s IFB which allowed Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and the Labour Party to win this decisive general election against the PMSD. After all, on the 7th August 1967, the Labour Party was only able to get 23 of its 35 candidates elected and the MAC got 4 deputies elected, while the PMSD elected only 23 of its 62 candidates. In addition, the IFB, with its 12 elected candidates, was the political party which held the balance of power. Thus, by siding with the Labour Party and MAC, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and his political party were able to secure the defeat of the PMSD and, more importantly, our great country’s independence. 
In December 1969, one of the largely unknown stories of Mauritian independence was revealed by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal which is recorded in the Hansard Records of the Mauritian National Assembly. He mentioned how in early 1968, the then Commissioner of Police had proposed to SSR to hold the independence day celebrations at the Casernes Centrales or the Line Barracks which was seen as a symbol of British colonial oppression. At the last moment, it was Bissoondoyal who suggested and convinced the reluctant Mauritian leader to have the celebrations at the Champs de Mars on 12th March which is today considered one of the emblematic and most important events of Mauritian history! 
 
The Government Minister
On 1963, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal became the Minister of Local Government and Cooperative Movement. Between 1963 and 1969, Bissoondoyal played an important role in the construction of several village halls and he was the first minister to visit and take an interest in the development of Rodrigues. 
During his tenure in office, Port Louis was given the status of city and the town councils of the Plaines Wilhems district became municipalities. He also promoted the idea of creating a school of cooperatives and he encouraged Mauritians to play a greater role in the functioning of their municipalities and village councils. He also actively fought against corruption and abuses in his ministry.
 
The Writer, Teacher, and Pedagogue
Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was a charismatic political leader, a gifted orator and a prolific writer who wrote fiery hundreds of articles in Zamana his newspaper. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, he published thousands of articles in almost all of the country’s newspapers, making him one of the most prolific and influential writers of his time. Indeed, for many years, his writings helped to shape public policy and influenced the country’s voters.
Sookdeo Bissoondoyal has taught as well as inspired more than three generations of Mauritius with some of them eventually playing an important role in our country’s history as public and political figures. He was a champion of education who was firmly committed in the ‘education of the masses’ or teaching the Mauritian people about their social, political and human rights like Paolo Freire in Brazil during the same period. As a member of the Legislative Council and later on as Member of Parliament, he tabled several motions with the objective of improving the living and working conditions of his fellow citizens.
Today, there are hundreds of Sookdeo’s supporters who are alive and still proudly call themselves ‘Bissoondoyalists’. They remember him as a very humble person who was always ready to help others and devoted a lot of his time in providing aid to the poor and oppressed. He was a humanist, a Gandhian, a devoted family man and a man of vision who firmly believed in the social, economic and political betterment of all Mauritians. 
 
Preserving His Legacy 
In 1987, the Mauritian government carried out renovation works at the house where Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was born and transformed it into a memorial museum. In April of the same year, it was inaugurated as the Sookdeo Bissoondoyal Memorial Museum by Sir Anerood Jugnauth, the then Prime Minister of Mauritius. 
More than a decade later, in August 1997, a life-size statue was unveiled at Place Sookdeo Bissoondoyal in Port Louis in the presence of several personalities such as Navin Ramgoolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Anerood Jugnauth and Late Uttam Bissoondoyal, the son of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal. 
In December 2008, in the context of 100th birth anniversary of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the Mauritius Museums Council held an exhibit and launched a booklet in his memory with the collaboration of the Ministry of Arts and Culture and the Bissoondoyal family. Unfortunately, almost a decade later, the work, struggle, and legacy of this great Mauritian patriot and Gandhian is gradually being forgotten and relegated to the back pages of Mauritian history.