PETER CHELLEN

It’s always the final torchbearer igniting the flame of the cauldron who enjoys the limelight. All the other torchbearers of the relay from the starting point are forgotten.

The final torchbearer in the Chagos marathon was ex-Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) who took the bull by the horns soon after the December 2014 General Election and would not let go until the United Nations’ vote in 2019 to the effect that Britain should return the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. It is not surprising that he should take the glory for his tenacity of purpose. “We need to struggle and we have no intention to backpedal concerning the sovereignty of the Chagos isles,” he told the Mauritius Parliament in June 2016. He informed the House that Mauritius would seek the advice of the International Court of Justice, which in his view should not be seen as an unfriendly act because “we are struggling for a legitimate cause.”

By George, SAJ did take the bull by the horns and stood firm until the case was heard by the International Court of Justice on 25 February 2019.  Such tenacity on the Chagos issue has never been witnessed from the time when the Archipelago, made up of 64 islands and atolls, dependencies of Mauritius, was made part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965, when Mauritius was itself still a British possession. Mauritius was granted independence in March 1968 without the Chagos dependencies which were retained by the mother country as part of the BIOT. Much has been said and much has been written about this occurrence, which will be debated for generations to come. But today, we who are witnessing History-in-the-Making, we are not too sure that we can, unanimously, agree on what really took place when Britain decided to keep the Chagos for itself in 1965 for the BIOT, three years before the independence on Mauritius.  It is to be wondered how future generations will be able to understand what was fact and what was fiction regarding events that took place in 1965, when now, after just 55 years, we cannot be certain of what actually happened. This aspect of the Chagos saga can be the substance of another write-up. Did we sell the Chagos to the mother-country (who owned Mauritius, lock, stock and barrel), and who actually took the money for the sale? If I were a rich man I would give a million rupees+ as prize to the winner of a national essay competition on this theme. Fascinating subject, indeed!

On the other hand, for the benefit of history it would be good to know what actually happened since the residents of the Chagos were expelled from their homeland and transported by the British Government and dumped on the shores of Mauritius and The Seychelles. It may be said that not much took place in the form of concerted action on the part of the Mauritius Government to protest against the inhumane action of the British Government towards the Chagossians. Perhaps Mauritius, an impoverished island in the 1960s and till recently, did not have the sort of vigour of the 2010s as the richest country of Africa (Yahoo News dixit) to stand up to the mother country who held sway over the sugar bowl island and its people prior to independence.

Mauritius before independence

Prior to independence, Mauritius was totally subservient to Britain. As the ICJ noted in its assessment that the Constitution of Mauritius, as a British colony did not “allow the representatives of the people to exercise real legislative or executive powers, and that authority was nearly all concentrated in the hands of the United Kingdom Government.” So, when the question of the detachment of the Chagos arose in 1965, the Mauritius Council of Ministers could do nothing else than to give its consent, observed the ICJ.

Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth, on an offi cial visit to the UK in
1988, received by British PM Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street

Before Independence, everything had to be British in Mauritius. Apart from the fact that the official language of the island was English, (our own language, the Creole was considered as ‘‘petit nègre’’ or at best as a patois even by some of our own compatriots), our education (primary, secondary and tertiary) had to be British. Mauritians with degrees and other academic qualifications from India, France or any other country than Britain could not obtain employment in the Mauritius Government service. Our doctors, engineers, lawyers and education officers were British products. All imports, except rice and flour, were from Britain and we sold our sugar mostly to Britain. Cars were of British makes. Even Mauritian civil servants had to spend their overseas leave in the UK. Could such a submissive entity stand up to its master, the UK, to challenge its authority?  If Britain, even today in 2020, cannot give two hoots to international law as regards Mauritius’s sovereignty over the Chagos, what could the British colony of Mauritius do in 1965 to prevent the dismemberment of its territory? The island could only but concur as has been pointed out by the ICJ. Britain to this day still rules the waves in some parts of the Indian Ocean and can afford to ignore international law.

My claim to fame

Well anyway, after independence in 1968 not much was done by the Mauritius Government for the Chagossians in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s until their case was taken up in 1997 by Solicitor Richard Gifford of the British law firm of Sheridans of Holborn, central London. And that’s where I personally came in. I was working, one late afternoon, at the editorial office of Mauritius News on Wandsworth Road, south London, when I received a phone call from Richard Gifford, a fellow-member of the Anglo-Mauritian Association, of which he was the Chairman. “Peter, what do you know of the Cha(e)gos† case?”, he asked me. Having been in post in 1965, as a Mauritius civil servant, at the newly-created Mauritius Commission, in London, (not a High Commission yet, an overseas mission without diplomatic status) when the ministerial delegation came to London for constitutional talks on the independence of Mauritius, and having covered the Chagos issue in the very first edition of Mauritius News in November 1983, I briefed Richard Gifford of what I knew. (The initial Chagos foul-up occurred before his time at Sheridans.)

“I have come across a file on the Chagos in an office cabinet, I think I can revive the case. Can you please help me to obtain the name of a Chagossian? Richard asked me (after all, who else if not Mauritius News to help!) “You are in luck, Richard”, I told him, “I had lunch recently with a Mauritian journalist who was in London and we talked about the Chagos.” I arranged for Richard Gifford to speak to the journalist who was back home. The name of Olivier Bancoult, an electrician by profession, was suggested to the solicitor who later said to us “we have a new Chagossian leader”. I believe this is my claim to fame (apart from the fact that I am the first Mauritian to publish a newspaper overseas for Mauritian expats), I was instrumental, through the Mauritian journalist, in the appointment/nomination/designation, or propulsion of totally unknown Olivier Bancoult on to the world stage.

In 1998, with the help of Richard Gifford and a team of British lawyers, Olivier Bancoult entered a plea in the UK High Court of Justice that he was illegally evicted from the Chagos and demanded the right to return to his homeland. On 12 July 2000, the case was heard for the first time, and following the four-day hearing, the High Court reserved its judgement for the next session. Lord Justice John Law said “This case is as interesting as it is important.”

Victory for the Chagossians

Seen as a victory for the Chagossians, Richard Gifford held a press conference in the vicinity of his Holborn office after the hearing of 2000. Just before the conference was to start, Richard said to me, apart: “It all began with you.” Well this new chapter in the affairs of the Chagossians initiated by Richard Gifford did actually begin with me when he phoned me one afternoon for help.

A Mauritian newspaper article recently stated that the Jugnauths seemed to be taking all the credits for reviving the Chagossian issue. The author wrote “Nou, MSM-ML ki finn regagn Chagos” martèle Sir Anerood, repris en choeur par Pravind Jugnauth et Ivan Collendavelloo”. He further added Seuls ceux de nos concitoyens qui ne se sont jamais intéressés au dossier peuvent prendre les paroles de SAJ et consorts pour vérité absolue’’.  This observation from that Mauritian newspaper rejoined somewhat Olivier Bancoult’s reply to a question from Monaf Fakira, a contributor to Mauritius News, at the July 2000 press conference in London as to whether the claim of the Chagossians could not go de pair with the claim of Mauritius for its sovereignty. Monaf Fakira also asked whether this unilateral action on the part of the Chagossians would not affect Mauritius’s own sovereignty claim.

Bancoult’s reply was incisive. “We are fighting for our rights, and I am concerned with our rights and our own interests” he said in Creole to the thunderous applause of his compatriots who were present. “All the time that Mauritius has been talking to the British Government, the Mauritius Government never bothered to bring the ilois in or to consult with them. Why should we worry about Mauritius?” he told the press conference, as reported in the August 2000 edition of Mauritius News. Mr Gifford added that he held no brief from the Mauritius Government and that he could not see how the efforts of the Chagossians fighting for their rights could affect the sovereignty claim of Mauritius.

† Cha(e)gos,

as pronounced by the British.

To be continued