SSR and the Independence of Mauritius

Making sense of contemporary political figures is no easy matter. Not only is there a great amount of historical sources to be digested but the nearness in time does not always allow an 
objective evaluation. In the case of Sir Seewoosagur 
Ramgoolam, we have to add the dimension of the political and 
statesman who dominated the Mauritian political scene for nearly half a century. A career of such breadth and length could only leave materials for diverging interpretations.
And even if we try to limit the subject to the role of SSR in 
the accession of Mauritius to independence, we have to insert 
him in a larger historical problem that of "decolonisation", of 
the end of colonial empires; a theme as much loaded with 
passionate controversies and where new perspectives seem to 
appear as the official archives are declassified.
In the case of Mauritius, the archives on the process of 
decolonisation are only slowly revealing their secrets as they are being opened to researchers at the Public Records Office, 
Kew gardens.
However, this lack of primary sources has not prevented the 
formulation of hasty judgements as to the role of Sir Seewoosagur 
Ramgoolam in the making of Mauritian independence. On one 
side, there are those historians who see independence as flowing directly from the vision of SSR and from the struggle of the 
Mauritian Labour Party against both the PMSD, backed by sugar 
barons and the British colonial authorities, all too ready to side 
with the 'reactionaries'.
On the other hand, there are those, who argue that with the retreat of Great Britain from India, the granting of independence 
to Mauritius was only a question of time and that Sir
Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was but a tool in the hands of the British authorities and the leader of a 'state bourgeoisie' whose 
sole aim was the control of the state apparatus even at the cost of 
a 'new deal' with the sugar barons on a new division of power 
along ethnic lines. They argue that in the pursuit of that objective, 
SSR did not hesitate to hand over Diego Garcia to the British, leading to the forcible deportation of thousands of ilois to the 
shanty towns of Port Louis where they would rot in abject poverty.
However, the analysis of recently declassified documents 
show that these interpretations do not tally with historical facts, 
that the role of SSR was essential to the accession of Mauritius 
to national sovereignty and in his struggle for independence, he 
had to face many obstacles which included opposition within 
his own party, a PMSD which did not hesitate to play to the 
utmost on ethnic division, raising communal tensions in a 
colony that was facing serious economic and social problems; 
and that it needed great diplomatic skills, statesmanship, and 
tact for SSR to prevent serious troubles which could have been fatal to Mauritius.
The British policy towards the independence of Mauritius 
went through several phases from 1945 to 1968. Though Great 
Britain had come out of the war very weakened, and had to grant 
independence to India, she still clung to her possessions 
elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and the Indian Ocean. 
Recently declassified documents reveal that for the British 
authorities in the early 1950's Mauritius was part of a group of 
smaller territories which could only aspire to self-government 
and not independence.
It is true that after the Suez crises there was a change in 
British defence strategy from conventional to nuclear warfare. 
This led to colonial retrenchment and the winds of change did 
blow over the British colonial empire. But the reports on the 
future of British colonies of May and July 1957 show that the 
British authorities stilI felt that British influence over Mauritius 
would have to be maintained. The reasons were not economic 
(for Mauritius was bound by various commerical treaties with 
Britain) but because not only Mauritius and her dependencies
were valuable for strategic communication in the Indian Ocean 
but also because they feared a retreat from Mauritius would be 
accompanied by severe inter-ethnic troubles which would not 
only lead to loss of British prestige but more importantly to 
diplomatic complications with France and India.
SSR deeply influenced by fabianism
For indeed, the democratisation of Mauritian politics since 
1948 had led to intensification of ethnic politics. Fearing for their privileges, the Franco-Mauritians and part of the gens de 
couleur elite, raised the spectre of Hindu hegemony at a time when the Mauritius labour party, which represented a coalition of Indo-Mauritian and gens de couleur intelligentsia backed by workers from all ethnic groups of the island, called for greater 
social welfare for the masses and the nationalisation of key 
industries. Sir Seewoosagur who was deeply influenced by fabianism was a moderate socialist who aimed at greater 
integration of the workers within society through massive social 
transfers by the creation of a welfare state.
Recently declassified documents reveal that because of his 
socialist leanings the British authorities were at first rather 
suspicious of him, feeling that he was too 'impractical'. But Sir 
Seewoosagur Ramgoolam at that time did not call independence of Mauritius from the British. His aim was further democratisation 
of politics as a prelude to the application of the programme of 
MLP which aimed at the uplifting of the working class.
And hence, at the London Constitutional Conference of 1955, SSR expressed the wish that Mauritius be integrated to Great Britain. This might seem paradoxical from someone who
is now revered as the father of the nation. In fact, at that time, the 
British authorities were toying with the idea of integrating Malta to Great Britain. This would have not only meant MPs from 
Malta in the House of Commons, but the extention to British 
welfare state to the island. The British colonial authorities 
understood all to clearly the aim of SSR and MLP.
However by 1956, the British colonial authorities would 
make a re-evaluation of the Mauritius political scene in the 
light of the constitutional crisis following the publication of 
Alan Lennox-Boyd proposals for constitutional reform which 
made Proportional Representation as essential step to the granting 
of universal suffrage. The Labour Party radicals joined by 
R. Seeneevassen campaigned strongly against PR and this led 
the British authorities to organise a new conference in London 
in 1957. But Ramgoolam had been conciliatory all along. The 
colonial authorities came to understand that a very serious 
situation could develop in a colony beset by economic and 
social problems (unemployment, overpopulation, ethnic tension) 
if the moderate leadership of the MLP were not kept at the helm 
at a time when a ministerial system was being introduced in the 
island.
The authorities understood that a man of compromise was 
necessary for the further stability of Mauritius at a time when 
economic reforms seemed urgent and Constitutional 
development was on the agenda.
For the British authorities, SSR was that providential 
statesman. From 1957, for the colonial authorities, the stability 
of Mauritius lay in keeping the moderates around Ramgoolam 
in power, sheltering them from the 'demagogy' of the Hindu 
radical leader S. Bissoondoyal, who was all too ready to make secret deals with a PMSD backed by sugar barons.
But it was at this point in time that Sir S Ramgoolam called 
for the independence of Mauritius after having secured a 
landslide victory with his new ally, the CAM of Razack Mohamed 
in the general elections of 1959. Sir S Ramgoolam was also 
influenced as much by the decolonisation of French colonies, 
especially Madagascar, by Chedi Jagan, by the decision of the 
British Labour Party to support the independence of smaller 
colonies as by the fact that he wanted to be the first Prime Minister 
of an independent Mauritius. Due to health problems, he was a 
man in a hurry.
Constitutional advance
Recently classified records show that as from 1959, backed 
only by Sir V. Ringadoo, he kept calling for further Constitutional 
advance for Mauritius towards independence. At the time the 
British were very lukewarm to grant any further constitutional 
advance fearing that this may play in the hands of extremists. 
But in order to keep Ramgoolam and the moderate leadership of 
Labour Party politically afloat after the devastation of cyclone 
at Carol and Alix, a constitutional conference was convened in 
1961. Both the IFB and the PMSD stood against immediate 
independence and the Mauritius Labour Party did not obtain 
independence. Yet Ramgoolam was to be made Chief Minister 
and later Prime Minister of Mauritius. Significantly, the 
unofficial delegation of the sugar industry to the conference 
agreed to the proposal, just like A. Nairac, a nominee 
representing business interest in government.
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam wanted independence amidst 
national concensus. However, events that followed the 
conference led to further ethnic tension in the island as the 
PMSD tried to rally the general population and other minorities 
in a crusade against independence portrayed as the takeover of 
the island by 'Hindu-Indian fanatics' , an event which it argued 
would lead to famine. The backlash was the rise of Hindu extremism around the All Mauritian Hindu Congress.
In that context, at the conference of 1965, the Mauritius 
delegation was hopelessly divided. Even the position of the 
ally of the MLP, the CAM, was uncertain just like the attitude of 
the IFB delegation, while the PMSD was dead against 
independence. The British authorities played skilfully and 
blackmailed SSR into agreeing to the excision of Diego Garcia 
in return for independence.
And the elections of 1967 saw further division of Mauritius 
into two hostile camps. However SSR managed to forge the 
coalition with S. Bissoondoyal and Razack Mohamed that was 
necessary to win the elections that would bring independence 
to Mauritius.
A man of compromise, he did understand that in the morning 
after victory a country had to be rebuilt. And this could only be 
done in a spirit of national reconciliation. Hence, the coalition 
of 1969 with PMSD and the decision to conciliate the private 
sector. This was the sine qua non for further economic 
development. The same Nairac, who had agreed to SSR becoming 
Chief Minister at the Conference of 1961 was, if we are to believe 
Sir Satcam Boolell's confession in 'Untold stories', the man 
behind the coalition. National concensus was after all found 
again and it proved the bedrock for the Mauritian 'Miracle'. 
And it was another legacy of SSR.

Archives - 2000


Commentaires

Jocelyn: 3 or 4 times you referred to " Recently declassified Records" ( in fact in the penultimate paragraph you actually wrote " Recently CLASSIFIED records!! ).

Would you please give the PRO references of these records. I am a bit surprised by your claims of these Records being recently " declassified" because most of the claims you are making in your article are quite OLD as can be ascertained from the Minutes of the various London Conferences from 1955 onwards.

Following the 1961 Conference, a well detailed Road map for self government was agreed consisting of two stages.

True the first stage stated the leader of the majority party in the assembly will be named Chief Minister, [NOT RAMGOOLAM was made CHIEF MINISTER!( The essence of a Constitution or defining a governance, which was what the Colonial power aiming through the various London Conferences)is NOT TO APPOINT INDIVIDUALS OR LEADERS INTO POMPOUS ( OSTENTATIOUS) GOVERNMENT POSITIONS, BUT TO DESIGN A SYSTEM FIT FOR PURPOSE AND ABOVE ALL, A SYSTEM that would achieve both political stability and economic recovery. At the time, as your rightly pointed out, rising communalism threatens the fragile inter-community relation on the island.

After Chief Minister , in Stage 2 of the agreement, there was to be created the post of PREMIER - NOT PRIME MINISTER as you stated ! A very big difference indeed ! You can only be PRIME MINISTER in a Sovereign independent country , which SSR would become after independence in 1968. ( Interesting comparison within a DEVOLVED SCOTLAND, Alex Salmond, until he resigned after the referendum was titled FIRST MINISTER !![ NOT PRIME MINSITER]

Still as Premier , and even as clear majority leader in the assembly ,SSR had only symbolic power. At that time and as per the 1961 Agreement , all 4 political parties ( Labour, IFB, CAM and PMSD ) had agreed to be part of an ALL PARTY GOVERNMENT. The HEAD OF GOVERNMENT was NOT THE PREMIER (SSR) BUT THE GOVERNOR ! I repeat the GOVERNOR who had the power to APPOINT and dismiss ALL MINISTERS ! NOT SSR ( SAJ may wish to re-visit his memory on this one).

The simple fact ( available for verification both in our own archives and at PRO, in Kew Gardens,) unfortunately had escaped the attention of the author J C De L'Estrac in his book on the " SALE" of Diego Garcia. In the book, for reasons so obvious, JCDL , tantot, described SSR Head of Government and, tantot, during the 1965 Lancaster House Conference as head of the MAURITIAN DELEGATION ! SSR WAS NEITHER !!! He was simply the Head and leader of the labour delegation at the Lancaster House Conference. The Labour Party was invited just like the other 3 parties ( IFB, CAM and the PMSD) , the actual number of delegates invited was dependent on the proportional strength of their party in the assembly. True at the time SSR was both the Leader of the Labour Party and also the Premier by virtue of the strength of the labour Party in the assembly.

In 1965 in London ALL 4 PARTIES were treated with equal respect - before , during and after the conference. They were requested by the Secretary of State for the Colonies ( at the time, Anthony Greenwood) by letter through the Governor Sir J S Rennie, to submit " Memo" on their respective Party's position and to have some thoughts on issues which were of contention before arriving in London for the Conference. All 4 Parties submitted memos.

At a carefully planned ( from the British point of view)meeting away from the main topics of the Conference, Anthony Greenwood made an indecent proposal to the 4 LEADERS OF THE 4 POLITICAL PARTIES - that is, to SSR, BISSOONDOYAL, MOHAMED AND KOENIG. THE PROPOSAL TO EXCISE THE CHAGOS , no precise details was given but the ALL 4 LEADERS understood the request had to do with " Communications Base " later to be described as Defence Purposes , even for the defence of the Western World ! Our leaders knew about the plan as it was frequently reported in Mauritian Papers or even questions asked in the Assembly. [ Here the response of Bolell to one such question is simply amazing!}

ALL 4 LEADERS STRONGLY OPPOSED THE EXCISION AT FIRST, THEN CHANGE THEIR POSITION TO ASKING FOR MORE MONEY - 3 MILLION WAS ON OFFER. SSR PUSH FOR A 100 YEAR LEASE. PMSD DEMANDED IN ADDITION TO MORE MONEY BUT LSO FLOUR QUOTA FROM THE AMERICANS ALSO IMMIGARTION. ALL THIS, GREENWOOD WOULD CAREFULLY HANDLED BY WAY OF POLITE PROMISS TO PASS ON THEIR DEMAND TO THE AMERICANS.

GREENWOOD reported to his cabinet and to Wilson that the " Mauritians are opening their mouth". This may force the American to abandon the idea. It was suggested to Harold Wilson to have a word with SSR. Hence this infamous private meeting between SSR and Harold Wilson. Was it conceivable or to be expected that Wilson, a British Prime m
Minister needed or desired to see the other 3 Mauritian Leaders ?

Now the big question is : WAS RAMGOOLAM BLACKMAILED BY WILSON into agreeing to excise Chagos as you put it?

What Power ( legal, Political or otherwise,) did SSR had in 1965 in London that allowed him to take any decision on Chagos or to entertain any proposal by himself. Answer : On his own, he had none. That is why the proposal was made to all FOUR of THEM.

They left London having, agreed , in Principle on the excision of the Chagos. Very important to realise that in all the talks about Chagos in LONDON, very little information was given to the Mauritian Leaders on the Chagos population. They were simply told they were Temporary Plantation workers who will be moved and compensated.

Immediately upon their return in Mauritius, Greenwood prompted them to confirm their agreement by having the full council Of Ministers ratifying the decision , which they dis and Rennie duly despatched to Greenwood and which hastily announced in the Commons stating the excision had the agreement of the Mauritian Government.

Jocelyn, as a professional Historian, you have a duty to rise above political dis-honesty.

"Sir S Ramgoolam was also 
influenced as much by the decolonisation of French colonies, 
especially Madagascar, by Chedi Jagan".

......no,I haven't misquoted Chan Low! The above is an error of epic proportions! A questionable article, replete with grammatical, spelling and from my above example; factual errors too!