Today and this whole week, Chagos will be in the limelight. What is happening at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, is yet another turning point in a series of legal actions concerning the future of the Chagos islands. Mauritius has dared challenge its former coloniser and is feeling invigorated by the support of the African Union and other member states of the United Nations Organisation. While all eyes are riveted on the dispute between a small island state like Mauritius and the powerful British government over sovereignty of the Chagos islands, the Chagossian community seems to gaze from a distance. I don’t know about Chagossians in Mauritius, but I have spoken to Chagossians in Crawley, a town on the outskirts of London. Rather than feeling some kind of excitement that some in Mauritius seem to experience, they were bitter and sad.
I don’t mean to be the killjoy here, but I would not want to get overexcited when I read phrases such as ‘Allez Maurice’ or ‘Nous allons gagner’ on Facebook or when I see political leaders rubbing shoulders with members of the Chagos Refugees Group. I remain a patriot of my beloved Mauritius, but I stand by my Chagossian friends. I understand and feel their pain because of what this population has gone through and what they are still going through.
SAJ, the only surviving participant of the negotiations at Lancaster House with the then UK Prime Minister Wilson is going to address the International Court of Justice panel today and reiterate that Mauritius never consented in 1965 to the detachment of the Chagos Islands; the agreement with the UK was obtained under duress. Many Chagossians find it difficult to believe this when they remember the money involved. The excision of Chagos has always been a controversial issue. SSR has long been accused of having ‘sold’ Chagos for independence, despite the fact that he said publicly that he had been forced by the British government to choose between the independence of Mauritius and the sale of Chagos. Besides, the select committee chaired by Jean Claude de l’Estrac in 1982 to look into the circumstances of the detachment of Chagos concluded that the UK government had blackmailed the Mauritian delegation. The Chagossian population didn’t buy into this.
What makes some Chagossians more uncomfortable is when they hear SAJ say that the process of decolonisation of Mauritius and of Africa will only be completed when Mauritius will regain sovereignty over the Chagos. Apart from the fact that SAJ is repeating what Navin Ramgoolam said to the UN’s general assembly in 2013 – “the dismemberment of part of our territory, the Chagos archipelago…. leaves the process of decolonisation not only for Mauritius but of Africa, incomplete” – there is reason to be concerned about the future of the Chagos islands and its people. If Mauritius regains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and allows the return of the displaced population to the archipelago, Chagossians and supporters of Chagossians would want to see the islands governed by the locals. If this is not going to happen, then forget about decolonisation, let alone self-determination of the Chagossian population. There is no point for Mauritius to wish for complete decolonisation if they will not allow Chagossians to be part of the administration of their homelands. We all know that ‘overseas territory’ is just a modern form of colonialism.
As much as the Chagossian population would love to return home, many would rather hold the status of British Indian Ocean Territory citizens in the UK than be ruled by Mauritius in their homelands. Chagossians were housed in slums without water or electricity by Mauritius. It is hard to forget 50 years of living life at the margins during exile. Echoes of the past are definitely at the heart of the conflict between the Chagossian community and Mauritius.
Chagossians do not want their future to be discussed for them. They want to have their say in major decisions. And yesterday, a small group of people from Crawley, members of the Chagos Islanders Movement have made the trip to The Hague where they will proudly wear banners that say “Chagos appartenir à Chagos”. They know they will not be allowed to make any official statements; they only wanted to be there symbolically, as a sign of protest. Among them, an elderly woman, a native Chagossian, uprooted from her homeland.