The euphoria unleashed by the ruling given by the International Court of Justice over the contentious dismemberment of the Chagos Archipelago, paradoxically, coincides with the celebration of the 51 year of independence. Independence day is the time in Mauritius when the call for patriotism and nationalism is set in high gear. To many, the question that arises is whether independence is worth celebrating when it is argued that the decolonisation of Mauritius is a half-baked process because of the nexus between the award of independence and the excision of the Chagos Archipelago.
Diego Garcia seems to be the key to the independence of Mauritius. The Report (1983) of the « Select Committee on the Excision of the Chagos Archipelago »and a recorded conversation the Premier of Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, and the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, had at No 10 Downing street on 23 September 1965, point to that direction.
Deponing on January 11, 1983, before the “Select Committee” chaired by Jean Claude de L’Estrac, then minister of External Affairs, Sir Harold Walter stated that “Diego Garcia was certainly an important tooth in the whole cogwheel leading to independence” and that if the island would not have been ceded to Britain, the “grant of natural sovereignty to Mauritius would have taken more years probably”. He stated that Sir Seewoosagur confided to him that the British at some point in time showed signs of tending to agree to the claim of the PMSD for a referendum and not to be overtaken by the PMSD, Ramgoolam had to make “some concessions”.
Sir Harold Walter held senior ministerial position through the Ramgoolam’s governments. Besides, he was regarded as one of Ramgoolam’s most trusted lieutenants. One can therefore lend credence to his statements which are all the more reflective of the mood at that time, that while Ramgoolam expected independence to be plain sailing, perhaps buoyed up with the hopes ventilated by Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of change” speech in 1960, he got a rude shock. Little did he anticipate the drama that would unfold when the curtains were raised at 10 Downing street. Harold Wilson, prime minister of the Labour government in the 1965s began flexing his muscles, causing the idea of independence to hang in the balance. By adopting a strong-arm tactic, Wilson found in Ramgoolam, the “Britisher”, to plough through his decision of detaching the Chagos from Mauritius. The Premier of Mauritius said Mauritius would not become a republic after independence and that he would retain all links with the United Kingdom.
Wilson laid before Ramgoolam two options: either he walked away with the independence trophy and gave up Diego Garcia or returned home empty-handed.
Ramgoolam chose the first option which meant independence was not at stake now. His excitement knew no bounds. On his return to Mauritius, he exclaimed, “mon coeur déborde de joie”, while a frustrated Jules Koenig, leader of the PMSD, declared: “L’indépendance est imposée par la Grande Bretagne”.
In his arm-twisting exercise, the British prime minister said it was a “purely historical accident” that the Chagos was administered by Mauritius. Ramgoolam affirmed that the Chagos was not represented in the Mauritian parliament. He said he and his colleagues wished to be “helpful” as Diego Garcia was a “matter of detail” and that he saw “no difficulty in principle” for ceding out the Chagos. But wanted a defence agreement so that British troops could intervene promptly when the necessity would arise in Mauritius. Wilson assured him that Diego Garcia was not far away and would make the movements of troops easier to Mauritius. Perhaps, the security of Mauritius and his own was uppermost in Ramgoolam’s mind. Those were the days when toppling governments by coups in newly independent countries became fashionable. One had, therefore, to be on one’s guard.
To the Select Committee almost two decades later, Sir Seewoosagur again displayed his adamant position for independence. He said when he weighed up the two options he was confronted with, his choice in favour of independence was “a most judicious one”.
“I had to see”, he said, “which was better – to cede out a portion of our territory of which very few people know and independence. I thought that independence was much more primordial and more important than the excision of the island which is very far from here and which we have never visited”.
Sir Seewoosagur stood by his conviction. “If I had to choose between independence and the ceding of Diego Garcia, I would have done again the same thing”, he said.
Ramgoolam’s soft posture at Downing street could perhaps be explained by several factors as the island was skirting on cliff edge.
While it is argued that he possessed a strong appetite for power and nurtured the lofty ambition of going down in history as the first prime minister of independent Mauritius, local conditions might have dictated some of his decisions. Mauritius was buffeted by a series of hydra-headed problems. Social and racial tensions were boiling in the cauldron. Unemployment was acute, resources scarce and population explosion loomed large. The country needed to start from scratch after independence. The situation was dramatic.
Ramgoolam explained to Wilson that although he was assured of British aid and development projects in Mauritius, he wanted the US to buy Mauritian sugar at a guaranteed price so that a “steady guaranteed income” could provide some relief to Mauritius.
The Select Committee’s Report shows that there was one thing that for once united the main political parties: that was the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. Where differences arose, they were over the amount of compensations to be granted to Mauritius. Nobody then was concerned about the fate of the Chagos population whom the British Foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, in a ‘secret’ note to Wilson in 1969 wrote: “ we could refer to the inhabitants as essentially migrant contract labourers” and added that their eviction was to be announced as “a change of employment for contract workers rather than a population resettlement”.
In the meantime, the Americans with the blessing of Harold Wilson had launched their ruthless expulsion operations known as “Sweep and Sanitize”.