MOOMTAZ EMRITH

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

This year, in the month of June, 2019, it will be almost fifty years since Smt. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, made an official state visit to Mauritius and spent a week amongst us and touched our newly independent country in more ways than one can imagine. I am sure everyone who was around at that auspicious time, still remembers that historic event.  Smt. Gandhi was the first foreign Head of State to visit our land, which had achieved Independence barely a couple of years earlier — that is in 1968.

MAURITIUS welcomed its freedom from British rule as a colony on March 12, 1968. The day was marked with an imposing flag-raising ceremony at the Champ de Mars, Port Louis, where, at the stroke of noon sharp, the British Union Jack was lowered for the last time in Mauritius and our brilliant new quadricolour-striped national flag (Red, Blue, Green and Yellow) was hoisted for the first time to the stirring strumming of “Motherland” — our country’s new national anthem –symbolizing our accession to nationhood. A new era had begun for Mauritius.

Sure, independence did not come easy to Mauritius. The struggle led by the progressive forces in the country, spearheaded by the likes of Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Renganaden Seeneevassen, Guy Rozemont, Abdul Razack Mohamed, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, Satcam Boolell and many others, went on for decades and enormous sacrifices were made in the face of the hurdles set up by the conservative oligarchy but, in the end, the power of the people, of the working class prevailed. The independence forces, led by (Sir) Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, won a decisive victory in the crucial general election held in 1967 and Mauritius days as a colony were decidedly over.

“Bain de foule” for Smt. Indira Gandhi at the Champ de Mars, Port Louis, where a mammoth crowd had turned up to greet and applaud her

The Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who had been the top politician in the country for the past decades before ascending to the office of Premier and de-facto leader of the progressive forces, would come to be affectionately called “the Father of the Mauritian Nation.” In 1970, he took the highly popular step to extend an invitation to Smt. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, for a state visit to Mauritius following a very successful official visit of his own in the company of his External Affairs Minister, the Hon. Gaetan Duval, to the Indian sub-continent. And, to joy of all Mauritius, the Indian Prime Minister accepted the invite, which was scheduled for June 2-6 of that year. As Mauritius got ready to welcome the popular Indian Prime Minister, excitement about the visit grew in the country. Smt. Indira Gandhi was viewed as more than a leader. She was, like her late father, Pt. Jawaharlall Nehru, a stateswoman and a highly popular figure on the world stage, justly loved and admired by thousands in Mauritius as well as in her native India and also around the world.

Smt. Indira Gandhi, in fact, would be the first Head of State to visit independent Mauritius. Sir Seewoosagur’s decision to invite her, was, indeed, a master stroke by a veteran politician who had himself been in public life for decades and, as such, had practically met most of the world leaders during his frequent official travels abroad.  Indeed, Sir Seewoosagur, who was himself born with the century, was looked upon by many leaders in Asia, Africa and even in Europe, as an elderly statesman in his own right and, as such, was looked upon with respect and affection.

So much so, knowing well the deep cultural and emotional attachments Mauritius shares with  India and what deep roots a large segment of our population has with India, Sir Seewoosagur, by playing host to the distinguished Prime Minister of India was, at the same time, paying tribute to what Mauritius, as a new nation, owed to India culturally, politically and sentimentally and, at the same time, underlining what an important part of the Indian diaspora Mauritius was.

Smt. Indira Gandhi’s visit to Mauritius, would touch all Mauritians and become a highly emotional experience for everyone. Smt. Gandhi was no ordinary visitor. She was a world leader and the leader of largest democracy in the world. No wonder she touched a chord in everyone from the moment she set foot on the Mauritian soil. She literally conquered everyone’s heart with her charm and charisma. She was the embodiment of grace; her personality radiated her charisma and her empathy. She was a great lady — the embodiment of India.  And, every Mauritian felt honoured that she had come to visit our young nation.

Smt. Indira Gandhi touched and conquered the hearts of all Mauritians with her very first address to the large, enthusiastic crowd that had turned up at Plaisance Airport (now Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport) to welcome her. She responded gracefully to the warm welcome address by Prime Minister Ramgoolam and, in a surprise twist, she chose to “say a few words in French to greet and thank those Mauritians who are French-speaking.”   

“La pensée française et la langue française ont eu une profonde influence sur votre île. En revanche, votre île a aussi marqué la littérature française. L’île Maurice est devenue le lieu de rencontre de diverses cultures, chacune enrichissant les autres et créant un esprit particulier, une inspiration caractéristique.”

Her French was impeccable. She spoke, as we would say, here, in Canada, “Parisian French.”  Her accent was flawless. By that spontaneous gesture, Smt. Indira Gandhi literally became the ‘darling’ of Mauritians. Indeed, Mauritius was at her feet! She was loved and adulated by all as the days that followed amply showed. It would be a visit like no other in the annals of Mauritius.

Smt. Indira Gandhi would spend five days (June 02-06, 1970) in Mauritius and during those five days, all Mauritius was mesmerized by her presence. She was the only talk in town. Her austere grace and elegance, her charming personality coupled with her modesty took the country by storm. Among the functions she attended, during the heavy programme of her short visit, was the laying of “the Foundation Stone” of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in the village of Moka, St Pierre – an institution that would become a top educational institution in the country. It was a project financed jointly by India and Mauritius.The building would be built on a plot of land donated by Monsieur Jean Espitalier-Noël of the neighbouring Sugar Estate.

The Hon. Gaetan Duval, Minister of External Affairs of Mauritius and also Lord Mayor of the City of Port Louis, conferring on Smt. Indira Gandhi the ‘‘Freedom of the City’’. Smt. Gandhi was deeply touched by the honour

In her speech, for the occasion, Smt. Gandhi did not fail to stress on the universality of Gandhiji’s teachings and the significant role those teachings have played in India and elsewhere. Indeed, so mesmerized were the country by Smt. Gandhi that people would leave work early or took time off just to be in the crowd to catch a glimpse of her and applaud her. It was not every day that Mauritians got to welcome such a famous daughter of India! In fact, Prime Minister Ramgoolam, her graceful host, was always by her side and relished the warm welcome people extended to her everywhere and he was, sure, only too happy to partake in the adulation!   

It did not take long for Smt. Gandhi to feel and experience the love and hospitality the friendly people of Mauritius. She was “deeply touched” and she did not fail to express it.

“I have been deeply touched by the friendship and affection which have been

showered upon me since my arrival only yesterday, although it seems to be

                 quite a long time ago.”

As a matter of fact, the City of Port Louis on the initiative of the Lord Mayor, the Hon. Gaetan Duval, through a unanimous vote of the City Council, had voted to confer on Smt. Gandhi, the “Freedom of the City” which was, as she would herself call it, “the greatest honour that any city can do”. She was undeniably moved by the honour and did not fail to stress it to the Lord Mayor, at the glittering ceremony that was held at City Hall, Port Louis, on June 04, 1970.

“I thank you for this honour on my own behalf and on behalf of the people of India.

For I am fully conscious of the fact that this honour is not to me personally but to the great people and the friendly people whom I represent here to-day.” 

And, at the end of her speech, she pleasantly surprised the jubilant crowd with her spontaneous addition of a few words in our native creole, which she knew was the linguafranca of Mauritius.

“Mo bien kontan trouv mwa parmi Lil Moris. Enn joli pei e so bann dimounn tre zanti. Mersi bokou pou sa gran akey ki zot finn fer mwa. Orevwar e mersi.”

No need to add that Smt. India Gandhi’s words were greeted with thunderous applause from the large enthusiastic crowd that had invaded City Hall to watch the daughter of the Pt. Jawaharlall Nehru being conferred the Freedom of the City of Port Louis.

A special Race Day at the Champ de Mars, Port Louis, was also held in her honour by the Mauritius Turf Club. The crowd that turned up to greet her was phenomenal. It was just huge and enthusiastic. And what a sight it was as she took a drive around the race track in an open Police Jeep accompanied by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam! Literally, Smt. Gandhi had Mauritius at her feet, so to say!

One memorable and no less significant event on her Programme was her meeting with the Writers and Artists of Mauritius at the Mauritius Institute Library. I was privileged to be invited to the function hosted by the Ministry of Education. I got on the guest list, I presume, because

not too long before that, I had published a book on the history of the Muslims of Mauritius and which had got quite some attention in the press and the radio. Anyway I was most delighted of the opportunity to meet the Great Lady from India in person.

We were each introduced to her by Hon. Jomadhar, the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs. Smt. Gandhi was all smiles and grace. I also recall the many guests included members from the Mauritian community at large among whom were a few of Indian descent, who had opted to dress in dhoti and kurta — no doubt, to stress their ‘indianness’ to our distinguished visitor. Smt. Gandhi might have been appreciative of that fact no doubt but she did not show her feelings. She greeted everyone with cordiality and a smile. She had, indeed, a domineering personality. No wonder, I thought, how one member of her cabinet had once told a western journalist, that she was “the only man in the Cabinet!”

Smt. Indira Gandhi, as the world knows, assumed the office of Prime Minister of India for the first time in 1966 and she would be re-elected successively four times to that position until 1977 and then, after a brief lapse of three years (1977-1980) during which she was out of office, she would be re-elected Prime Minister again in 1980. However, her last term would be cut short when, in 1984, she was gunned down by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, in the wake of an ongoing political dispute with a section of the Sikh separatists in Punjab. She was sixty-seven years old.

Smt. Indira Gandhi was “Mother India” as one of her biographers has rightly called her. And, indeed, she was. So far, she is the only woman to have occupied the office of Prime Minister in India. Her memory lives on – and ever will!

……