« My life is my message » – Mahama Gandhi
This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or better known throughout the world as ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) or Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation. Indians past and present affectionately call him ‘Bapu’ and it was Rabindranath Tagore, one of modern India’s greatest writers and poets and the first Indian Nobel Laureate of Literature, who called him the Mahatma.
Gandhi is the greatest pacifist in modern world history and one of the greatest figures of the 20th century whose Indian independence and freedom struggle served as an inspiration to scores of colonies, countries, social and revolutionary movements, and leaders in different parts of the globe between the 1940s and 1970s. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi has also had a major influence on the history of 20th century Mauritius. Therefore, it is not surprising that, over the past seventy years, there has been a rich and important tradition of celebrating the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi or Gandhi Jayati by the Mauritian people.
Mauritius in Gandhi’s Writings
Mahatma Gandhi was born on 2nd October 1869 in Porbander, Gujarat, Western India and died on 30th January 1948 at Birla House, or known today as the Gandhi Smriti, which today houses the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum in New Delhi. The museum garden also contains the ‘Martyr’s Column’ or the exact spot where the Mahatma was assassinated. Gandhi is considered to be one of the greatest Indians to have ever lived, the greatest modern apostle of non-violence or ahimsa, and even a Hindu saint by some. In October 2001, the centenary anniversary of the visit of Gandhiji to Mauritius was commemorated at a national level by the Government of Mauritius and the Mauritian people. Today, it is widely known and accepted that the visit of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has had a long-lasting-impact on our country’s long and complex history.
Between the 1940s and the 1960s, it was Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal, an Indo-Mauritian Gandhian, Hindu leader, writer, social worker, and philosopher, who repeatedly emphasized in his publications, the little-known fact that Mauritius had, to a certain extent, an important influence on the Mahatma and his writings. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi , which consists of 98 volumes, clearly shows that between 1896 and 1914, Gandhi mentioned Mauritius around ten times in some of his important letters, petitions, official speeches and publications.
In 1896, while writing about voting rights for Indians in Natal in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi, then a charismatic and dashing young lawyer, alluded to the fact that some of the fortunate Indians and Indo-Mauritians had qualified for the franchise in British Mauritius ever since 1886. This was largely thanks to the fact that they were property-owners, wealthy businessmen, traders, and merchants, and were literate.
In his Satyagraha in South Africa, which was published in 1922, the Mahatma mentioned Mauritius on three different occasions. He explained that between the 1870s and early 1900s, hundreds of Indo-Mauritians as well as Indian traders and indentured labourers had migrated from Mauritius to Natal. They made important contributions in the emergence of the sugar industry there as well as in Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign for their social, economic and political rights. After all, one Mauritian who stood out in particular in Gandhij’s work was the young and energetic Thambi Naidoo, he was one of his faithful lieutenants during the satyagraha campaign in South Africa in the early 1900s.
In December 1901, in his speech at the 17th session of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma referred to Mauritius, along with other colonies such as Fiji and Natal, as being places where Indian workers, skilled artisans, and traders have contributed in the prosperity of those British territories. It should be noted that this speech came just over a month after Gandhi’s historic visit to our small Indian Ocean island. Four years later, in a letter to Professor Gokhale, his political mentor and one of the leaders of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma encouraged him, if possible, to visit Mauritius while on his way to South Africa.
In 1907, Manilall Maganlall Doctor arrived in Mauritius and began to work for the political and social emancipation of the Indo-Mauritians and the Indian indentured labourers. Between 1907 and 1911, he sent telegrams to Gandhi on a regular basis informing him of the progress of his work in Mauritius. In 1911, in one of his letters fromTolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, South Africa, Gandhi informed Gokhale that : « Mr.Manilall Doctor has, as you are aware, done very good public work in Mauritius and gained the affection of the poor Indians there to whom he became a friend of the needy ». Indeed, Manilall Doctor and Mahatma Gandhi were men of the and with the Mauritian people in their hour of need during those dark days.
Mauritius and the Mahatma
In his famous An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiment with Truth, which was published in two volumes in 1927 and in 1929 respectively, the Mahatma explained that during his three-week stay in Mauritius, he had acquainted himself fairly well with the terrible living and working conditions of the Indians and Indo-Mauritians in the colony. This was the primary reason why in 1906, during a brief meeting with Manilall Doctor in London, Gandhi asked him to go to Mauritius. It becomes evident that the plight of the colony’s Indo-Mauritians and the Indian indentured labourers preoccupied this great apostle of non-violence even several years after leaving Mauritian shores.
During the early 1900s, Gandhi was instrumental in getting the indentured labour system abolished in the British Empire and in other parts of the former colonial world. In 1911, in a letter to Gokhale, Gandhi stated that Manilall Doctor was proceeding to India to attend an important meeting of the Indian National Congress where he would campaign to get a resolution passed condemning the indentured labour system in Mauritius and in all British territories. The Mahatma mentioned that he supported M. Doctor’s initiative who had witnessed the terrible plight of the indentured workers in Mauritius. Many years later, in 1924, as the President of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma, although taken up with India’s long and complex struggle for independence, referred to Mauritius, when speaking about the inhumane treatment of the overseas former indentured Indian workers.
Between the 1920s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi came in touch through letters with several Mauritians such as R.K. Boodhun, P. Lutchmaya, J.N. Roy, S. Ramgoolam, and B.Bissoondoyal. He encouraged them to work for the social, political and economic betterment of all Mauritians. In 1936, Dr. K. Hazareesingh, the former Director of the MGI and a well-known Mauritian writer, sent a letter to Gandhi requesting information about his stay in Mauritius. Interestingly enough and despite being extremely busy, Gandhi, the world famous prolific letter writer, replied in a short letter that he clearly remembered his visit to Mauritius.
In 1942, the Mahatma wrote a letter to Marshal Chiang-Kai-Shek, the Chinese nationalist leader who was himself engaged in his own freedom struggle against the Japanese Empire and the Chinese Communists, in which he revealed that between 1905 and 1913, he had been in close contact with Indians and Chinese merchants settled in Mauritius. In 1947, at the height of inter-religious riots in India and a few months before his martyrdom, in one of his post-prayer morning speeches in Delhi, Gandhiji mentioned that in Mauritius, Hindus and Muslims had lived in peace and harmony for many decades without one incident of inter-communal strife.
During the early 1960s, in one of his masterpieces, The Truth About Mauritius, Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal accurately explained that even almost half a century after his visit to Mauritius, Gandhi continued to tell his fellow countrymen that Mauritius, as a tolerant and open society, could still serve as an tangible paradigm to Mother India during the turbulent years of the late 1940s. Thus, it is obvious that Mauritius did have, to a certain extent, an important influence on the father of the Indian nation, his speeches and writings.
At the same time, the annual celebrations of the Mahatma’s birth are a clear indication that Mauritius and Mauritians have always shared a special relationship with M.K.Gandhi. Furthermore, the fact that there are public institutions, streets, statutes, and squares named after him are tangible reminders of this fact. Therefore, each 2nd October, the Mauritian people and the Government of Mauritius must always honour this maker of our history and also remember the influence that Mauritius had on the Mahatma !