This year happens to be the 60th since the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage in Mauritius along with the holding of the general election in 1959. Discussions between our political leaders and the Colonial office on this Constitutional advancement dragged on for almost five years, from 1953, when the Labour party under Guy Rozemont led the charge with a motion in the Legislative Council calling for a new Constitutional set-up that would satisfy, it was stated, the legitimate aspirations of the people towards greater political expression.
In other words, the message that went across was clear – that it was time for Mauritius to be endowed with a fully responsible government based on a ministerial system and, more importantly, that elections be held on the basis of universal adult suffrage.
Rozemont’s motion survived by a very slim margin in the Legislative Council when on a division of votes called by the Governor, 16 members voted for it, 13 were against and 4 abstained. That voting pattern could only explain one thing: that, in the 1950s, there was still opposition to the popular democratic concept of “government of, by and for the people”.
Ever since 1885 when a restricted Constitution was granted to Mauritius, bitter controversies, fear and resentments with deep communal overtones remained the pivotal elements around which electoral reforms revolved. That spirit of distrust stuck like an adhesive for years. Governor Donald Mackenzie-Kennedy painted a graphic picture of how Mauritius looked like when he wrote in a despatch dated 21 April 1947, that the island’s society “is divided horizontally into economic and social classes and vertically by racial and religious differences”.
The campaign against Universal Adult Suffrage
When the demand for Constitutional changes cropped up in the 1950s, the atmosphere became vitiated anew by a frenzy of communal tension. According to Sir Robert Scott in a letter dated 7 January 1955: “the fear of Indo-Mauritian domination was the essential factor” causing the uneasiness after Mauritius would have got a more liberal electoral Constitution.
That element of fear was stoked, it seemed, as a catch-all phase for political expediency and was exploited to the hilt by the Parti Mauricien, an offshoot of the erstwhile ‘Ralliement Mauricien’, which Governor Robert Scott said “is a group formed with the sole object of contesting the 1953 elections”. All that was done then was to raise what turned out to be a false alarm about the “elimination of the minorities” with the advent of a responsible government surfing on the waves of universal adult suffrage.
On the other hand, Sir Robert Scott saw persistent signs of “exclusiveness” and “separateness” developed by the Indo-Mauritian community to the extent that he sensed “danger” looming on the horizon. As such, Universal Adult Suffrage, he said, “would ultimately entail domination by the Indo-Mauritian community over others and the eventual submersion of those ethnic groups”.
Sir Robert aligning himself with the sentiments of the ‘minorities’ said he had received representations from “a wide range of minority communities and ethnic groups” expressing their concern about the emergence of a “Hindu hegemony”. That fear was fuelled by the Editor of Le Cernéen, Noel Marrier d’Unienville (NMU), who wrote that such a hegemony “signifie fatalement l’annexion de Maurice à L’Inde”, a move he encouraged the population to counteract with all their might. But then, it appeared NMU was on a wild-goose chase.
That theme was picked up and developed by the leader of the Parti Mauricien, Jules Koenig, who by the way, began his political apprenticeship assuming a leftist posture in the 1930s fighting Maurice Martin, the powerful Supremo of the white establishment. Grown into a seasoned politician, he expressed his abhorrence of hegemony from whichever community it came and found out that the system of responsible government and Universal Adult Suffrage would well unleash a ‘Hindu hegemony’ that would dominate the minorities and ultimately wipe out Western civilization in Mauritius. At a public meeting, it was reported, he said: “Le suffrage universel et le gouvernement responsable, Oui, nous sommes prêts à les accueillir à condition qu’on fasse venir d’abord un navire chargé d’une cargaison de toile écrue pour que nous commencions à porter le langouti….”
Although that fear or for that matter the ‘péril hindou’, a term coined in 1926 by the newspaper Le Radical, was dismissed by the pro-Labour Advance newspaper, as a “bobard”, it served very much as a plank to enable the PMSD to make significant inroads in the electorate culminating in a commendable 43.53 % overall votes in the general election of 1967.
The campaign against Universal Adult Suffrage gathered so great a momentum that Sir Robert said, perhaps by way of calming down tempers that it was “too early” to talk about the introduction of Universal adult suffrage and that it could wait till 1963.
But the Labour party would not buy into these arguments.
Sir Robert nonetheless in his report to the Colonial office wrote that the Labour party which was pressing hard for Constitutional changes was “the only organized political party in Mauritius and the only body which had attempted to formulate a positive design for political advancement”.
While the Secretary of state for the Colonies, Sir Alan Lennox-Boyd, too, was anxious about the fate of the minorities, he wrote in a letter dated 10 February 1956 that the proposed system of universal adult suffrage “does not ensure representation of all sections of the community as is particularly desirable in a heterogeneous society like that of Mauritius”.
Perhaps, to accommodate the claim of the Parti Mauricien which proposed Proportional Representation as an alternative and at the same time not to frustrate the Labour party’s demands, Lennox-Boyd tried to get out of the maze gracefully by proposing a two-tier solution: that alongside universal adult suffrage, the system of proportional representation with a single transferable vote be introduced. That was a sort of hybrid system which the Labour party vehemently rejected and responded by carrying out a boycott of the sessions of the Legislative Council.
In a letter dated 5 October 1956 to Guy Forget, the President of the Labour party, the Colonial Secretary, Robert Newton, deplored the attitude of the Labour party “in refusing to cooperate in the first stage of progress towards internal self-government” and hoped that the party would soon come to a better sense.
But the sharp retort from the Labour party came in a letter 25 October 1956 to the Secretary of state. Guy Forget wrote that the “opposition of the Mauritius Labour party for Proportional Representation had been stated in clear and unmistakable terms in the course of the London discussions” and that by making a U-turn and proposing the system of Proportional Representation, “confidence in the Secretary of state is shaken”. The letter sounded a warning that Lennox-Boyd and his advisers “should assume their responsibility for having sought to impose a solution of their own in disregard of the opinion in this country”.
The argument for the rejection of Proportional Representation by the Labour party, according to Forget, was that such a system “will prevent the normal political development of the country on the basis of a Mauritian entity, aggravate and perpetuate division among Mauritians on racial and religious lines…”
Unless the Secretary of state reversed his decision, the Labour party was to cling firmly to its position and, therefore, regretted “being unable to extend its co-operation to Government in the administration of the country”.
The acute pressure from the Labour party forced the Secretary of state to backpedal on his initial proposal. Following the London Agreement (1957) meeting, the issue of Proportional Representation no longer figured on the agenda. Instead, the Trustram Eve Commission was appointed for a re-drawing of electoral boundaries so that “each main section of the population secures representation in the Legislative Council corresponding to its own number in the community as a whole”. With universal adult suffrage, communal representation in the Legislative Council was forever endorsed in our electoral system.
The Secretary of state hoped there would be “some weakening of communal feelings” when the new electoral system would be in place. Rather, it went on exacerbating communal sentiments churning out, for example, the iron cast Best Loser System (BLS) which has come into play as an enduring legacy of the politics of communal agitation staged in the 1950s and 60s.