Mauritius will embark on it’s 48 th year as an independent state this coming 12th March 2016. It is the culmination of an event nearly divided into two equal parts. First, 24 years ( 1968 – 1992 ) as an independent state with an Executive Government having political control and with Her Majesty (HM) Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State: a Realm and, second, 24 years (1992-2016) as a Republic, again with a political Executive nominating a President as Head of State assisted by a Vice President.
Mauritius had, from 1968 to 2015 (47 years) four Prime Ministers : Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) 1968-1982, his son Navin Chandra Ramgoolam (NCR) also for 14 years with three terms, Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) for 17 years with six terms and Paul Raymond Bérenger with a two-years interregnum. Like Navin Ramgoolam, Sir Anerood’s son, Pravind Jugnauth  looks now poised to take over the Prime Ministership marking a continuity that can appropriately be described as dynasties. Political dynasties are part of our political culture successfully maintained by more than a dozen families.We will look at the five above headings, at their linkages and contradictions in a rational and detached manner that make the study of History, particularly ours, a lively, exciting and passionate subject.
Let us go to a few historical facts in perspective. First, Mauritius was conquered by the British in December 1810 and then ceded under the Treaty of Paris of 1814 to Britain. Bourbon Island (La Réunion) returned to France. Mauritius is comprised of several dependencies (Rodrigues, Agalega, Cargados Carajos or St. Brandon) and lesser dependencies (Diego Garcia, Chagos Archipelago and Tromelin (or Sandy Bank). It was a Crown colony administered by a Governor assisted by an Executive accountable to the British Parliament and to a specialist Government Department, the Colonial Office (CO). Over the years, the British systematically, for its administrative convenience, resorted to dismemberment and created new colonial entities. Britain, by and large, maintained it’s original plan of keeping the Indian Ocean under its naval and military control to safeguard  imperial possessions in Asia and Africa.
The BIOT, a new colonial entity
In February 1965, in highly secret talks with the Americans, an emerging post-World War II global power, Britain agreed to lease to U.S.A one of the « distant lesser dependencies of Mauritius ». That was the Chagos Archipelago. For the Americans and the British, it was a proper deal done in the experience of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the threat of Soviet Union access to the Indian Ocean and their intrusion in the Middle East. The Americans with their strategic experience insisted the deal remains bilateral strictly between them and the British. The Americans pointed out, and it must be said, in hindsight, it was a right and proper assessment, that Mauritius, had reached an important stage of constitutional development and should be immediately decolonized. Britain agreed : the colonizer now unwittingly became the decolonizer of Mauritius. Yet Britain ironically in an age of decolonization created, in the same breath, a new colonial entity : the British Indian Ocean territory (BIOT). Second, in September 1965, that is six months after the February secret Anglo-American deal, at the 5th and last Mauritus Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House, London, Britain expressed the wish that Mauritius became independent under certain conditions. SSR as Premier led an All-Party Government, an impressive strong delegation of 28  Mauritius Legislative members (13 from his own Labour Party, 5 from Independent Forward Bloc, 5 from the PMSD, 3 CAM and 2 Independent members Jean Ah Chuen and Maurice Paturau). Seventeen British Official (3 ministers, Colonial Office officers, Governor John Shaw-Rennie, 5 Secretariat-officers and Constitutional Adviser,  Professor Abel de Smith) also attended making a total of 45 participants. The published Conference Report (Sessional Paper No. 6 of 1965) and the full declassified report, though comprehensive, do not add much to our knowledge. However, a careful look at the records at the Defence Office and The Cabinet Office (more often than not retained by the department and therefore not available for consultation) give a clearer or rather sinister picture.
It transpires that the Birtish were concentrating their efforts more on getting the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago and that the future and final constitutional status of Mauritius was of a second consideration to them. A meeting was held on Monday 20th September 1965 at the Colonial Office, away from Lancaster House (and therefore not mentioned in the Conference Reports) chaired by Colonial Secretary Anthony Greenwood consisting on one side of Governor Shaw-Rennie, Sir Hilton Poynton (Permanent Secretary CO), Terrell Smith, A.J. fairclough and J. Stacpole and on the other side also five persons : Premier Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (leader Mauritius Labour Party), Jules Koënig (leader of PMSD), A.R. Mohamed (leader of CAM), Sookdeo Bissoondoyal (leader of I.F.B ) and Maurice Paturau (representative of Mauritian Vested Interests). Briefly, SSR stood his ground. He said he does not want détachment of the Chagos, proposed a 99-year lease and a tripartite agreement after Independance. Sir Hilton Poynton systematically destroyed the logic of SSR’s arguments. The Conference was nearing its end and the British almost lost hope of getting the Chagos. Top officials from British ministry of Defence, Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Colonial Office advised their Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, « to have a word with SSR and to be very firm with him ».
Wilson frightening SSR with hope
SSR was convened for a meeting with Wilson at 10, Downing Street, on Thursday 23 September 1965 at 10 a.m. A day earlier, J.O. Wright, Wilson’s personal secretary, wrote a long detailed steering brief with a personality profile of SSR, and guidance on how to handle the interview.
Extracts from Mr. Wright’s brief dated 22 September 1965 reads :
« Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur is coming to see you at 10.00 tomorrow morning. The object is to frighten him with hope: hope that he might get independence. Fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago. I attach a brief prepared by the Colonial Office, with which the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office are on the whole consent… call him « Sir Seewoosagur or Premier his official title. He likes to be called » Prime Minister ». Getting old. Realises he must get independence soon or it will be too late for his personal career. Rather status-conscious. Responds to flattery… The conference will not be closed by negociation. HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) will have to impose a solution. The Secretary of State’s mind is moving towards a decision in favour of independence ».
Harold Wilson carefully read the long brief of Wright and put a tick and his distinctive « HW » initials on it and added the comment « this is a good
brief ». The British Prime Minister also closely followed Wright’s advice and he was firm yet placatory with old SSR. He told SSR that « he and his colleagues could return to Mauritius either with Independence or without it. Diego Garcia could either be detached by an Order in Council or with the agreement of Premier and his colleagues ». « The best solution of all », said Wilson, « might be Independence and detachment by agreement ». A helpless but ambitious SSR replied « Diego Garcia is a matter of detail ! ». That man had set his heart to become Prime Minister, the first Prime minister of an independant Mauritius.
The colonial collaborator Ramgoolam, now a knight of HM the Queen, was finally checkmated by one cleverer than him !
In the second part of this article to be published in our next edition, we will check how far since 1968, Mauritius has been « a sovereign democratic state », as it is said to be in the Constitution.
(to be followed)