Pahlad Ramsurrun

“As I received from Mr. Anthony Greenwood, the representative of the British Government, the Constitutional Instruments which Her Majesty Elizabeth has so graciously asked him to hand over to me, I have been so moved by the deepest emotions, for my hands seemed to have been joined by hundreds and thousands of hands of labourers, artisans, social workers and political leaders who have sacrificed and suffered for the liberation of this country. The culmination of the struggle for Independence is a red-letter day for us as well as for them. The country has kept its tryst with destiny.”

Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam

(Legislative Debates, 13. 03. 1968)

These reminiscences of an Independence day celebrations go back to fifty years when, as a young man of thirty, I was working as an oriental language teacher in a primary school at Beau Bassin. But, being conscious and eager to follow the evolution of Mauritius towards its journey to Independence, and of our prominent political figures, who were struggling either for or against Independence, I decided to attend the meetings and listen to the arguments of the four political leaders, i.e. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Jules Koenig, Abdool Razack Mohamed and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, during the intense campaign of 1967 general election, because that election was to determine whether Mauritius would accede to independence or remain attached to United Kingdom forever.

With such a determination, I went to Plaine Verte and listened to the spicy intervention of A. R. Mohamed whose speech was focused on safeguarding the rights of the minority Muslim community. I attended the meeting of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal (who was my private tuition teacher in the fifties) at the kiosk of Champ de Mars, Port Louis. He spoke in favour of Independence with his usual seriousness and zeal. The meeting of the PMSD leader Jules Koenig, at which I was present, was held in the vicinity of Sacré Coeur Church at Beau Bassin. His interventions were concentrated on the idea of integration or association with the United Kingdom rather than on Independence. The Labour Party meeting at which I turned up was held in the veranda of the Town Hall of Curepipe.

Several Labour Party members – Dr. Guy Forget, Dr. Chaperon, Harold Walter, Veerasamy Ringadoo, Satcam Boolell, Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and others were there. It was presided over, either by Dr. Chaperon or Dr. Forget, I do not quite recollect. But I remember an incident, because the audience at Curepipe was composed of the most select category of people. Dr. Forget was addressing the gathering. Somebody from the audience had asked a question. Dr. Forget gave him an answer but it seemed that it was not to the expectation of the one who had asked. And, without any delay, Dr. Ramgoolam stood up from his seat, went to the dais, gave the specific answer to the satisfaction of the audience, and returned to his seat, while Dr. Forget went on delivering his speech. That day the last speaker was Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. When he began his speech, his initial words were in such a low tone that they were almost inaudible. But by degrees they grew louder and gained in intensity, and in the end, his two hands rose upwards, and he was shaking them forcefully. He ended up by asking the people to vote for the Labour Party and for the Independence of the country.

The election of 1967 was held with clear-cut objectives, freedom from British Rule or integration or association with the UK. The Labour Party and its allies, the Comité D’Action Musulman, led by A. R. Mohamed; the Independent Forward Bloc headed by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal; and Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam were strong protagonists for Independence whereas, le Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate led by Jules Koenig and Gaëtan Duval, and their allies, the Tamil United Party, led by Tangavel Narrainen, and the Muslim United Party, led by Ajum Dahal, were for integration rather than for Independence.

The vigorous campaign that had been launched against Independence by the PMSD leaders with the financial patronage of the sugar magnates was beyond successful. It was led and supported by the powerful press which invited their readers to abstain from voting for the Independence Party. There were a whole gamut of posters, a few abominable ones, showing hungry people, emaciated children and frightened men and women etc. People were asked not to vote for Independence. A few months before the election, Gaëtan Duval had asked the people to withdraw their money from the Post Office and other banks; the occupants of the CHA (Central Housing Authority) were advised not to pay their monthly instalments etc.

A few headlines of Le Mauricien will no doubt illustrate the prevailing mood of the PMSD followers:

“L’Indépendance veut dire salaires diminués”

“Que feront les milliers de ‘siniores’ sans-emploi?”

“Ne votez pas communaliste, votez Maurice, votez PMSD”

“Créoles, Musulmans, Chinois, ne vous suicidez pas”.

On the eve of the general elections, Le Cernéen published the following:

“Lundi, sans hesiter, votez PMSD”, and it also inserted this, under the heading “Essayons de Convaincre”.

Electeurs hindous……………………..128,800====39%

Population générale………………….108,700====33%

Musulmans………………………………46,100===== 14%

Tamouls…………………………………31, 200=====9.9%

Sino-Mauriciens………………………..8,200======2.6%

Total…………………….315,600====100%

Advance, on the other hand, went on persuading the people to vote for the Independence of the country, because its prosperity depended on their being a free nation. On the eve Advance wrote-“ En votant pour le Parti de L’Indépendance, vous voterez pour votre pays”. Hervé Masson, Malcolm de Chazal, (like a host other intellectuals) gave their full support to the Independence cause in an exclusive interview to Advance.

Gaëtan Duval, who was reputed for his excesses with all sorts of communal slogans towards the majority community, had changed his stance towards that section of the population, and his changed attitude had worked marvellously, because in that election out of sixty contesting candidates, there were 21 Hindus, 9 Muslims and 6 Tamils in the PMSD list of contesters.

The general election was held on 7th August 1967 in such a tense atmosphere, coupled with a lot of uncertainties. There was a massive participation of the people. 270, 000 voters (out of 315, 000) that is 92% electors had voted on that memorable day. A few regrettable incidents occurred in the third Constituency, at Port Louis and in other parts of the Island. A pirate radio was utilized by the PMSD to diffuse information in its favour, throughout the day and people were being asked to vote for that party’s candidates.

The next day when the ballot boxes were opened and the counting effected, it was an absolute victory for the Independence Party. It had got 454,411 votes, that is 54% with 39 seats in a parliament of 62 elected seats. The PMSD had acquired 341,283 votes that is 43.99% with 23 seats, and even among them, there were 5 Muslim, 2 Hindu, and 1 Tamil parliamentarians. In spite of such a result in favour of independence, the 44% people of Mauritius who had voted against, remained divided on such an important issue in Mauritian history, which was really unbelievable.

After the proclamation of the results, while tabling the historic motion of independence in the Legislative Assembly on August 22nd 1967, SSR asked the House to give effect “to the desire of the people of Mauritius to accede to Independence within the Commonwealth of Nations”. He also added amongst others : “ It is the end of a journey and the beginning of another”.

To be continued