New elections were the necessary prerequisite to decide on the ultimate status of Mauritius as was agreed at the 1965 Mauritius Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House
7th August 1967 was the polling day on which a majority of Mauritians cast their votes in favour of independence from Great Britain. The elections, the debates and campaigns which preceded polling day are well known to Mauritians of a certain age group, but it is unfortunate that there is not to this day any history book which delves deep into the circumstances leading up to that particular event or on other major elections, except published papers in learned journals or in unpublished undergraduate dissertations. The present article will not dwell on the elections but instead on the main events and circumstances that led to the fixing of the election date on 7th August 1967.
We still lack detailed information on the course of events preceding the election date, but certain facts allow us a reconstruction. After the Lancaster Conference in 1965, the Secretary of State had hoped that with the establishment of a new electoral system, to be followed by new elections and a new government in Mauritius, the British government would be prepared to fix a date and declare ‘Mauritius independent if a resolution asking for independence was passed by a simple majority’. The Secretary of State expected all these processes to be completed by the end of 1966.
However, since no agreement on the electoral system was reached at the conference, Mr Banwell was appointed electoral commissioner to devise a new one. The Banwell Report was published in June 1966, and a few of its recommendations were contested by the Mauritius Labour Party and Comité d’Action Musulman (CAM). John Stonehouse, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the colonies, was sent to Mauritius to find a solution to the contentious issues. Finally, an agreement was reached among all political parties. Stonehouse dropped the provision for variable correctives and replaced the constant correctives by Best Loser seats while modifying the proposal regarding the eligibility of parties for Best Losers.
The PMSD becomes restless
Gaetan Duval might have expected the elections to be held around the end of 1966 or early 1967. When he found that elections were being delayed and there was even a rumour that they would be held in 1968, he pressed the Commonwealth Office to fix the date for elections. On the other hand, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had hoped that during the second stage of constitutional development after the elections of 1963, Mauritius would become independent prior to the holding of the next general elections as was the case for Barbados. He was reminded by the Secretary of State that new elections were the necessary prerequisite to decide on the ultimate status of Mauritius as was agreed at the Lancaster House Conference.
In March 1966, officials of the Commonwealth Office had tried to obtain a date for polling from Ramgoolam, but the latter only gave a very vague reply. In March 1967, Ramgoolam was taken up, having to attend a trade fair in Canada, and later he suggested April as a possible month for holding elections – if everything went well. At the Commonwealth Office, they realized that elections could not be held during the high cyclonic season before the beginning of July and that Ramgoolam only wanted to keep his political opponents guessing.
In Mauritius, the PMSD had become restless. In November 1966, a communiqué signed by Raymond Devienne and Monaf Fakira announced that Jules Keonig had retired from the leadership of the PMSD and Gaetan Duval had been unanimously elected as the leader of the party. Invigorated by his new position, Duval pressed for early elections. On 28th November 1966, he met with officials of the Commonwealth Office and protested against the delay in fixing the date for elections.
Duval felt that his protest was justified, given that the PMSD had earlier, that is in July, agreed to the Stonehouse formula, though it went against the interests of the PMSD, in return of an assurance from the Secretary of State for the holding of early elections. Moreover he felt that 20 months of campaigning were too long for a small country. However, Duval was confident of victory at the next elections; he also confided that if he won the elections, he would go for self-government and would then wait to see how matters developed particularly in relation to Britain’s possible entry into the Common Market.
Unable to get the colonial government to act, Duval threatened to hold civil disobedience with a view to forcing the announcement of a date for holding elections. In December, Peter Ibbotson sent a copy of the Mauritius Times, issue of 2nd December 1966, to the Colonial Office with its editorial denouncing the civil disobedience campaign to be organised by the PMSD. Duval had announced at a press conference that the PMSD would launch such a campaign and this was reported in Le Mauricien a few days earlier. James Johnson, probably informed of the PMSD campaign, put a question to the Secretary of State on lawlessness then prevailing in Mauritius. In fact, as part of the civil disobedience campaign, 175 unemployed individuals from Mahebourg had started a march to Port-Louis but were stopped at Curepipe. They were detained at Beau Bassin prison and later released.
elections and the intercrop season
On 16th December 1966, Sir John Shaw Rennie, Ramgoolam and two officials of the Commonwealth Office, A.J. Fairclough and Anthony Gallsworthy reached an agreement that the Premier ‘would advise a date of dissolution at the very latest and in sufficient time to enable polls to take place before the end of August 1967’. The note was signed by all present. However, the election month was kept secret. Later in the month, Duval sent Monaf Fakira to London to meet the Secretary of State to extract information about the date of elections. The Secretary of State assured Fakira that elections would be held the following year and that ‘it was not realistic to think in terms of HMG dictating the date of elections’. Fakira appeared to have accepted the answer. A parliamentary question by Mr Tapsall on the issue was answered vaguely by the Secretary of State who reiterated that the elections would be held the following year and emphasized that he had this confirmation from the Premier. A communiqué prepared by the Commonwealth Office, dated 20th December 1966. repeated the same vague assurance. A copy of the communiqué was given to Monaf Fakira.
On 20 December 1966, Tom Vickers (OAG) met Gaetan Duval at the request of the Secretary of State to gauge his intentions after the release of press communique. He reported that ‘Duval’s first reaction was that he would make no trouble and that it was against his interests to do so’. He repeated his complaint that the Secretary of State had not fulfilled the bargain he made with Stonehouse. Finally, he added that he was not really in a hurry but he added that could not speak for his followers. Moreover he said that he suspected that a date had been decided between the Secretary of State and the Premier.
There were other factors, besides the strategy of Ramgoolam, which delayed the date of elections. The new registers of electors were completed only in February 1967 and perhaps the most important one was that Ramgoolam would not hold elections during the intercrop season. Ramgoolam perhaps also needed time for the formation of the Independence Party to confront the PMSD, more particularly as the 1963 elections had signaled the declining support for the Labour party. The informal alliance between the PMSD and the IFB in the 1963 elections and their intensive use of ethnicity and casteism respectively in the electoral campaign had yielded dividends to the two parties in both the rural and urban areas. Even in 1959, Ramgoolam’s seat had come under intense threat at Triolet from the IFB candidate, Juggurnauth Beedaysee and it was only in the last week of the campaign that he was able save his seat with support from Messrs Razack Mohamed and Allear and from other friends both from within and outside his constituency.
On 25 April 1967, as a last resort, the PMSD resigned from the Government. Undeterred and unperturbed by political tensions, Ramgoolam proceeded cautiously. He retained his prerogative to fix the elections date. On the 20th June, he announced that elections were to be held on 7th August 1967. With hindsight, the election of 1967 was a gamble for both parties. Although later Duval was to say that he knew the PMSD would lose the elections, perhaps he himself did not realize that he was almost near victory. In the end, it was the three rural/urban constituencies of Port Louis North and Montagne Longue, La Caverne and Phoenix, and Vacoas and Floréal which tilted the balance in favour of Independence.
* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017