It has been a long journey from the time the system of indentured labour began. When one thinks of the shiploads of workers who were shipped away in uncouth conditions as from 1834 to man the plantations in the various colonies, there is an awesome story to tell.
The beginnings were horrible. Many families in India lost their potential bread earners. Others were duped into making the voyage to distant lands in their quest for better livelihoods. If we were to tell the tale of misery that followed in its wake, it would be a lot about fortitude against the most inhumane conditions those immigrants had to go through over a long stretch of time.
2nd November is therefore a time for recollection of and reflection upon the woes of those who toiled and sacrificed to lay down the foundation of other generations to come. They had little to go by. But they gave whatever they had to found a better future for their successors. They endured the greatest hardships of life – whose outcome is what we are today. Through great perseverance and by overcoming serious barriers to entry, the descendants of the Indian indentured labourers gained access to education and went on to show their mettle in numerous areas that would have been considered out of bounds for them initially. After an enduring struggle, they gained access to the right to vote. They joined their forces together in the struggle for independence. In spite of the walls of prejudices erected against them, they proved to be capable of taking decisions in favour of all the components of the population once they managed to secure the levers of political power.
All vibrant diasporas across the world have their own stories of how they carved a place in the sun in the host societies in which they have settled. In the case of the Indian indentured labourers in this country, the determining factor has undoubtedly been the leadership provided by men of the greatest mettle – from non-Indians like Adolphe de Plevitz towards the end of the 1860s to Maurice Cure and others in later decades, Mahatma Gandhi (thanks to whose exhortation the Indians invested themselves in education and in the political process), the Bissoondoyal brothers, and Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his comrades of the Mauritius Labour Party — men of courage and vision who pursued a just cause with sincerity and a sense of purpose, ensuring that they would not lose sight of the bigger picture nor lose their way during the battles waged for the emancipation of the people.
It was the enlightened leadership of those stalwarts that allowed the descendants of Indian immigrants to gain their legitimate place in society and share in the economy. It was the thrust on education that underpinned both the political and the social emancipation. Education was the great leveller that cut across social classes, enabling them to participate fully and knowingly in the evolving democratic process. Giving added momentum to this dynamic were the mass movements of the other leaders, which were grounded in cultural awareness and an awakened sense of their dignity by the people. Without doubt it is such enabling factors that gave to Mauritius for a long time the kind of balanced political direction the country needed for its development.
As we commemorate the 187th anniversary of the arrival of indentured labourers to this island today, it’s necessary that we ask ourselves about where matters stand now? Where are the role models? Why are they so absent, when there were so many of such leaders in the past when times were harder?
The fractures that have come within society among this group is testimony that all is not well. This is undoubtedly the best recipe to bring the superstructure crashing down some day. Rather than having to face up such a bleak condition, people build up on the acquired momentum. This is done by holding hands, not by cultivating fissiparous tendencies for private advantage. A lot of work has gone into making the diaspora what it is today. It has many achievements to its credit. Teamwork can but consolidate such achievements. All it requires is an unstinting focus on goals, the next levels to climb to, collective efforts to be made to keep rising.
While everyone has a role to play, undoubtedly the greatest responsibility lies with those who assume the reins of power and who are entrusted to guide the ship of state and the people towards a better future. At the cost of repetition, we cannot but reiterate that it is only through cooperation and collaboration rather than unhealthy competition that such a future can come about. This is the spirit that must prevail.
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2021
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