Once again, we will be commemorating today a major milestone in the history of this country – the 186th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers, who were to change the face of Mauritius as a prosperous sugar producer in the British colonies. But that was not without the hardships, oppression and injustice that they had to face and fight against – all within a democratic political framework, and which they have helped preserve to this day. Even though there are still a few reminders of the dreary conditions in which they lived and worked, it may be said that a long distance has been travelled since then by those we pay homage to on this occasion and their descendants.
As we are to commemorate this solemn occasion of the arrival of Indian immigrants today, let us cast back our mind on those who have endured the greatest tribulations of life to bequeath a better world for future generations. 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 fields. 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, working together with other components of the population, that have carried the country forward and shaped the life of the nation as a whole.
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, besides the intrinsic traits of fair play, tolerance and accommodation, without in the least animated by a spirit of resentment or the desire for vindictive triumph once they won democratically control of the levers of power, the determining factor has undoubtedly been the leadership provided by men of the greatest calibre as well as by different socio-cultural and religious institutions.
They were 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 long struggle for the emancipation of the people. These include the Arya Sabha, non-Indians like Adolphe de Plevitz towards the end of the 1860s to Maurice Cure, Emmanuel Anquetil 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 Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his numerous comrades of the Mauritius Labour Party.
In the truest and purest sense of the word, it was the enlightened leadership of those stalwarts that was the foundation of our strength and the inspiration of our struggle for our political and civil rights, and to gain our 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, inspired by Fabian socialism, which our pioneer political leaders were spearheading. 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 the kind of balanced political direction the country needed for its development.
In the context of this commemoration, we need to reflect seriously on the events and incidents surrounding this long march patiently carried out, based on sound democratic principles that both formal and informal education helped us to leverage. Such reflection may hopefully rekindle that sense of unity and solidarity which was once, and must perforce continue to be the source of our strength and the basis of our ongoing struggle for betterment.
The times are such that we are in dire need of the kind of leadership and commitment that was hardwired in the DNA of our founding fathers. The scenes playing out at national level betray that original spirit. If we are not careful, the legacy of that hard struggle will be forever lost.
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2020