Are we fighting the right battles?
We are being misguided by a lowly, free for all kind of politics which focuses on matters of personal behaviours and sordid details whereas we ought to be concerned more with what kinds of policies are being forced on the population
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
It is not until I came to be associated with the Mauritius Times and its founder Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah, after I started writing in the paper in 1990, that I got to know about the historical importance and existential significance of what is known today as Aapravasi Ghat. By sheer coincidence – or should I rather say karmic conjecture – one year earlier I had been transferred to the Jeetoo Hospital, which made it convenient for me to visit him at fairly regular intervals at his home which was not far from the hospital. But also to attend, since then, the annual Yaj ceremony held at the Aapravasi Ghat which was his initiative. He had researched the archives and found out that the first batch of Indian immigrants contracted in the Indenture system had arrived aboard the ship Atlas, and had landed at that site on 2nd November 1834, which date was subsequently officialised.
Arrival of Indentured Labourers on Ship in Mauritius – Photo – vintagemauritius.org
But this did not happen by magic: it had to be fought for. Like everything else that has marked the trajectory of the ‘freed’ slaves and the Indian immigrants, who faced the same repressive and oppressive conditions of work and of life. The battles fought to bring about developmental improvements have been relentless and unending, and continue to this day, though in different forms and on multiple platforms.
It is always a humbling experience for me to walk up these stone steps at Aapravasi Ghat, and to reflect in what state of body and of mind my great-grandfather climbed them in 1858. That’s the year in which he reached Mauritius, at age 15, hailing from the district of Ghazipore to the east of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Circumstances have not allowed me to go on a genealogical journey, but I have always asked myself what could have pushed a 15-year old to undertake the harsh journey to an unknown land, all alone? Could it be that he was orphaned – a possibility I have imagined given that Ghazipore was the district where Mangal Pandey who was instrumental in triggering the 1857 Indian Mutiny hailed from, and which was met by a brutal and savage response by the British colonial authorities with the killing of thousands of Indians, among whom perhaps his parents?
I may never know the answer, but he would surely be proud that, five generations down the line, his descendants have found their way honourably as professionals into diverse fields and are leading lives of ease and relative comfort which are a far, far cry from what he and his cohort had to endure. And importantly, that they have held on to the values and traditions of the millennial culture of the land of their origins, while at the same time adjusting to the evolving challenges posed by the development of the country along the continuously changing contemporary lines.
This social mobility of the descendants of the pioneering workers, who literally forged the contours of the island’s landscape through their harsh labour, is the result of the struggles against and confrontations with the colonising powers and the oligarchy – which were often allied – and that involved the workers individually as well as in groups, and more well-known figures who took up their cause. Adophe de Plevitz is one such personality of those earlier times, and he probably inspired the others who came afterwards. Petitions, Royal Commissions, enquiries into conditions of living on the sugar estates, surveys of the health situation, of the food supplies – these and similar endeavours forced changes to be brought about through appropriate changes in the law and whatever ‘institutions’ that were developing to oversee implementation of measures that were recommended.
A great boost to the social-economic advancement of the common man was no doubt given during the visit to the island in 1901 of Gandhi the lawyer – not yet Mahatma – when the ship that was taking him back to India from South Africa made a stop here. In fact, he exhorted the Indo-Mauritian population to engage in politics and to get educated.
Writing about this in the Mauritius Times ‘1st Year No. 12 – Saturday 30th October 1954’, Doojendranath Napal pointed out that ‘A compte rendu of the speech delivered by the Mahatma on this occasion (reception organised at the Taher Bagh by Mr Goolam Mamode Ajam Son) was reported in the same newspaper (The Standard, edited in English-French). Among other things Gandhi said that he was struck by the keen intelligence of Indo-Mauritians. His wish was that they should interest themselves with politics « non pas de la batailleuse contre le Gouvernement, mais pour revendiquer ses droits et sa place au soleil sous le pavillon de la liberté ». He concluded in saying that he hoped that thought would be given to education in Mauritius in order that « les Asiatiques pussent aspirer à la gestion des affaires public et des intérêts vitaux de la colonie dont ils sont des principaux facteurs. »’
The indications are that his advice was followed, and upon reaching India he persuaded Manilal Doctor, a lawyer, to come here to take up the cause of the workers. (Pahlad Ramsurrun has been a painstaking and persevering chronicler of the lives and involvement of several of the actors in this process.) The occasion of the commemoration at Aapravasi Ghat should whip us into pondering his remarks about the kind of politics that Gandhiji expected we would be engaged in, because we are doing the exact opposite.
We are being distracted and misguided by a lowly, free for all kind of politics which focuses on matters of personal behaviours and sordid details whereas we ought to be concerned more with what kinds of policies are being forced on the population and where these are leading the country and its coming generations. That ought to be our major concern and the actual battlefront, and all the relevant elements pertaining to such issues ought to be widely discussed and clear stands taken and made known à qui de droit so as to push authorities in the direction of change that would be beneficial to the population as a whole.
We can choose to do that and be active stakeholders in the shaping of the national narrative. Or we can bury our head into the ground like the ostrich, and waste ourselves away by indulging in the consumerist culture of materialism and greed, and succumb to the various kinds of social and organic ills that are spreading like wildfire across all sections of society and at all levels.
Gandhiji’s advice is even more critically important. Up to us to rise to the challenge.
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2020
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