At the crucial 1965 Constitutional Conference in London, the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam as well as Sir Abdul Razack Mohamed’s Comité d’Action Musulman (CAM) and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal’s Independent Forward Block (IFB), both set up in 1958, pressed for Independence.
The best loser system for the safeguard of minorities and creation of an Ombudsman, as insisted upon respectively by CAM and IFB, was supported by the MLP. Since 1960, the IFB had been urging for a High Powered Tribunal to deal with cases against abuses of power and corruption in general. But it opposed the introduction of a separate electoral roll for Muslims as demanded by CAM.
SSR was in public life since 1935 when he returned home from London as a medical doctor. During his 14-year stay in the British capital, he was involved in socio-political and journalistic activities. Pursuing them in Mauritius, he became a legislator and municipal councillor as from 1940, serving as a nominee until 1948 and as Mayor of Port-Louis (1958) before being successively appointed Minister (1957), Chief Minister (1961) and Premier (1965). At home in both eastern and western culture, SSR became a befitting national leader in plural Mauritius.
Role of PMSD
However, the Ralliement Mauricien (RM), a conservative party created in 1953 that later became Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) after being called Parti Mauricien (PM), advocated continued association with the UK. It was preoccupied with safeguarding minority rights and continuing the shipment of sugar from Mauritius to Great Britain in case it joined the European Common Market. Dreading an illusional Hindu hegemony after Independence, the PMSD believed an association with Great Britain would facilitate emigration not only to the UK but also to Europe as a whole. The RM, PM and PMSD were successively headed by Jules Koenig, the towering long-time barrister-parliamentarian of integrity and gifted public orator who was in active politics since 1933 when he was elected a municipal councillor in Port-Louis, and a radical from the start. He passed on the PMSD’s leadership to the populist Gaëtan Duval, also a barrister, who was first elected legislator in a by-election in Curepipe as a PM candidate in 1960. Defeated in this constituency in the 1959 general election, King Creole, as Duval was known, triumphed in that of 1963 as well as in municipal elections in Curepipe and Port Louis.
7 August 1967 – Decisive Contest
The legislative election on Independence was fought on 7 August 1967. Led by SSR, the Independence Party (IP) defeated the PMSD. The IP comprised MLP, CAM and IFB. Dr Régis Chaperon, MLP legislator since 1959 and Chairman of Town Council of Quatre Bornes in 1952 and 1966, was presiding over his party from 1961. He was Mayor of Quatre Bornes in 1971-1973. Dr Chaperon succeeded Guy Forget, a former municipal councillor of Port-Louis, elected legislator since 1948 and Chairman of Town Council of Beau Bassin-Rose Hill. Forget was MLP deputy leader. There were 177 candidates in all.
In addition to the IP and the PMSD, eight other parties took part – the Mauritius Liberal Party, the All-Mauritius Hindu Congress, the Nationalist Socialist Workers’ Party, the Mauritius Liberation Party, the Mauritius Workers’ Party, the Young Communist League, the National Congress Party and the Rodrigues Party. About 90% of the electorate voted on 7 August 1967. Preferring to keep links with the UK, 44% were against Independence. Securing 39 seats, the IP obtained 53% of the national votes cast. The PMSD won 23 seats or around 44% of the votes, including the two seats in Rodrigues. Besides PMSD Honorary Chairman Jules Koenig, four outgoing ministers – Guy Forget, Abdul Razack Mohamed, Guy Balancy and Michael Leal – were defeated. However, Forget and Mohamed entered Parliament as best losers. At nine in the night, Governor Sir John Shaw Rennie and Dr A. Cader Raman appealed live to Mauritians over the radio and television to accept the results of the election and to work in harmony.
Reasons for Anti-Independence
SSR was initially branded as a communist by some sections of the press, but he denied that accusation. However, some of his collaborators, sharing the platform of the IP, were expressing the wish to nationalise the large-scale sugar estates together with the factories, as well as other big private concerns. Socialism-inspired, governments in several newly independent countries had already implemented nationalisation policies. It was in reaction to a possible nationalisation and the so-called ‘Hindu hegemony’ in Mauritius being peddled that many voted against Independence. Others were afraid that the socio-economic situation would deteriorate, as was the case in other parts of the developing world.
Many Franco-Mauritians emigrated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia, where a few of them settled as farmers or sugar factory owners. Before and after Independence, a number of Mauritians, mostly of the General Population, tried their luck in Australia, Canada and Europe. This produced a brain drain and an outflow of capital. More than 500 Mauritians left for Australia on 11 March 1968 on board the ship Australis. The withdrawal of bank and post office savings, urged by the PMSD, substantially increased. Within a week of the holding of general election in 1967, Bishop Daniel Liston invited adherents of the Catholic Church to be patriotic and show loyalty to the country rather than to their racial community.
Formal Motion for Independence: 22 August 1967
It was on 22 August 1967 that SSR, seconded by MLP Deputy Leader Forget, tabled his motion for Independence. For SSR, his motion was “the expression of the collective will of the people of Mauritius as expressed at the recent elections” for the country to “become an independent state within the Commonwealth and thus take its rightful place among the free nations of the world.” After paying tribute to “Rémy Ollier, Adrien d’Epinay, Sir William Newton, Dr Eugène Laurent, Anatole de Boucherville, Gaston Gébert, Raoul Rivet and Sir Edgar Laurent himself” for their participation “in the political evolution of Mauritius,” he referred to “the great democrats Emmanuel Anquetil, Guy Rozemont and Renganaden Seeneevassen… We have produced men in the past of international calibre – men of profound learning and experience who, by their attainments in so many different fields of national endeavour, could have been the pride of any country in the world” and who “have been the inheritors of a liberal civilisation that has been nurtured by the cultural values of both East and West.”
The first Prime Minister and Father of the Nation recalled: “a movement for political freedom has been afoot in this country from the early years of our history. Even during the French occupation, there were movements for self-government, which culminated in rebellion; and in 1794 the country became a rebel colony, revolting and disobeying the Central Government of France. For the next few years the colony became virtually independent.” He continued: “As far back as 1825, Mauritius had a Council of Government in which members had freedom of debate and an independent vote.”
Regarding the subsequent changes brought to the legislature as from 1885, he referred to “the famous 17 July 1882 Sub-Committee,” composed of Sir William Newton and his political associates who had “to study and report on changes” to amend the Constitution. SSR underlined that even the Constitution of 1885, even if “modest as it was for a country as advanced as Mauritius, was opposed by forces of reaction… Ever since then, there has been a sustained and unyielding agitation to oppose every single move towards greater constitutional freedom.”
For many people, he observed, “in spite of their other qualities, those whom they have branded as hewers of wood and drawers of water should always be relegated to the position of serfs.” After emphasizing that “we are dedicated to the liberal and democratic way of life,” SSR predicted that Mauritius “will merge within the wider framework of sovereign and independent countries… in this new partnership, Mauritius will be in a more advantageous position to deal with all the problems that it has now to face.”
In reply to the argument concerning the advantages of an association status with Great Britain, SSR stressed that it was not equivalent to “integration with the UK.” For him, “association in any form will be a mistaken policy.” He stated: “By now, a great many of our people have realised that.” Then, he observed that Mauritians “could not claim automatic entry into the UK. Nor will Association take us nearer to the Common Market.”
At a later stage of the proceedings, all the PMSD members, except Yvon St Guillaume and Tangavel Narrainen, walked out of Parliament on the twin grounds that there were petitions filed in the Supreme Court against some elected members of the IP and the time for Independence was not opportune. St Guillaume and Narrainen even voted for the motion for Independence. Later, St Guillaume told Sir Satcam Boolell that he “did not wish to miss that great moment in history.” Rounding off his motion, SSR enumerated the criteria, impossible to be satisfied by Mauritians generally, to acquire British citizenship and have access to the Common Market. He thus dismissed the idea of Association with the UK. Yet, he told the House: “We are not against the entry into the Common Market, if that is in the interest of Mauritius.”
Racial Violence & Boycott of Celebrations
In January 1968, racial violence broke out in Port Louis. A violent confrontation between Muslims and Creoles resulted in 28 dead. Schools were closed. As in 1965, British troops were called in to help restore public order. A state of emergency was imposed for some time until calm returned. Thus, the inaugural independence ceremony was held at Champ de Mars, not at night, as is the custom elsewhere, but at noon, on 12 March 1968 when Prime Minister SSR hoisted the national flag for the first time. The national anthem “Motherland” was then also officially released.
The PMSD and its supporters, in response to its leader’s appeal, boycotted the first independence festivities. Duval was later reported to have dissuaded his followers from participating in these national rejoicings to avoid any possible riot. Special central government grants were allocated to all the local authorities – at village, rural district and municipal levels. However, the four PMSD-controlled urban councils of Port Louis, Curepipe, Beau Bassin-Rose Hill and Vacoas-Phoenix did not organise any rejoicing. In the countryside, all the social welfare committees too celebrated the event.
Why 12 March?
SSR, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi for his non-violent struggle for freedom in India, chose 12 March for the Independence Day of Mauritius in memory of the Salt March launched by India’s Father of Nation to trigger the non-violent campaign to wrench freedom from the mighty British which was won after 17 years in 1947.
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Born at Long Mountain, the author engaged in active politics, first in his native village, then across the North and later at national level, before joining municipal service in Beau Bassin-Rose Hill (1973), where he was recruited by the controlling PMSD and where he afterwards collaborated with councillors and mayors of all political colours until 1999.
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