From British Subjects to Mauritian Citizens
— CHIT DUKHIRA
The legislative elections on the issue of Independence were fought on 7 August 1967. Led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR), the Independence Party (IP) defeated the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate (PMSD), ex-Ralliement, and ex-Parti Mauricien. The IP comprised the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP), Abdool Razack Mohamed’s Comité d’Action Musulman (CAM) and the Independent Forward Block (IFB) of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, younger brother of Basdeo Bissoondoyal, the country’s unique Mauritian missionary (1939-91), who culturally awakened the Indo-Mauritian community as never before. Dr Régis Chaperon, an MLP legislator since 1959, twice Chairman of the Town Council of Quatre Bornes and then its Mayor (1971-1973), chaired his party as from 1961. His predecessor, Guy Forget, a former municipal councillor of Port-Louis, elected legislator since 1948 and Chairman, Town Council of Beau Bassin-Rose Hill, was MLP deputy leader. As from 1951, SSR led the MLP, whose chairman was Guy Rozemont since 1946 until his death (1956), having succeeded Emmanuel Anquetil who was preceded by its founder, Dr Maurice Curé (1936-41).
With involvement, during his 14-year (1921-35) stay in London, in journalistic and socio-political activities, besides belonging to the Fabian Society and having ties with progressists of both UK and third world countries, whose political guru there was the famous revolutionary barrister and intellectual, Vithalbhai Patel, intimate associate of the great martyr Subhas Chandra Bose and elder brother of Vallabhai Patel (later India’s Deputy Prime Minister), SSR was the first in Mauritian public life to be of Western and Eastern cultures. He proofread S.C. Bose’s ‘The Indian Struggle’ (1934), of which he received an autographed copy before leaving London.
In public life since his return home in 1935, he became a nominee in the legislature and an elected councillor in Port-Louis in 1940, though he had to wait until 1958 to become its Mayor when his MLP commanded a majority there. He also launched Advance, a bilingual French-English daily, which remained in publication until 1984. The most suitable leader of his country’s plural society, he was the foremost champion in 1945-46 to struggle, as supported by a few including Renganaden Seeneevassen, for widening the restricted franchise in force since 1885, but could bring Independence only in 1968.
SSR did his utmost to turn MLP into a representative national party. In 1953, Philippe Rozemont (MLP) was elected in rural Grand Port-Savanne. In 1959, MLP’s Malcolm de Chazal, an open Mauritian now respected as genius and patriot, who contributed to SSR’s Advance, lost to Henri Ythier (PM) in Rose Hill. Even in 1953, SSR had a Creole, Noellie Chicorée (née Mathieu), appointed to the legislature and Ms Sherifa Damoo elected as the first woman-municipal councillor of Port-Louis (1956). An attorney-at-law, Eddy Changkye became the first elected Sino-Mauritian legislator (MLP) in 1959. For the 1967 (independence) elections, SSR made Ms Radhamanee Poonoosamy stand as MLP’s candidate, and she later served as the first Mauritian woman Minister (1975-76).
The PMSD had the newly formed Tamil United Party of Dorsamy Moorghen and Tangavel Narainen as an ally. Its vice-president Dharma Rajan stood in Rivière des Anguilles-Souillac, where he was an IFB candidate earlier. Ajum Dahal was a formidable orator and ally in the PMSD camp. CAM’s first president, Dahal, was defeated as an independent in Port-Louis in the general elections of 1948, but was later elected under the MLP-CAM banner in Rivière des Anguilles in 1959. He was now elected PMSD MP in Quatre Bornes. Augustin Moignac and Monaf Fakira were the PMSD’s newcomers. 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.
Besides Advance, edited by Marcel Cabon, and B. Ramlallah’s Mauritius Times, the daily l’Express, founded in 1963 and whose editor was Guy Forget’s son, Dr Philippe Forget, vigorously campaigned for Independence. The Hindi papers Janata (MLP) and Zamana (IFB) also supported the IP, as did CAM’s The Star. Roger Merven’s now defunct Action (1957-1973) was still a conservative daily, whereas The Congress (1964-1970), organ of the All-Mauritius Hindu Congress, was in favour of constitutional evolution. The dailies Le Cernéen and Le Mauricien, as well as Week-End whose publication started in 1966 and the now defunct daily Le Citoyen (1963-1969), were with the opposition.
About 44% of the electorate opposed Independence, preferring an association with the UK as championed by PMSD (which bagged 23 seats) and its new populist lawyer-leader, Gaëtan Duval (l930-1996). He was actively supported by his mentor and predecessor, the towering long time barrister-parliamentarian and gifted public orator, Jules Koenig. PMSD followers were afraid of nationalisation, Hindu hegemony, or a socio-economic deterioration — all three later proved to be imaginary dangers. They had no trust in their fellow-Mauritians being given the rein of the country’s affairs, preferring the British for their so-called fair play, discipline and administrative ability. Many even believed that Mauritius could become an overseas territory of India, which, for them, was backward.
As for the 81-year old Dr M. Curé, who had been defeated as Bissoondoyal/IFB’s candidate in a by-legislative election in the South in 1958 and in the general election in Curepipe in 1959, lost in Vacoas-Phoenix as an independent in 1967, obtaining but 158 of the 14,720 votes cast. Besides PMSD’shonorary chairman 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.
On 22 August 1967, SSR tabled his motion for Independence; it was seconded by MLP deputy leader, Guy Forget. During the debate, all the PMSD members, except Yvon St Guillaume and Tangavel Narrainen, walked out of Parliament on the 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 the motion for Independence. It was approved unanimously by those present.
Independence was celebrated on 12 March 1968, when first Prime Minister SSR, with a 28-year (1940-68) legislative career, hoisted the Mauritian flag at noon and released the national anthem Motherland. The date for Independence was chosen by him in memory of Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March that, initiated on 12 March 1930, triggered the struggle to end British rule in India in 1947. Unlike what happened in 1968 and even for a few years after that, today Mauritians are generally proud of our Independence, honouring our flag as well as our anthem.
The author was involved in active politics, especially in his native village Long Mountain, a marginal constituency for MLP, and in the North, from 1960 to 1972 when he was recruited as Deputy Town Clerk by the Municipal Council of Beau Bassin-Rose Hill then controlled by PMSD and, later, by MMM. He was instrumental in organising the huge political rally held at Long Mountain in 1961 following SSR’s appointment as Chief Minister (1961) with a repeat performance in 1965 when he was elevated to the position of Premier, this time with the participation of Mohabeer Foogooa, the legislator of the constituency elected under the banner of the IFB in 1959 and 1963, paving the way for the 1967 contest. SSR’s chief agent in the 1948 and 1953 elections, Foogooa’s contribution to Independence was significant. Ranking first in Long Mountain-Port Louis North in 1967, he got elected Raouf Bundhun (CAM) and Raymond Rault (MLP); he then joined MLP. In Pamplemousses, on 7 August 1967 when took place the decisive election, SSR, upon meeting the author from whom he enquired about the contest in Long Mountain-Port-Louis North, remarked that Independence would be achieved only if IP would win there.