To commemorate his 105th birth anniversary
By Chit Dukhira
Born on 15 April 1906, Basdeo Bissoondoyal was an exceptional missionary. The need for his mission was felt and foreseen by none other than Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, later Sir (SSR), Father of the Mauritian Nation and architect of modern Mauritius, who, on coming back to the country in mid-July 1935 after his 14-year stay in London wrote, in the Indian Cultural Review of 1936, about the need for a “great mass movement” in the country. It was Basdeo Bissoondoyal who fulfilled that need.
Back from India in 1939 after his studies, Basdeo it was who first mobilised Mauritians on a large scale. He gave sermons regularly in all nooks and corners of the country right from January 1940. His national Maha Yaj, unique of its kind, was organised in Port Louis on 12 December 1943.
Having then launched his Jan Andolan, he continued his socio-cultural public lectures until his death (1991). He was the first to awaken Indo-Mauritians, especially Hindus, inculcating in them their ancestral values. This prolific writer and speaker is venerated for his selfless, solo, lifelong and voluntary social campaign. He empowered Indo-Mauritians, the country’s majority community by far but then generally poor and illiterate, to uphold their dignity. He did his best to unite the Hindus — Arya Samajist and Sanatanist, irrespective of their regional origin. His countless disciples and/or students (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) shone and continue to shine in Hindi, politics, education, journalism, history and other fields. They include Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ), Prime Minister of Mauritius for 16 years and its President since 2003. Basdeo’s friend and associate, Abdul Wahab Foondun, used Basdeo’s Hindi translation of ‘Paul et Virginie’ to produce its Urdu version. Basdeo, a scholar and patriot, with vision and erudition, achieved his purpose with determination and without fear or favour.
The three Bissoondoyal brothers were each born after a two-year interval. Soogrim, the eldest, was born in 1904 and Basdeo and Sookdeo followed in 1906 and 1908 respectively. Soogrim regrettably passed away at the young age of 35, but before doing so, he had given the family its direction and its vocation. Soogrim it was who first became interested in Hinduism, the Arya Samaj in particular, and dragged his brothers along with him. The three at first worked as primary school teachers. Basdeo taught at the Surtee Soonee Aided School (1922-26), Port-Louis, and at the Reetoo School (1926-32), Saint Julien, near Flacq, before sailing to India for university studies in 1933. Having obtained his BA (English) at the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) College of Lahore, Punjab, now in Pakistan, coming out first in this examination, he secured a scholarship and successfully read for MA at Calcutta University.
Missionary with Purpose
Back in Mauritius, Basdeo started missionary work without delay. Having observed India’s nationalist leaders’ activities, he awakened the country’s Hindus, besides having Muslims as followers. His incisive oratory did not please the British top officials. Such songs of his as “Sone walo jaag chalo” (Those who are asleep, wake up and walk) enthused the masses. A tacit agreement bound Sookdeo and Basdeo to contribute to Indo-Mauritians’ uplift. Sookdeo looked after the family’s material needs, while Basdeo spread Indian Culture and Mahatma Gandhi’s messages. Within four years (1939-43), Basdeo mobilised the Hindus as never before, through his sermons given in his inimitable style. In that respect, Beekrumsing Ramlallah had put his Sewa Samithi, a voluntary youth discipline-based organisation he had founded at Long Mountain in 1940, at his disposal.
On 12 December 1943, Basdeo organised a Maha Yaj (Hindu public religious ceremony) at what is now called Gandhi Maidan, near Pouce Mountain, Port Louis. The authorities had ensured that trains, then the only mode of mass transport, would not run on that day to prevent the public from attending. Yet, over 30,000 urban residents and villagers came on foot, by bicycle, in bullock carts and lorries. Dawood Patel, an expert in sound and electricity, took charge of the public address system. Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharma’s priests jointly performed the ceremony. Swami Hari Har Aiyer of the Sockalingum Meenachee Ammen Temple of Nicolay (now S.M. Ammen) Road, Port Louis, presided. For one hour, Basdeo passionately addressed in a mesmeric Hindi that unprecedented gathering, made up also of non-Hindus. He aroused in the spellbound crowd a new religious and cultural fervour. It was a historic event in Mauritian history – truly the revival of Hinduism. The newly born Jan Andolan (Movement of the People), now nationally restructured and supported by several wings, spread like wildfire throughout the island.
Committed national leader
However, the British were intent upon sapping Basdeo’s determination. They incarcerated him on four occasions between 1944 and 1949, besides scheming to deport him to Diégo Garcia. But even in prison, he fought for the provision of proper food and amenities to Hindu prisoners. As his demands were not met, he observed a hunger strike. When this news spread outside, the labourers too struck. This popular protest infuriated Governor Mackenzie-Kennedy who thus stated in the Council of Government on 28 November 1944: “When I see the fields unweeded, in some places the cane uncut, when I hear of men sitting down for a whole day and doing no work because some convicted person is enjoying a hunger strike in jail (…) my patience is wearing thin.” The battle was finally won; Hindu food and some amenities soon became available in jail.
Impressed by the struggles for India’s Independence that had galvanised Indians under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, Basdeo was probably the first to talk about Independence for Mauritius. The British who, using their spies, found out that his public addresses were not confined to religion, put on his way many an obstacle. He ignored the regulations requiring meetings to be police-authorised beforehand, since Christian priests needed no such permission. Besides popularising Hindu festivals like Maha Shivaratri, Divali and Ganga Asnan as well as asking Arya Samajists and Sanatanists to come together, Basdeo continued sensitising the Hindus about their cultural heritage. Although a historical figure and a role model, Basdeo led a simple personal life.
Thanks to Basdeo, the karma yogi (saint in action) that was Gandhi, whom he eulogised and whose photo he displayed at his countless functions, became a household name, with the Mahatma’s picture adorning homes, in Mauritius. He propagated the song Gandhi ko jivan do, Bhagawan (Give life unto Gandhi, O Lord). Initially this was Jati ko jivan do Bhagawan, (Give life unto the community) But when it was felt that Mahatma Gandhi’s life had come under threat because of a prolonged fast, the word “Jati” was promptly replaced by “Gandhi”.
Fight for dignity and emancipation of the masses
Consequent upon Basdeo’s appeal for emancipation, as well as that of political leaders like SSR, Renganaden Seeneevassen, Sookdeo Balgobin, Jaynarain Roy (who wrote on constitutional issues) and a few other liberals, the Constitutional Consultative Committee (1945 and 1946-47) was set up; SSR and Seeneevassen, besides Balgobin (close to the Bissoondoyals), were among the reformers. Its findings resulted in the enlargement of the restricted franchise, then meant only for men with salary, wealth or education.
In 1947, Basdeo, helped by Sookdeo, put up their most momentous fight to vindicate the self-respect of descendants of Indian immigrants. One of the popular events of the season for horse racing, well established in Mauritius, was called “Les courses Malabar.” The term Malabar (or western coast of Kerala, South India, from where workers, mostly Christian, came to Mauritius in the 1730s) was used derogatorily to make a laughing stock of Indo-Mauritians, especially labourers to whom the sugar magnates gave a day off to go to Champ de Mars. Basdeo and Sookdeo toured the island to explain to the people that their dignity was being trampled upon. The boycott on 6 September 1947 was a resounding success. The pejorative label “les courses malabar” has not been used since.
The first major political change was introduced in 1948, entitling anybody, male or female, aged 21 years and above, who could pass a simple test (sign his/her name) in any language in use in the country, to vote. Supported by his followers and students, Basdeo contributed largely to enable Indian immigrants’ descendants to become electors through the knowledge, however elementary, of Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. For the first time in Mauritius, following the 1948 general elections, a majority of the elected members (11 out of 19) of the national legislative body was of Indian origin.
The Bissondoyals soon had their own press. Their Zamana (1948-77), or The Times, was a fortnightly in English, French and Hindi, sometimes also partly in Tamil and Marathi, which also promoted Hinduism. They had previously published Sangram (The Struggle) and Sainik (The Soldier). Their publications included pamphlets and other writings in book form, at times unsigned or under various pen names.
Sookdeo complements political work
Having resigned after 22-year government service in 1945, the self-tutored Sookdeo, who inevitably benefited from Basdeo’s halo, became an intransigent politician. Elected five times in a row in South Mauritius (1948-67), he was the first elected legislator to be Minister of Local Government and Co-operatives (1965-69) before serving briefly as Leader of the Opposition. Admired for his igniting Hindustani public addresses, he also excelled in his English and French parliamentary rhetoric. His Independent Forward Bloc (IFB), set up in 1958, won six seats in the 1959 general elections. Among the seven successful candidates in 1963 was its secretary, A. W. Foondun (1911-1990), BA (London), who had studied Hindi and Sanskrit from Basdeo, whom he had first met while working at the Reetoo School; he was returned in his native Bon Accueil, with a predominantly Hindu electorate. The neophyte SAJ then defeated the veteran journalist and legislator, Aunuth Beejadhur of the Labour Party (LP), in his native stronghold of Rivière du Rempart. Later, the IFB formed part, together with SSR’s LP and Sir A. R. Mohammed’s Comité d’Action Musulman, of the Independence Party that won the decisive 1967 general elections. Sookdeo, jailed four times for public cause, just as Basdeo, predeceased him in 1977, after his 1976 electoral defeat, contrary to general forecast. In 1948, Sookdeo Balgobin, backed by the Bissoondoyals, ranked first in East Mauritius.
Practical historian and polyglot scholar
To celebrate the centenary of the First Indian War of Independence, that the British still call the Indian Mutiny, Basdeo held a mass meeting in Rose Hill on 12 May 1957. On 4 December 1960, he underlined at Long Mountain the contribution of sepoys (Indian soldiers) in the British victory of 1810 near this village, the UK thus wrenching this strategic island from the French after their 90-year rule. This commemoration, for the 150th anniversary of the British victory, as that of 12 May 1957, remains singular. Moreover, Basdeo celebrated at St Pierre the 150th death anniversary of Bernardin de St Pierre, author of Paul et Virginie, in 1964. Five years later, he memorialised at Nouvelle Découverte the centenary of Adolphe de Plevitz, the first to champion Indo-Mauritian indentured labourers’ cause but who had to leave Mauritius a ruined person in 1876. Unlike most historians, Basdeo thus wrote, created and nurtured Mauritian history.
Malcolm de Chazal, who liked discussing with Basdeo, at times contributed to Zamana. It may be recalled that Dr Maurice Curé, who had called Sookdeo “l’homme au grand coeur,” had written his memoirs in this fortnightly. Guy Rozemont, whom the Bissoondoyals supported for his election in Port Louis in 1948, backed Sookdeo in the South. On a visit to Basdeo, when he mentioned his projected huge meeting for 1st May, the former prompted to him to request this date to be a public holiday. It is a reality since 1950, after Rozemont’s motion was passed in the legislature on 29 April 1949.
In 1941, along with Basdeo, the Long Mountain-based Hindi Pracharini Sabha (HPS), founded in 1926, organised in Port Louis the country’s first national Hindi Conference and Exhibition (of handwritten and printed publications); it has contributed the most to promote Hindi in Mauritius. But Basdeo proved its greatest individual proponent; he was made Sahitya Vachaspati (Master in Literature) by Allahabad Hindi Academy in 1969.
Appearing in English, French, Hindi and Sanskrit since 1944, Basdeo’s major works, besides contributions to sundry magazines, published in the UK and India, include: (a) A dozen in English, including The Truth About Mauritius (1967); (b) Five in French, including “Les Hindous et Leurs Ecritures” (1965) on India’s sacred texts and history; and (c) Ten in Hindi. He translated from French into Hindi Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1956) and that of Alexandre Dumas, Georges (1968). In the 1960s, he came out with the following works: (a) French-Hindi dictionary; (b) Résumé of the Bhagavad Gita in Creole; and (c) Le Chant de l’Ame, a 20-page Hindu prayer book in English, French and Hindi.
* Published in print edition on 15 April 2011