By Chit Dukhira
The Surtee (Gujarati) Goolam Mohamed Dawjee Atchia (GMDA) was born in Rose Hill where he received his initial primary schooling. He latermoved to Curepipe with his parents and secured the VIth Standard Certificate at Curepipe Boys’ Government School. With his father’s sudden death in 1905 he could not pursue formal education, having to look after the joint family. With his sharp intelligence, he devoted himself body and soul to various aspects of Mauritian public life.
Later living in Port-Louis, he opened a cloth shop in the capital, as his father had done before him. He was at home in English, French, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati and Bhojpuri. Soon active in local and national politics, GMDA championed the socio-economic and cultural uplift of his fellow-citizens, particularly the country’s Muslims. He is remembered for his generosity, passion for reading and as a literary collector. His papers, many of which he personally authored in English or French, referred to as Papiers Atchia, and books constitute a precious legacy for the country’s socio-political history.
GMDA was the benefactor of, among others, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR), for whom he “felt pity” when they met in London in 1932. He arranged, together with some close friends, to forward to him every month a remittance for his medical studies in London (1933-35), besides paying his return passage. On the very day that SSR landed, he presented GMDA a Conklin (fountain) pen bearing his benefactor’s name embossed in gold.
Subsequently, like the country’s other aspiring politicians of the time such as Dr Edgar Laurent, SSR now and then called on him. GMDA shared with SSR his socio-political experience acquired specially as from 1921, thus becoming the mentor in Mauritian public life of the Father of the Nation. A co-founder of the company publishing the daily Advance, GMDA was the vice-chairman, since its inception (1940) until his demise (1966), of its board of directors which SSR presided over. In the beginning, GMDA was its regular correspondent, his articles mostly appearing under the pen-name of “Un Vieux Citadin.”
Shining in Municipal Politics (1921-1953) GMDA sat on the Municipal Corporation of Port-Louis for 29 years (1921-40 and 1943-53). In 1922, he topped the successful list in Ward 2 and became deputy mayor, a post he held later for a total of six years. He was an adherent since the inception (1926) of Union Mauricienne (UM), as solicited by its founders, Dr Edgar Laurent and Raoul Rivet.
During the December 1935 municipal election campaign, GMDA was publicly promised the mayorship for 1935-1936 by Laurent and Rivet who later did not entrust it to him. As it was the bicentenary of the arrival of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, founder of the capital, it needed to be celebrated with pomp.
GMDA was cast aside, but promised to be made mayor in 1936-1937. Since Port-Louis was a Christian town, a non-Christian could not be its mayor for this bicentenary, it was argued. Rivet, elected councillor and legislator for Port-Louis since 1928 and 1931 respectively, who had been mayor as from December 1934, was preferred for re-appointment. Jules Koenig, elected councillor in 1930 and 1933 under a UM ticket, voted against Rivet, condemning this discriminatory choice in the press. Five councillors including himself and GMDA soon resigned.
The UM lost its majority on the municipal corporation in February 1936 when GMDA was re-elected on a list of candidates of different cultures grouped under the motto of Entente Mauricienne (EM). Samuel Fouquereaux became mayor. Elected deputy mayor, GMDA was promoted mayor in December 1937. For the first time, a non-Christian of Indian origin occupied the may-moral post. In January 1938, a reception committee, composed of Hindus and Muslims and whose secretary was SSR, honoured him on behalf of Indo-Mauritians for being both mayor and legislator. Another reception chaired by Harilal Vaghjee was given to him in the Soonnee Surtee Mussulman Society’s hall.
But in 1940, GMDA who led the Group of Five lost the municipal election. Of the five candidates, only SSR was elected; it was the first electoral victory of the Father of the Nation. The other candidates were A. K. Aboo Bakar, A. R. Mohamed and Paramasiven Seeneevassen. The UM successfully fought the election under the name of Group of Ten.
Referring to these elections, SSR later qualified the UM as being “opposed to all changes and so basically as conservative as the oligarchy itself.” GMDA, however, triumphed in 1943, and subsequently, in the local elections. In 1946, he was Mayor of Port-Louis for a second time. SSR, elected on the same Group of 12 as GMDA, became deputy mayor. In 1964, the Municipal Council of Port-Louis conferred upon GMDA the Town Medal.
Active Legislator Between 1926 and 1953 Appointed legislator in 1926, GMDA zealously shouldered his legislative responsibility for 27 years until 1953, with a two-year break (1948-1950). He was the only Muslim legislator from 1926 to 1938 when Abdul Latiff Osman was also nominated.
On account of the critical economic problems facing Mauritius whose national budget could hardly be balanced, an official financial commission composed of Loughman and Elliot studied them from October 1931 to January 1932. The oligarchs contested its report of April 1932 recommending drastic entrenchment and increased taxation. Then, a delegation, whose members were chosen by the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate which also bore the necessary expenses, went to London in 1932 for talks with the authorities. It comprised Philippe Raffray, Sir Jules Leclézio and Dr Edgar Laurent. GMDA forcefully intervened in Council, for representatives of Hindus and Muslims to be part of the delegation.
Eventually, Rajcoomar Gujadhur could attend as a delegate. As decided by a special committee of some representatives of the Muslims, GMDA was sponsored by his community as an unofficial delegate. He opposed the reactionary ideas put forward by the Mauritian oligarchs.
The Secretary of State for the Colonies approved all the recommendations made by the Colonial Office Currency Committee. Thanks to GMDA’s intervention, the exchange rate was made free in Mauritius.
He was supported by Dr Edgar Laurent who dissented from the stand of the other two Mauritian delegates. Moreover, the rupee, in use in the country as linked to the Indian money since 1876, became the official Mauritian currency. This measure, allowing Mauritians henceforth to make remittances abroad without having recourse to a third party, put an end to the indirect tax paid until now to the oligarchs or their representatives (sworn brokers and money changers).
In his memorandum, drafted by R. K. Boodhun and signed by thousands of Muslims, GMDA aired the grievances of Indo-Mauritians. He pinpointed the Mauritian Muslims’ glaring cultural, economic, social and political problems, highlighting their role in trade and commerce, as well as pointing out the injustices and prejudices to which were subjected Indo-Mauritians generally. Moreover, he underlined the need for his coreligionists to be governed by Muslim family laws, allowing them to live according to their beliefs.
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2011