It is indeed a great moment of intense emotion to walk down memory lane to the days when the country became independent on a Monday 12 March 1968 at noon, at the Champ de Mars where most big events would take place. When the Union Jack would be brought down to the tune of God Save The Queen and give way to the four colours of the country – Red, Blue, Yellow and Green: a Mauritian flag that proudly floated in the air and we would sing “Glory To Thee Motherland.”
It had rained that whole week prior to independence. But on that day rain stopped around 10 a.m. People said it was a miracle! And it became blazing hot and sunny. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had already been nominated Prime Minister since 22 November 1967 but now he would be consecrated the Prime Minister with all the ceremonies due. He would be remembered as Father of the Nation – Chacha for all, and the first Prime Minister of the country who led it to Independence. At Champ de Mars colourful floats from various districts depicting different Ministries and District Councils would unfurl around the Champ de Mars. Beautiful simple buntings and flags would ornate the premises. The guests would be in the ‘loge’. At night at the harbour front there would be fireworks with the image of Chacha unfurling in the sky amidst great cheers. That same night there would be a State Banquet at the Queen Elizabeth College Hall! That was a solemn moment of emotion, pride and glory.
It was on 22 August 1966 that the Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a motion to officially ask for the Independence of Mauritius from the United Kingdom. The incumbent Prime Minister Ramgoolam put forward the Motion.
It was the Swaraj of India which ignited the flame of Independence in Third World countries such as Sri Lanka and African countries where many African leaders would be inspired by the Indian Freedom gained at midnight on 15 August 1947 at such great sacrifice and labour. In fact the Dandi Salt March of protest led by Mahatma Gandhi on a 12th March 1930 to the shores of small town of Nawsari on West Coast, Gujarat would be an inspiring date to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. He retained this from his Fabian Socialist days as a student in UK where he would be in close proximity to the Indian National Congress members such as Krishna Menon, and of which he was a member too. Sir Anerood Jugnauth in his wisdom would also retain the 12th March as the memorable date for the Republic Day of Mauritius proclaimed in 1992.
The Franchise Literacy Test
“Under section 16 (1) (a) of the Mauritius (Legislative Council) Order-in-Council of 1947, an applicant for registration as an elector must be able to speak, read and write simple sentences in, and sign his or her name in one of the nine languages including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu or Chinese ”. As a result of the new Constitution of 1947, this Franchise Literacy Test would provide the enlarged Adult Universal Suffrage which would open the sluice gate to democracy.
At one go, the number of electors jumped from 11,000 to almost 72,000. The 1948, 1953, 1959, and 1967 elections were decisive. The 1948 general election definitely changed the course of political history in Mauritius, breaking as id did the fort of plantocracy and enabling the masses to cast their votes massively – previously denied to them – and elect their Representatives.
The 3rd Constitutional Conference of 26th June to 7th July 1961 in London under Conservative Colonial Secretary Ian Macleod, known as “The Mauritius Review Conference”, was a crucial step on the road to Independence.
Independence was not an easy task. Months and years of campaigning were needed by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his colleagues. For indeed 44% of the population were led to vote against Independence by the oligarchy. Most people were told there would be famine in the country and the nation’s coffers would be empty, a projection made in the Titmuss and Meade Reports of 1961. We heard wild slogans such as “Malbar nou pa oulé” and “Enveloppé nou pa oulé”. These are now of course classified and the attitude has changed but they are nonetheless part of recent history and the people especially the youth should know of it. The campaign also belittled the masses, with the propaganda that giving them the right of vote would be tantamount to putting “ene razoir dans la main zaco”.
Consequently, thousands of Mauritians abandoned their good posts of high level functionaries in the top hierarchy of the Civil Service where they had been holding sway and ruling the roost. They sold their grand mansions and houses in the elite wards of Port Louis, Quatre Bornes, Beau Basin and Rose Hill for peanuts in a bid to hurriedly emigrate to Australia, France and South Africa. Many of these houses would be bought over by people of Indian origin.
They left in panic and catastrophe following rumours that Mauritius would be ‘attached’ to India, whereas the powers that be wanted integration with the UK. There were also wild rumours that boatloads of “langoutis” were coming from India. Today many of those who left for other greener pastures and splendid shores have come back and enjoy the fruits of independence.
It is after they left that a vacuum would be created in the Establishment. And to fill this acute void of qualified manpower, many young people who could not afford to go to UK, France for higher studies turned to India for tertiary education in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the wake of the 1975 sugar boom. Upon their return, armed with their degrees they filled the vacant posts left by those in search of a mirage.
Role of Mauritius Times
When Mauritius gained independence, the small office of Mauritius Times at Bourbon Street, opposite the Nalanda Bookshop would be filled with an air of achievement, contentment and a sense of redemption, of conviction as well as a sense of having done the right thing and being on the right side of history. The Mauritius Times saw the day of light on 14 August 1954, headed by Beekrumsing Ramlallah who sacrificed his government job to sign the paper, fabricate it and lead it. With a band of devoted friends and intellectuals, the paper championed the cause of the voiceless, the downtrodden and supported the cause of independence according to the principles of truth, justice and democracy. Week after week Mauritius Times would take up the cudgel and vindicate the rights of the voiceless, against the formidable, vitriolic pen of the mouthpiece of the oligarchy: NMU.
Beekrumsing Ramlallah acquired the services of a cartoonist – Krishna from Cité Vallijee. Mr Ramlallah would put his thoughts roughly on paper and Krishna would draw the humorous and witty cartoons with well imagined captions by BR. Issues like “Down with PR”, Constitutional Talks, Family Planning, Admit our Children Campaign, Oriental Languages and Indian Culture would be debated intensely in the family circle and in Nalanda Bookshop, the hub of intellectuals and readers avid to know more. Growing up in such an atmosphere of political and cultural activism and intense involvement took us to the forefront of major social-political movements since our tender age.
Glory To Thee Motherland
We had thus witnessed the va-et-vient of Mr George Prosper, the writer-composer of the National Anthem, Glory To Thee Motherland. Living a stone throw away from the residence of Mr Ramlallah at 28, Wellington Street, Port Louis, he would come with his manuscript for advice and suggestions. The text was polished several times until it took the shape that today we all sing with glory and pride.
But one thing almost marred the Independence celebrations. On January 22 1968 erupted an ethnic riot between two gangs over shadowy transactions in Port Louis. This lasted till 21 February 1968. 24 lives were lost, hundreds injured and thousands abandoned their homes in Port Louis. This ethnic riot would change the demography of Port Louis for good along ethnic lines. The Shropshire Guards had to be called urgently from Malaysia to restore law and order. A curfew over Port Louis and state of Emergency in the country were declared. It was in that atmosphere of darkness, gloom that hung over Port Louis like a menacing sword of Damocles that Mauritius gained independence. Governor Sir John Shaw Rennie however cleared all doubts whatsoever that the ethnic riots had anything to do with politics and still less with the Independence Movement.
Riots Sufferers Fund
Coincidence would have it that the fiery and majestic monk of the Indian ascetic order Saraswati, Swami Krishnanand would come to Mauritius in April 1967 at the request of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who met him in Nairobi. But also it was late young Prakash Ramlallah would also impress upon the Swami while following a course of Journalism in Nairobi to come and train Mauritian youths in social work. After the 15 August 1967 first forty leadership training camp of Seva Shivir Foundation at the Ramakrishna Mission, the Swami and his disciples would camp at the Vishnu Kchetre Mandir, St Denis Street, Port Louis. It was thus that when the ethnic riots broke out in January 1968, the newly-formed Seva Shivir youth movement would be fully exposed to the human disaster that we all witnessed. The Seva Shivir quickly put up the Riots Sufferers Fund and weekly food rations of rice, dholl, oil etc. would be distributed to the victims of the riots, following a well conducted survey in the areas of Valleé Pitot, Plaine Verte, Tranquebar, Dauguet and so on. It lasted for 9 months and twenty four families were thus served weekly in a spirit of service to mankind irrespective of creed, colour and community. It was the first practical lesson for the young Seva Shivir volunteers in social service, a few weeks before Independence.
Independence has come to stay and Mauritius has emerged as a distinct Rainbow Island, an IT hub and may be again be the star and key of the Indian Ocean as it was deemed in the colonial period. But this time upon the merit of its only resource – the human resource – sons and daughters coming from India, Africa, Europe, China – and living as one People, as one Nation to sing the Glory of the Motherland.