The struggle for fairness and human dignity will never cease
Last year Mauritius Times commemorated its 60th year of existence on the 14th August with a special issue. Different contributors gave their personal perspectives on the genesis of the paper and its founder Beekrumsing Ramlallah, as well as on the paper’s trajectory from the time of its launching. On the occasion of the birth centenary of Beekrumsing Ramlallah on 2nd September 2015, we have deemed it fit to take a look at some of the fundamental issues which he canvassed through MT, but also at the pre-MT years of his engagement with matters of concern to society. Without doubt it is the same indomitable spirit of fighting for both individual and collective dignity and self-respect, and to get one’s place in the sun, that led him to take up the larger national cause when the times demanded it as the shackles of colonialism began to loosen.
It may be recalled that after passing the Teachers’ Examination he worked as a teacher in a government-aided school for 16 years. For three years he served in the Mauritius Territorial Force (a voluntary military corps) constituted for the defence of Mauritius. But when the Second World War broke out, he was compelled to serve in the Mauritius Regiment – a British expeditionary force. He refused, was court-martialled and expelled.
In 1942, after his release from the army he founded a voluntary (non-military) brigade named Mauritius Sewa Samiti. The aim of that brigade was to serve the under-privileged and the suffering masses and to inculcate the spirit of service, self-help, self-reliance and good-breeding among them. This institution was the first of the many that he subsequently built or helped to set up and/or develop; collectively they represent his lasting legacy to this country in fields as diverse as social work, religion, culture, education, health, governance, politics and journalism.
His aim was to ensure social justice for all and to restore the dignity of the common man, especially the downtrodden. This meant confronting a system with feudal undertones which was firmly anchored in the quasi-divine belief that a privileged few were born to forever lord it over others: some were born to rule, others were meant to be dominated. To combat entrenched reflexes and attitudes in both the rulers and the ruled and bring about the much-needed change and transformation, the only solution was to create awareness and mobilise the people, but also lead by example.
Thus, he organized several demonstrations and meetings to protest against certain injustices and to press for reforms. With Hurryparsad Ramnarain he led a nation-wide campaign against alcohol abuse – which in retrospect can only be considered avant-gardiste, when we realise that today this is a matter of major concern across communities and in younger age groups including school children. Nobody can dispute that this problem needs to be tackled even more aggressively today, driven by civil society and the government working in tandem, and making use of programmes that are available within existing cooperative frameworks, such as those of the World Health Organisation.
In 1956, with the co-operation of a friend, Premchand Dabee, he led a Mauritius-wide campaign to convince the British government that one of its top priorities should be the education of children, specially of those who could not afford private schooling. The campaign Admit our Children was a great success. He also organised the Down With Proportional Representation campaign, and opposed the demand for a quota system for the majority community, insisting that the only criterion should be meritocracy. We may have come a long way since, but the question of meritocracy has never ceased to come up again and again, not only in Mauritius but all over the world for that matter. Affirmative action and quotas for special groups remain a thorny issue in several societies, and governments everywhere are grappling to find pragmatic solutions as the monsters of identity politics and appeasement policies tend to vitiate intelligent debate on the matter. The focus on minorityism has as counterpart reverse discrimination – which tends to be conveniently disregarded. But a few years ago, in the US, a white student took the government to task when he was denied admission to a university because of his race.
A notable episode was the sit-in in front of Government House in 1984. As the doyen of local journalists with an above par credibility and a reputation for courage and fearlessness, Beekrumsing Ramlallah was entrusted – his age notwithstanding — to lead his peers to protest against the Newspapers and Periodicals (Amendment) Bill which sought to impose a security of Rs 500,000 (MUR) on those responsible for the print media, seemingly to protect citizens from “any debt or liability incurred by the printer and publisher.” At that time he was President of the Mauritius Union of Journalists which he had founded in 1983. It may also be noted that in 1984 he was appointed member of the executive committee of the International Federation of Journalists with headquarters in Brussels.
As far back as 1946, to popularise books and magazines on socialism (which was then taboo in Mauritius), literature and magazines of Indian interest (in English and Hindi) he founded the Nalanda Bookshop. A few years later he founded the Nalanda Press Service to give an opportunity to those who wanted to publish pamphlets and booklets on socialism and in Hindi.
Amongst other organizations where he lent his presence and voice one can mention the Small Scale Industries Board; the Police and Local Government Service Commissions; the State Bank; the Health Education Division of the Ministry of Health; the Mauritius Peace Council; the Mauritius Family Planning Association; the Mauritius Housing Corporation; the Ex-Servicemen Welfare Fund Committee; the Mauritius Government Tourist and the Tea Advisory Boards; the Court of the University of Mauritius; a Hindi newspaper Nav Jeevan which he founded in 1960 with Mungur Bhagat; the Hindu Maha Sabha and the Sanatana Dharma Temples Federation; the Aapravasi Ghat; the Mauritius Union of Journalists. A significant event took place in November 1997, when he donated a bust in bronze in memory of Adolphe de Plevitz at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. Earlier, in the late 1950s, he took the initiative to have a bronze statute of Manilal Doctor erected at the Jardin de La Compagnie in Port-Louis. A couple of friends joined him in the Manilal Doctor Memorial Committee to make the necessary arrangements and to raise funds for the purpose.
However, it is the Mauritius Times which is perhaps his most visible legacy.
True to his calling, the issues he covered in the Mauritius Times spanned the whole range of concerns, the political and social developments in those critical years before Independence occupying, as was wont to be, much space. But everything was there: from the basic needs of people such as decent wages and regular employment, to the provision of facilities for housing loans, population control, land tenancy, budgetary and other resource allocations, transparency and accountability issues long before these terms became today’s clichés, the prices of essential foodstuffs, the sanitary conditions in hospitals and dispensaries, the cost and availability of medical treatments and the quality of medical care, violence associated with road accidents – and so on, an endless and recurrent list.
However, in his mind, of equal if not greater importance than these issues, were the values and principles which guided their articulation. He was resolutely against personalising a matter or hurting let alone insulting opponents with whom he and his collaborators crossed swords. Tout était de bonne guerre, mais dans le strict respect de l’adversaire. And he put this across in his own words: “In a controversy one has to pay heed to arguments only.”
In the years following its inception the paper is remembered in particular for its countering of the diatribes of the notorious NMU. But on 6 February 1959, in line with MT’s philosophy, this is the tribute BR paid to NMU:
“We have learnt with deep regret the death of Mr Noel Marrier d’Unienville, Director of Le Cernéen, which occurred after a long illness. His dynamism and intelligence boosted up the century-old paper and throughout these last years he has occupied the position of top rank militant journalist of the local press. His initial NMU had become a household word. Though we have never seen eye to eye with Mr d’Unienville and have always been his staunch political opponent, we cannot but pay homage to his great journalistic talents and his wide knowledge of local and international affairs. To the bereaved family and to the editor and Staff of Le Cernéen, we tender our heartfelt sympathies for the great loss.”
The spirit that animates the paper was enunciated by BR on 17 June 1955: “Ten months ago when we first appeared, we told our readers that the Mauritius Times was setting before itself a rather modest ambition: it would serve this country by throwing light on various aspects of our problems. We further wrote that in this task we would seek no favour, and care for no opposition; we would take up the cudgel on behalf of those who deserve and fight for all those who are oppressed, no matter what their creed, race or complexion would be. We are satisfied that we have to some extent managed to fulfil this pledge. At times we were compelled to criticize even friends and people for whom we have great admiration. We couldn’t help it as we had to place the interest of the people above personal consideration.”
It is a mission statement that will ever remain valid, whatever the political regime in place, and whatever the circumstance. Because, in the natural order of things and as contemporary history around the world demonstrates, the struggle for human dignity will never cease.
- Published in print edition on 11 September 2015