If there was no struggle for Independence, that it was a ‘give-away’ by a British government, then what was the reason for all the frenzy that kept convulsing my country in the pre-Independence years?
If, according to the views of some historians that I have come across in the media, there was no struggle for Independence, that it was a ‘give-away’ by a British government that wanted to rid itself of its colonies, as a curious layman I found myself asking: then what was the reason for all the frenzy that kept convulsing my country in the pre-Independence years during which I was growing up?
As I have learnt, the history that is written is always the conqueror’s version of your history, and so it is necessary to dig in and present an alternative narrative, whatever it be labelled – such as ‘revisionism’ — by the heavyweights in the discipline. The other lesson that we all come to appreciate as we go through life is that there is no such thing as an absolute truth in this relative world of ours. And so the truth about our history lies somewhere between the official or colonial version and that which is uncovered by the by as material becomes declassified and accessible to those who choose to make a career in the specialty.
This basket of narratives can be supplemented by anecdotes of a personal nature that can throw light on ground realities as they were experienced and perceived. Such accounts may not have ‘policy’ value, but they are no less of interest because they are about what went on in day to day life, away from the official gaze, even as larger events unfolded, and can serve as potential lessons for the future.
For example, what we were taught about the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 centred around President Lincoln and the grand ideas that he was defending, captured in the short Gettysburg speech about democracy being the rule of the people by the people for the people. It was only when I visited the field where the biggest carnage took place at Gettysburg many years ago and listened to the lively guide, as well as bought a couple of books – inevitable! – that I began to appreciate other aspects of that conflict. Being a surgeon, it was natural that I should pick up ‘A Surgeon’s Diary of the Civil War’, as well as one on the surgical instruments that were used then.
Perversely, many surgical developments took place in war situations, when doctors faced new challenges in terms of types of injuries sustained, and how to cope with them so as to save lives and limbs. And when I got back home, I travelled to my student days in the 1960s when I had bought at ‘Chez France’ in Curepipe Road a 5-volume set of soldiers’ accounts of the Civil War – and after searching awhile found this treasure trove among my books. When I dug in this time, I had a clearer and deeper appreciation of what was being described after the trip to Harrisburg and Gettysburg as well as other places of historical interest, for example in Virginia.
And so back to our little island where, granted that there may not have been a ‘real’ struggle to gain its Independence, there was yet an internal battle that was being fought: for vote banks, for power, for control over minds using arguments and posturing that would today be tantamount to ‘fake news’. And equally dangerous, for they could have led to open civil war along racial, communal, and ethnic lines. Fortunately for the future generations, there were only a few eruptions – albeit serious — that were brought down under control relatively quickly, and that did not degenerate further.
However, one cannot deny that they left lingering tensions and created fault lines that as a mature nation we still have not got rid of entirely. Nation building is always a work in progress, and as we look back as well as to the future, the single most important thing for the viability of the country and the prosperity of its future citizens is that the mistakes of the past must never be made again – although some cynics say that the lesson of history is that it keeps repeating, that we don’t learn any lesson, and do the same things over again. We mustn’t.
Of course there had been a struggle against the colonial oligarchy for the improvement of the working and living conditions of workers and artisans, which had been ongoing from the previous century and had engaged the energies of concerned people who had a humanitarian vision. That eventually had to be articulated in a political form, leading to the birth of Dr Maurice Curé’s Mauritius Labour Party (MLP). When the general elections of 1948 tilted the ratio of representatives in favour of those defending the labouring class, a bogey had to be invented to counter this tendency which universal adult suffrage had allowed. Despite the fact that the MLP comprised members from all the communities of the island, a Goebbelsian slogan and idea was openly thrust on the public.
It was that of l’hégémonie hindoue – that because they were in a majority, the Hindus would exert domination over the rest of the population if the island obtained political autonomy from Great Britain, and bring bateau langoutis from India and force everybody to wear langouti!! And so the call for autonomy, later Independence, as well as being anti-Independence and pro-association with Great Britain, was also about a struggle against a monster, l’hégémonie hindoue, that was only a figment in the minds of a few, but who had widespread influence and clout.
That such inanity could be imagined by an elite – educated in the best capitals of Europe and in the western tradition of liberalism – is truly incomprehensible, even in the context of a situation where the objective was to hold on to power and privilege.
That slogan was the battle cry of the Ralliement Mauricien, which subsequently morphed into the Parti Mauricien and then the Parti Mauricien Social Democrate. I think it was prior to the 1953 general elections that I remember seeing what was to my kid’s eyes a massive procession of cars making their way along the Royal Road, Curepipe Road, as they were at the crossing of the Royal Road with Jerningham Street opposite where the taxi stand was. People were standing in some open vehicles, others sat astride the car windows, yet others ‘hung out’ of the windows. All were waving flags, and all were shouting loudly – ralliement, ralliement, ralliement Mor-ricien, Mor-ricien! I heard many obscenities being flung about.
Years later, perhaps during the campaign for the general elections of 1959, I saw these partisans tearing flyers that had been put up by their opponents in Farquhar Street where I lived. And some of these people were known to me, as they lived in the neighbourhood, but of course they were much older to me.
I remember also seeing soldiers belonging to the Coldstream Guards who had been flown in to control the situation when communal riots erupted, I think it was 1965. They were around for a short period, but long enough perhaps to forge some friendships or relationships, for I found a few of them in the vicinity on a Saturday morning, bras dessus bras dessous with lassies.
I came for a holiday in May 1968, and my father narrated an incident which took place during riots earlier that year, in January I think, and which had a sordid origin, nothing to do with politics as such I was given to understand. My father was working in Port Louis then, and he sheltered in his office a young lad who lived in another street in our neighbourhood and who, having come to Port-Louis on some errand, was being chased by a band of armed rioters. My father had served as a pionnier in the British army, and so I think he was used to taking risks and knew how to deal with the marauding gang when they reached his office.
Some years ago I heard about another incident that occurred during that dark episode in our history, told to me by an elderly lady who lived in the suburbs of Port Louis then. It was about a lady known to her who was running away from a group of frenzied men, and suddenly found herself at the gate of a kovil. She dashed inside, and the iyer, quickly sensing what had happened, got her to promptly put a red tikka on her forehead and start to pray! She had a lucky escape indeed, said the narrator.
And so on and so forth – there must be many more such stories and incidents that could be narrated by so many others. The purpose of such accounts is not to stir old wounds and bring to life old demons. On the contrary, it is to remind us of how perilously close we had been to mayhem, and to our country falling off the social and economic cliff on which it was perched. Fortunately, after Independence was obtained, good sense prevailed among those who had teetered on the edge of enmity, and they shifted to being, instead, political allies fighting together for the development of the country.
If we wish for our future generations that they live an even better life than we have at present, then we know – or we presume our leaders know – the pitfalls that our pre-Independence past have taught us we must avoid at all cost. Never again such acrimony, such antagonism, such hateful cries. We are already an oft-cited model in the African region. If our political and social leaders, and everybody else in positions of high responsibility such as captains of industry and professionals, inspire our citizens with high ideals and values, demonstrating them by their own examples, then we could aspire to be an equally worthy model for the world, why not.
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