Once again, on 2 November 2014, the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers will be commemorated. All those who made the trip from India braved the perilous maritime voyage to the shores of the Aapravasi Ghat to face an uncertain future over here. Even though there are still a few reminders of the dreary conditions in which the original ancestors lived, it may be said that a long distance has been travelled since then by those we pay homage to on this occasion and their descendants.
The memory of the shared belonging of this group was quickly fading when, in the context of the nascent political struggle then, it was revived thanks to considerable efforts by various leaders emerging from the community. The persistent striving since 1970 of late Beekrumsing Ramlallah, the founder-editor of the Mauritius Times, to bring up the Aapravasi Ghat as a memento of Indo-Mauritian history should be seen in that perspective. For he must have felt very strongly that the struggle of our forefathers against exploitation, and their significant contributions towards the construction of modern Mauritius, should also be remembered and celebrated; further, that this site should serve as a place of remembrance of the long battle waged pa-
tiently and honourably according to democratic norms beginning with those who had climbed up the steps of the Aapravasi Ghat into an unknown future.
Beekrumsing Ramlallah’s intention was not, as he himself wrote in this paper in the initial years of his engagement with this site, to remain fixed in or romanticize the past, nor to visit upon past masters grievances of the Indenture period. He would no doubt have been particularly proud that the site now housing the Aapravasi Ghat, saved from waste and abandon, has found its way to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This is thanks to the commitment of and institutional support provided by succeeding governments, and the meticulous work of the board members and the dedicated management and staff of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund down the years. Thanks also to a host of dedicated volunteers, well-wishers and family members as well as numerous contributors to this paper.
As we stand ready now after so many years of struggle to celebrate this solemn occasion of the arrival of Indian immigrants on 2nd November, let us cast back our mind for a while at least on those who have endured the greatest hardships of life to bestow upon us what we are today. Through great perseverance and by overcoming serious barriers to entry, the descendants of the Indian indentured labourers gained access to education and went on to show their mettle in numerous areas that would have been considered out of bounds for them originally. After an enduring struggle, they gained access to the right to vote. They joined their forces together in the struggle for independence. In spite of the walls of prejudices erected against them, they proved to be capable of taking decisions in favour of all the components of the population once they ma-naged to secure the levers of political power. Some of the leaders emerging from among the descendants of the Indo-Mauritians have contributed to significant decisions that shape the life of the nation as a whole.
All vibrant diasporas across the world have their own stories of how they carved a place in the sun in the host societies in which they have settled. In the case of the Indian indentured labourers in this country, besides the intrinsic traits of fair play, tolerance and accommodation, without in the least animated by a spirit of resentment or the desire for vindictive triumph once they won democratically control of the levers of power, the determining factor has undoubtedly been the
leadership provided by men of the greatest mettle as well as by different socio-cultural and religious institutions. These include the Arya Sabha, non-Indians like Adolphe de Plevitz towards the end of the 1860s to Maurice Cure and others in later decades, Mahatma Gandhi (thanks to whose exhortation the Indians invested themselves in education and in the political process), the Bissoondoyal brothers, and Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his comrades of the Mauritius Labour Party. They were men of courage and vision who pursued a just cause with sincerity and a sense of purpose – what we saw was what we got —, ensuring that they would not lose sight of the bigger picture nor lose their way during the long struggle for the emancipation of the people.
In the truest and purest sense of the word, it was the enlightened leadership of those stalwarts that constituted the foundation of our strength and the inspiration of our struggle for our political and civil rights, and to gain our legitimate place in society and share in the economy. It was the thrust on education that underpinned both the political and the social emancipation. Education was the great leveler that cut across social classes, enabling them to participate fully and knowingly in the evolving democratic process, inspired by Fabian socialism, which our pioneer political leaders were spearheading. Giving added momentum to this dynamic were the mass movements of the other lea-ders, which were grounded in cultural awareness and an awakened sense of their dignity by the people. Without doubt it is such enabling factors that gave to Mauritius the kind of balanced political direction the country needed for its development.
In the context of this commemoration, we need to reflect seriously on the events and incidents surrounding this long march patiently carried out based on sound democratic principles that both formal and informal education helped us to leverage. Such reflection may hopefully rekindle that sense of unity and solidarity which was once, and must perforce continue to be the source of our strength and the basis of our struggle. The times are such that we are in dire need of the kind of leadership and commitment that was hardwired in the DNA of our founding fathers. The scenes playing out at national level betray that original spirit. If we are not careful, the legacy of that hard struggle will be forever lost. That is what we have to bear in mind in the days to come.
* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014