The First Leg of a Longer Trek 


It will be 176 years on November 2nd 2010 since the first Indian immigrants set foot at Immigration Depot, now Aapravasi Ghat, in Port Louis harbour. The first batch was followed by successive waves of Indians, numbering some 400,000 over the ensuing 50 years, coming here as labour in support of the expanding sugar planting and milling activities all over the island. These workers faced a serious predicament here. I remember seeing a picture taken in those days of one of them wearing a gunny bag in lieu of a jacket. Such was the harshness of living conditions of those workers at that time. They had to house themselves in makeshift thatched huts, exposed to the vagaries of the weather and diseases. In return for work, they were paid a pittance disguised sometimes as a lower payment in kind.

It will be recalled that, during the colonial days here in Mauritius, some smart teacher at school would impress us by stating the well-known mantra that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. It was meant to emphasize the enormous geographic spread of that British Empire from New Zealand and Australia in the East to America in the West, after straddling over Asia and Africa almost completely. The workers who went from India to the British colonies, including Mauritius, in search of a livelihood were the victims of British Imperial economic policy in India. Scholars have documented the nasty consequences on the Indian population of the purely mercantilist policies that Britain pursued in India with a view solely to consolidate its own global economic might even if that meant depleting the colony of its essential resources.

There are references in Indian economic literature as to how the British engineered the “de-industrialisation” of India in order to promote the development of Lancashire in England and how the selfsame purely commercial policies drastically depleted the capacity of Indian agriculture to feed the people. Despite the availability of large stocks of food in Indian granaries held by the British, enough to feed the population, price speculation by British commercial interests implanted in India, duly supported by the colonial administration, led to occasional famines in different parts of India. The Economist of 21st August 2010 states that China and India “until 1800 used to make up half the world economy”. You can imagine the scale of the damage inflicted by colonial pursuits on India if you consider that, soon after this period of extensive economic activity, large masses of Indians were driven to eke out a precarious living.

It is the economic conditions resulting from such unthinking policies that wrecked the lives of hundreds of thousands of people of India. This is how large numbers of unemployed Indian workers embarked on a journey into the unknown at the risk and perils of their very lives to land into places like the Immigrant Depot of Port Louis. 176 years down this road, their modern descendants have raised themselves from the initial wretched conditions of the immigrants to occupy the highest offices of this land with distinction. Yet, like the African slaves before them, they started with nearly nothing of their own almost two centuries ago.

There are professionals of the highest standing among them today, judges, engineers of all sorts, scientists, doctors, etc.; many have gained distinctions in their areas of operation and in their fields of study; others have embarked into diverse economic activities even though there is not a single area of economic activity in which they have been able to set up a dominant position whereas the classic economic elite, which had a massive head start on them right from the beginning, has maintained the distance more or less. Yet, of all possible areas in which they could have made headway, it is in political leadership that they have excelled.

Without the blood-letting that has marked several other countries, they have secured the political independence of Mauritius. Absence of the customary tension and violence that usually accompanies such momentous events has led some adversaries of independence to discount the element of leadership that has gone into achieving this smooth political transition. This is, of course, unfair because that very leadership has kept manifesting itself by keeping all the strings of our highly fragilised and compartmentalised society together without any serious disruption after independence. You need exceptional skills to keep the embers of racial, linguistic and other separatisms dying slowly under the ashes and sticking, in spite of all, to democracy and the rule-of-law as we have been doing during the past 42 years. It is testimony of an efficient leadership able to reconcile differences for the advancement of the country as a whole.

We have seen how India has asserted itself forcefully since 1991 and has become a force to reckon with at the global level. As we cast our sights on our own future in Mauritius against this background, we are entitled to ask what is it that has made India so successful and why should descendants of India over here not be in a position to make their mark as well in the world. The reason is we are unable to rise to those heights because of some fundamental shortcomings. We are not ambitious enough. We fail oftentimes to make adequate effort to reach the goal. We do not discipline ourselves sufficiently, allowing the momentary hubris of passing success to stifle the will that looks for perfection in all we undertake. We could have inspired ourselves by the great achievers of India to at least replicate some of their realisations. But things are different in Mauritius. Here, by contrast, we are often seen locked up in more trivial pursuits such as indulging in the theory of orthodox Marxist contradictions for establishing linguistic parochialisms that will deny us the world for which we have readied ourselves over centuries of international bilingualism.

The comparison may not be fair because India has a far larger reservoir of talent to tap from and a long history of struggle to draw upon. But it is worth recalling that India has produced a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, steadfast in his dogged pursuit and realisation of a well defined national goal even at the cost of his life; an Abdul Kalam, loyal and dedicated visionary committed to the country’s highest advancement in the concert of nations; a Naushad Ali, of the highest artistic sensitivity and perfection whose work in music has time-transcending qualities; a Sam Pitroda who had the capacity to revolutionise the art of telecommunications in a society in which making a trunk call was an important event before him; an incorruptible and honest Manmohan Singh steering India into unrelenting modernism; an Amartya Sen who even at an advanced age today has given up nothing of his search for details and his penetrating insight in the social sciences; a Sachin Tendulkar, capable of creating history in the world of global sports; a Narayan Murthy and an Azim Premji, taking India to the heights of the world of high-tech; business leaders of the calibre of Rattan Tata, Luxmi Mittal and Aditya Birla leading Indian business to capture key business positions in the very countries of former colonial masters. The list is too long to enumerate. Suffice it to state that the same ADNs are coursing in the bloodstream of the descendants in Mauritius of such path-breaking achievers of India.

This potential for hitting the skies exists. The children of the Indian immigrants over here can try to emulate their elder achievers in India to the extent possible. This is best achieved by not falling into an easy life of self-complacency. There is no dearth of role models on the path of higher achievement despite certain specific local constraints. The ancestors of modern-day Indian descendants in Mauritius succeeded because they had to fight against the odds and overcome numerous obstacles and difficulties. The elders may not have reaped the full fruits of their perseverance. But the relative comfort in which the current generation is finding itself is proof that their hard work and perseverance has paid off.

Many threats such as excessive self-indulgence, alcoholism, drugs and prostitution can distract from the goal of perfecting the work that was begun 176 years ago. Inspiring themselves from the great achievements of their ancestral home, descendants of Indian immigrants in Mauritius can use to advantage important tools they have in their hands, education being one of them. If they were to employ the newer opportunities at hand, they will be able to break many a glass ceiling that has been keeping their potential from being fully realised. It is a choice to make. They stand today at the edge of a first leg of a long journey which has brought them to a world of opportunities. This world holds promises of scintillating successes at the global level if only they keep accumulating their talents and breaking from the typical insularity that keeps them prisoner of the relatively little that they have achieved thus far. 

* Published in print edition on 29 October 2010

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