Thousands of young people have made it their duty and responsibility to protect and defend our democracy and we must all join in
By Sada Reddi
Peace, Justice and liberty – the last three words of our National Anthem – are a pledge that, as a nation, we should endeavour to honour and implement. It is ironic that a majority of our representatives in our National Assembly, after standing up as a gesture of respect to the National Anthem, should coldly proceed to support those pernicious sections of the Covid-19 bill that undermine and abrogate our liberty.
Our liberty is the most precious gift that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, and they had shed their blood and their lives so that we could be free and live in dignity.
“Our history has its worth in the present crisis. It can inspire us to continue the struggle. Our ancestors have left us a rich tapestry of struggles and how to fight back whenever our rights are trampled upon. It is comforting to see the young generation taking over the struggle and creatively engaging the whole population to preserve our liberties”
There are various rights that are both explicitly and implicitly undermined in the bill, and legal experts will surely identify them and contest them in court. These rights are enshrined in our Constitution; they are our fundamental human rights which were inspired by the European Convention of Human Rights.
When the draft constitution was being prepared, Sir Rampersad Neerunjun, the Chief Justice suggested that we should borrow and include in our constitution an article from the Trinidad Constitution. This was done and the article was included at the beginning of chapter II of our Constitution.
Referring to our fundamental rights and freedoms, the following words were taken on board: “It is hereby recognized and declared that in Mauritius there have existed and shall continue to exist… such human rights and freedoms”, and the various rights are then listed. In other words, these rights are our natural and inalienable rights, given by nature or God and cannot be restricted by any individual or government. Our Constitution enshrines these rights but does not preclude the addition of other rights.
When we take a look at our history, we cannot but realize how true it is that human beings have been endowed with the natural urge for liberty, freedom and justice. This explains the first reaction to the introduction of slavery in the island. In 1641 when Van der Stel landed 125 slaves from Madagascar, about 75 ran to the forest for their liberty. Slavery, which is the antithesis of a free society, is denounced not simply from a modern point of view but was castigated in the 18th century by enlightened writers and philosophers, and in isle de France by Bernardin de St Pierre and others.
Our historical experience shows us that a repressive government based on fear and exploitation can go to extremes in its legislations to deprive people of their liberties. The Code Noir punished marooning by inflicting such harsh and brutal punishments like cutting the ears, putting maroons in irons and even to death. On the 16th July 1778, an Indian slave was ordered to be chained and burnt alive at the stake at the Place du Bazard for machinations against his master. Another one was put in irons for the rest of his life and made to work near the harbour until his death.
While there may be so many clauses in the Covid-19 Bill that are detrimental to the liberties of people, we may focus on one aspect of the law such as the compulsory use of a pass and its monitoring by the police. What looks like an innocent piece of legislation passed for sanitary reasons may serve other purposes as well and may result in abuse by the police for an indefinite period if we go by the list of complaints from the public and sometimes within the police force itself.
Indian immigrants too went through a similar ordeal and had to bear the brunt of repressive legislations that limited their physical mobility. The Pass System was borrowed from Reunion Island, and the deteriorating sanitary conditions provided an excuse for repressive legislations and control. The ‘Old immigrant’ was compelled by law to carry a ticket; in case he lost his ticket or failed to produce one, he was arrested and imprisoned at the Vagrant Depot near Grande Riviere. Thousands of Old Immigrants were compelled to pay for a pass; that and fines for breach of the law and fees for duplicate copies helped to fill the coffers of the colonial state. Vagrant hunts were organized to arrest Indians who were then considered as vagrants and those who breached the law on several occasions were deemed to be incorrigible vagrants; they were either imprisoned or deported to India.
On one occasion, the police arrested Indians in the precincts of the Sinantambou Kovil in Terre Rouge, and among whom there was the richest Indian merchant at that time, Teeroomoody Chetty, who was officiating as priest. His arrest led to a protest by Rajarethnum Moodeliar that resulted in a Police Commisssion Inquiry. Later Moodeliar, Yates Steven, an ex-British soldier, and Adolphe de Plevitz, mobilized 9000 old Immigrants to sign a petition addressed to the authorities. This led to the Royal Commission of Inquiry of 1872.
The struggle of our ancestors, slaves and indentured labourers to recover their human rights was a long and arduous one. That struggle did not take place only in our island but in many other countries as well. In 1904, Gandhi started the first Satyagraha against the pass which Indians were compelled to carry at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1960, the Sharpeville massacre occurred when the South African police fired on South Africans protesting against the pass laws and killed 69 people.
in the 1930s and 1940s, labourers and workers kept the struggle going, and at L’Union in Flacq and Belle Vue Harel, they fell to the bullets of the employers and police. Women, men and children shed their blood and lives for our future. In the 1970s, the MMM took over the struggle to fight a repressive state. Since 1980s, to safeguard many of our rights, cases were taken to court and to the Privy Council whenever our rights were infringed by the state, whether it was for the freedom of the press, raising electoral deposits for candidates participating in elections and other workers’ issues which violated the freedom of the individual.
In a recent interview to the BBC, Lord Sumption reminds us that in times of crisis governments do exaggerate problems and threats to the public; they usually come up with repressive legislations, and the police is made to execute the command of the Executive. In England, for instance, even if the police has generally acted sensibly and reasonably, in some places they have behaved shamefully and disgracefully. However, he also concluded that the pubic should not surrender their liberties to the executive and the police. This piece of advice is valid for our country too
Our history has its worth in the present crisis. It can inspire us to continue the struggle. Our ancestors have left us a rich tapestry of struggles and how to fight back whenever our rights are trampled upon. It is comforting to see the young generation taking over the struggle and creatively engaging the whole population to preserve our liberties. Thousands of young people have made it their duty and responsibility to protect and defend our democracy and we must all join in. History is on our side and we shall overcome.
* Published in print edition on 15 May 2020