Independence struggle: ‘Pseudo-romantics fantasize about a violent nationalist struggle won with bayonets… This is only a historical fantasy’

Interview: Sada Reddi, Historian 

‘Why would the sugar oligarchs spend so much money and efforts to wage a struggle against independence if it was already in the pipeline?’
British imperial interests overshadowed everything else in its dealing with all its former colonies; it is still very much the same’

Sada Reddi, seasoned historian and astute political analyst and social observer, sheds light on a number of fundamental issues relating to the obtaining of independence by Mauritius, and that have been whipped from time to time more to show their supposed controversial aspects that at the same time disparages SSR than to acknowledge that there was indeed a struggle for independence. More light is shed about the unilateral decision by an Order in Council in UK to excise Diego Garcia. Some of the trends post-independence that maintain the hold of the oligarchy and are increasing the inequality gap are briefly analysed to show that we are still a long way from the promise of redistributive justice.

Mauritius Times: Independence was in the pipeline; sooner or later it had to come anyway, that is ever since the former British authorities decided to let go of their then African and Asian colonies, signalled by the “wind of change” speech of the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in 1960. We therefore did not really have to “struggle” for our independence, the more so as ours was not marked by violence and bloodshed nor were party leaders and activists imprisoned for political reasons – as it happened in those former African colonies and in India. The question therefore is did the Mauritius Labour Party really have to wage a struggle for independence?

 Sada Reddi: These particular issues had been raised and discussed in newspaper columns and local publications but rarely in international history journals wherein professional historians debate historical issues and submit their conclusions to the rigorous scrutiny of the community of scholars. This is not to belittle the laudable efforts of Mauritians who tried to grapple with these complex issues, but in my view many of the opinions which have so far been expressed remain unsatisfactory until they are taken to a higher level of academic analysis. This will have to be taken up in the future by our young historians who will have to publish their reading in history journals and engage in debates at that level. Until such time that this happens, we have to content ourselves with the different views expressed.

With these caveats, one can only give some personal views based on available documents. From my perspective, the question as to whether an event is inevitable or not does not arise in history. In fact, famous British historian AJP Taylor wrote in his book on ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ that there is nothing inevitable in history until it happens. The only thing we all know is inevitable and certain is death. Similarly, some decades back, people could have argued that European unity was inevitable but we now know with the coming of Brexit that this is not the case. However, the best answer in the present circumstances to the issues raised in your question is given by our friend and historian Jocelyn Chan low, who is a specialist in the constitutional history of that period.

Refuting the argument of ‘‘inevitability”, he wrote: ‘‘However the analysis of recently declassified documents shows that these interpretations do not tally with historical facts, that the role of SSR was essential to the accession of Mauritius to national sovereignty and in his struggle for independence he had to face many obstacles which included opposition within his own party.”

This is a reasonable and valid conclusion. Until such time that another constitutionalist historian directly and conclusively refutes this assertion in an academic article, we can dismiss the argument of ‘‘inevitability” as tantamount to the denial of a struggle for independence.

Moreover the other issue which arises from your question is that of the timing of a political event. Britain promised India self-government in the August Declaration of 1917, but Indian independence came four decades later – that is when the British could no longer resist the nationalist upsurge and was forced to ‘Quit and Divide’. There is a school of British historians who still talk of ‘transfer of power’ rather than acknowledge the fact that the British were forced to leave India. We could have become independent earlier, later or not at all. A few British colonies, just like several French colonies, are still not independent.

The ‘Wind of Change’ speech did not mean specifically that Mauritius was going to be independent. Chan low has shown that no British policy had been formulated to grant Mauritius its independence before 1964, and I would even add before 1965. A change in policy came about only around August 1965. That was most probably linked to what Ronald Hyam wrote in 2006: ‘‘A major reconsideration of defence requirements had taken place in the summer of 1964, leading to significant conclusions about ‘future political strategy’ in the last days of the Conservative Government.” even in 1967 there was some thinking going round in the Colonial Office as to whether the proposition in favour of independence should be withdrawn.

The question of whether there was a struggle or not may be viewed as merely a strategy to belittle the efforts of those who sought, fought for and won independence. In the quotation cited earlier, Chan Low used the word ‘struggle’ and reasonably so. Those who denied any struggle for independence must also be understood. Our friend Narainduth Sookhoo, for instance, who is the main champion of this point of view was himself a PMSD candidate in Port-Louis/Montagne Longue in the election of August 1967; he actually fought against independence and his views bring some solace and comfort to those who opposed or were sympathetic to the movement against independence.

For some, it is perfectly alright to speak of the struggle of a student to pass his examination, the struggle of the working class, the struggle for women emancipation, the struggle of chagossians for their homeland, the struggle of Rodriguans for autonomy, and even the struggle of the Bissoondoyal brothers in favour of Indian culture and language. Why is it not so for independence despite the efforts of thousands of people and their representatives who mobilized, campaigned and fought elections one after another, and finally won their liberation through independence?

Among those who deny the struggle for independence, there are also some pseudo-romantics who fantasize about a violent nationalist struggle won with bayonets in the Che Guevara style. This is not only a historical fantasy; it also reveals some kind of failure to come to grasp past realities and to come to terms with the present. My communist professor used to remind me how impossible it was to make an American soldier, who had lost a leg in the Vietnam war, accept the view that he had fought for a wrong cause. There is no way he would come round to your view and understandably so.

Why would the sugar oligarchs then spend so much money and efforts to wage a struggle against independence if it was already in the pipeline? Such fallacious arguments amount to reducing those who campaigned for or against independence to a bunch of fools.

* We know that unlike in most other former British colonies, there was strong opposition here to independence, the great divide being essentially on ethnic lines. Mauritius was also probably the only former British colony that sought some form of integration or attachment with the UK. What if the Labour Party had lost the 1967 general elections?

We are always wiser after the event. The strong opposition against independence must be looked at in its proper historical context. There were many meanings given to the independence movement as well as to the campaign of those who opposed independence at different levels in our population. There were political, economic and ethnic motives on both sides, but there was also a lot of propaganda meant to divide the country along ethnic lines and to provoke violence, particularly on the part of the PMSD, mainly to protect the interests of the sugar oligarchs. But the propaganda of the PMSD concealed their real economic motives and harped on the perceived cultural threat — mainly the threats to language, culture and religion which struck responsive cords amongst many of our countrymen. We should also not overlook the fact that some prominent politicians of the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) left the party because of what they commonly called the ‘nationalisme’ of some. In plain words, that meant the attachment of Indians to their ‘language, religion and culture’. In fact the Retrocession movement of 1921 was a pre-emptive action against ‘foreigners’ who might become future electors without first undergoing assimilation to western values.

As to the second part of the question, any answer can only be hypothetical. However, Duval who was confident of winning the elections of 1967 had in his conversation with officers of the colonial government let it known that in case of winning the elections, he would wait for six months to see how the British application to enter the EEC developed and would subsequently take a decision. This is all that we know; anything else would be speculation. In that context, there were only two options left: becoming independent or remaining a colony.

* The transition to an independent state was negotiated by all the prominent Mauritian political parties during the constitutional talks in Britain and political gains obtained incrementally over more than a decade. What does the approach adopted by the former colonial authorities inform us about their strategies and where did their sympathies or misgivings and mistrust lie?

In the first phase from 1948 to 1961, the British authorities were always reluctant to grant Mauritius constitutional changes. Since they did not envisage independence for small colonies, they wanted to remain in control and to maintain the oligarchs in power, for their economic and political interests converged. The progressives and subsequently the MLP had to keep the pressure on the colonial government to obtain constitutional concessions, and these were conceded incrementally and grudgingly and with great difficulty, often giving certain concessions with one hand and taking them back with the other hand.

The colonial government conceded extension of the vote to about 72,000 electors in 1948 and then neutralized the majority in the Council by a system of nominees. They accepted the universal male suffrage in 1958, but they wanted to hedge it with Proportional Representation. So it was an endless struggle for the MLP to move the country along democratic lines with the opposition from the governor, the conservative forces and the colonial office. The 1961 conference was disappointing for the MLP: instead of independence, the MLP got only some superficial changes but it managed to transform these superficial changes into a major victory and used it exert even greater pressure on the colonial government.

Throughout the period 1948 to 1968, the colonial government with the support of the economic elite delayed constitutional changes, advised the Ralliement Mauricien to constitute itself into a party, and gave time to the PMSD to grow in power and thrive until it was strong enough to counterbalance the power and influence of the Labour Party. It was only in this new context created by the British themselves that they could play one party against another and safeguard their British interests until the election of 1967 decided in favour of independence.

British imperial interests overshadowed everything else in its dealing with all its former colonies; it is still very much the same for Britain in its relationships with other (European) powers as is presently evident in the matter of Brexit.

* There can be no doubt about Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s perceptive leadership of the struggle the party waged in the 1960s, but would you say that the Mauritius Labour Party’s narrative about its struggle for independence has lacked strength due to its focus on the contribution of one man?

There are lots of myths about the leadership of the Mauritius Labour Party before 1961.

The MLP right up to the 1970s was a vibrant party machine with a lot of discussions, debates and disagreements as well as consensus. For example, in the 1950s, the introduction of the ministerial system met with strong opposition from a majority within the party and those who did not want to be expelled had to toe the line. In 1961, the president of the Labour Party Raymond Rault was asked by the Secretary of State to submit a memorandum for the 1961 conference. He did not inform the party about the request, and it was only at the last minute that Dr Ramgoolam as leader of the parliamentary Party got Harold Walter to draft a memorandum which he corrected and submitted to the British government. This is just one of many instances which illustrates the immense contribution of SSR in negotiating with the British, in tackling those opposed to the MLP as well as opposition from within his party itself and which ultimately led the country to independence.

The long march to independence was definitely sustained by many people – at least since 1952 when Guy Rozemont pronounced himself for independence. The constitutional development of Mauritius as well as the campaign in favour of a significant number of social and economic policies during that period were equally sustained by many. It was never the work of one person. But Ramgoolam’s experience and contribution was exceptional. Not only was he familiar with active student politics in Britain during his 14 years there, in 1948 he was the only one among the progressives who had eight years of experience of Council politics in the Council of government. His other collaborators were slightly or much younger. His longevity in politics up to 1982 made him a dominating and revered personality, so that many deferred to him. He was a man of many parts – doctor, politician, intellectual writer, administrator, visionary and a man of action as well as a fine diplomat. All these had made of him a dominating personality in the party and in Mauritius.

Writers and historians are usually fascinated by men of exceptional ability and celebrate their success. No doubt Ramgoolam was the most successful politician of his time. There have been biographies of Anquetil, Rozemont, Seeneevassen, Ringadoo, the memoirs of Boolell and possibly others too, but SSR’s achievements surpass them all.

It is also true that we do not have a comprehensive history of the independence movement or of the Mauritius Labour Party and as a result the narrative of independence is dominated and personified by Ramgoolam by both supporters and adversaries. no historian has to date shown interest in giving us a more detailed account of the period and one of the reasons may be that the primary sources of the MLP’s archives are not available. On the other hand, we have very few people who are interested in writing on these subjects and thus a more balanced picture is difficult to emerge. The party could have commissioned a young historian to do so but it is not so easy to find one.

* It is a fact however that it was mostly Sir Seewoosagur who bore the brunt of the attacks from those opposed to independence. From “Dr Croupion” to the criticisms levelled about his dress choice, there have also been allegations pertaining to his closeness to the British. What do the official declassified records of the Colonial Office inform us about SSR’s relationship with the British authorities, and did these help the independence process?

From documents available, local newspapers and other oral sources he was a dominating personality cherished by his supporters but also the prime target of his adversaries – most probably because he was the most powerful man in politics at that time. Apart from his many qualities he had a strong power base which sustained him throughout his career until 1982. He was also a moderate socialist, practical and who could see very far and could make use of small and even insignificant victories to attain his objectives for his country, his party and for himself.

With these qualities he could defeat many opponents including the British. He subscribed to British liberal and socialist values, but insofar as politics was concerned his relationships with the British were conflicting. Partly he had to contend with the conservative mandarins of the Colonial office and, secondly, his friends of the British Labour Party were helpful to him in many ways but not to the extent of influencing British policy on Mauritius for him.

So Ramgoolam had to use his own resourcefulness to deal with the British, and resort to all kinds of stratagems short of direct confrontation. He could feign illness, pretend to be desperate and in a hurry about political change or withdraw collaboration with the Governor so as to make it difficult for the latter to govern, forcing the British to hasten with constitutional change. He was immensely patient and his moderation was also an asset in a multiethnic society. Like all the major politicians of the time, he was ready to allow Diego for use as a base for the British, he would only accept to do so only on a number of conditions some of which were never acceptable to the British or their American Allies.

* Regarding the unlawful excision of the Chagos Archipelago, official colonial documents which were recently declassified in the UK revealed that Ramgoolam acted under duress, and that Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, Abdool Razack Mohamed and Jules Koenig, also present at the constitutional talks, were consulted as well and perhaps were cornered or put under duress to consent to a decision for excision. How will history judge this episode and the men who participated therein?

Neither the mandarins of the Colonial office nor even Harold Wilson’s threats cowed Ramgoolam into ceding Diego Garcia. What Ramgoolam told Wilson was that he ‘was convinced it that it was a matter of detail: there was no difficulty in principle’. It is clear that while Ramgoolam was in principle agreeable to the detachment of Diego, ‘the matter of detail’ has been interpreted in a way to suggest that in the eyes of Ramgoolam the issue of Diego’s detatchment could be given only one meaning, namely that it was insignificant. The other meaning has been ignored, namely that the details had to be worked out.

After meeting Wilson in the morning, he and other ministers met the Secretary of State on the same day at 2.30 p.m., when Ramgoolam as well as Bissoondoyal and Mohamed reiterated their agreement in principle but based on certain conditions. After the Secretary of State had been informed of these conditions which included amongst others fishing rights, oil rights and implicitly the sovereignty of Mauritius, Ramgoolam reiberated that regarding Diego ‘this was in principle acceptable to him as well as to Bissoondoyal and Mohamed but expressed the wish to discuss it with his ministerial colleagues in Mauritius’.

On the 5th November 1965, the Council of Ministers including the PMSD accepted the detachment only in principle and the PMSD minsters dissented on a number of points. It is possibly because the British could not rely on an agreement for detachment with the local government that they chose to go for the Order in Council as an alternative as mentioned by Wilson on 23rd September 1965.

My reading of the declassified documents relating to Mauritius show that all Mauritian politicians, includiing Ramgoolam, Bisoondoyal, Mohamed and the PMSD were in principle agreeable to provide the British with a base in Diego subject to a number of conditions. Paturau himself had always been pressing the British to take over Diego. There was indeed pressure on the Mauritians to cede Diego but Ramgoolam and the other ministers did not give in.

* One could argue, after the event, that not giving in to the British as regards the Chagos would have raised these men – Ramgoolam, Bissoondoyal, Mohamed and Koenig – to the status of the other erstwhile African and Asian freedom movements’ leaders who stood up to the colonial authorities. What’s your take on that?

The excision of Diego was done by the Order in Council unilaterally. There was duress in the sense that even if Diego was not on the agenda at Lancaster House, the Mauritian delegates were confronted with the possibility that it could be detached by an Order in Council. Moreover many of the conditions relating to the detachment of Diego were not obtained as they would have wished.

The question that arises is as follows: Was it practical politics to resign and provoke a constitutional crisis? One can only speculate. The fact is that they did not. Was the Mauritian population ready to mobilise against the excision of diego? In the context of that time, it is doubtful. One possibility was that the British would have anyway detached Diego, held a referendum on independence and placed Duval in power – or rejected, or delayed independence for Mauritius. But all these, however, are mere speculations.

* Another argument canvassed by political propagandists is that the groundwork in terms of socio-economic policies and institutions upon which the economic success was built in later years had been laid down by the British authorities before independence. The suggestion is that not much credit can and should go to the government which took over in 1968. How valid is this argument, or is this a distortion of history?

This is clearly a distortion of history for it overlooks the fact that the progressives and the MLP have been in power from 1948 to 1968 and all the major initiatives and changes in the economic and social as well as in the political fields were largely the work of the Labour government and its allies. This is why throughout the whole period of British rule in Mauritius, it was the two decades following the Second World War which witnessed major economic and social changes. Once again there is no work on the making of the welfare state in Mauritius which could have provided a more balanced view of the period, though certain aspects have been dealt with in a few history books.

* What about the “repression” in the 1970s with the promulgation of the state of emergency? Is that, according to your reading of history, a blot on an otherwise clean and respectable slate of Mauritius’ democratic credentials?

It is a blot on our democracy for we never accepted nor do we accept that a state should use its powers to imprison or detain people on political grounds. On the other hand, there was the strike of 1971 that could have brought down the government whether there was an intention to do so was there or not. With hindsight, one can say that both the workers and the government were right in doing what they did. We could say that barring the suffering of those imprisoned and of their families and friends, the post colonial state managed to survive. The collapse of the post independent state would have made us join the lot of the African countries that have seen their governments overthrown by force. Repression saved the post independent state and a strong stable state became the sine qua non for political and economic development. Perhaps the views of Paul Bérenger may shed some light of what really happened in 1971. But like any comment after an event, it must always be subjected to critical analysis. In an interview to Jean Joseph Permal in L’Express on 12 September 1989, he said:

‘J’ai écrit des articles politiques d’une naïveté toute sincère et qui se voulaient absolument révolutionnaire. C’était une période totalement idéaliste et révolutionnaire où nous autres jeunes, sortant de différentes universités, nous voulions refaire l’île Maurice et dune façon générale refaire le monde.

‘Il est vrai qu’à cette époque-là nous avions préconisé la prise du pouvoir par les travailleurs à travers la grève générale. Nous n’inventions rien bien évidemment. Il y a toute une tradition politique qui remonte très loin dans le passé et qui déboucha sur cela.

‘Mais la vérité est ce qui s’est passé ensuite en 1971 n’avait rien à voir avec les thèmes qui se voulaient révolutionnaires et qui contenaient une dose massive d’idéalisme et de naïveté.

‘1971 qui débouche sur une grève générale à la fin de cette année, ne fut pas du tout quelque chose de bien planifié, de bien préparé avec un but politique. Ce fut au contraire un enchaînement d’événements à partir de la grève de transport en août 1971.’

 

* What are your feelings on the road travelled during the last 50 years? Has independence improved the lot of those who were most in need of some form of redistributive justice?

During the last fifty years there has been a lot of improvement in all walks of life. The economy has diversified a lot, the welfare state has been consolidated but the basic structure of ownership has hardly changed leading to further concentration of wealth in the hands of the few who pursue a policy of economic segregation which impedes economic democratisation. The hijacking of the state by the oligarchy can only aggravate inequality, poverty, food problems, problems of housing, unemployment and environment which are slowly destroying the country.

* Statistics relating to poverty, inequality, land holding and wealth distribution and accumulation, etc., in the country do not depict a very bright picture. The trickle-down economic policies have not delivered as promised, and those at the commanding heights of the economy have consolidated their hold on the economy more than ever before. If we go by the present trend on both counts, it does not look that the future will be any better. What do you think?

As I say, the structure of ownership and the consolidation of the oligarchy with the blessings of the political bourgeoisie can only bring disaster and social and economic instability in its wake. For example, the practice of economic segregation facilitates the selective use of expatriates to the detriment of our own people, driving many skilled and competent people overseas. Governments which should have provided state support to those in need are doing the opposite by supporting the very rich and reducing the people to a nation of consumers.

* Some commentators have lately been taking to task the present generation of politicians who, they say, do not share the same ‘ethos, seminal ideals and commitment to the cause of the multitude’ as the earlier independence generation. Again, if we were to look at how things have been shaping up on the political front since recent years, it does not seem that politics today is anything like the liberation force it had been earlier. What’s your take on that?

Indeed the new breed of politicians does not have the same ideals and the same type of commitment because the world is changing and the new generations have been brought up in different environments. They do not face the same challenges. However we should not despair of our young politicians because the public is more critical than in the past and public figures are subject to closer scrutiny than at any time in the past. The young politicians would have to come with a new ethos and a new morality if they want to survive in politics and so there is hope. Finally change will not come from the top but from the masses

 

* Published in print edition on 2 March 2018

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