Three landmark events retain our attention this year: the 185th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured immigrants; the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi; and the coming together of Labour Party, the Independent Forward Block, and the Comite d’Action Musulman to fight the general election that would lead to the country’s independence. The latter two events are of particular significance as they had to do with the political emancipation of the nascent Indian diaspora. Indians (from South India) were already present in the island during the time of Mahe Labourdonnais, but it was the organised, mass immigration that was part of the ‘Great Experiment’ in the service of what would become ‘King Sugar’ that really impacted and transformed the island, and deserving of remembrance.
And so once again, on Saturday 2 November 2019, 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.
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 endured the greatest hardships of life to prepare a better future for their progeny. Through that groundwork, 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 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 country’s population once they managed 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 have shaped 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 their intrinsic traits of fair play, acceptance and mutual respect, and accommodation – without in the least animated by a spirit of resentment or the desire for vindictive triumph once they democratically won control of the levers of power -, the determining factor in their progress has undoubtedly been the leadership provided by men of calibre 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, ensuring that they would not lose sight of the larger national 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 leveller 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 leaders, 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. 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. However the scenes playing out today at national level betray that original spirit, for the fractures that have come within society among this group show that they seem to be indifferent to the foundational narrative – and therefore are losing the vision, and probably the way too! This is undoubtedly the best recipe to bring the superstructure crashing down some day. The uphill climb will then begin anew, as if Sisyphus was condemned to roll the huge boulder up Mount Olympus once more – but this time with an outcome that may well wash away all the gains made so far.
Rather than having to face such a threatening scenario, people must build up on the acquired momentum. This is done by holding hands, not by cultivating fissiparous tendencies for private advantage and to assuage egos. A lot of work has gone into making the diaspora what it is today. It has many achievements to its credit. It is only working together that can consolidate such achievements. All it requires is an unstinting focus on the big picture and the next goals to be achieved, collective efforts to be made to keep rising and pulling up the rest who face difficulties that keep them at the bottom of the pile, those whom the rising tide have failed to keep afloat. 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.