By D. Napal, BA (Hons) —
MT 60 Years Ago
3rd Year No 76 – Friday 20th January 1956
Is it an irony of fate or is it a pure coincidence that both times that a Royal Commission has been appointed, strangers have stood up to defend the cause of the Indian Immigrants? In 1872 it was De Plevitz, and in 1909 we were lucky in having Manilal Doctor among us. Whatever it is, the truth is there to condemn the planters of their indifference to the lot of those who sweated for them.
On the 11th of October 1907, Manilal Doctor MA, LLB Bar-at-law, came to Mauritius where he stayed for nearly five years. Four days after his arrival he deposed at the Supreme Court his professional diploma. The next day he was sworn in as a practising barrister. On this occasion occurred an incident which scandalized the judges. The Radical, in its issue of the 17th October, wrote on this matter: “Les juges de la Cour suprême doivent, dit-on, lancer un ordre à l’effet d’obliger Me Manilal, avocat, à ôter son burnous en Cour. Hier, à sa prestation de serment, Me Manilal ne s’est pas découvert, ce qui a offusqué nos honorables juges.”
Manilal Doctor, during his stay in Mauritius, dwelt at Port Louis, in Frere Felix De Valois Street. It is believed that his chambers were situated in Church Street but he appeared for the most part in the district courts. This helped him to get in touch with Indo-Mauritians with whose problems he was conversant in a short time. Soon he had acquired a solid reputation as barrister and had linked bonds of friendship with Miss Mary Leblanc and Anatole de Boucherville, who as a prominent member of the Action Liberale a political party of the day, appreciated discussions with Manilal on the social and economic problems of the day.
At this period Mauritius was passing through an acute economic crisis. The Chamber of Agriculture had applied for a loan from England. The Secretary of State had proposed the institution of a Commission of Enquiry, which the Mauritian planters opposed but when pressure was made upon them by the Action Liberale they had to give way.
When the Commission was appointed and Manilal Doctor was called to depone before it, then came for him the great moment of his life in the fight for the emancipation of Indians Overseas.
Mauritian historians have given prominence to the demand of Manilal Doctor for the annexation of Mauritius to India. This matter was of grave importance in the days when India formed part of the British Empire. Today we find that this subject can offer no interest to anybody but the research student. Other suggestions of Manilal which have been hitherto neglected or have received only a passing reference from our local writers appear to us to be of great importance as they throw light on some of the burning questions of the day. What is striking about the evidence brought by Manilal before the Royal Commission of 1909 is that many of the evils which had inspired the petition of the Old Immigrants and the De Plevitz petition were still there in some form or other. Relations between employer and employed left much to be desired. And many of the problems which are receiving our attention today were also the burning questions of those days.
For example, let us take the question of subsidies to religious bodies. Manilal Doctor put forward his opinions on this matter while deponing before the Royal Commission. He contended that subsidies were granted to Catholic and Protestant churches but as the greatest part of the population comprised Hindus and Muslims, it was unjust to make them bear the expense of the Catholic and Protestant churches. He was of opinion that if subsidies were not granted to the Indian religions it should not be granted to the Christians as well.
Today we have another problem, an acute one – that of education. It is of importance to not what Manilal thought upon the education of the Indo-Mauritian children. He regretted the fact that schools were not being provided on the Sugar Estates, the children of Indian Immigrants had often to cover five or six miles to reach school. He noted the obstacles on the path of the Indian child due to the language which was the medium of education. He said: “Indian boys should be given primary education in their own vernacular… I think it is a great hardship on Indian boys to have to learn both English and French. I think French and the Indian languages may be studied as secondary languages, whilst English should be the principal language, the boy being allowed to elect between the Indian language and French.”
We have said in some previous article that De Plevitz was hard against the local magistrates. We find Manilal voicing the same opinions when he said before the Royal Commissioners: “Many times cases about the Indian labourers go before the magistrates, who are interested in outside matters in a particular way, because they are either friends of planters or are directly related to them.”
He interested himself deeply in the case of the small planter whose constant complaint was that he did not receive the right price for his canes on account of the monopoly of the factory owners. As the exponent of the views of the small planters, Manilal said: “There are certain buyers of sugar canes, one or two owners of factories and these peoples have the monopoly; they can buy sugar canes at the rates they dictate.”
His opinions on taxation are important in the sense that he advised a reduction of duties on the necessaries of life which fell heavily on the poorer classes and to tax more heavily articles of luxury. It would not be out of place to quote at length Manilal’s opinion on this question. He said: “An Indian in Mauritius pays in the way of indirect taxation. He pays upon the necessaries of his life, he pays for his clerk, he pays for his small tradesman… Then, again, even poor men, who have got small huts, have to pay a fee in order to be able to build their huts. Here in Mauritius, between cyclone and storms, which are very frequent, the roofs of their huts are sometimes blown away and if you want to put a new roof on you have to pay 1.25 for permission to do it.”
One result of the Royal Commission of 1909 was that the system of five years’ contract under which the labourer worked on the estates was abolished. There is no doubt that the deponing of Manilal Doctor before the Royal Commissions had an important effect in bringing about the important result.
Manilal Doctor did not consider that his mission was accomplished after he had deponed before the Royal Commission in favour of the Indian Immigrants and their descendants. He continued to interest himself with them and as he found that there was no organ to champion their cause, he started a weekly bi-lingual paper. The Hindustani, at first in English and Gujrati and later in English and Hindi.
The motto of this paper, as it appeared under its title was: “Liberty of Individuals; Fraternity of men; Equality of races.” He defined his political programme in the following words. “Everyone has a right to do what he chooses, provided he does not encroach upon the liberty of others. If in all human beings is cast the image of God, i.e. of the external nature, so that the true destiny of man is divine, one man or one race cannot morally enslave, dominate or even exploit another for mere gain.”