The Jan Andolan Movement: Setting the records straight

Please allow me to throw some light on a point made by MT Contributor S.B. about the Brindaban Sarvajanik Mandir at Palma in his article entitled “Basdeo Bissoondoyal: The man and his mission” that appeared in last week’s edition.

I would also like to seize this opportunity to clarify a point about the IFB position on Independence stressed by a speaker during the recent launching ceremony of Anand Mulloo’s book ‘Sir Anerood Jugnauth – His Life and Times’. 

While relating the problems that Pandit Basdeo had to face in carrying his mission, S.B. has the following sentences: “When some Hindus of Bihari origin wanted to put obstacles in his path, others came forward to help. The Tamils opened up their kovil in Berthaud Ave, Quatre Bornes, This prompted the Soobarahs, early disciples of Jan Andolan, to put up their own Shivala with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in front.” The Mandir was in fact established by a committee of early Andolanists which did include members of the Soobarah family. But ascribing that achievement to just the Soobarahs would be most unfair to the other participants in this noble work.

The recent Souvenir Magazine issued by the Brindaban Sarvajanik Mandir Samiti (i.e. theTemple Management Committee) reminds us that the original committee members were Shri Mohipnarain Banymandhub, Shri Radharaman Banymandhub, Shri Rajcoomar Tekhoit, Shri Seewooduth Beekharry, Shri Heeralall Beekharry, Shri Oodith Achaybar, Pandit Devnarain Beedassy, Shri Ramkarran Soobarah and Shri Ragoonanan Soobarah.

It all started during the Shivatri Festival of 1944 when Panditji was denied permission by the management committee of the Shivopasak Mandir of Quatre Bornes to hold a prachar (sermon) on their premises. The Tamil Kovil at Berthaud Avenue rose to the occasion and offered their premises for the purpose, but the Andolanists pondered the matter and concluded that the time had come for a second temple in the area for Hindi/Bhojpuri speaking Hindus, and they sprang into action.

Public collections were organised all over the country. Medine S.E. provided sand and other building materials – like iron for concrete reinforcement, etc. Start of work on the main Shivalaya was delayed until July 1945 due the cyclones that hit the Island early that year, and was only completed late in 1946. The consecration ceremony of the Mandir was held on 2 February 1947. Even so, in the interim period, a Durga Temple was set up in the cavern on the plot of land adjoining the Shivalaya that was donated by Shrimatee Mohan of Palma Road, and regular prayer sessions were started there. Panditji, recently released from prison, was able to carry out his first prachar on the premises on 11 July 1945. He also named the temple “Brindaban” – after the place of the same name where Lord Krishna spent his childhood.

S.B.’s article also refers to the Mahatma Gandhi statue on the premises. This was actually installed a few years later; it was made following a wish expressed by Panditji, and inaugurated by him on 28 April 1948. I watched my father, Shri Ramkarran Soobarah, handcraft the statue in our straw-covered house at Palma Road, after borrowing the back of a slim young man of the neighbourhood, Shri Balliram Ragoo, clad only in a short dhoti, for a casting in soft clay.

The Souvenir Magazine mentioned above has many more pieces of information about the Brindaban Mandir. For instance, it recalls that in 1960 the Management Committee included Shri Ramlochun Jugnauth, who was none other than the father of the present Prime Minister. But the main point I wish to drive home is that the Mandir was a community effort, not that of any particular family.

One other important point about the Magazine is that it has a most interesting and revealing two-page foreword by Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth who as is well-known comes from the same village. We are also proud that he has kept up the relationship with the village. This is not the first occasion on which he has written a foreword to a magazine issued by the Temple – he has done it at least twice before. And we were pleased to hear, during TV interviews for the new year, that he spends at least part of the first day of each year with family in Palma.

We also knew of the association of SAJ with the IFB – hadn’t he, as an IFB candidate, defeated Labour candidate Shri Anauth Beejadhur at Rivière du Rempart in the 1963 general elections, and had become a Minister thereafter? But I came to know of the extent of his relationship with Panditji’s Andolan only on reading the early chapters of Anand Mulloo’s book ‘Sir Anerood Jugnauth – His Life and Times’. I hadn’t read a book with such intensity for a long time. Poring over those chapters was like going back to my own childhood – for I also grew up in an Andolanist family in the same village around the same time, even though I may be a few years younger. I used to sing the same songs and read the same material as SAJ did. We were singing about waving the flag of independence even long before India became independent – “Swaraaja ka jhanda lekar, jaga mein ourana hoga…”

I wish I could stop here, but I feel it incumbent upon to throw some light on the other point mentioned in the opening paragraph, namely the IFB position on Independence mentioned in Chapter 6 of Anand Mulloo’s book. On page 70, in the bottom paragraph, SAJ reportedly says: “We were in London when Sookdeo Bissoondoyal expressed his reserve on making the country independent particularly under a Labour government. They’d ruin the country, he stormed.” I understand that the point was strongly stressed by a speaker, possibly the author himself, during the launching ceremony of the book.

To get the context of this statement, it is necessary, sadly, for the benefit of the young, to go back to a very painful period of the recent history of the Hindu community in Mauritius. It is broadly hinted at in S.B.’s article. But to put it plainly in so many words, the community was split very bitterly into two opposing camps, the supporters of the Bissoondoyal brothers on the one hand, and of those of Dr S Ramgoolam and Shri J.N. Roy on the other.

Dr Ramgoolam had come back to the country after a long period of study and political apprenticeship in England, and had become a fervent admirer of British socialism and even of British culture. In as late as 1967, SSR is reported to have stated the following in the Legislative Council: “We are told that there is not the slightest chance of this country being integrated with Great Britain. Great Britain has no time for us. It is painful for me to stand in this House and say so, because I am a loyal citizen of the British Empire. I owe my fidelity and loyalty to this great Empire even if it has not discharged its duties towards the common people of this country.” (Sydney Selvon, A new comprehensive history of Mauritius, Vol. 2, page 150.”

Neither of the Bissoondoyal brothers could have made such statement. Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal himself had become a fervent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and his methods of social work and mass upliftment during his studies in India, and thoroughly disliked the British for their role in that country. The two leaders (Panditji and SSR) were never able to see eye to eye with each other. People on each side called those on the other very offensive names which are now best forgotten. But to practically the eve of Independence, neither side could trust each other.

I remember that during a certain period, in the early fifties, when the name calling by Labour’s mouthpiece Advance had become intolerable, my family stopped buying the paper, and we had to fall back on Le Mauricien and Le Cernéen for the daily dose of information. Fancy that! As a teenager I could read the awful “Opinions du Jour” of N.M.U. but not the rejoinders from Advance. I still thirst after the text of Dr Ramgoolam’s famous article “Plums and Cherries” under the pen-name Thumb Mark II, which I only saw briefly at a friend’s place when it came out. Those were hard times, not because of the general living conditions but because of the terrible in-fighting going on within the community.

When Guy Rozemont, leader of the Labour Party, chose to ally himself with Dr Ramgoolam rather than with S. Bissoondoyal (which looked possible for a while), the fight became IFB versus Labour. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Sookdeo did not like the idea of living under an independent Labour government headed by SSR. But deep down he was prepared for it, because it was clear as daylight to all who cared to read the signs that the Brits wanted to be rid of their colonies which they had come to regard as so many millstones around their neck. It was for that reason that Sookdeo, who knew he wouldn’t be able to defeat Labour outright, had wanted a constitutional safeguard against the abuse of power – in the form of an Ombudsman or High-Powered Tribunal.

In the end, the IFB did accept the Independence format. More than that. I will today disclose an aspect of the matter not known to most people. Some time in April 1967, I overheard a conversation between my father and Sookdeo Chacha who was visiting us. My father, Shri Ramkarran Soobarah, was perhaps Sookdeo’s closest confidante. Sookdeo was complaining to him that SSR was turning down his overtures about a pre-poll alliance for fighting the upcoming elections. These were surely going to be the most important ones in our history. We all know what happened in the end, but the initiative for a pre-poll alliance came from the IFB, which in some way had to force itself upon Labour. That’s what happened on the Independence issue when push came to shove, on the IFB side.

On the side of SAJ, the Andolanists were sorely disappointed when he left the IFB and his Minister’s job for a post in the Judiciary, and more so when he joined the All Mauritius Hindu Congress. At least he did not go along to contest the general election under that party’s banner; had he done so, he would have been the person against Independence. But disappointment turned to grief and anger when he joined the MMM. We were greatly relieved when he separated himself from those people in 1983, and have strongly supported him ever since. He has done well for the country too, despite hobnobbing with both Labour and the MMM from time to time. The last time round he distanced himself from both of them, cobbling an alliance of minor parties that feared that the other two major ones were preparing to set up a perpetual Haiti-style papdocracy. He got it right too, as he came out emphatically on top!

* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016

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