Nation building in the context of a plural society is made complex through its close relation to the vicissitudes of identity politics. This special occasion provides an opportune moment for the Indo-Mauritian community to reflect on how they can contribute to this process and what is their place and their role in the ongoing construction of a plural society and the Mauritian nation
The celebration of the 180th anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers in Mauritius is obviously an occasion for their descendants, the Indo-Mauritian community, to celebrate but also to reflect on the road travelled so far as well as the way forward. Coming as it does on the eve of general elections, the introspection will inevitably include some musings on the historical evolution of the political process and the extent to which it has contributed to the socio-economic progress of the community.
Nation building in the context of a plural society is made complex through its close relation to the vicissitudes of identity politics. This special occasion provides an opportune moment for the Indo-Mauritian community to reflect on how they can contribute to this process and what is their place and their role in the ongoing construction of a plural society and the Mauritian nation.
History is a good starting point for this kind of exercise to the extent that the right lessons can be drawn from it to guide our future actions. As a modest contribution, we have therefore thought it useful to highlight a few historical events which could be considered as defining moments on this odyssey from “Coolie Ghat” to Government House.
It was in 1834 that a Mr James Arbuthnot acting as an agent for some Franco-Mauritian planters initially recruited 36 labourers from North India. During the next 20 years more than 100,000 were to follow suit. The great Indian immigration had begun which would fashion the whole future socio-political development of the island. The indentured labourers who were brought in to provide labour for the established sugar plantations following the abolition of slavery in the British colonies were formally under contract and were initially meant to go back to India after expiry of their contractual stay.
It is generally believed that the recruiting agents promised the most mesmerizing prospects to the labourers who were therefore ill-prepared, firstly, for the tough conditions of the travel and, secondly, for the inhuman treatment which would be meted out to them on their arrival at the plantations. A fair idea of what they had to go through can be gathered from the following incident.
In 1835 the Legislative Council of Mauritius passed an Ordinance which was meant to regulate the employment of indentured labourers. Probably carried away by their experience with their former slaves the terms of employment proposed by the planters in that infamous Ordinance 16 of 1835 were so harsh that Lord Glenelg, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, returned the document to the Governor of the colony with the following comments:
“This is an Ordinance to which it is impossible that His Majesty’s assent should be given; … In my despatch of the 20th January last, I referred to what then appeared to me an incredible report, that an Ordinance had been proposed for adoption by the Council of Mauritius, which, if passed into law would subject the whole labouring population of the Island, and especially those persons who might be introduced from the Eastward, to restraints and penalties of so onerous a nature, as nearly to revive under a new name the former servile conditions of the great body of the people” – with obvious reference to slavery.
Although this attempt to pass those regulations into law was rejected, it is symptomatic of the mental disposition of the planter class towards the new immigrant labourers. In fact Ordinance or not the Indian labourers had to live and work in the most appalling conditions and were subjected to all sorts of humiliation and restrictions including that on the liberty of movement.
The Gandhi Effect
On his way to India from South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi stopped at Port Louis in 1901 where he was received by enthusiastic crowds of the Indo-Mauritian community. The following extract from his speech on the occasion is a piece of anthology not only for its importance in explaining the rise of the Indo-Mauritian community but also for its contemporary relevance.
According to press reports, “Mr Gandhi thanked the guests at the gathering and especially his host. He said that the sugar industry of the island owed its unprecedented prosperity mainly to Indian immigrants. He stressed that the Indians should regard it their duty to acquaint themselves with happenings in their motherland, and should take interest in politics. He also laid much emphasis on the urgent need to pay attention to education of their children.” (Le Radical, The Standard)
Struggle for a Political Voice
From the creation of the Labour Party in 1936 to Independence in 1968, the history of the island is characterized by the constant struggle between the Plantocracy and the labouring classes not only for improvements in employment conditions but also for acquisition of political freedom and the right to democratically determine the future of the island. As the reactionary forces yielded under pressure, a widening of the franchise and eventually the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1958 was achieved. The gate leading to total independence was opened although it would still have to be a hard fought battle against an armada consisting of the most reactionary fringes of the Plantocracy, a predominantly anti-independence press, and a huge treasure chest.
The Contribution of non-Indians
Perhaps one of the most important lessons to be drawn and which needs mention on such an occasion, is that just causes even when they principally concern only one specific section of a population (we are here concerned with the struggle of the descendants of Indian immigrants) almost always benefit from the contribution of people or organizations who are not necessarily of the same creed or faith.
Throughout history progressive men and women are attracted to such causes even when they are being fought far from their shores, because of their profound attachment to values of liberty and freedom for individuals and communities. It is therefore fitting to mention the names of a few such people who were not deterred by their class or ethnic origins in helping the cause of the downtrodden Indian labourer, often at a heavy price for their own well-being.
Among such prominent men we shall include: Adolphe de Plevitz who came to Mauritius and was soon heavily engaged in denouncing the awful conditions under which Indians were labouring in the country. His life was threatened and he was physically attacked by a Jules Lavoquer in the streets of Port Louis.
During the 1926 elections, another great liberal, Mr R Pezzani called for due respect to be given to “l’élite d’où qu’elle vienne”. Later in 1927 as a Member of the Legislative Council, he stated that “the interests of Indians should be safeguarded by Mauritians who were not necessarily of Indian descent,” and concluded his speech thus: “Let us all unite together as Mauritians” (1927!). Remy Ollier and eventually Dr Maurice Cure followed the same tradition as did many others who were later to support the Independence Party — the Balancy, Forget, Chaperon and so many others…
* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014