Political maturity was never even a major criterion for constitutional progress. Other factors explain why it took 20 long years from 1948 for the island to achieve full internal self-government and ultimately independence
Mauritians rallying for Independence in London – 1965
In one of his interviews, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, a former President of Mauritius put forward the view that Mauritius should have obtained its independence in the late 1950s because he thought that Mauritius was far more advanced than many colonies that were progressing fast towards independence. He and Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam had been advocating in favour of constitutional changes in the 1950s. His main argument probably rested on the political maturity of the population. Although he was right with regard to political maturity as Mauritius had a political elite that could easily take over from the British administration, political maturity was never even a major criterion for constitutional progress. Other factors explain why it took 20 long years from 1948 for the island to achieve full internal self-government and ultimately independence. The present Constitution of Mauritius was promulgated on 12th March 1968, and its making over such a long period can best be understood by looking at various forces which shaped the making of the constitution and by placing them in their historical context.
Under the old constitution
For having been a French and British colony respectively, Mauritius inherited their laws and institutions and also a number of associated values. Without going further back at the early development of our political institutions, a good and convenient starting point is the constitution of 1885 which lasted up to 1947. It provided for a semi-elective Council. For the first time we had general elections and the legislative council was made up of both elected members and others nominated by the Governor. Only a small number of people had the right to vote. In 1946, only 11,844 people had the right to vote in a population of 500,000. For about 60 years, the majority of the population had no say in the way the island was governed or in the laws which were passed. Inevitably, under pressure from the new progressive elite of the country, the right to vote and a say in the government of the day became burning political issues.
Though in the past the demand for reform of the constitution was resisted by the colonial government and the white oligarchy, in 1947 a new constitution was granted. The labour unrest of 1937 and the report of the Hooper Commission following the unrest had forced some rethinking on constitutional development on the part of the colonial authorities. The Hooper Report noted that ‘we understand that the question of adjusting political representation in Mauritius is already engaging the attention of His Majesty’s Government and in these circumstances we feel that this cause of unrest will be adequately dealt with.’ At the Colonial Office too, there was already some thinking about constitutional matters for the colonies in the late 1930s. The outbreak of the Second World War postponed any action. In the West Indies, the West India Royal Commission was also recommending constitutional changes for the West Indian colonies.
Finally, the end of the war in 1945 created a new situation which could only speed up changes. The colonial powers – England, France, Holland and Italy – had been weakened by the war; the emergence of two non-imperialist powers, United States and Russia, together with the establishment of the United Nations ushered in the era of decolonization. Old ways of governing could no longer continue. There was pressure for quicker changes worldwide. India was granted independence in 1947, and other colonies followed the same path.
Britain had to embrace change for other reasons too. Britain desperately needed the resources of the colonies as she was a debtor nation and in return was willing to make certain concessions. This does not mean that she was willing to relinquish its colonies. Far from it. In fact she wanted to tighten control to extract the maximum resources during what is known as the second colonial revolution. She also wanted to win over the colonies by granting certain constitutional changes so as not lose the initiative. These grudging minimal concessions and incremental changes, more often superficial, were granted in various stages. This was partly the result of indecision by British governments and ministers which marked their ‘East of Suez’ policy right up to the 1970s.
In Mauritius, this policy had to be justified. One reason that was initially advanced was that the majority of the people were illiterate and they could not be given the right to vote or the island was too small to be economically viable. On the other hand there was opposition from the local elite, mostly the white plantocracy. Since they constituted the political and economic elite of the country and owned most of the land, the sugar factories and other businesses, they feared that members elected by the people would take over their assets and wealth. In fact they were not altogether wrong: the Mauritius Labour Party had been advocating in favour of the nationalization of the sugar industry for some time.
The British sided with the oligarchy because they shared common values as a ruling class. They also had some property in Mauritius but most importantly they wanted the white oligarchy to maintain the sugar industry so that they could continue to buy our sugar cheaply but also because they wanted to retain Mauritius for its strategic position.
1947: New constitution
However in 1947, after much discussion, Mauritius was given a new constitution and the number of voters increased from 11,000 to 71,569 in the 1948 elections. In that election, only progressives were elected. They should have constituted the majority in the Legislative Council, but the Governor proceeded with the nomination of 12 members to outvote them. Outraged, the progressives protested in vain. For the 1953 elections, the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) manifesto emphasized universal suffrage and responsible government. The MLP won the elections and pressed once again for further constitutional changes.
Faced with renewed pressure from the MLP, a conference was held in London. The British government crafted a new strategy that had been elaborated in Lord Munster’s report in 1954. The British wanted to forestall the ascendancy of the Mauritius Labour Party by encouraging the emergence of an opposition party. Their policy of consultation in a plural society like Mauritius stoked sectarian claims from different groups. Finally, they wanted to delay and limit change to the minimum, to grant only the most superficial changes and to retain full control of the island for political, economic and strategic reasons.
The first London Conference took place between 12th and 20th July 1955 following a demand from the MLP. The MLP delegation pressed for a number of changes namely universal suffrage, responsible government and ministerial system of government. What the MLP obtained were universal suffrage with proportional representation and a ministerial system where ministers had no real power. After the protest of the MLP against proportional representation, a second London Conference was held. Proportional representation was dropped, but an agreement was reached to appoint an electoral commissioner for the purpose of carving 40 constituencies to provide for the election of minorities. Meanwhile a demagogic campaign by the conservative press intensified sectarian political beliefs to weaken the MLP that was being viewed and presented as a Hindu party.
British policy and constitutional change
British policy remained the determining factor in the nature and pace of constitutional changes. British strategy to contain constitutional changes could also be viewed as an attempt to create a two-party system in Mauritius and to secure the representation of all minority interests in the Legislative Council. Admittedly this was also a democratic procedure. On the other hand these policies allowed the PMSD to manipulate to its advantage the fears and uncertainties of the moment and to undermine the broad class support of the Mauritius Labour Party.
Already in the 1948 elections, ethnicity and caste politics were not new in Mauritius since they had already been present in electoral contests in 1920s and 1930s. The defeat of a number of Labour candidates in Grand Port-Savanne and Pamplemousses and Riviere du Rempart together with the defeat of Razack Mohamed in Port Louis created the dominant perception that ethnicity was the dominant factor in Mauritian politics. It was indeed the case to some extent, but in 1948 class, personality and status were equally important for electoral success.
The British strategy to counter the ascendancy of the MLP failed initially. The alliance of the MLP and the Comité d’Action Musulman (CAM) gave overwhelming majority to the MLP after Labour had accepted universal suffrage and Trustam Eve Report’s recommendation for 40 constituencies. In 1959, through universal suffrage, all Mauritians secured for the first time in the history of colonial Mauritius equality as British subjects.
The defeat of the British strategy and the pressure of the MLP resulted in constitutional review talks in 1961 where no major changes were conceded. What the MLP and CAM got was a promise of self-government in a distant future. The 1963 elections gave the MLP-CAM a majority but a reduced one and strengthened the opposition. The second stage of constitutional development was implemented. The changes were minimal as the Governor and the Secretary of State retained important powers regarding legislation and command of the administration with a promise of full internal self-government after the next general elections.
Drafting of a self-government constitution
Meanwhile the drafting of a self-government constitution by the Colonial Office had started. There were intensive consultations by the British government and local parties and other social and political groups about the changes to be brought in the next stage of the constitution. A template for the future constitution was drafted by several officers, namely Ian Crunchey, Sir Kenneth Roberts-Wray, AR Rushford and Professor Minogue under the general supervision of Professor De Smith.
An early draft of the constitution was discussed with political representatives in Mauritius and at the Lancaster conference as well as privately with Chief Justice Neerunjun, the Director of Public Prosecution Henry Garrioch, the Electoral Commissioner Joseph Le Roy and the President of the Public Service Commission William Stanley Morgan. At the Lancaster Conference, consensus was reached on most of the chapters of the constitution except for the electoral system. However the British government accepted the principle of independence if, after general elections, the future Assembly voted in favour of a motion to that effect.
By 1964, the British still wanted to retain control of Mauritius given the strategic position of Mauritius which they considered crucial in the Cold War period. On the other hand, they could no longer resist pressure from the MLP and feared they that its leaders could fall under the influence of the communists. By that time, the British had made up their mind to detach Diego Garcia with or without the consent of Mauritius. They failed to get the consent of Mauritius together with conditions as laid down by the Mauritian ministers. They proceeded with the detachment unilaterally by an Order in Council and presented Mauritian ministers with a fait accompli. The electoral system was devised by Harold Banwell and amended by John Stonehouse. The Constitution Order was promulgated on 21st December 1966. The Independence Party won the August 1967 elections, and a motion for independence was voted by the Legislative Assembly.
By 1967, the forces tilted slightly towards independence after much delay by the British government. The delay was deliberate and was successful in stirring up the forces against the ascendancy of the MLP. The MLP and its allies never relaxed the pressure on the British government, and supported by a majority of the people, albeit a decreasing one, it played a dominant role in shaping the constitution and in securing self-government and the independence of the country. In so doing, it gave the people of Mauritius the right to choose and shape the destiny of the new nation.
* Published in print edition on 29 June 2018