2nd November & Indian Indentured Immigrants
This year we shall be commemorating the beginning of the great wave of indentured labourers who were brought to the island to work in the sugar industry in the 19th century. The story has been told again and again, but it is important that every generation remembers its past as it forms the core of our multiple identities — who we are and where we come from.
While paying our respect to our ancestors, we must also pay homage to those early benefactors, all of them outside the indentured labour community, who pioneered the struggles to uphold our dignity as human beings at a time when our ancestors had not yet developed effective tools to combat oppression. I have in mind Vellyvoil Rajarethnum Moodeliar and Adolph De Plevitz, Mohandas Gandhi and Manilal Doctor, Swami Bhawani Dayal Sannyasi and TK Swaminathan and the Indian Colonial Society.
Since the 1830s, Indian immigrants had laboured under various disabilities which had not only marked them for life but equally several generations up to the present day. Contrary to the widely held view at one time that they were passive, docile and submissive, we would later find that they fought for their rights and dignity as much as they could. Their protest took various forms: individually as well as collectively as group protests which they adapted to the situation because the odds were against them. Very often however avoidance of protest was deemed more practical than overt confrontation.
It was only in the 1870s that Rajarethnum Moodeliar, an Indian intellectual, a Professor of the Royal College and member of the Bramo Samaj, collaborated with De Plevitz, an overseer working on a plantation in Nouvelle Decouverte, and Yates Steven, an English soldier, to prepare the petition which led to a major protest culminating in the Royal Commission of 1872. The petition was signed by 9000 immigrants and it received a favourable response from Governor Hamilton Gordon.
The Commission of Enquiry confirmed the various complaints about their unduly harsh conditions of work and life, which Indian labourers had been voicing since the beginning of indenture. It made recommendations to improve working and living conditions which generally remained a dead letter.
The second major event in favour of Indian labourers was ushered again outside the ranks of the indentured labourers. It was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who visited Mauritius in 1901. After having surveyed the conditions of Indians in Mauritius, he sent Manilal Doctor to take up the cause of Indian immigrants. During his stay in Mauritius, Manilal Doctor used every platform available – the courts of law, public and private meetings and the press. He campaigned together with Eugene Laurent for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and crafted an alliance with the Action Libérale for the elections of 1911.
When he realised that Indians had no newspaper, Manilal Doctor founded the Hindustani to express the views of the Indians in Mauritius. He also encouraged the Tamil merchants in Port Louis to set up the Young Men’s Hindu School which had been the nursery for the Tamil intelligentsia for a long period of our history. The Royal Commission of Inquiry of 1909 advocated a number of measures in favour of the Indian community, particularly for the small planters.
Almost three decades thereafter, it was again Indians from India who came with the idea of commemorating the arrival of Indian immigration. Swami Bhawani Dayal Sannyasi had persistently expressed this view in the Arya Vir in the 1930s but there was no one to take up the initiative. Yet the first major mobilization of Indian workers was carried out by Rajcoomar Gujadhur who assembled about 15,000 labourers in Port Louis on 12th July 1935. His objective was to put pressure on the colonial government to provide financial assistance to the sugar industry.
Gujadhur realized that mobilization of labourers could be used as a bargaining counter for advancing the interests of the plantocracy and only very indirectly and marginally the interests of labourers, Obviously, the primary motive for mobilization was not for the Indian labourers’ interests. No one yet thought of mobilizing the labourers for their own sake. Both the leaders of the Coloured population and the Indian community thought primarily of their own class – the middle classes which was a euphemism for the Coloured or Indian middle classes.
In 1934, the Secretary of the Indian Colonisation Society of Madras, whose patron was Rabindranath Tagore, decided to commemorate the Indian Centenary Celebrations in Mauritius and in the other colonies as Mauritius was the first colony to bring Indian labourers in the nineteenth century. The Secretary of the Indian Colonisation Society, T.K. Swaminathan established contact with Mauritius and it was two lawyers – R.K. Boodhun and Rampersad Neerunjun – who responded positively by setting up a local committee for the commemoration.
T.K. Swaminathan was deputed to visit the colony for the celebration and to establish a National School, a free Medical Dispensary for the poor and an emporium where Indian manufactured goods might be displayed and offered for sale.
The commemoration held on the 29 December 1935 was a success. It attracted the Indian intelligentsia and Indians from all walks of life and also some important personalities from other communities. Present at the commemoration were the Chief Judge E. Nairac, JeromeTranquille, Maurice Cure, S. Ramgoolam, S. Bissoondoyal, C.M. Pillay, A.R. Osman, I. Toorawa, P. Soobrayen and K. Hazareesingh, and many other well known personalities. It was essentially a middle class affair.
The main speakers spoke in favour of the Indian community to which they were organically linked despite the divergent class interests. In the short term, the commemoration led to increasing mobilization of middle class Indians comprising Indian intellectuals, civil servants, religious leaders, Indian merchants – mostly Gujarati (both Hindu and Muslim) as well as Tamil merchants.
At this stage the movement was apolitical and its main objective was to raise a lasting monument to pay homage to their ancestors. The Centenary Celebration was apolitical, but some especially among the Coloured and the Whites saw in it the potential for an Indian separatist movement, although the organisers had made it clear that ‘our philosophy makes us utterly incapable of anything like disloyal political agitation’.
In fact the politics of moderation would emasculate both the Indian and the Coloured middle classes for the remaining years until 1948 and kept them in a political impasse. It was only the organized protest of labourers and small planters, particularly in Flacq, which marked a turning point in the way the colonial government would tackle the ‘Indian question’.
By way of conclusion, it is good to recall that the major landmarks for Indian emancipation until the 1930s always came from initiatives of Indians from India and other outsiders to the Indian community. The Indian Centenary Celebrations of 1935 created a forum for the Indian intelligentsia, which chose to remain largely apolitical. However middle class politics remained moderate, legal and constitutional; it was limited to meetings, speeches, petitions or attempts to secure representation in the Council of Government through elections or nominations.
It is true that this was the norm of middle class politics everywhere, including India. In India, the break from such politics came when Gandhi decided to follow an alternative course of mass mobilisation against the British government in the 1920s onwards. In Mauritius no movement rose against the Colonial government. Such politics did not provide a solution to the impasse in which the Indian intelligentsia found itself. One has to wait for the unrest of 1937 to see the start of a political process, which would allow members of the middle class to break out from this impasse.
The route to 1948 was long and arduous and in that year a more liberal Constitution allowed an increasing number of Indians to vote for their representatives. Until the middle of the 1930s, it was middle class moderate and constitutional politics which remained the order of the day.
Symptomatic of the divergent interests between the labourers and the middle class was the fact that none of the middle class leaders of the time was present at the funeral of the labourers who were killed during the shooting of workers in Union Flacq.