In 1968 when finally the independence of Mauritius was achieved and celebrated there was a sense of satisfaction and vindication in the offices of the Times that it has always been on the right side of history and progress
60 years for a newspaper is a major achievement in the media landscape of our island which itself has a very short history. The Mauritius Times was started in 1954 by a group of young people who held the strong and passionate belief that the views of the oppressed classes had to be heard and voiced out in a frank and candid manner. That it has been able to fulfil that mission for the last 60 years speaks highly of its founder and those who continue to keep the torch burning. This anniversary deserves to be remembered and celebrated and it reminds us not only of the distinctive nature of the paper which has ensured its survival to the present day, but also the special contribution that it has made and continue to make in the making of Mauritius.
I first came across Mauritius Times when on my daily errand to the newsagent to collect a copy of Advance. In those days it was Barber’s shop in Mahebourg, owned by the Ramdayan Brothers which served as a newsstand for Advance and the Mauritius Times. So every Friday I had also to get a copy of Mauritius Times. I don’t recall what I read in the Times but one of the caricatures, that of the fox trapped in the well trying to mount on the goat ‘s back to get out, was an amusing commentary on the politics of the time. This left a deep imprint on my young mind just like the middle page which published the photos of the young and fresh faces of the Labour-CAM candidates, such as Harold Walter, Jean Delaitre, Kher Jagatsingh, Sewgobind Sharma and many others who were elected in the 1959 elections, the first elections to be based on universal suffrage. Since then I have been an intermittent reader of the Times which to many of us was a kind of complementary supplement to Advance.
Started in the 1950s by a group of young Labourites, the birth of the Mauritius Times has later been explained by several reasons. For some it was a response to Le Cerneen’s vitriolic campaigns against the progressive forces of the Mauritius Labour Party while others saw it as an organ of the Indian intelligentsia .To the Colonial Office it was the organ of the far left wing of the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) and its influence on that Party was regarded with fear and suspicion. It certainly had many of these dimensions but its birth can also be understood by placing it in its historical context.
The 1940s had raised new hopes for a changing world and in Mauritius the 1948 elections ushered a new dawn with the election of a number of progressive politicians, many of them close to the Mauritius Labour Party. After this victory of the progressive forces, the working class flushed with this new confidence exerted great pressure on the MLP, the trade unions as well as on the colonial government to implement many of the reforms advocated during the war, such as the proposals made by the Ward Report on education and the Rankine Report on Health. These reforms which had been promised had been kept in abeyance for a number of reasons such as lack of manpower or construction materials.
After 1948 everybody expected the work of reconstruction to start. There was a general demand for improving wages and conditions of living, and militant labour unions were pressing for increase in wages in the sugar industry. When they failed to secure their demands, in September 1950 the artisans went on strike in a number of sugar factories in the south of the island. The Labour Party won the elections of 1953 but once again the its majority was offset by the nomination of 12 conservatives by the Governor. Frustrated by the action of the Governor, the MLP through its president Guy Rozemont voted a motion requesting the Secretary of State to receive a delegation to discuss further constitutional changes namely adult suffrage and responsible government. It was partly the growing impatience that changes were too slow to come, and to put further pressure on both the colonial government and support the MLP in its mission, that Beekrumsing Ramlallah with the help of a few intellectuals decided to set up a leftist paper committed to the principles of democracy, liberty and socialism. It was on a 14th August, a date which reminds us of Nehru’s famous speech of ‘India’s Tryst with Destiny’, delivered in the columned Council House of the Constituent Assembly on 14th August of 1947, that the Mauritius Times was born.
Right at the beginning, it attracted a number of young writers because one of the cardinal principles of the paper was that it maintained its independence from the Mauritius Labour Party and gave its many contributors the freedom to voice their opinions. More importantly it was not owned by any party and writers felt free to give their views on any issue. This certainly raised eyebrows in many quarters and not surprisingly, JN Roy was to write a few years later, ‘It is silly of some older people to feel uncanny about criticism. Some amount of criticism in our rank and file is certainly not uncalled for. I have the clear conviction that some of the boys are motivated by noble design.’
Undeterred by any adverse comments from friends and adversaries, the Mauritius Times forged ahead loyal to the principles of its founder. The same principle is currently being strictly adhered to, for the contributors of Mauritius Times constitute a heterogeneous group with different and often conflicting views. This is because the paper has the conviction that truth, which derives from both facts and opinions, is multidimensional and should be viewed as such by the readers.
There is yet no work which has assessed the contribution of newspapers to the development of Mauritius and it would not be presumptuous to say that the Times has made a significant contribution to it. A glance at the newspaper over the years shows an unflinching commitment to its founding principles; it became the standard bearer of the voiceless, the oppressed and the downtrodden. There is hardly any issue, big or small, of national or even lesser importance which escaped its attention, and most often, issues raised and debated and discussed passionately in the paper with great clarity and depth were taken by the MLP and the Government and shaped into public policies. One has just to recall the ‘Admit Our Children’ campaign in the 1950s to increase access to primary education, the ‘Down with PR’ in the late 1950s which gave a death blow to proportional representation, the campaign for family planning in the wake of the Titmuss Report or the development issues raised after the publication of the Meade Report.
One remembers too well how the critical articles on issue of the payment of molasses to small planters led to the Balogh Commission which recommended a fair share of the proceeds of the molasses to the small planters. On a more mundane level but equally important, it came to the defence of Armand Maudave when the latter was reproached for having expounded on the principles of Marxism to his class at the Royal College Curepipe. In 1968 when finally the independence of Mauritius was achieved and celebrated there was a sense of satisfaction and vindication in the offices of the Times that it has always been on the right side of history and progress. To draw a list of the achievements of the paper would indeed be a long one, and more recently to that list must be added its decisive role in shaping policies affecting all walks of life from education and culture to the politics of democratisation of the economy and modernisation.
Not surprisingly it was with great impatience that subscribers to the paper, friends and adversaries waited for a copy of the paper every Friday to find a response to the debate of the week, sometimes as a rejoinder in the ongoing debate of the moment but more often to anticipate and raise issues for reflection and action. In this endeavour it has always had a vast panel of contributors both local and overseas, and among the foreign correspondents were names like Peter Ibbotson, Ferner Brockway – Fabian socialists of the times – as well as young Mauritians such as Burty David, Yusuf Abdullatif, Hosenjeee Edoo, Ng Kwet Chan, Deepchand Beeharry and many more others.
Underlying all the causes championed by the Times is an underlying philosophy that the State has a crucial role to play in society and in shaping the national polity for the welfare of all. The pursuit of this philosophy was carried out fearlessly and with candour which very often bordered on insolence and gave offence to those who expected a more loyal support. The paper’s mission was to reflect, educate, and stimulate, even if in the end it found it necessary to tip the balance on one side of what it considered to be morally right for the nation. A good illustration of this approach is the regular interviews which are not only informative and enriching but provide different perspectives on major issues, especially when they are given by people with a wide experience of our national affairs.
In the new millennium it has become necessary for the paper to move with the times and explore other avenues without forsaking those features which have been its brand over the years. Congratulations to all those who have carried this flaming torch over the years and let us hope that the new generation will be equally motivated and selfless in taking Mauritius Times to the next level of development. After 60 years there is much to celebrate. Mauritius Times can wish itself a very happy birthday.
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2014