With the advent of globalisation and the revolution in communication, the Indian diaspora has also become a global community with its young members reaching out to the world and to global Indian communities. Whether that new venture will provide the community with the foresight and the moral leadership to blaze a new trail for the future of the community and that of Mauritius remains to be seen
The 2nd of November is a symbolic date of the great wave of indentured labour which arrived in Mauritius to sustain the development of the sugar industry. It brought about a sugar revolution as well as a demographic transformation which have since influenced and shaped the destiny of the island in numerous ways.
The labourers faced difficult times and in a period when plantation capitalism changed the structure of the economy, the labourers bore the brunt of this transformation; their lives were ‘nasty, short and brutish’. All the labourers were not brought to this island over the same period; those who came earlier suffered the most because the system that was then in place was still at the experimental stage. There was an absence of regulations. The system of labour which the former slave owners were familiar with was servitude and this informed labour relations during those early years.
While the odds were stacked against the labourers, many of them successfully developed modes of resistance to their oppression. The view that they were a docile mass of undifferentiated labour force does not hold any more. Covert and overt forms of protest were widespread during indentureship and persisted beyond the abolition of indenture in the first decade of the 20th century.
Social mobility was not uncommon, particularly after labourers’ contracts had expired; many took up jobs outside the sugar estates. A small planter class emerged. That many labourers did prosper does not detract from the fact that the system was oppressive. Labour and living conditions were appalling. When the malaria epidemic of 1867 caused about 33,000 deaths in Port Louis, the old immigrants lost their lives by the thousands. One can therefore easily imagine the lot of the poor in those difficult times.
The oppressive nature of plantation regime was not confined to the material conditions of life. The plantation owners, assisted by the colonial state, imposed severe restrictions on the social life of the labourers. Restriction on women immigration in the early years deprived labourers of the support that came with marriage and family. Religious and cultural life was limited to the barest minimum.
It was only after 1870 that a real community life was crafted on the sugar estates and some of the village religious and cultural traditions were revived and perpetuated with the support of the womenfolk. Education to preserve linguistic, cultural and religious traditions gave rise to small community organisations which assumed responsibility for organising and regulating social life in the camps and villages. As for western education, the overwhelming majority shied away from schools dispensing it because they were functionally irrelevant, culturally alienating and viewed as engines of proselytism. Only when Indians felt confident enough to adapt the education system to their advantage did they take to western education.
By the first decade of the 20th century, Indian labourers assisted by a rural Indian bourgeoisie and an urban merchant class felt confident enough to challenge the planter class and the colonial state on several fronts. An earlier challenge by R. Moodeliar and Adolphe De Plevitz in the 1870s did not improve the conditions of the labouring classes because the Ordinance of 1878 remained a dead letter.
Manilal Doctor had a greater impact not so much because of his legal battles on behalf of workers and small planters but rather thanks to his success in raising the consciousness of the Indians about the potential strength they could wield through the press and through cultural and social as well as political organisations. Manilal Doctor founded the Hindustani newspaper, launched the Arya Samaj movement and encouraged Tamil merchants to set up the Hindu Young Men’s School in Port Louis.
He also supported the Action Liberale of Eugene Laurent. However, the Action Liberale failed to capitalise on the political consciousness of the Indian rural petty bourgeoisie. It was the oligarchy which was more successful in mobilising the Indians in defeating the Retrocessionists in 1921 and whetted the appetite of that same rural bourgeoisie for more autonomous political power, resulting in the victory of Dunputh Lallah and Rajkumar Gujadhur in the 1926 elections. The backlash was not long in coming. In the 1931 elections, the whites and the coloureds pooled their efforts to defeat Lallah and Gujadhur.
Meanwhile the great depression of 1929 had reduced the population to poverty; workers and small planters reeled under the pressure of low wages and declining sugar prices while the Indian intellectuals, reduced to despair, sought to break the impasse by commemorating the centenary of the arrival of Indian immigrants in Mauritius in 1935. It was the labour unrest in Flacq in 1937, initiated by the small planters in their march to Port Louis and followed by the labourers march on Union Flacq which proved a turning point for Mauritius and for the Indian population. After Union Flacq, a new order had to emerge, first enshrined in the Hooper Report. The pace of change quickened and 1948 saw the waning of the old regime.
From 1937 onwards, the Indian masses gained in self-confidence and were able to make great strides in all walks of life. As a community, it continues to play a major role in the transformation of modern Mauritius and over the last 100 years it has itself been transformed beyond recognition. Yet it still remains too much attached to the prejudices of yesteryears whereas it could have easily charted a more enlightened future for Mauritius.
With the advent of globalisation and the revolution in communication, the Indian diaspora has also become a global community with its young members reaching out to the world and to global Indian communities. Whether that new venture will provide the community with the foresight and the moral leadership to blaze a new trail for the future of the community and that of Mauritius remains to be seen.
* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013