Manilal Doctor – A Man of the People

A pioneer in the struggle of the Indo-Mauritians & Indo-Fijians during the early 20th Century

On Thursday, 28th July 2016, the Manilal Maganlal Doctor Memorial Foundation and the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund celebrated the 135th birth anniversary of Manilal Doctor. This main speakers at this auspicious ceremony were Hon. S. Baboo, Minister of Arts and Culture M.O. Kholeegan, the Lord Mayor of Port Louis, Mr V. Ramkisson, President of the Manilal Maganlal Doctor Memorial Foundation, and Mr Y.D. Dhuny, Chairman of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund. Mr Dhuny was the special guest and gave the keynote address of the event.

During the early 20th century, Shri Manilal Maganlal Doctor, an Indian lawyer, played a crucial role in the struggle of the island’s indentured and non-indentured workers as well as of the Indo-Mauritians for their social, political and economic rights. Through his actions, he helped to forge a collective consciousness among them and his brief stay in our country has had a long-lasting impact on 20th century Mauritian history.

The Early Life of Manilal Doctor

Manilal Doctor was born on 28 July 1881 in Baroda, in the Indian state of Gujarat, in western India. His real family name was in fact not “Doctor” but “Shah”. However, because his father was a doctor and head of the local state mental hospital the family adopted the name of “Doctor”. In 1903 and 1904, the young Manilal obtained his LL.B degree and his M.A in philosophy from the University of Bombay. He understood and could write Sanskrit and Latin and he was fluent in six Indian dialects.

In 1905, he left India for London where he continued his law studies. Manilal Doctor was an active member of the Home Rule Society which was based in the British capital and regularly wrote articles on issues pertaining to the freedom struggle of India in the ‘Indian Sociologist’. Between 1905 and 1906, he also met several leaders of the Indian National Congress including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

During an afternoon meeting in 1906, Gandhi requested Manilal to go to Mauritius in order to help organize the local Indo-Mauritian community and fight for their social, political and economic rights. After some thought, he agreed to travel to the British crown colony and to help with the social and political struggle of the Indo-Mauritians.

Manilal Doctor in Mauritius

Between 1907 and 1911, Manilal Doctor undertook numerous activities to highlight and help to alleviate the terrible plight of the island’s Indo-Mauritians, the indentured and non-indentured workers. In 1907, when he presented himself at the Supreme Court, in order to obtain permission to practise law in Mauritius, Manilal refused to remove his turban in court just as Gandhi had done in the 1890s in South Africa.

Mr Doctor provided free legal advice in cases where indentured workers and former indentured workers were being prosecuted and ill-treated by their employers. He also campaigned for an end to immigration, the abolition of the double cut system, the corvée system and vagrancy laws. In 1909, when the Swettenham Royal Commission, aka the Royal Commission of 1909, came to Mauritius, he acted as the spokesman for the Indo-Mauritian workers just as Adolphe de Plevitz had done almost four decades earlier.

During this period, Manilal Doctor travelled through all of the island’s villages and held dozens of meetings with the sugar estate workers and small planters in order to make them aware of the economic, social and political issues which affected their daily lives. His actions helped to shape the consciousness of the Indian workers and small planters.

As a journalist, he founded the newspaper, The Hindustani which published articles in Hindi, English and Gujarati and focused mainly on issues concerning the Indo-Mauritian community. The motto of his newspaper was “Liberty of Individuals! Fraternity of Men!!! Equality of Race!!!”. It should be noted that on 15th March 1909, when the first edition of The Hindustani was printed, a multi-faith prayer of Hindu, Moslem, Christian and Buddhist priests was organized as a blessing for the new publication.

M. Doctor also published articles in Le Petit Journal, the newspaper of the Action Libérale, a prominent local Mauritian political party. Manilal worked in close collaboration with Dr. Eugène Laurent and Anatole de Boucherville of the Action Libérale and the Muslim merchants of Port Louis to highlight the grievances of the downtrodden and oppressed of the colony.

Manilal Doctor also played a central role in the establishment of the Arya Samaj in Mauritius. In addition, he founded the Young Men’s Hindu Association with the objective of organizing the island’s young Hindus in order for them to know their rights, undertake community action and help the poor such as the indentured labourers. In 1911, when Manilal Doctor left for India, he was accompanied by R.K.Boodhun and Pandit Cashinath Kistoe.

Manilal Doctor in Fiji

In 1912, Mahatma Gandhi asked Manilal Doctor to travel this time to Fiji in the southern Pacific Ocean in order to help organize the Indo-Fijian indentured and ex-indentured workers. Between 1912 and 1920, Manilal, as he did in Mauritius, struggled for the social, political and economic rights of Indian labourers in Fiji. He printed a local newspaper called The Indian Settler which discussed the numerous grievances of the local Indo-Fijian community

Mr Doctor was also instrumental in setting up the Indian Imperial Association which defended the social and economic interests of the Indo-Fijians. When the local Indian community petitioned the British Governor to appoint Manilal as their representative on the colony’s Legislative Council, he was by-passed. Instead a wealthy Indo-Fijian farmer and philanthropist was appointed in his place, despite numerous protests. Manilal helped in the establishment of the Arya Samaj movement as well as with the propagation of Hinduism in the colony.

During the 1910s, he actively organized the Indo-Fijians in the rural villages and on the sugar estates. He held numerous meetings to explain to them their social and economic rights and that they should struggle for better working and living conditions. He wrote several letters to the Indian National Congress, Gandhi, Nehru, C.F.Andrews, the British humanitarian organizations, the Colonial Office and the British Labour Party to alert international opinion on the plight of the local Indians.

Gradually, Manilal was considered as being a troublemaker and a dangerous element in the colony. In 1920, he organized a major strike which almost paralyzed the local economy and as a result, he was arrested and deported by the local British government of Fiji to New Zealand.

India and the Overseas Colonies

In 1920, Manilal Doctor was barred from practising law in New Zealand, Australia and Ceylon or Sri Lanka. This prohibition was also extended to most of British India, with the exception of Bihar and Orissa where he practised during most of the 1920s. Furthermore, Manilal was kept under police surveillance and his mail correspondence was regularly being monitored by local officials. In 1923, Mr Doctor, as a member of the Indian National Congress, attended an important meeting of the INC which called for the permanent abolition of the indenture labour system throughout the British Empire.

Shortly after, Manilal tried to settle in Penang to practise law; however, he was not permitted by the local colonial authorities who were based in Singapore. The 1920s was thus the decade when Manilal Doctor endured unbridled harassment at the hands of British officials while he was trying to help the poor and the oppressed.

It is not surprising that Hugh Tinker, a famous British historian of Indian indentured labour, spoke of Manilal as being “odd man out” and labelled his struggle as being “the loneliness of colonial politics”. Here, Tinker was clearly referring to the great trials and tribulations Manilal had to endure during his long and noble struggle in Mauritius and Fiji which led to his persecution by the local colonial oligarchies.

Manilal Doctor spent most of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s practising law in Bihar and Orissa. In 1935, he was allowed to set up a law practice in Aden (present-day Yemen), a British Protectorate. In fact, he was granted permission only upon the intervention of the Chief Justice of the local British judiciary who was his good friend. Between 1935 and 1940, Manilal spent part of his time in Aden and in Somaliland or northern Somalia as a legal advisor. During the 1940s and early 1950s, he resided most of the time in Aden with his son and daughter-in-law.

The Legacy of Manilal Doctor

In 1950, more than thirty-nine years later, M. Doctor returned to Mauritius and saw that his struggle had started bearing fruit as it had helped to bring about the social, economic and political emancipation of the Indo-Mauritian community. Three years later, Manilal left Aden and returned to Bombay where he retired as a lawyer and passed away on 8th January 1956.

Paying tribute to Manilal Doctor in the Mauritius Times of 27 January 1956 – ‘First Leader of Indo-Mauritians’, Jay Narain Roy concluded on this note: “I appeal to the Indian Community to put up a committee to raise funds with the idea of erecting a bust for that great public benefactor.”

Mr Beekrumsing Ramlallah, the Editor, set the ball rolling, and in the MT edition of 21 September 1956, he announced the setting up of the ‘Manilal Memorial Committee’, comprising Merssrs Vanprasthi Dhurundur, M. Sangeelee, R. Chellum, M. Nathoo, P. Moutou, L. Sohun, M.I. Khadaroo, K. Tirvengadum. I. Satan, K. Bappoo, R. Lutchmaya, and H. Dave.

The fund raising campaign was held between 1956 and 1958. In 1959, a life-size statue of the great historical figure was inaugurated in the Jardin de la Compagnie.

It is one of the most well-known statues in Port Louis and Mauritius as well as a national monument. At the same time, it is one of the rare national monuments intimately linked with the long and complex history of the indentured labourers and their defenders in colonial Mauritius.

* Published in print edition on 29 July 2016

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