By Satyajit Boolell SC
Politics, Sir Satcam used to say, much to the bemusement of journalists, is the art of the possible.
Yet, who could have thought that, barely a year after the bitter fight over the issue of independence in August 1967 General Elections, 1969 would see the birth of the Labour Party-PMSD coalition. Whilst it is a great illustration of what Sir Satcam meant, this new coalition was not without its dose of controversy.
Prior to the general election the three political leaders, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (knighted in June 1965), Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Razack Mohamed, united on the question of independence during the Lancaster House talks, struck an alliance under the banner of the Independence Party to confront the PMSD. The elections were fought along communal lines, with Hindu votes massively in favour of political independence.
The results confirmed those deep-seated divisions within our Mauritian society. The Independence Party won with 56% of the popular vote. Far from attenuating the political and communal cleavage, these first post-Independence elections had the effect of heightening the divide. Independence was still unpalatable to half of the population fearful of losing their British passport and the privileges that accompanied it.
Over and above the social unrest, the newly formed Government also inherited economic distress with Mauritius on a verge of bankruptcy. In his speech in the Legislative Assembly, Gaetan Duval, Leader of the Opposition, quoted the figure 50,000 persons without a job. The sacking of relief workers in October 1967 worsened the situation leading to violent riots on the streets of Port-Louis. Thousands chose to emigrate fearing the escalation of communal tension.
On the 22nd of August 1967, Legislative Assembly met for its first sitting. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, on behalf of the majority, tabled a motion for an independent Mauritius which made the following request:
“Her Majesty’s Government in United Kingdom to take necessary steps to give effect, as soon as practicable this year, to the desire of the people of Mauritius to accede to independence within the Commonwealth of Nations and to transmit to other Commonwealth Governments the wish of Mauritius to be admitted to membership of the Commonwealth on the attainment of independence”.
It was a historic and solemn occasion, a culmination of a long journey, positioning Mauritius on the path to independence. It was also time for national reconciliation and, in the opening remarks of his speech, Sir Seewoosagur paid tribute to all those Mauritians who contributed in this great march of the people “ …. men like Remy Ollier, Prosper d’Epinay, Sir William Newton, Eugene Laurent, Anatole de Boucherville Gaston Hebert, Raoul Rivet and Sir Edgar Laurent had all participated in the political evolution of Mauritius”. Next, he thanked his brothers-in-arms, Anquetil, Rozemont and Seeneevassen “for their performances, so replete with sincerity and love for our people. They will know in their graves today that their struggle has not been in vain”.
“History,” he stated “has proved over and over again, that once the inhabitants of a territory are in full control of their destiny, they have been able to achieve unity and build up a national consciousness […]. ‘Divide et impera’ was the guiding principle of the former imperial rulers. But once the alien control had withered away the people of a country could sink their differences and work together for the attainment of a common nation. I have no doubt Mr Speaker that in a like manner we also will benefit from our accession to independence”. The speech of Sir Seewoosagur remains to date a great speech, if not the greatest, pronounced in the Legislative Assembly.
The motion was opposed by the PMSD, it was a reflection of their disagreement with the verdict of the electorate, invoking amongst others, the fact that Mauritian citizens were about to lose their British Passports and that petitions had been filed regarding electoral frauds.
Sir Satcam took the floor after Maurice Lesage, First Member for Belle Rose and Quatre Bornes, a powerful orator with an amazing eloquence. Lesage, in good parliamentary tradition, had aimed his sling at the Leader of the House reproaching him for kowtowing to imperial Britain in exchange for a knighthood, or else, he quipped, how was it that when congress leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru clamoured for an independent India from imperial Britain, they were sent to rot in jail.
In a tit-for-tat reply to Maurice Lesage, Sir Satcam told the Honourable Member that the electorate had already delivered its verdict and there was no point to reopen the electoral campaign as there were challenges of national interests ahead. It was time for national reconciliation, he said, and went on to congratulate the Leader of the Opposition (Gaetan Duval) for his moderate and statesmanlike speech. He dwelled lengthily upon the need for national unity and stability for the country. There is no magic in independence he argued:
“…after mature consideration and a lot of heart searching we, on this side of the House have come to the conclusion that if Mauritius is to solve its grave economic problem, its unemployment problem, there is no other way to go but for independence. For some people in this country the door is barred anywhere except on a permit which is limited to a few to go to England … if we have to live in this country the best way to do it is to take our destiny in our own hands. Let us forget about divisions, let us forget about our different loyalties and create one single loyalty and one single fatherland and let us all behave like Mauritians in the real sense of the word and that can only be achieved if we have one country, one flag and one objective in front of us and that will be in the interests of the country, of the people and of the rising generation ..”
During the debates the PMSD effected a walkout after the leader of the IFB, accused its members of having approached him in the hope “that I could be tempted by a Premiership”. The motion was voted in the absence of the PMSD and the 12 March 1968 chosen as the date Mauritius would accede to independence. It was a deliberate choice since the 12 March was the start of the salt march in India in defiance of British imperialism.
The preparations for the independence ceremony at Champ de Mars were well on their way, when in January 1968, communal riots between Muslims and creoles flared up in the outskirts of Port-Louis. A state of emergency was declared in the eastern part of Port Louis. A general feeling of gloominess swept over the country. The state of emergency was extended to cover the whole island as the death toll spiralled overnight reaching seventeen. Government took urgent steps to have recourse to a unit of the King Shropshire Infantry which was despatched to Mauritius from Aden.
The emergence of a national consciousness as the Father of the Nation had hoped was clearly not on the cards. The country went wild with rumours that there would be bloodshed if the Union Jack were to be lowered on the 12th of March at Champ de Mars. The flag-raising ceremony however, went ahead without an incident, the riots having been quelled and law and order restored. It was a crowning moment for the Independence movement, as the Union Jack was lowered under the gaze of a stoic Sir John Shaw Rennie, the Governor General.
In his book, ‘Untold Stories’, Sir Satcam described the mood of those who voted against independence as “one of despondency but not revolt”. Socially, he said the country was drifting apart: “In the offices, work sites, schools and even in the police force the mood was one of mutual distrust…”. It was at this critical juncture he received the visit of late Sir Andre Nairac QC, a brilliant lawyer with a rich record of service to his country. He wrote:
“Sir Andre had been a member of the Legislative Council for many years and a Minister in the initial stage of the ministerial system, preceding independence. As was his wont, he came straight to the point. He was against Independence, he said and did everything in his power to prevent it. Now that the people had given their verdict he bowed to it. He was however much concerned about the rift in our society. Something should be done to close it. He was prepared to talk to Gaetan Duval and meet Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. I was in full agreement with him and promised my cooperation. I had no doubt that as one of the advisers of the PMSD, he had the green light from Duval before seeing me. He also lobbied other leading members of the government. His visit was well timed because the revocation of the ‘IFB’ had left a few vacancies still unfilled. Sir Andre was soon followed by Gaetan Duval himself who used the same language to me”.
Sir Seewoosagur was receptive to the idea and felt that national reconciliation had become imperative and from that moment onwards things moved swiftly. At the municipal elections a political deal was struck between the two parties agreeing not to oppose each other. Quatre Bornes and Vacoas Phoenix went to labour and the remaining municipalities which included Port Louis went to the PMSD amidst a low turn out at the polls. At the time, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal was no longer in government; he had been revoked by Sir Seewoosagur for lack of ministerial responsibility. The cracks within government were already apparent.
It was finally left to Michel Debré, Reunion’s representative in the French National Assembly, an envoy of Quai d’Orsay, to seal the coalition. Debré, Sir Satcam wrote “performed the act with the art of a caring elder brother when he took the hand of Duval and placed it into that of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam as if telling the latter not to allow the young boy to stray outside the family circle”. The coalition was announced on the 2nd of December but prior to formalising the alliance, Sir Seewoosagur presented a motion for the amendment of the Constitution to extend the life of Parliament by four years to last up to July 30 1976. Although Sir Satcam was not privy to the decision to postpone the general election, he made a strong case for the coalition stating that it was a necessity for economic development and national unity. In his address to Parliament he stated:
“[…] we are at a point where some bold decisions have to be taken. No government worthy of its name would like to surrender power or to share its power with any opposition party but when we consider the economic situation of this country and the social climate we feel as good patriots that at some time or other some concession , some give and take must take place especially when we have an opposition in this country which was divided on one single issue which was that of independence and which was in complete agreement on all other issues, we thought that it would be in the interest of the country to associate them with the Government. So, it is in that spirit that I think it is the duty of one and all in this House to give a chance to a Government which can bring some social stability, some political stability and at the same time create a climate which will inspire confidence to eventual investors both local and foreign. So, Sir if that is the expected result which is to follow from a coalition of the two largest parties in this country, I do not think any price is too much for us to pay”.
Not a word was said on whether the amendments were contrary to the democratic principles as declared under Section 1 of the Constitution save that: “[…] we have talked of democracy and we hope now after the formation of a National Government, we will move towards meritocracy and this is more important for the future of this country. We must talk now in terms of national interests. … for six or seven years in front of us we will forget about politics and devote ourselves towards the reconstruction of the economy and the country, if this can be achieved within two or three years, I believe that we would have done a great service to this country and it is then that we will be judged by future generations”.
In December 1983 however during the debates on the Constitution of Mauritius (amendment no 2 ) Bill to provide for the accession of Mauritius to the status of the Republic, Sir Satcam responded to criticisms of the Leader of the Opposition who had described the extended mandate and postponement of elections as a dark moment of our history. In a stern reply to the Leader of the Opposition and with the ‘franc-parler’ which he was known for, Sir Satcam stated:
“[…] my Friend the leader of Opposition, did not know in what circumstances the amendment to the Constitution took place and why we had to postpone the elections. No country can be governed if half of the population is against it. On a fundamental issue, it was a division not along ideological or political lines: it was a division along communal or racial lines. And it was felt necessary then to reconcile that large section of the population to the idea of independence to have a coalition and to forget elections for some time, because elections always generate certain feelings and one of the feelings which is easily generated is the communal feeling. It is normal. I, as a Hindu, will appeal to the Hindu electorate because I have a better chance of getting their votes than going to an electorate to which I do not belong. Just as the Leader of the Opposition will always stand at Quatre Bornes; my Friend, the last speaker, will stand at Stanley; and my Friends Hons Bashir Khodabux and Cassam Uteem will stand at Plaine Verte”.
The political vacuum created by the coalition of the two main political parties saw the emergence of a left-wing party, the MMM, which adopted a nationalistic approach alive to the urban and rural divide. It campaigned fiercely against the postponement of elections which it qualified as a violation of the Constitution and undemocratic. The amendment to section 57 which fixes the duration of a parliament to five years was intended to create a fiction “as if Parliament were constituted on the 31st July 1971 instead of 12 March 1968”.
In 1973, Paul Bérenger leader of the MMM challenged the constitutionality of the amendments, in an application to the Supreme Court. It was turned down, after the Supreme Court held: “When the Constitution itself permits the alteration of S. 57, which deals with the prorogation and dissolution of Parliament, and lays down the procedure for such alteration, we do not understand how it can be said that the alteration, when made, is contrary to the declaration contained in S. 1 of the Constitution”. Today an amendment which impinges on the notion of democracy as obtained in Mauritius cannot be effected unless approved by a referendum of three -quarters of the electorate followed by a final voting of all members of the National Assembly. It followed from an amendment effected in 1982 elevating section 1 of the Constitution which provides that “Mauritius shall be a sovereign democratic State” to a “super-entrenched” status.
My above description of the 1969 coalition government is based on the account given by Sir Satcam in ‘Untold Stories’ and from his speeches, as reported in Hansard. Obviously, it is his interpretation of the events then, as experienced by him. The coalition did not last long nor did it bring the stability that was hoped for. There were as Sir Satcam described “frequent skirmishes between labour and PMSD ministers in the cabinet until the inevitable breaking point was reached on 17th December 1973”. Though the economic zone was a great boost, Sir Satcam considered that “the petrol crisis of the seventies had set the clock back for a decade. It was the sugar protocol signed in 1975 that came to the rescue of Government”.
He agreed nevertheless “that coalition bridged the great national divide “independence was an acceptable fact; sovereignty of the nation became an object of great pride and the dormant patriotism of the Mauritians was aroused”. Whether we agree or not with his account of events, history will be the best judge. There are nevertheless positive lessons to be drawn from the coalition government of 1969, and mistakes to be avoided.
Sir Satcam leaves behind an important legacy especially in the context of Mauritian politics. His prophetic message rings true today. Politics, he said, is the art of reconciling competing interests, for it is in adversity that mutual obligations are bonded and once this occurs, strive for a win-win and move ahead. Throughout his life, he preached national unity. It was his love for people generally. He enjoyed the company of the older generations. He would embark on long conversations with them, sitting in the shade of the poplar tree at Petit Paquet. Perhaps he was a romantic of old times, possibly a remnant nostalgia of having lost his father at a tender age.
As we mark his hundredth birth anniversary, I can see a smile on his face. Who could have thought today, that there would be an entente between two arch-rivals, the PMSD and the MMM just like in 1969 when the Labour Party and PMSD were bitter opponents?
Satyajit Boolell SC
20 August 2020
* Published in print edition on 15 September 2020