The Prof Basdeo Bissoondoyal Trust Fund had organised a Memorial Lecture by Surendra Bissoondoyal on his birth anniversary on 15 April at the Subramania Bharati Lecture Theatre, MGI.
The Lecture Theatre was packed with people who had been in the vanguard of his Jan Andolan (People’s Movement). Very few of the diehards are left to bear witness to his colossal fight for dignity, justice and the right of the Hindus to hold religious gatherings without seeking the permission of the Police.
Basdeo Bissoondoyal came back to Mauritius in 1939 after obtaining a BA from Punjab University and an MA from Calcutta University. He could have got a highly paid and secure job in the Public Service, but his elder brother Soogrim, the initiator of their social and religious commitment, passed away whilst he was in India. He and his younger brother Sookdeo therefore agreed that he would devote his time and energy on leading the Hindus to regain their dignity through a knowledge of their Scriptures, their culture and their language, whilst Sookdeo would work as a teacher and look after the needs of the joint family.
The task was not easy as he was also telling them to rise and stand up for their rights: ‘Sone walo jaag chalo’ was the song that started to reverberate throughout the island. The British authorities were not happy that his following was increasing rapidly. He refused to seek the permission of the Police to carry on his mission through discourses on the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita on the ground that Christian priests did not have to seek such permission. He was imprisoned four times for varying periods, but in 1944 when he was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour he began a hunger strike as he was not being treated as a Hindu priest. This became known to the public, which in turn stopped work in the sugar cane fields. The British Governor of the island could not restrain himself and made an outburst in the then Legislative Council in these terms:
‘My patience is wearing thin…..When I see the fields unweeded, in some places the cane uncut, when I hear of men sitting down for a whole day and doing no work because some convicted person is enjoying a hunger strike in jail, then I say to myself that the public of this Island must wake up to the reality of the dangers which threaten them not so much the Island as themselves’.
Dr Edgar Millien, who was Editor of the daily ‘L’Oeuvre’ gave him a fitting reply:
‘Nous ne sommes pas des sauvages ….Nous ne concevons pas qu’un officiel du pays, même le premier du pays, ait le droit de nous dire ce qu’il a choisi pour nous, de nous insulter et de nous menacer…’
The reactions forced Governor MacKenzie Kennedy to backtrack. The Regulations on holding public discourses on religious matters were repealed and Basdeo Bissondoyal set free.
One year earlier, in 1943, he had organized a Maha Yaj, officiated by Swami Hari Har Ayar of the Sockalingum Meenatchee Amen Temple. The authorities had cancelled all trains, the only mode of public transport as there were no buses then, Still the people came from all over Mauritius — in bullock carts and lorries, on bicycles and even on foot from far-away villages. A crowd of anything between 40,000 and 60,000, never seen before had gathered in Port Louis. The only person of Indian origin who had a loudspeaker system was Dawood Patel. The authorities put pressure on him not to provide the loudspeaker system for the occasion. He refused, which was not easy in the colonial days. If he had, the Maha Yaj would have been a fiasco. Everything went well and took place in order, without the presence of the police force.
The well-known policy of divide and rule did not work. Rene Noyau wrote ‘Le Proces Bissoondoyal’ relating to the events of 1944. When some Hindus of Bihari origin wanted to put obstacles in his path, others came forward to help. The Tamils opened up their Kovil in Berthaud Ave, Quatre Bornes. This prompted the Soobarahs, early disciples of Jan Andolan, to put up their own Shivala with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in front. The Muslims of Triolet provided an alternative venue when some Hindus denied him access to their temple. Other prominent figures from different communities, like Dr Maurice Cure, also brought their support. Abdul Wahab Foondun, who had a BA (London) in French, Hindi and Urdu was a staunch member of the Jan Andolan. He was later elected in a Hindu constituency, which was used as an example to demolish the demand for separate lists of voters for different communities.
Sookdeo, the youger brother of Basdeo, resigned from the Education Department to give support to Basdeo. He organised a procession of bullock carts in 1946 to protest against the arrival of a boatload of white tourists from South Africa because of the policy of apartheid. It earned him his first imprisonment. In 1947 there was another big challenge to be met. The most popular horse racing event was not the Maiden Cup, but ‘Les Couses Malbar’. The Jan Andolan galvanized the public to boycott that event to show that they had their dignity. The boycott was a resounding success, and ‘Les Courses Malbar’ disappeared from the horse racing calendar.
The next important step was going to be the new general elections based only on electors being able to write their name in a language currently spoken and written in Mauritius. Hundreds of schools were opened and volunteers of the Jan Andolan along with others taught thousands of people how to write their names in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and Urdu. When the results of the 1948 elections were declared, 11 out of the 19 elected members of the new Legislative Assembly were Hindus.
After the 1948 general elections, Basdeo concentrated his efforts on delivering discourses and sermons, and on reading and writing, leaving the purely political field to Sookdeo. He had booklets on the top Indian fighters for reforms and freedom, as well as little known Mauritian fighters like Jacmin, Tabardin and Remy Ollier. These booklets were sold for 5 or 10 cents to make them available to the maximum number of people. But he also published books with such titles as ‘Hindu Scriptures’, ‘India in French Literature’, ‘The Truth about Mauritius’ and dozens of others which were published by well-known publishers in India, England and France.
He would continue to live simply as he had always done, eating what was brought before him, and not asking for anything else, He had an open door policy, and people from all over the island would come to see him, talk and discuss with him in the little verandah, surrounded by books. He even refused the offer brought to him by Harish Boodhoo, the then Deputy Prime Minister after the general elections of 1982, to become the first President of a contemplated Republic of Mauritius. He preferred to continue leading his simple way of life.
* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016