The Many Meanings of Independence in 1967

Just as those who experienced slavery knew best what a slave regime was about, similarly the generation who voted for independence viewed it differently from what historians sometimes write about

Election in Mahebourg

For the elections of August 1967, all political parties regularly held open-air meetings throughout the island to campaign for or against independence. In one of those meetings, held near the historical museum at Mahebourg, one of the speakers of the Independence Party might have indulged in some unusual rhetorical flourish. When the meeting came to an end, a labourer in the audience perhaps half- mockingly told his friends to get their boundary stones ready. He was referring to one of the promises made during the meeting that independence was going to bring about a redistribution of land, particularly sugar estate lands.

Whether or not labourers believed in that promise is not known, but a sense of redistributive justice was deeply ingrained in the minds of not only labourers but also many other people who voted for independence. A sense of justice and freedom was just one of the meanings people attached to independence; there were many more. The debates on independence at another level – amongst the elite – focused on the economic and political aspects. However many of these issues inevitably trickled down to the grassroots, as there was no firm dividing line between the elite and the masses, yet the masses in the materiality of their daily lives had their own ways of giving meanings to the independence struggle. In this article an attempt will be made to capture some of the meanings or even the motivations behind the Independence vote in the village of Mahebourg in 1967.

Election 1967 in Mahebourg

The vote being secret, it is impossible to know for whom one votes in an election. Nevertheless in a small village which was a face-to-face community and where interethnic relations were intense, one was aware of each other’s political views and attitudes and these were voiced openly, vociferously and most often amicably. Even when some ethnic conflict was foisted on the local community, as in 1965 by the PMSD, the antagonism remained brief and artificial thanks to close economic and social networks. The fishermen depended on the middleman for the sale of fish who in turn depended on many fishmongers from different ethnic groups. For example, when a group of supporters of the PMSD attacked cinemagoers watching a Hindi film in the Odeon picture house, one of the attackers branded a long knife and when he recognized a cake vendor he knew personally, he just pushed him aside with the side of his knife and simply shouted at him to go home without any intention of harming him. The attacker was one of the few who led a life halfway between a tramp and a hanger-on and could be easily exploited by some to pick up a fight for just a pint of wine. He was also the one who provoked a scuffle at a labour meeting and harmed Inspector Radhakrishna of the local police station.

I have chosen the village of Mahebourg, which is familiar to me, and my account is a personal one, based on personal reminiscences and encounters and in no way comes near to reflecting a broader picture of political attitudes of the village population nationwide. Mahebourg is a small village, multi-ethnic and muti-religious. It’s probably the only village which can boast the largest number of religious premises: from an Anglican Church to a Telugu Mandiramu and a Tamil Kovil, established by the some Tamil merchants at the entrance of the village in the wake of the cholera epidemic of 1854. Most of the major families had been living there for more than a century, and one Indian family had already settled there in 1814. While there are one or two locations which had a predominantly ethnic colour, the village was very heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity and class. It forms part of one of the three constituencies which voted labour in 1967, each of them returning a member of the General Population, namely Harold Walter for Mahebourg, Marcel Mason for Vacoas-Floreal and Raymond Rault for Port-Louis North-Montagne Longue.

In the village of Mahebourg, as distinct from the constituency proper, voting in August 1967 was informed by ethnicity, party alignment and class. Irrespective of ethnic community, labourers, mostly employed on sugar estates in Riche-En-Eau, Ferney or Beau-Vallon voted labour. Most of them lived in the northern part of Mahebourg – from Beau Vallon up to the Roman Catholic Church. The employees of CEB and the artisan class in the Public Works Department, where there was a predominance of the general population, as well as those in the hospital establishment voted Labour and were among the staunch supporters of Harold Walter and Lutchmeeparsad Badry. One should not overlook the fact that Harold Walter had been a strong Minister of the Labour government since 1959, Minister of works and later Minister of Health, and above all the most powerful orator of the Mauritius Labour Party and a most trusted colleague of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.

Factors influencing the vote

There was unmistakably in those days a strong element of clientelism and class support for Labour Party that sometimes coincided with ethnicity, but that was not always the case. The Labour government had put in place a number of measures in favour of the working classes. In 1959, labourers invariably cheered up the orators of the labour party when the implementation of Wages Council was announced at a meeting at Willoughby Government School. Labourers working in the sugar industry also benefited from the introduction of ‘cartes de travail’. As a result they were no longer laid off during the inter-crop season as was the practice in the past. Labourers who fulfilled a presence rate of 80% during the crop season were entitled to work during the intercrop and, in 1963, they benefited from a 23% increase in real wages following the implementation Chesworth Report. Moreover the ‘Travail pour Tous’ programme provided employment to hundreds of workers in the villages since 1963.

For a majority of labourers in Mahebourg, the choice was clear when it came to voting for the labour Party team led by Harold Walter, or Cyril Guimbeau, the PMSD candidate who in the eyes of the electorate was the very personification of an oligarchy that they abhorred. At a private meeting in a club where Guimbeau was allowed to speak, one labourer lashed at the club’s executive members for giving permission to one who belonged to ‘those who had exploited our women and sisters in the past’ to address the audience. On another occasion, a sirdar furiously withdrew his hand for a handshake with Guimbeau possibly out of some kind of deference or simply because he felt that the divide between ‘us and them’ was too wide to be bridged by such a gesture.

Some form of clientelism existed on the other side of the divide. Pressure on the artisan class in the sugar industry might have deterred them from openly expressing their political preferences. But many of the independent craftsmen, workers and fishermen or those closely connected with the fishing sector were the staunch supporters of the PMSD. So were also a handful of the coloured population employed in the supervisory class in the sugar industry. Many bus industry workers, employed in the Savanne Bus Service Company, drawn largely from the Muslim community opted to vote for the PMSD, visibly on ethnic lines. However its middle class, predominantly a merchant class, was divided and many supported the Muslim Committee of Action or the Labour Party though one among them was a chief agent of the PMSD. After the elections, he lodged a case challenging the results of the election and Walter pompously and arrogantly dismissed his action as the move of a peanut vendor who dared challenge him in court.

Indian Independence Day

Though the Catholic Church remained officially neutral, the members of its parish committee, drawn mainly from the top of the sugar hierarchy, were pro-PMSD. For members of the Arya Samaj branch, independence could not be anything but good for the country. Every year they usually held a procession from the Museum to the Arya Samaj School near Ville-Noire with children and women carrying the Indian Tricolour to celebrate Indian Independence Day.

For people who had welcomed the independence of India, which was associated with the names of Gandhi and Nehru whom many venerated, the independence of Mauritius was viewed as a great liberating moment. I use the term ‘venerated’ for, at one time, there was a statue of Gandhi in the yard of the Mariamen Kovil at Albion Docks, Port Louis, at whose feet people used to burn camphor. Similarly, in the Tamil Kovil at Mahebourg, one part of a wall was adorned with a framed map of India with the picture of Gandhi in the middle surrounded with about a hundred miniature photographs of congressmen who had participated in the Indian independence movement.

If the Arya samajists were overwhelmingly pro-independence, there was one staunch Arya samjist, a very well known Tamil teacher, who returned to orthodoxy and sought to win over the local Tamil community to the PMSD cause because one of his close relatives was standing as the PMSD candidate in Grand Bay-Poudre d’Or. He managed to split, though temporarily, the Beau Vallon Tamil Kovil into two different societies. That split resulted for some time in both societies organising separately their Cavadee processions — one drawing a larger crowd than the other, the dissenting one supported by a smaller group. However, by 1965, the two associations were merged again, but the Tamil teacher retained the support of about 10 families belonging to his association while it was the 90 or more families of the larger association which retained the ultimate control of the Kovil and who remained firmly on the side of labour.

These few reminiscences may help to remind us that the independence issue had many meanings at the ground level. Historians often fail to peep into the minds and actions of the common people for a number of reasons, and their focus on documents of the colonial archives gives only a very partial and often distorted picture of events. Just as those who experienced slavery knew best what a slave regime was about, similarly the generation who voted for independence viewed independence differently from what historians sometimes write about. For many, it meant liberation from the economic, political and social conditions of the time but it also amounted to a cultural liberation after colonialism and the plantation capitalism had destroyed their language, religion and cultural values. One hopes that many could come with their own reminiscences to shed light on the independence issue at the grassroots level and provide a corrective to our fetishism for documents.


* Published in print edition on 16 February 2018

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