Celebrating the birth anniversary of Prof Basdeo Bissoondoyal
By Paramanund Soobarah
Those who recognize and recall the contribution of Prof Bissoondoyal (1906-1991) to the welfare of the Indo-Mauritian community were overjoyed with the Government’s initiative to celebrate his birth anniversary. A plaque was installed and inaugurated at the spot near Marie Reine de la Paix in Port Louis where, on 12 December 1943, the Professor held a mammoth gathering of Indo-Mauritians to preach self-respect and self-worth to them, urging them not to succumb to the then widely spread belief that they were uncultured and uncivilized, and whose souls were in urgent need of saving.
The youth of today do not have to fight for dignity and their place in the sun. It was not always like this. To have some idea of what life was like for their recent ancestors, they can refer to first few pages of the second volume of Sydney Selvon’s A New Comprehensive History of Mauritius. Those pages relate to the first decade of the twentieth century.
There was little improvement during the ensuing two decades, even if there was a beginning of social awakening with the action of Manilal Doctor, a voluntary Indian social worker who came from India at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi to help the Indo-Mauritian community, and the founding of the Arya Samaj to spread the message of Swami Dayanand. But the Indian community’s fight for dignity really began in earnest in 1939 with Prof Basdeo Bissoondoyal’s return to the country after his studies in India. He came with a mission: he devoted his life entirely to the uplift of the community, taking no employment and no income from the government or the private sector. He spent the rest of his life preaching from the Holy Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and teaching Hindi and Sanskrit (he was an outstanding Sanskrit scholar). He dubbed his movement the Jan Andolan.
He survived on the meagre collections at the end of his sermons, and the sale of his weekly, the Zamana, and other printed material – all of which were on religious themes. It does not take much imagination to realise how painful his life must have been, particularly with a growing family to feed, and more particularly after brother Sookdeo quit his job of Primary School Head-Teacher to join him in his social action. To survive Sookdeo also engaged in teaching – English, French and Mathematics in his case. Not all their pupils were fee-paying; I know, because I had three years of Hindi tuition from Prof Basdeo and two years of English, French and Maths from Hon Sookdeo, and my father never paid a cent.
Politically, a little like legendary younger brother Lakshman, brother Sookdeo was quick-tempered, and all who did not abide by his very strict standards were “traitors”; but his values were exactly those brother Prof Basdeo, based on morality, integrity and above all, totally removed from corruption. He worked hard to advance the social and educational aims of his brother Basdeo, holding meetings all over the country. One point on which both supporters and opponents seem to agree is that, for the 1948 election for which a simple literacy test in any any language had been prescribed, the campaign of education in Indian languages that the Jan Andolan conducted significantly helped to increase the number of voters – from 12,000 to nearly 72,000.
The Independent Forward Bloc
In parallel with the Professor’s social action, brother Sookdeo founded and led a political movement, which culminated in a political party, the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB). That was the party which Anerood Jugnauth (later Sir, and Prime Minister) and the elder Mr Foondun, Ahad Foondun’s father, joined and in which they got elected in 1963. Sadly, as almost always happens in such cases, the success of the Bissoondoyals attracted some unease; they were also anti-British in their outlook: Prof Basdeo had been in India during the harshest days of the Indian Independence struggle; he was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he emulated, and of Subhas Chandra Bose who was actually fighting the British alongside the Japanese in Burma.
The views and actions of the Bissoondoyals did not go down well with the ruling power then engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Axis powers in Europe and with Japan in the Pacific and South-East Asia. (The “Axis powers” formally took the name after the Tripartite Pact was signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan on 27 September 1940, in Berlin. The pact was subsequently joined by Hungary (20 November 1940), Romania (23 November 1940), Slovakia (24 November 1940), and Bulgaria (1 March 1941.)
Here in Mauritius an ugly propaganda campaign was launched against the brothers who were alleged to be betraying the community while enriching themselves – this at a time when they were not sure of putting food on the table for their children. after the war, which ended with the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic devices by the US in August 1945, things returned practically to normal, except that the British administrators ruling the country remained more favourable to Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his Labour Party, keeping the Bissoondoyal brothers at arm’s length as much as possible. The rest is History.
Where did the MBC go wrong?
About the only thing the MBC got right was the title. Nobody will accept for a minute that Ahad Foondun, Surendra Bissoondoyal and the other speakers did not know what they were talking about. Those who wrote the script seemingly did not attend the lecture and don’t know the least thing about the recent history of the country. For many at the MBC, history began in June 1982. All the details – even the dates of birth and death – read out by the news anchor related to Hon Sookdeo Bissoodoyal and not to the Professor. It was not a report about the Professor as announced. Even the date on which the elder Mr Foondun, the main speaker’s father, joined the Legislative Council was wrongly stated.
I join all admirers of the Professor in expressing anger and disappointment at such sloppy work. What sort of history are we teaching to our children?
I seize this opportunity to also express my deep frustration and severe pain about another point concerning the MBC. The newsreaders for Hindi and Bhojpuri programmes systematically pronounce all Hindu and Muslim names with Creole sounds. This is an affront against decency. The many Speaking Unions that we have (Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bhojpuri, etc.) should attend to this matter urgently. We also have a Ministry of Arts and Culture, don’t we? What would our Creole compatriots say if all the names in their language were to be pronounced with Hindi or Urdu sounds in French or Creole programmes?
* Published in print edition on 26 April 2019