India-Mauritius: Strategic high roads

While the cultural and emotional ties were deepened by MEA Swaraj’s impeccable performance around the Indentured Labour heritage, Mauritian authorities will no doubt feel enthused by the message that the strong traditional partnership between the two countries can take the strategic high roads again

The multi-fold commemorations that took place last weekend with special guest Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Minister for External Affairs (MEA), held much cause for satisfaction. The arrival of intrepid “indentured” labourers who survived the atrocious ship-hold sea-travel conditions to land at the Immigration or Coolie depot at Trou Fanfaron, has been poignantly described in Amitav Ghosh’s popular novel ‘Sea of Poppies’. Others have added their contribution to the epic story.

MEA Sushma Swaraj was here as Chief Guest to mark the 180th anniversary of the first arrival of such indentured labour on 2nd November 1834. It is a moment of reflection on the remarkable strength, character and resilience of those who, from landing times through three or more generations, have survived the institutional violence, the traumas and tragedies, to help shape the island’s destiny without setting the country ablaze in the quest for dignity that was to be embodied in political emancipation and national sovereignty.

It is a saga that is not only of primary memorial significance for their descendants and the Indian Diaspora here. The indentured labour phenomenon was of massive significance in the birth of globalised production, trade, commerce of agricultural produce and non-agricultural raw materials, with the associated development of financial and banking services, free trade and capitalism.

Gold, precious stones, tea, cane sugar, cotton, silk and a variety of spices were already being traded through the “Silk Road” and some outposts on the Chinese and Indian coastlines. The pre-colonial Indian sub-continent was politically divided but economically, a vast, industrious and rich resource centre, responsible for a quarter or more of all international production and trade. Peasants then had means and livelihoods not dissimilar to their European counterparts.

Colonisation was to dramatically alter the scene as immense stretches of land were converted from staple food to cash crop cultivation for the monopolistic profits of East India Company or the British trading houses. Kicked out of the US (Boston Tea Party leading to Independence in 1776), they focused their energies on the systematic exploitation of the vast riches of the Indian sub-continent with the active collaboration of an expansionist Victorian administration. A region divided along many lines (political, regional, linguistic and religious) was too frail to oppose the might of the growing Empire and its “divide and rule” philosophy.

The mass cultivation of poppy, production and export of opium became a prime source of British trading wealth, justifying the infamous Opium Wars to force open China to this damaging trade. Tea, cotton, silk, spices, cane sugar and minerals trade took Imperial importance, India becoming a formidable “jewel” in the British Crown. Forced monopolies, iniquitous laws and taxes generated huge trading “Noble House” profits that needed to be re-invested and financed more profits from UK’s cotton-based industrial revolution and the expansion of the Victorian Empire elsewhere around the globe.

In India itself, the combined effect of British Raj policies was to throw millions of peasants, village folk and peri-urban poor into sub-poverty and marginal food survival states. The least climate disruption would lead to massive famine and epidemic outbursts met by a cynical administrative “laissez-faire”. More than thirty million are reputed to have died of starvation under the two centuries of colonial rule in India.

It is on this backdrop that countless hundreds of thousands were marshalled into the indentured labour route destined to replace slave labour in the Empire’s distant plantation economies. In 1834, Mauritius became the “great experiment” in forced labour migration that was to be replicated elsewhere. Our historical, cultural and economic ties have roots that reach deep into our shared psyche.

Surprisingly there is little documented research towards an unbiased assessment of that major colonial enterprise and its impact on wealth distribution and accumulation in “developed countries” while the rest of the world dwindled into “third world” impoverishment. The approval by UNESCO of the International Indentured Labour Route project, headquartered in Mauritius, with strong support from India’s able representatives, and the first International meet around that event launched by MEA Sushma Swaraj, deserves commending as a seminal turning-point.

It should aspire to draw up Secretariat structure, international coordination mechanisms, establish operational budgets, identify funding sources and define a road map of key research themes and priorities. Mauritius must be the only country in the world to boast of two key World Heritage Sites, both intimately related to the worldwide colonial enterprise, the emblematic slavery-resistance site at Le Morne and the Aapravasi Ghat.

The Indian dignitary was also invited to officially open the Aapravasi Ghat resource centre, aptly named after Beekrumsing Ramlallah, whose unflinching commitment to that cause and the socio-political battles for upliftment and dignity have been amply demonstrated and commented upon. It should become a living landmark for all Mauritian students and an informative attraction for visitors and tourists.

But beyond the importance of those commemorations, MEA Sushma Swaraj was also awaited on other significant diplomatic fronts. Despite former Indian PM Manmohan Singh repeated reassurances, relations with Port-Louis had been allowed by UPA and its former Finance Minister to drift into an unproductive quagmire, if not downright animosity, over technical issues surrounding double taxation agreement between the two nations. As the UPA meandered into inconsequential strategic regional relations, China, as one of the world’s new superpowers, was not averse to float out concrete signals of friendship and assistance in the Indian Ocean. Modi’s storm-blazing electoral campaign had been followed with considerable interest from Mauritian shores and clearly political signals were awaited from the new NDA government. They came.

The immediate one was the special invitation of Mauritius PM Navin Ramgoolam to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. After personal exchanges at the highest levels, MEA Swaraj’s first overseas visit seems to confirm a commitment from Modi’s New Delhi that both countries need to deepen and consolidate their special relationship. MEA Swaraj duly announced collaboration to resolve fiscal and double taxation issues in a new spirit. She also announced a series of productive proposals regarding the PIO cardholders and visa travel requirements. India has much to offer in maritime security and research of the economic potential of our extensive maritime economic zone. Significantly, MEA Swaraj visit was accompanied by the presence of three frigates of the Indian Naval Services which berthed in Port Louis harbour. On the economic cooperation front, MEA Swaraj confirmed that India would extend a massive twenty billion rupee line of credit on easy terms to finance much of the Mauritian light rail project, a contract won by Indian giant Afcons after a two-year bid evaluation process.

While the cultural and emotional ties were deepened by MEA Swaraj’s impeccable performance around the Indentured Labour heritage, Mauritian authorities will no doubt feel enthused by the message that the strong traditional partnership between the two countries can take the strategic high roads again.


* Published in print edition on 7  November 2014

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