SSR & The Struggle for Independence

By Anand Mulloo

To grasp the significance of what SSR did to transform Mauritius from a backward, underdeveloped plantation colony into a viable, independent, democratic country, first of all we shall have to cast a look backward into the colony of Mauritius in the 1920s and 30s.

The Colonial Order

Simply and graphically put, Mauritius was governed by a few British officials in alliance with a handful of rich Franco-Mauritian planters, called the Oligarchy. Under the colonial order, the Oligarchy formed the ruling class which meant that they controlled everything including the instruments of government, that is, the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary, the police, the all-powerful Church, commerce, industry, the banks, import and export. In short, they controlled everything and acted as the masters.

The young Ramgoolam, known as Kewal, had been profoundly hurt when he witnessed the social cruelties rampant in that colonial society. At the Royal College where he completed his secondary education he developed a profound liking for English and English Literature, which he saw as the keys that opened the doors to personal development and social emancipation. Thus when he went to study medicine in London, he delved deeper into English Literature and developed a life-consuming passion for the democratic and socialist values of the Labour Party.

He absorbed the finer intellectual values of British culture. He struck bonds of friendship with many British academicians and politicians who would later assist him in achieving his ultimate goal of bringing freedom to his country. He attended literary and political debates where he learned to appreciate both sides of an argument. This taught him the value of respecting the opinions of his opponents in the search for truth and a working compromise. Thus, he avoided all forms of extremism and fanaticism. He was impressed by the learning of the debaters, including great British writers, professors and theoreticians, namely George Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy and Harold Laski among others.

The Task Ahead

As a keen observer of social life, he could see the huge contrast in standards of living enjoyed by the British citizens as compared to the miserable lives of his compatriots. The conditions of the masses were deplorable. They were malnourished, sickly, underpaid, exploited, fearful, illiterate, ill-clad, ill-housed and living like beggars at the mercy of the Oligarchy. He knew that the aim of the Oligarchy was to maintain the status quo and keep the subordinate classes in conditions of permanent servility, with the Indian labourers quartered in the primitive estate camps as their prisoners, a source of cheap labour.

He knew that so long as the Oligarchy benefited from the support of the British colonial government, they would remain invincible. It was clear to him that the only way to uproot the Oligarchy from power would be to win over the British through a long-term, patient policy of courting the British and thus forging a rift between the two ruling classes. To him, London was like an open university where he patiently set out to amass a wealth of learning and knowledge from all quarters, from books, the press, the BBC, from fellow students drawn from Africa, the colonies, and with whom he built lasting bridges of friendship.

He developed a deep respect and understanding of parliamentary democracy which he wished to install in his country as a weapon to fight the autocrats. He knew that he had to master more than just the ingredients of western knowledge and that the wisest course would be to walk along the pragmatic, non-violent Gandhian path of using superior knowledge and wisdom while avoiding open confrontation that would give his enemies an excuse to finish him off. History was to prove him right as he was later to witness the sad demise of Dr Maurice Cure who, as president of the Mauritius Labour Party, had made the mistake of fighting two powerful enemies at the same time.

As we shall see in the following paragraphs there is absolute consistency and continuity in SSR’s struggle in attaining his long-term objective of liberating his country though he had to navigate through stormy seas and make a number of compromises — but he went right ahead until he reached his ultimate goal.

He joined in the struggle of the Indian students in London where he learnt the value of pragmatism and the avoidance of all forms of bigotry and rigidity. He chose to adopt the Gandhian and Nehruvian policy of non-violence and tolerance that taught him the value of blending the learning of the west with the ingredients of Indian culture and civilization. He developed a life-long admiration for the great Indian leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel. This was an eye-opening discovery, which would later help him to replace the arrogant, intolerant, inhuman culture of the Oligarchy by a more humane, democratic, egalitarian Mauritian culture made up of the best from the East and the West. He would open the way to a permanent cultural revolution by replacing the stagnant colonial order with all its savagery and barbarity by a dynamic, democratic, progressive, universal culture, the way it had been envisaged by Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and other Indian National Congress leaders.

Accede to the Political Kingdom, First!

Equipped with those great ideas, Dr Ramgoolam returned to Mauritius by the end of 1935 with the strong determination that his long-term target was to capture political power. He knew that he was up against ruthless opponents who would stop at nothing to destroy him. He decided to proceed wisely and cautiously, minding every step of the way in order achieve his far-sighted goal of attaining power.

A man of patience, perseverance and determination, he started on his long journey of constructing a new democratic society by dismantling a past, decadent, colonial society that ruled over the subordinate classes through the weapons of fear, racism, domination and superiority complex. Now, how could he reverse the colonial order? What follows is an attempt to follow some of the steps that Ramgoolam took to transform this plantation colony into a democratic, modern society.

Reversing the Colonial Order

As an astute student of politics, he understood that the colonial order rested on the false premises of racism and the monopoly of power in the hands of the Oligarchy, which was only interested in staying eternally in power and keeping the rest of the population in a state of darkness and servitude. He set out his reformist ideas in his famous article entitled ‘Sons of Immigrants’ on the occasion of the centenary celebration of the arrivals of Indians in Mauritius, in 1935. He gathered around him a set of like-minded, forward-looking British-educated friends, including Rampersad Neerunjhun, RK Boodhun, K. Hazareesingh, AR Osman in the Indian Cultural Association so that they could storm into the British colonial administration and show the Colonial government that there was an emerging alternative to the Oligarchy.

He also castigated the apathy and fatalism of the Indian labourers and urged them to give up their feudal ideas, customs and traditions and to step forward into the modern age by espousing change. He started by building a series of forward-looking allies by backing the reformist Arya Samaj which took a progressive stand and which focused on promoting education, the rejection of dead traditions and the acceptance of social change and progress. But it was in 1940 that he made his dramatic entry into politics by getting elected into the Municipal Council of Port Louis, by founding the progressive daily newspaper, Advance, and by being nominated into the Legislative Council.

Henceforth, under the pen-name of Thumb Mark II, he wrote a series of strong editorials, resonant with British political ideas that exerted tremendous influence both at the Government House and in the Colonial Office. He argued in favour of giving the vote to the masses who had risen against exploitation in 1937 at Central Flacq and in 1943 at Belle Vue Harel as amply demonstrated by the Hooper Commission and the Moody Commission. He urged the colonial government to put an end to the systematic exploitation of the workers of this country by giving them the right to vote so that they could choose their representatives to the Council to defend their legitimate rights against their historical oppressors. From 1945 to 47, at the end of World War II, he stood up as the leader of the progressive forces in the Consultative Committee for the Revision of the Constitution, chaired by Governor Sir Donald Mackenzie Kennedy.

His monumental victory came in 1947 when he won the battle for the vote with the obtention of Literacy Suffrage, by which the right to vote was granted to those who could read and write their names in any existing languages used in this colony. He had won the historical victory that would help him to oust the Oligarchy from power. This was confirmed in August 1948 with the first general election which gave the majority to the progressive Mauritius Labour Party, reorganized by 1952 under the tripartite leadership of Rozemont, Seeneevassen and Ramgoolam. But the colonial government neutralized the majority of the Labour representatives in the Council by appointing a battery of nominees and officials. Nevertheless, the MLP pushed forward with socialist measures to improve the lot of the masses.

The Battle for Universal Suffrage and Responsible Government

But Ramgoolam had his sight on further constitutional changes. From then onward, the battle raged around the MLP’s demand for the grant of Universal Suffrage or the right of vote for every Mauritian citizen above the age of 21. Having been beaten in the first round of the constitutional battle, the Oligarchy was determined to oppose any attempt likely to strengthen democracy in the colony and which might further weaken their hold on power. They used the reactionary press, Le Cerneen, under the pen of NMU to vilify both Ramgoolam and the Labour Party.

Ramgoolam was depicted as a Bolshevist, a Hindu extremist who would impose Asiatic culture to replace western hegemony. In other words, the strategy of NMU was to dismantle the MLP by fomenting internal ethnic divisions and instigating an intense anti-Hindu hate campaign. He invited the minority groups, including caste and language groups to sever their ties with Labour and join the Oligarchy. He urged the Creoles to pull away from Labour and thereby strengthen the rule of the Oligarchy in the name of religion, belongingness to western culture, Catholicism and hegemony… The Oligarchy was backed by the Le Mauricien and Le Cerneen to the hilt.

It took almost a decade for the divide and rule strategy of NMU to sink into the racial and political consciousness of the people, thereby creating permanent ethnic cleavages, based on the concept of rallying the minorities against the majority community. However, it would take the combined Fascist strategy of the Oligarchy, the behind the scenes work of priests, the daily brainwashing of the reactionary press, the tacit support of the conservative lobby in the Colonial Office in London, the corrupting money power of the sugar barons to shake the Labour Party stronghold from its foundation.

The Parti Mauricien discarded Jules Koenig in favour of the emerging Gaetan Duval, its new populist and demagogical leader, who reorganized it as the PMSD in 1963. It succeeded to play with the religious allegiance of its followers to weaken the MLP by manipulating and misleading the Creole electorate with the promise of the unrealisable integration with Britain. Further, it bought off a number of Labour and trade union leaders, particularly after the death of Rozemont in 1956 and of Seeneevassen in 1958. Once the bulk of the Creoles had broken away from MLP, and some sections of the Hindu community had allied with PMSD, the battle became really tough for Ramgoolam.

But Ramgoolam had other cards up his sleeves. He had been slowly building a network of friends, academicians and supporters both at home and in the British Labour Party and among the colonial officials in Mauritius, who could take up his cause at Westminster and inside Government House.

Significantly enough, a batch of articulate British-educated Indo-Mauritian intellectuals and politicians, including his close associates like Ringadoo, Boolell, Walter, Burrenchobay, Jagatsingh supported Ramgoolam’s pro-English policy. A number of British experts like Meade, Titmuss, Prof De Smith came to draft epoch-making reports that outlined a forward-looking Mauritius well engaged on the road to democracy. In his hour of need, Ramgoolam found great support in Beekrumsing Ramlallah who led a vigorous battle for Universal Suffrage and Responsible Government in his combative weekly, Mauritius Times, in response to NMU’s racist, anti-Hindu hate campaign.

SSR’s Multiple Contributions

Nevertheless, through a succession of constitutional conferences, by 1957, Universal Suffrage and responsible government were granted. This meant that he had empowered every Mauritian above the age of 21 with the right to vote and choose their own representatives. Dr Ramgoolam ascended to power as the Chief Minister, later as Premier. In other words, he had ultimately attained the goal of establishing ministerial system. He had got rid, once for all, of the arbitrary power of the Oligarchy, set up the democratic system and placed Mauritius on a forward path among the free, respectable nations of the world.

However, the struggle of Ramgoolam for independence must be viewed in the wider context of world history. The granting of Universal Suffrage and Responsible Government was but the prelude to further constitutional development ahead. The historical Wind of Change speech of Harold Macmillan in 1960 accompanied with the liberation of 17 African colonies announced the winding up of British colonialism. Further, the impact of the Cold War and Kruschev’s installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 had changed the geo-political configuration in the Indian Ocean in the aftermath of the secret Anglo-American agreement to turn Diego Garcia into a nuclear base to counter Soviet nuclear threat. Alongside it was the pressure on Britain to liberate its colonies and leave the stage for confrontation between the two superpowers. Unwittingly, SSR was to become a victim of this superpower struggle when Harold Wilson twisted his arms into forgoing Diego Garcia in favour of independence in 1965.

After the 1965 conference at Lancaster House followed by the decisive 1967 election victory of the Independence Party, SSR became the Prime Minister of an independent country in March 1968. This was enshrined in the Constitution drafted by Prof De Smith and which defined the way the country would be governed according to law and which was based on the principles of fundamental human rights. When the press asked the Prime Minister to name what had been his greatest contribution to Mauritius, SSR stated that he had empowered the Mauritian citizens with their individual liberty.

As a matter of fact, even now when we look around us, millions of people in Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf countries, Latin America, even Madagascar are still fighting to obtain their liberties from the grips of dictators. One must realize that the most precious thing any citizen can claim to possess is his individual liberty, which is best guaranteed under an elected government headed by a prime minister and his cabinet of responsible ministers, as the one handed over by SSR. In a way, this constitutes his most precious legacy. As we all know, a democratic government is under pressure from the people, opposition and the press to deliver on all fronts. It has the duty to legislate for the welfare of the people and promote the overall development of the country in all key sectors, economic, education, health, infrastructure, social security and all the rest. In other words, a good government can only carry out development projects when it is freely elected by a people invested by the constitution according to the laws and principles of parliamentary democracy. And this is precisely what SSR has given to every citizen of this country.

* Published in print edition on 15 March 2013

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