Let there be light

If we are to protect and uphold the unalienable rights wrested by our oppressed forebears on the road to independence and re-establish the people’s paramount sovereignty over our democracy, this is the time to do so

Every year Government and the authorities diligently commemorate the anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured immigrants in Mauritius on 2 November 1834. On Sunday 2 November 2014, it will be the 180th anniversary of their arrival in Mauritius. What are we exactly commemorating? We know that the indentured labourers from India were not the first Indians to come to Mauritius. As from 1695, there is evidence of the presence of some slaves from India during the Dutch period.

During the French period, Indian slaves, skilled artisans from Pondicherry and Konkan carpenters arrived as from 1728 and were used in the construction of Port Louis by Mahe de Labourdonnais. Indian sepoys helped the British conquer Mauritius in December 1810 and as from 1816, Indian convicts were used during the British period as forced labour to undertake the public works and road building of the time on the island till 1837. They belong to our common heritage.

What is important to remember is that during half of the 180 years i.e. 90 years from 1834 to 1924 when the widely decried Indian indentured immigrant system was abolished by the Government of India, the Indian immigrants lured by promises of a better life in Mauritius and their descendants were subjected to an abject system of human servitude and a shameful exploitation by their planter employers with the ignoble connivance of the British colonial establishment in Mauritius. Far from buckling under the combined might of the sugar oligarchy and the British colonial authorities, the labourers showed tremendous fortitude and solidarity to bravely and tirelessly fight for their rights against formidable odds and devious stratagems.

As Indians were citizens of British India, the Government of India enacted Emigration Acts to establish the conditions of transit aboard ships and the terms of the contract of work of the indentured labourers as well as provisions for their return passage. The Emigration Acts provided that a designated Protector of Immigrants (usually a senior Police officer) in the selected ports earmarked for the embarkation of emigrants in India would first ascertain that prescribed conditions of travel aboard ships concerning space, diet, rations, medical supplies, the services of a medical officer and an adequate number of women in each consignment were respected before issuing emigration permits. The Protector also had to ensure that work contracts which as per law were to be lodged with him comprised a monthly salary, agreed rations, return passage as well as the provision of a hospital and lodging on estates.

Muscles and Sinews

However, during the 90 years that the Indian indentured system was in operation, the promises made were never honoured as the white planters continuously watered down the agreed terms of employment including wages of Rs 5 per month which they found excessive through sly ploys and gambits aided and abetted by the colonial establishment. The latter passed, at the behest of the cane planters, shameful laws such as the double cut system whereby a planter employer was allowed to cut two days pay for a day’s absence which was insidiously extended to encompass all possible offences real or imagined with the result that the labourer found himself ‘robbed’ of a large portion of his hard earned wages. They also controlled the movements of the labourer through a pass system and restricted their visits to relatives residing on other estates.

The upshot was that the Indian labourers who, through their disciplined and diligent hard work, are credited by the Chamber of Agriculture to be ‘the source of our agricultural prosperity’ have been systematically short-changed in their earnings and unalienable rights. Rev Patrick Beaton (Minister of the Church of Scotland in Mauritius) speaking of the Indian immigrants wrote in 1859: ‘These swarthy Orientals are the muscles and sinews of Mauritius body politic. They are the secret source of all the wealth, luxury and splendour with which the island abounds’ and towards the acquisition of which ‘the Indian has, by his labour, indirectly contributed… Respect that swarthy stranger, for without him Mauritius would soon be stripped of its wealth.’

Instead, the sugar planters working hand in glove with the colonial establishment were intent on imposing a new form of slavery on free workers. The unjust and repressive system was robustly combated by the Indian labourers. In those 90 years, the plight of the Indian indentured labourers in Mauritius was a woeful continuous cycle of broken promises, repeated reneging of contractual terms agreed and consequent angry protests by them. Each wave of revolt raised concerns in India and Britain and in the British Parliament leading to the setting up of successive Commissions of Enquiry, Committees and Royal Commissions who made fresh recommendations.

New legislations were enacted to protect the immigrant workers’ rights which were again flouted by the sugar planters leading to fresh protests and new commissions of enquiry. This ignoble cycle of systemic duplicity was finally broken by Kunwar Maharaj Singh, the first Indian official to be sent by the Government of India to Mauritius in December 1924 to enquire into the conditions of Indian labourers in the country. He was appalled by the general conditions of the workers, the hovels they lived in on the estates, at the scant medical care and the employment of children in factories. He made a series of recommendations to address these shortcomings in his report. As a consequence, the Indian indentured immigrant system was ended forthwith.

However, as the indentured system was not abolished, the general conditions of employment and exploitation as well as the status of the fundamental rights of the people were largely unchanged. This led to the sugar industry labour unrest in 1937. As a result, a new labour law was enacted in 1938 finally breaking away from the framework of indenture and assuring the protection of the payment of wages and working hours under the aegis of a newly set up Labour Department. The battle for fundamental rights provoked the unrest of 1943. The rising clamour for constitutional change led to the introduction of a new Constitution in 1948 providing for literacy franchise and general elections won by the Labour Party in that year. This opened the way towards the independence of the country.

For 134 of those 180 years until independence in 1968, the Indian indentured immigrants and their descendants endured and relentlessly fought against an oppressive and inequitable system bent on bridling their rights and systematically exploiting them. It is therefore not surprising that driven by the kinship of so many common battles fought against the sugar oligarchy and the colonial powers that most descendants of indentured immigrants voted massively in favour of independence for the country at the 1967 general elections. In spite of being rivals during previous elections, the Labour Party, the Independent Forward Bloc and the Comite d’Action Musulman joined hands to form the Independence Party to win freedom after decades of oppression and exploitation of generations of indentured labourers, at the crucial 1967 elections.

After independence there was no witch-hunt or a vengeful program of confiscation of land and other assets as in Uganda by Amin Dada or Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Governed by their traditional tolerant ethos, the majority who won independence turned the page on the sufferings and infamies of the past, confident that they remain vigilant and ready to defend their rights should circumstances warrant it.

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New vision, democratic legacy & 44%

 A new vision

We seem to fear the teaching of history in secondary schools. Nobody can escape the cold and objective judgement of history. Isn’t it time to have a re-think about the best manner to keep alive the history and multifaceted dimensions of the Indian indentured immigrant lineage and heritage for present and future generations? This is too important a cause for us not to mobilise the best resources and intellect available to brainstorm an imaginative way forward. Beyond the various laudable initiatives being taken in this respect, it is for example time for us to conceive and create a comprehensive and dedicated museum which would showcase akin to the story of sugar at L’Aventure du Sucre, with the support of interactive media tools the history and many facets of the culture and lives of the Indian indentured immigrant diaspora in Mauritius, in the ex-colonies and across the world.

Beyond the simple historical facts and chattel used or varied cuisine, research should show light on such diverse and esoteric aspects of their lives such as the prevailing Panchayat system brought by them from India to arbitrate differences, the template used for the vivid preservation and propagation of language, faith, traditions and culture or the living conditions in a sugar estate camp or the bonding, kinship, solidarity and organization of the indentured labourer fraternity to fight for their rights in the face of common trials and tribulations or trace the genealogy of lost cousins scattered in the ex-colonies, etc.

Such a project must also include the Indo-Christians and those who recognize their Indian origin. It is equally important that GOPIO be revisited to turn it into a more vibrant platform of cultural, business, academic, professional and people to people interface among the descendants of the indentured diaspora. Such a platform will unleash multiple opportunities in a broad spectrum of activities. It is time for this rich heritage to be brought to light and for the diaspora to connect in an imaginative and synergic mode with their roots. Let’s make it happen.

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Safeguarding our democratic legacy

Our democracy which our forebears vigorously battled for and fashioned in a collegial manner is under serious threat by the constitutional and electoral reforms bilaterally agreed between the two leaders of the Labour-MMM alliance without seeking and obtaining the legitimacy of the people’s assent through the due process of referendums. The reforms being proposed do not mirror our collective democratic ethos but that of Napoleon’s Animal Farm.

The leader of the MMM has been able to obtain the agreement of the Prime Minister and the Labour Party for the introduction of a dose of proportional representation (PR) to bend the prevailing rules of elections through 20 PR nominees to the National Assembly and tip the scales of the election outcome as was the case in colonial times. This has been done with the support of the Prime Minister who has been voted three times to power by the electorate. Has the fort been invested from within?

It is crucial to remember that if the Labour-MMM alliance were to obtain a three quarters majority at the forthcoming polls and have the proposed constitutional and electoral changes voted, these changes will become irreversible as it would be quasi impossible to obtain the required majority in an enlarged National Assembly to undo them. The electorate and our democracy once again face a momentous election which requires the collective judiciousness of the people’s vote (and veto) to thwart such an outcome.

As expected, the electoral debate is deliberately sidetracking the core issue of the serious threats posed to our democracy by the proposed constitutional reforms. Instead, the debate has already sunk to abysmal depths of sordidness. Worse, communal angst was being stoked recently in the context of a religious festival in a condemnable bid to obtain votes whilst extolling unity and nationhood in the same breath. Isn’t it high time for politicians to have the courtesy not to mix politicking and political speeches with the solemn and pious occasion of religious functions they are invited to attend?

All religious dogmas abhor tainting the sacred (Pavitra) with what is certainly not. Our democracy will consequently gain in stature and republican values.

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 The bogus 44% argument

 This week Dilma Rousseff won a second four-year mandate as President of Brazil (against seven years being proposed in the context of the 2nd Republic) obtaining 51.64% of the votes against her opponent Aecio Neves who polled 48.36%. In the recent referendum in Scotland, the ‘No to independence’ vote polled 55.3% whereas the ‘Yes’ vote polled 44.7% of the votes.

This political bi-polarisation is normal in closely contested elections in democracies dominated by two parties as in the UK, France, India, or the United States. None of these countries has witnessed or engineered an alliance between traditionally opposing parties as the Republicans and the Democrats in the US or between the PS and the UMP (which polled 48.36% of the vote at the 2012 Presidential elections) in France or the BJP and UPA in India on the tenuous argument of fostering national unity.

In plain terms the glib and untenable amalgam made by the Labour-MMM alliance between the divide at the time of independence when 44% of the electorate scared by rabid and false communal propaganda of hegemony voted against independence with say the 42% of the votes obtained by the MMM-UN-MMSD alliance in the 2010 elections is basically flawed and balderdash. Any simple analysis of the results shows, for example, that in 10 rural constituencies where the Labour-MSM-PMSD (LMP) alliance won all 3 seats, the MMM-UN-MMSD alliance obtained between 10,754 and 21,630 votes. In the 10 urban constituencies,the LMP won 12 seats in 6 constituencies obtaining between 6,917 (40.248%) and 21,145 (50.919%) votes. These results surely attest that the pattern of voting is materially different in nature and plurality than in 1967. The Mauritian nation has since long moved away from these hangovers and fixations of the past and except for those who have boxed themselves in their own apartheid, is already united. It is time for the political leaders to wake up to this reality.

The recent unprecedented events regarding the proposed changes to our Constitution show that even after independence, our democracy and the values the nation fought for can be put in jeopardy. If we are to protect and uphold the unalienable rights wrested by our oppressed forebears on the road to independence and re-establish the people’s paramount sovereignty over our democracy, this is the time to do so.

Main source – ‘Mauritius in Transition’ by Jay Narain Roy


* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014

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