Britannia Rules…

By R.V. 

As the new British High Commissioner assumes office, he will surely have realised that our two countries enjoy historical ties that go back to the Treaty of Paris of 1814 when the French ceded the island to Mauritius. After more than a century of British rule and 40 years of independence, there still exists in Mauritius a corner that is forever England. We have inherited a Constitution, which defines the contours of our institutions based on the Westminster system of government.  That Constitution is written in English, and the laws we have inherited have made English our official language.

The new ambassador is no doubt happy to note that his assumption of office coincides with the visit of Mrs Barbara de Smith, wife of the famous British constitutional lawyer, Professor Stanley de Smith who drafted the Constitution of Mauritius. Professor de Smith was fond of multicultural Mauritius and always cited Mauritius as an example of a workable democracy.

After his death his ashes were sent to be buried in Pamplemousses Botanical Garden according to his wish. A monument has been erected at the Garden to mark the association of the Professor with Mauritius. Over the passage of time our relationship with the UK has regrettably been reduced to Chagos and student visas. On both issues Britain has been a huge disappointment.

The High Commissioner has already indicated that it is business as usual. The new UK government will not approach the Chagos issue differently. The presence of the Liberals in the coalition government does not change that fact. It is a disguised way of stating that Britain will carry on with its patronising attitude and, worse, will negotiate separately with the Chagossians of Mauritian origin under the nose of the Mauritian government.

Its strategy is barely veiled. Once the Chagossians of Mauritian, and possibly of Seychelles, origins gradually settle down in UK, the sovereignty issue will take another twist. Once the human tragedy of the unlawful removal of the Chagossians from their homeland is taken out of the way, the UK government will have a leg to stand on vis-à-vis the international community.

As for Mr Bancoult, he has a short memory. Following the judgment of the House of Lords, which closed the door permanently to a return to the Chagos, he was quick to shift his allegiance to the Mauritian government. As matters stand, he has taken his distance once again. It is a cat and mouse game. It will depend to a large extent on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The decision will affect the citizens of UK who have been expelled unlawfully from their homeland. Absolutely no relation to Chagossians of Mauritian origin. The question of sovereignty is not even an issue before the European Court.

Let us for the sake of argument say that the judgment is against the UK government, how will the Chagos Refugee Group react? Would they bring in the question of sovereignty as a condition to any settlement? Let us hope that there will be a commitment not to sever the question of settlement from that of sovereignty. This is an issue that the Mauritian government should be raising with Mr Bancoult and his friends if the government does not want to be left in the lurch.

The UK government should resume talks with the Mauritian government. Now that the elections are over in both countries, the two sides should now kick-start the talks at the highest levels. Why on earth does it remain such a mammoth task to organise a meeting between the UK and Mauritian Prime Ministers. The French President has always treated the Mauritian Prime Minister as an equal partner and we have seen the benefits of such dialogue between the two heads of states. The co-management in relation to Tromelin can today be cited as an example of genuine cooperation between North and South.

The new UK ambassador is surely aware that the new student-visa system in place is unfair and is causing hardships to many genuine students. Many students with good qualifications are being denied visa entry arbitrarily and on flimsy grounds. Many who have had their cases reviewed have ended up missing crucial first weeks of the terms.

Many universities turn up in Mauritius to recruit students. Bristol and Kent universities are the prominent ones. Middlesex has even opened a campus in Mauritius. Our association with UK universities dates well before independence. There was a time when the Royal College Curepipe was affiliated to Cambridge University. What is the point of humiliating our students seeking a visa? Surely having a deep pocket cannot be the sole criterion.

We should remember that the International Students attending UK universities add international flavour to these universities. At the same time they take a little of England back home on completion of their studies. Who said the world isn’t flat?

* Published in print edition on 1 October 2010

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