The Labour Movement

ssr1_1.jpg (26026 bytes) While Dr Ramgoolam was busy going his rounds, enlarging his circle of friends and acquaintances, the mass movement he had announced a few months earlier took birth on 23 February 1936 with the launching of the Mauritius Labour Party under Dr Maurice Curé, Pandit Sahadeo and Emmanuel Anquetil.

It is unfortunate that, from the start, Dr Curé was prejudiced against Ramgoolam whom he kept at arms’ length and on whom he closed the door of friendship when Ramgoolam and a group of friends called upon the Labour leader who was going through a period of difficulty. The fact that Ramgoolam was well considered by governor Sir Bede Clifford who was keen on winning the co-operation of the Indo-Mauritian community as then best represented by Ramgoolam did not please Dr Curé, nor the Bissoondoyal brothers.

Due to their uncompromising politics, both Curé and Bissoondoyal could not grasp Ramgoolam’s strategy of dividing the enemy by weakening the white oligarchy by forging an alliance with the colonial governor. Ramgoolam was inspired by his own anglophile culture and education, nurtured over a long period in London. Curé and the radical left mistook Ramgoolam’s Fabian tactics as a sign of weakness and subordination to the British.

It is unfortunate that Dr Curé feared the Indo-Mauritian elite. Events in Mauritius began to move fast in the wake of the 52 eye-opening public meetings Dr Curé had held throughout the country telling the labourers of their rights, and the need to join in the trade union movement to defend their cause. The upshot was the outbreak of labourers’ strike in 1937 at Central Flacq sugar estate where four labourers were shot down in the general panic.

The Hooper Commission sat and heard the complaints from the labourers and recommended a number of changes, among which was the setting up of a labour department to replace the anachronistic Protector of Immigrants’ department.

This was followed by the dockers’ strike which paralysed the harbour and ended with the deportation of Emmanuel Anquetil to Rodrigues.

In September 1940, Dr Ramgoolam founded the newspaper, "Advance" which started campaigning for the rights to vote, for economic, social and political reforms in the Fabian perspective. Dr Ramgoolam himself wrote a series of articles under the pen-name of Thumb Mark II, (Thumb Mark I being his illiterate father) in which he crossed swords with the journalists who championed only the rights of the conservative and who considered the Indo-Mauritians as still an inferior, alien race, without any civic rights. His articles left a deep impression on the educated classes who could now see the profile of a new leader with a very clear political agenda emerging. At the end of the year, assisted by the veteran councillor G. D.M Atchia, Dr Ramgoolam was elected as a Union Mauricienne Councillor in the Port Louis Municipal election where he had his first experience of organised local politics. But it was only in 1958, under a Labour administration that Dr Ramgoolam was to become the Mayor of Port Louis, thus fulfilling a long-felt ambition.

In 1940, upon the recommendation of Mohabeer Burrenchobay, governor Sir Bede Clifford nominated Dr Ramgoolam in the Legislative Council in replacement of Seerbookun who had taken a job in the Civil Service. In his maiden speech in the Council, Dr Ramgoolam, recalling the miners’ strike in England, urged the government to give the workers a better deal and to extend to them the right to strike. Dr Ramgoolam tried to fight for the people through constitutional means, through the existing institutions, in Council, committees and through persuasion of the political masters of the wisdom to improve the people’s lot and to establish a more just and egalitarian society. But many a time, his appeals fell on deaf ears as the British rulers still worked hands in glove with the sugar oligarchy. However, through his patient diplomacy, Ramgoolam warmed his way into Government House and Bede Clifford saw in the young British educated intellectual a perfectly reasonable and responsible partner whom he appointed on a number of committees. Thus Ramgoolam secured a position of some influence in government. But Ramgoolam saw himself almost alone in the Council facing a battery of reactionary politicians opposed to all social and political changes in favour of the working class. Thus, Dr Ramgoolam waged an Opposition battle. In his characteristic cool, diplomatic, persuasive style, he argued in favour of the inevitability of progress through the process of gradual changes.

Due to the social and economic distress caused by World War II and the awareness of the labouring classes of their civic and political rights, they were joining the trade union movement and in 1943 another labourers’ strike broke out at Belle Vue Harel where three labourers , including a pregnant woman, Anjalay, were shot by the police.

After World War II, the Conservative Governor Sir Mackenzie Kennedy, succeeded Sir Bede Clifford and sided thoroughly with the conservatives in Council and opposed Ramgoolam all through. But constitutional changes were long overdue and were further delayed by World War II. However, Mackenzie Kennedy was determined to push through the constitutional revision. He set up the Consultative Constitutional Committee, from 1946-47, in order to bring about a consensus among the nominated members about the direction of constitutional steps to follow. Dr Ramgoolam emerged as the leader of the Labour and progressive group including Seeneevassen, Dr Millien, Guy Rozemont, which argued in favour of people’s rights to vote. Finally, he obtained the adult literacy vote in replacement of the property vote which had been established since 1885 and which had restricted the suffrage only to the propertied classes. The working people were excluded. According to the new constitution wrenched from the British, the new voters would be registered if they were capable to read and write their names in any existing Mauritian languages, including Oriental languages.

Mauritius was divided into five electoral districts to elect 19 candidates.

But underneath, the population were impatient for political development as everywhere in Mauritius the Indian flag was flowing on the declaration of Indian independence and the rural population identified themselves thoroughly with independent India, the source of their pride, dignity and inspiration. In the same year, Mr Dharam Yash Dev was nominated as the first Indian High Commissioner in Mauritius and Ramgoolam seized this opportunity to ride on the popular crest of Indian nationalism by associating himself closely with Yash Dev. He built a closer Mauritius-India friendship relation on historical, emotional and diplomatic levels.

By Anand Mulloo 15.9.98