The Wind of Change

wind_of_change_photo.jpg (18544 bytes) Meanwhile, the battle for universal suffrage was raging. But the Colonial Office could not accede to Ramgoolam’s demand for responsible government and adult suffrage right away as it was under pressure from the local white oligarchy to block all constitutional changes and to impose Proportional Representation instead. The plantocracy was fighting a last ditch battle to retain all its unjust privileges.

It initiated a virulent, anti-Ramgoolam press campaign in "Le Cernéen" daily through Noël Marrier-d’Unienville, writing under the pen-name of N.M.U, who called Ramgoolam by all sorts of names, including Communist, racist, khoonist, barbarian and invited the Coloured population to break away from Labour and the different Hindu ethnic groups and castes to constitute divisive groups to oppose Ramgoolam.

The NMU tactics were later championed by the Parti Mauricien under Jules Koenig and Gaetan Duval who, since 1963, started a violent anti-Ramgoolam and anti-Hindu campaign which resulted in racial tension and bloodshed.

The deaths of Guy Rozemont in 1956 and of Renganaden Seeneevassen in 1957 dealt a severe blow to the popularity and island-wide representation of the Labour Party. Since then Labour's popularity among the mass of the Creole electorate began to be eroded due to the absence of an effective Creole leadership within the Labour Party. This left a vacuum which was quickly and dramatically being filled by the young and dynamic Gaëtan Duval who had copied Rozemont’s style of flamboyant populism.

Following the London Agreement of September 1956, it was agreed that the electoral system should be on the basis of universal suffrage and the country was ripe to introduce the ministerial system which was set up in 1957. The governor still wielded extraordinary powers but nonetheless Labour secured 6 members in the Cabinet and began to control the Executive. By 1959, Ramgoolam became the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Boolell was in Agriculture, Beejadhur in Education, Guy Forget in Health, Razack Mohamed in Land and Housing, Ringadoo in Labour, Walter in Works.

The next constitutional step was the Trustam Eve Electoral Boundary Commission which split the country into 40 single member constituencies and which unfortunately came to "harden and perpetuate communal divisions" as the Secretary of State had feared.

In the 1959 elections, new political parties, the IFB and the CAM, surfaced. But Labour still won overwhelmingly and according to the new constitution, Ramgoolam became the Leader of the House and the Minister of Finance.

Following the 1961 London Constitutional Conference, Ian Macleod, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, committed to the liberation of the colonies in the wake of MacMillan’s "wind of change" policy, stated that constitutional advance was "both inevitable and desirable".

Macleod proposed changes in two stages,

  1. when Ramgoolam was to become Chief Minister immediately and
  2. the second stage to take effect after the general election by which the Legislative Council would become Legislative Assembly, the Chief Minister Premier and also responsible for Home Affairs. And the Executive Council would become the Council of Ministers.

Ramgoolam met with a triumphant return from the airport to his residence. But the Parti Mauricien was steering itself to set in roadblocks on the constitutional path. It appeared that the divisive tactics enunciated earlier by NMU were beginning to pay off as Parti Mauricien, now renamed the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD), under the fiery Gaëtan Duval, financed by the sugar magnates, resorted to communal violence in order to set in a climate of fear and uncertainty at the approach of constitutional changes. Pursuing its divisive tactics, it bought over a number of dissident Labour members including Moignac who had succeeded Rozemont as president of the Trade Unions, Lacaze, Raymond Rault thus eroding into the Creole representation of the Labour Party.

But it was in 1963, in the wake of the general elections that Gaëtan Duval began to ride the crest of urban, anti-Hindu popularity to stage a massive demonstration against the implementation of the second stage.

To get round the constitutional deadlock as the Parti Mauricien had refused to join the All-Party Government, another constitutional conference was held in London in March 1964 which set out a workable formula for an All Party Government. By now the whole island was bubbling with excitement, only waiting for the accession to independence. But a few steps had to be taken across very slippery road when the country was sinking further into the quagmire of racial violence under conservative leadership, reminiscent of the current repressive white minority regime in South Africa .

On April 6, 1965, Anthony Greenwood, the Secretary of State, landed in Mauritius only to be met by a PMSD’s massive demonstration against independence in Curepipe. But Greenwood had been unimpressed as, in his heart, he was committed to granting independence. Greenwood proposed sending a constitutional expert to chart out our new constitution. Prof. De Smith visited Mauritius in July 1965. He recommended 23-three member constituencies to provide adequate safeguards to minority interests while he rejected PMSD’s demand of separate electoral registers.

The decisive 1965 Constitutional Conference met at Lancaster House, in London in order to "reach agreement on the ultimate status of Mauritius and the time of accession to it" Greenwood wished to "end the present period of uncertainty". After hearing both sides, for and against independence, led by the PMSD, Greenwood concluded that "it was right that Mauritius should be independent and take her place among the sovereign nations of the world". But independence would only come after the submission of the report from an Electoral Commission and provided the majority of Mauritians voted for it in the next elections.

Ramgoolam met with a triumphant return from the conference. The country was preparing itself for the decisive elections. Suddenly, Gaetan Duval changed his tactics and opened out his arms to welcome the Hindus within the PMSD in his "Hindou, mon frere" strategy. For the first time, the PMSD stood as a rival national party fielding candidates drawn from all ethnic groups in all constituencies, including those who had been baited by massive sugar money. In a bid to attract the minority groups, the PMSD played on caste divisions and sparked a malicious and false campaign that "Tamils are not Hindus", a tactic which largely eroded into the Tamil electorate within the Labour Party. For SSR, this was a life-and-death struggle.

In May 1966, the Banwell electoral report triggered a volley of opposition. In response, Ramgoolam staged a massive protest meeting in Port Louis during which he condemned the report as the "rape of democracy"

Ramgoolam opposed the "corrective system" which smelt of the hated nominee system. Along with Razack Mohamed, leader of CAM and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, leader of IFB, Ramgoolam, the leader of the Independence Party, rejected the report in Assembly, though the three leaders had earlier agreed on the principle of a 62 member Parliament with 20 constituencies each returning 3 candidates on the principle of block vote.

The British government speedily despatched John Stonehouse, Assistant Parliamentary Secretary, who proposed the "8 best loser system" instead of the corrective system.

Now the stage was set for the August 1967 election.

The PMSD launched a vigorous scare campaign designed to strike fear into the hearts of the people about the hazards of independence which would bring famine and widespread death and destruction in its trail. The sugar magnates threw in their whole weight and exhorted people to withdraw their money from the banks and the Post Office Savings accounts to aggravate the climate of insecurity and instability.

The sugar oligarchy which had controlled the State apparatus, the judiciary, the civil service, trade, commerce, business and agriculture and which still wielded overwhelming economic leverage poured their wealth into PMSD coffers to beat the Independence Party.

However, thanks to the wisdom of the people and long historic freedom struggle, Ramgoolam managed to beat PMSD which scored 44% of votes.

On August 22,1967,Ramgoolam tabled a motion in the Assembly to give effect "to the desire of the people of Mauritius to accede to independence within the Commonwealth of Nations. It is at once the end of a journey and the beginning of another." He acknowledged the right of the "people who have monopolised political and economic power for over a century to fight to the death before surrendering any of their feudal prerogatives".

Then on 12 March 1968, the Mauritian flag was hoisted at Champ de Mars in the fresh breeze blowing across a free and independent young country. But the PMSD’s supporters had boycotted the celebration which took place under a State of Emergency. The feudal barons, as in Apartheid South Africa, had been waging a last desperate battle to cling to their privileges. The hirelings against independence were cutting the throats of other Mauritians at the other side of the hill during the bloody riots instigated by the PMSD

During this historic moment, Ramgoolam shed a tear for the fallen heroes like Anquetil, Rozemont, Seenevassen with whom he had fought side by side for this day and who were not alive to witness the glorious occasion.

But Greenwood had the last word. "You, Prime Minister, have during more than twenty years been the principal driving force leading your country forward. You have been the principal architect of the new nation".

Indeed, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was henceforth to be known as the father of the nation, the loving chacha Ramgoolam, the man who had planned every step of the way towards independence way back in his London days.

By Anand Mulloo 15.9.98