12 March - Mauritius Day

Posted by The Open Page | 12/3/2020

12 March: What does it mean for Mauritius and India?
12 March marks a turning point in the history of both Mauritius and India. Mauritius became independent on that date in 1968. In India, the Dandi march undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi on 12 march 1930 was a watershed in that it veered the freedom struggle on the right path towards the attainment of independence and sounded the death-knell of the British empire.

Whilst Mauritius was split into two opposing factions on the award of independence, the Indians had to embark on an epic, non-violent war spanning over several decades to liberate themselves from the shackles of the British. In sharp contrast to India, Britain?s smaller colonies had almost a peaceful ride and did their homework well to complete the formalities for a transfer of ownership. Indeed, for colonies like Mauritius, the Secretary of State, Sir Oliver Lyttelton, announced as early as 1952 a gradual process of de-colonisation and helping these colonies out to attain internal self-government. In 1959, the British Labour party published a pamphlet in which it was stated that a Labour government would ? speed up wherever possible the growth of colonies into independent nations??

At the same time, it was thought in London that smaller territories like Mauritius, Seychelles, Gambia, Sierra Leone, etc. might be lumped together into a Federation headed by a bigger country, for example, Australia or India, with Dominion status and cutting off all umbilical relationship with Britain. It transpired that Britain did not want to see these small colonies even in the Commonwealth. Roy Jenkins, of the Labour party, was the promoter of this idea. That meant getting rid of these small colonies the sooner, the better it was. The more so, in the case of Mauritius which was regarded as ?complex? and the ?most difficult of all our territories?. But this new concept did not make headway. The question of small colonies including Mauritius having to struggle with Britain to snatch their independence does not arise. But it is true that in Mauritius, the de-colonisation process was met with fierce opposition. When independence was inevitable, the oligarchs came back in force using the PMSD to arouse communal hatred in a bid to create a climate of uneasiness in the island.

This provoked a spate of communal reactions from other quarters as well. Communal gangsterism was at its height during the pre-independence days. The Colonial office realised that it would be running away from its responsibility if it left Mauritius reeling in a cauldron of communal conflict. One of our Governors, Sir Robert Scott in one of his dispatches to the Secretary of State echoed the same feeling as his predecessor, Donald Mackenzie Kennedy, when he wrote that Mauritius was ?divided horizontally into economic and social classes and vertically by racial and religious differences?. It was not so much the idea of independence that was worrying the oligarchs. Who says the PMSD was against independence? For the Franco-Mauritian leaders of the PMSD, independence was inexorably linked to the people of Indian origin taking the lever of control.

This they had resented strongly since the time of Celicourt Antelme in 1885. They were therefore scared of a backlash in the Mugabe style, more so that the pro-independence supporters also raised communal slogans and threats. These factors caused alarm. Once independence was granted, the oligarchs felt comfortable with the government in place. The fear was at once dissipated and they abandoned the PMSD to its own fate. So, one must not be confused when references are made to the ?fight? for independence. The ?fight? was not against Britain as was the case with India. It was one between two factions of the Mauritian population: those who sustained the process of de-colonisation and those who opposed it.

The Labour party then with leftist tendencies adopted the right posture by being in the vanguard of the independence movement. Jules Koenig, leader of the PMSD who bitterly fought the oligarchs early in his political career, boarded the wrong train of history at the fag-end of his political career but not Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, a very smart political operator, who is firmly etched in the mind of school children as being the man who gave Mauritius its independence. Anyway, 12 March every year since 1968 is a day when all Mauritians take pride in their achievement! It is said that the date of 12 March was chosen because Sir Seewoosagur was inspired by Gandhi?s famous Dandi march. As was shown in Alain Gordon-Gentil?s documentary, ?Les Moussons intimes?, recently, the salt march undertaken on 12 March 1930 by Gandhi was a turning point in the history of India. Setting out on foot from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gandhi made for Dandi on the Gujerat coast, a 380 kilometres journey, to protest against the salt tax imposed by the British administration. The Dandi march ignited a sense of patriotism as never before in the Indians. Gandhi brought politics within the reach of the large Indian masses and when he picked up a lump of salt at the Dandi beach on 6 April 1930 as a symbolic gesture of reclaiming the rightful ownership of Indian resources, India was in flurry of rebellious mood. That was what freedom meant to Gandhi, taking control of one?s own resources, not merely dislodging foreign rulers. After the Dandi mass upheaval, the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was left with no choice than to call the First Round Table Conference in London in November 1930 to start discussing the future of India.

That was a masterstroke on the part of Gandhi when many leaders of the Indian National Congress could not progress much and had been waging a sterile war since the early 1900s to free India from British rule. Have you heard of any one in India violently opposing independence? Partition, yes, claimed by the Muslim League and sponsored by the British since 1907 when Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, decided to make Bengal a separate state for the Muslims but was foiled in his attempt. Even in Malta when Dom Mintoff opted for an association, Britain rejected this option.

The people of Malta, mostly the Catholics, rose in rebellion and chased Mintoff out. Mauritius was an exception among the colonies with almost 44% of the population saying ?no? to independence. When the president of the Republic of India, Abdul Kalam, will be in Mauritius as guest of honour for the Independence day celebration, his thought will certainly go back to his country?s Dandi march which was basically instrumental in colonies getting their freedom. He will come to know why the independence of Mauritius was proclaimed on a 12 March.

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