Historical Musings around August 1967

The elections of 7th August 1967 was the decisive moment
in the historical/constitutional development of Mauritius as validated by future events

“Historians who write in aristocratic ages are inclined to refer all occurrences to the particular will and character of certain individuals; and they are apt to attribute the most important revolutions to slight accidents. They trace out the smallest causes with sagacity and frequently leave the greatest unperceived.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville

Monday 7th August last marked the 50th anniversary of the general elections of 1967 which was fought between the Independence Party – an alliance of the Labour Party led by Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the Independent Forward Block (IFB) of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, and the Comite d’Action Musulman led by Abdool Razack Mohamed – and the Parti Mauricien under the leadership of Gaetan Duval, who had only some time earlier replaced Jules Koenig.

The coming elections were to be held under the new formula of the 20 three-member constituencies and the abolition of the single member constituencies which had prevailed until then; Rodrigues became the single (21st) constituency with two representatives. A total of 307,908 electors were registered in Mauritius and 7,876 in Rodrigues.

There was a public commitment from the British government that it would accede to the request for fixing a date for the independence of the island should this be the wish of the leader of the party who won a majority in the then Legislative Assembly at the next general elections. It was therefore inevitable that as from day one of the electoral campaign on the 20th June of 1967 when Dr Ramgoolam announced that the next general elections would be held on the 7th of August a fierce battle was engaged between those who supported independence and those who opposed it.

The Parti Mauricien led the campaign against together with two smaller parties – the Tamil United Party and the Muslim United Party on a platform of what was described as “association or integration.” Broadly speaking the landed oligarchy were the main supporters of the Parti Mauricien while its leader, the young politician who had proclaimed himself as “le roi des creoles”, led a typically populist campaign which exploited the understandable fear of the unknown and basic instincts of a fraction of the electorate through a hate mongering campaign.

The electoral support of the Independence Party came mainly from the rural areas and principally the Hindi speaking belt. The battle for victory between the two parties which would be determining for the future of the island was a no holds barred affair and dangerously divided the country along ethnic and communal lines.

Although in the end the Independence Party came out with 39 elected members and the Parti Mauricien secured 23 seats, these figures do not really reflect the harshness of the campaign and the uncertainty and suspense which prevailed all along till the very end among the two main protagonists. The electorate was fully entangled by the campaign and the single mindedness with which they voted for or against independence is illustrated by the number of political stalwarts who failed to get elected. Thus Abdool Razack Mohamed, leader of the CAM,  and Drs Regis Chaperon and Guy Forget for the Independence Party, and Jules Koenig of the Parti Mauricien were defeated, sometimes by relatively unknown candidates.

After the achievement of the right to universal adult suffrage in 1957, the institution of internal self-government following the 1965 Constitutional Conference, the elections of 7th August 1967 was THE decisive moment in the historical/constitutional development of our country as validated by future events. The constitution for self-government was made effective on the 12th of August and only ten days later on the 22nd Dr Ramgoolam as Chief Minister stood up in the Legislative Assembly to move the Mauritius Constitution with Order Bill with the following words:

“We are meeting today on an historic and solemn occasion. By our decision, today, Sir we shall put Mauritius on the path of her destiny. It is a day of joy for all patriotic men and women, for on this day we are taking the formal step which will confer on our people freedom and bring them into their heritage.

“It will be a matter of no small wonder to succeeding generations that by exercise of a diabolical political witchery, by those possessed of it that we should have been kept back from coming into our national inheritage for so long.”

We mentioned Dr Regis Chaperon and Guy Forget among the stalwarts of the Labour Party who unfortunately were defeated during the troubled elections for independence. It is perhaps fitting and appropriate here to assuage the dominant narrative that only a particular section of the population supported the independence of the country. It was certainly not without deliberation that, in this same speech on the motion for independence, Dr Ramgoolam chose to mention the following quote from Anatole de Boucherville of the Action Libérale who had fought the oligarchs of the Parti de L’Ordre in the early 20th Century, “L’Action Libérale prêche une triple alliance: l’alliance du Noir, du Blanc et de l’Asiatique; alliance monstrueuse disent les oligarques, nécessaire et juste disent les patriotes de toutes couleurs et de toute religion.”

There has been a systematic attempt in certain quarters over the past few years to play down the role of the “struggle for independence” in the history of Mauritius. Basically this school of thought, which is rather reductionist, not to say revisionist in its appraisal, suggests that independence was “thrust” on Mauritius by the British who presumably found that it was no longer “beneficial” to hold on to this possession.

Suffice it to say here that this interpretation fails to grasp the historical context which resulted from often violent and armed struggles in many then colonies which forced the colonial masters of the time to re-assess their positions. It also fails to grasp the fact that independence was not a one off event which the British suddenly decided to “offer” to the people of Mauritius. It was indeed the result of a century old struggle for freedom and acquisition of basic rights including the right to education and the attainment of universal suffrage.

Mass protests and movements throughout the century, in which many patriots lost their lives and were unjustly imprisoned, contributed to a situation which meant that the “status quo” was no longer feasible.

 

* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017

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