Interview: Bashir Khan – Chagos Refugees
Group UK representative —
‘Was Chagos “sold” to the British? You cannot
sell anything, let alone part of a country, that does not belong to you’
‘If PMSD had won, of course, no independence would
have been granted’
On 7th August 1967, Mauritian voters participated in a crucial election – to decide whether Mauritius should go for independence from the UK. Many insinuations have been made about Mauritian leaders having “sold away” Diego Garcia for the sake of obtaining independence from the British. We asked Bashir Khan, a Mauritian residing in the UK, taking a keen interest in the history and politics of Mauritius, and a strong advocate for justice in favour of Chagosssians who were uprooted for the sake of US/UK geopolitical interests, what his evaluation of the historical and current political evaluation was. Bashir Khan is the Chagos Refugees Group UK representative, and he is also a consultant to the UK Home Office Prison’s Department. His replies are candid, those that separate the wheat from the chaff.
Mauritius Times: Mauritians went to the polls 50 years ago, on 7 August 1967, to cast their votes on whether the country should break away from Great Britain and forge a future for itself whilst remaining in the Commonwealth. That’s an election that almost broke the nation in two blocs, but we have survived and this is what has made Mauritius stand out among our peer nations in Africa. How was this achieved?
Bashir Khan: Indeed there can be no doubt that from the moment on 24th September 1965, which was the final day of the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference to decide on the future status of Mauritius, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr Anthony Greenwood, announces that the United Kingdom Government has concluded that Mauritius would proceed to full independence, the country would embark on a dangerous pathway towards splitting it into two diametrically opposed camps with all that this entails both for the country’s future economic prospects and it social stability.
From October 1965 to August 1967, when Independence elections were actually held, the two protagonists – and their cohorts of pro and against independence followers – were for all intents and purposes engaging in frequent and serious local skirmishes that could have easily embroiled the whole country into a state of complete anarchy.
Add to that, the “malediction or curse” (for lack of better description!) that the two British economics experts, Titmus and Meade, had earlier forecast for us when they concluded in their report that “the development prospects of Mauritius were poor; the island was overpopulated and heavily dependent on monocrop; there was no hope for economic diversification; in sum, Mauritius was a strong candidate for a failed state”.
But for our innate intuition of “vive ensemble”, a complete fissure was avoided. And, for sure, we were never a failed state! If during the early years after independence we could not talk or claim an economic miracle (we would leave this prize for a later stage), but certainly we are fully entitled to claim a political miracle. We have in fact been condemned to live (and/or die) together as a people, despite our inherent contradictions and diversities.
But above all, the man who won the independence elections and would lead the country was humble in victory and magnanimous to his political opponents. To SSR, “victory was not a destination but a journey he wanted to take his country to”. That Gaetan Duval accepted to join SSR in a coalition government so early after losing the independence elections, also speak volumes of Duval’s own character by putting the country first rather than his own party, which suffered a serious fracture as a result. Not that this coalition was risk-free! Far from it. Political leaders as well as individuals must take risks in life. They did and the country came out a winner.
* One could argue that whether the UK would have let go of its colonies – ref: the 1960 speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about the “winds of change” — sooner or later would not have had any bearing on the future socio-economic development of Mauritius; what mattered for the country was who the people chose to lead independent Mauritius as from Day One. The question therefore is whether the people chose the right man in Seewoosagur Ramgoolam – and his Independence Party team?
I have never known SSR. He was of a different generation from mine.
British Prime Minister Macmillan’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, Iain Macleod, who visited Mauritius in 1960, was a strong advocate for granting independence to British colonies, including Mauritius. Following the Constitutional Review Conference at the Colonial Office between 26th June and 7th July 1961, Secretary of State Macleod announces a clear Roadmap for Mauritius which will consist of Two Stages leading to full internal Self-Government by 1964. For many in Mauritius, this started smelling of independence and in fact Dr Ramgoolam has declared in no uncertain terms, that he understood the Two Stages to conclude with Full independence by the end of 1964.
Was he ready or prepared to lead an independent country? Iain Macleod himself had written in a British newspaper in 1964 that from 1959 there was a clear colonial policy to fast-track colonies towards independence, even though he admitted that most colonies would never be ready for independence.
But if there needed to be a suitable candidate to lead the country upon obtaining independence, it had to be Dr Ramgoolam. There simply was no other candidate of calibre, measurable to Dr Ramgoolam in this respect. No other Mauritian politician of his time fitted the bill. His political apprenticeship started in London where he rubbed shoulders with the likes Mahatma Gandhi, J. Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose and Sarojini Naidu. Through them, he was following very closely the struggle of the Indian National Congress. Not to mention that he proof-read the manuscript of S. Chandra Bose’s book “Great Indian Struggle”.
But there can be no doubt he learnt his political lessons from his association with UK Fabian Society, which was a left of Centre Think Tank. He attended their several lectures by prominent socialist academics of the time. Fabianism inculcated in him the ideology of peaceful and gradual constitutional reform based on patience, moderation and persuasion and rejecting violent revolution.
Following his return to the UK and his appointment in 1940 as a nominated Member of the then Legislative Council in 1940, Dr Ramgoolam proved to be an excellent debater and writer of high calibre second to none in the Council. In 1951, he was appointed one of three Liaison Officers. He chose to be in charge of the Department of Education. Education was crucial in his bigger plan.
He stated: “Our salvation truly lies in education and training our men and women in such a way that they are equipped to face the great battles of life.”
During the two Stages of Self-Government, he would act as Chief Minister and as Premier under the chairmanship of the Governor. He would be given the Ministry of Finance.
To sum up, it is a question of whether the people chose him in 1967 to lead the country, I would ask: “Was there a better candidate?” And I am not playing political partisanship here.
Perhaps the best answer to this question came from someone who has been his arch-political rival, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, who once stated: “Dr Ramgoolam is a well-read politician. He is not that class of Indo-Mauritian intellectuals who gradually develop unforgivable arrogance when they come across an ill-dressed person. He hates affectation. Although his knowledge of English is vast, still he clings to the Mauritian accent and in this he differs from the shallow but arrogant so-called intellectuals. Dr Ramgoolam unmistakably is a blend of many mysteries, of many contradictions and of many conflicting loyalties. He is at home anywhere, however ruthless these may turn out. He knows how and what to speak in moment of crisis.” That says it all…
* If the PMSD campaign prior and leading to 1967 is any indication, things could have been different had Gaetan Duval’s PMSD won the elections and formed the government. What do you think?
This is an interesting question and scenario. Let us assume the 1967 election results were reversed and the PMSD won the majority seats. How would the Colonial Office in London have reacted and what would they have offered the PMSD?
In my view, we would have faced a “status quo” situation, that is, we would still remain a British Colony with a Governor as Head of the Government. It is important to realise that whatever “integration” or “association” proposals the PMSD had mooted as their alternative to independence, were, at best, vague ideas and suggestions that were not carefully thought through, let alone agreed by the Colonial office (CO). In fact, if we go by the mood of debates in the House of Commons on the subject of integration-cum-association, as recorded in the Hansard, many British MPs thought the idea was preposterous.
The PMSD suggestion of a possibility of electing two Mauritian MLAs to sit in the House of Commons was simply thrown out of the equation. This was based on the Dom Mintoff’s Maltese integration model which was also rejected unceremoniously by the UK Parliament. In short, by August 1967, no integration-cum-association agreement had been reached between the PMSD and the Colonial Office as alternative to independence.
Hence, in the event the PMSD had won at the elections, it is most likely that the then 1964 Constitution and the Stage 2 model of internal self-government would have continued, this time with Gaetan Duval titled as Premier!
But what is frequently ignored is the fact that the Stage 2 model with a Premier is not a majority-led cabinet. Since 1964 and up to 1968, with SSR as Premier, it has always been a Cabinet chaired by the Governor as Head of Government, inviting elected MLAs and their Leaders to join a “Government of Collective Responsibilities”, with each one of the Leaders nominating their own candidates for ministerial position. In effect, there has never been an official opposition party in the Legislative assembly. So it begs the question: what role would Labour, CAM and IFB have played in a premiership under Duval? The Duval of the late sixties and early seventies, the most charismatic and the brilliant legal mind personality also epitomises his “enfant terrible de la politique” status and his “Droit à L’excès” image and reputation. His track record in managing our towns fit his image and reputation like a glove. Contrasting this situation with a diametrically opposite personality like SSR, we certainly were in for exciting times!
And what if five years down the line in 1972, Labour had a win in new elections! Very confusing scenario indeed. No wonder following the 1965 Lancaster House Conference, the Colonial Secretary of State Greenwood decided to pre-empt this possibility by calling for Independence elections without further delay to avoid “further uncertainties” as he put it.
* History might not have recorded whether the political adversaries prior to Independence were conscious of the need for and indeed discussed the idea of coming together to lead the country after 1967, and this might have been known to a select few, but some historians see in the Lancaster constitutional talks hints of Jules Koenig’s favourable inclination towards a coalition government. What does your personal research inform you about this question?
Recently a friend of mine informed me of his exchanges with a relative or family friend of Jules Koenig who depicted JK as a true patriot and in his capacity as a lawyer helped many non-white poor Mauritians in several ways, even not charging them legal fees. All to his credit if this could be substantiated. However, the same person had suggested that following or during the 1965 London Conference, rifts between JK and Duval started to appear. Now were these to do with the Chagos excision issue on compensation amount or were they to do with the future direction of the PMSD (from 1965), now that the country was set for possible independence?
As the above claim remains anecdotal, we require our historians to carry out more research.
But one cannot deny the fact that JK, in his early Parti Mauricien (not yet Social Democrate) years, was very open with political leaders from other communities. He cooperated with Razack Mohamed, Fok Seung, among others. On the flip side he was also against universal suffrage and during the 1961 London Conference he was advocating Separate Electoral Roll for the General population while at the same time making passionate calls for a unified population transcending ethnic, race and religious cleavages. I would conclude that, on this matter, the jury is still out!
* There is also the view that the electoral system then drawn up by the British colonial authorities (and agreed by the major Mauritian parties) with the setting up of three-member constituencies and the deliberate carving of electoral boundaries to ensure the existence of marginal constituencies – mostly in urban areas – were meant to force upon the political establishment the need for forging coalition governments. This has perhaps saved Mauritius from turmoil, hasn’t it?
I have found very little evidence, if at all any, to support this hypothesis.
My own view is that villages and towns emerged in Mauritius based on historical socio-economic considerations. Rural areas were more populated with plantation and agricultural workers purely because this is where these activities took place. People also lived in rural areas because they were poor and could not afford expensive urban dwellings. These would be taken up by Civil Servants and business people and traders. Prior to 1968, these three categories were also by and large non-Hindus. So, we end up with a mainly Hindu rural community and an urban non-Hindu community. Given that communal politics will become the order of the day, it was inevitable that there was a direct correlation between rural and urban constituencies on one side and the political divide on the other.
Professor De Smith, the then Constitutional Commissioner, visited Mauritius and studied several election results and voters’ ethnic group belongings based on our Census; he concluded that there was a clear communal voting across the island. He was faced with a formidable challenge of designing an electoral system that would “guarantee representation of all ethnic groups (all four of them!) In the Legislative Assembly in numbers corresponding to the ethnic composition of the total population.
He stated that this was practically impossible to achieve unless you introduce a device to fine tune the results after an election. Thus begins the controversial BLS enigma! We don’t have a FPTP system but a Three Past The Post system. This was decided to give political parties the choice to line up at least one candidate from minority communities especially in constituencies where these minorities were “visible”! All this, with albeit good intentions to minimise the use of the BLS device.
* However, 50 years down the line, it might perhaps be time to revisit our Constitution with respect to the electoral system and the ethnic-based Best Loser provisions; the limitation of prime ministerial mandates; transparency and governance, the judicial system… It’s a long list, and a beginning has to be made sometime. What’s your take on that?
No Constitution is permanent or perfect. They emerged with the best intentions in mind and generally reflect the current situation, social, political or otherwise. Although Constitutions are not meant to reflect future changes accurately and they should be written to stand the test of time covering several decades. Hence 50 years down the line, it is sensible to consider amendments.
However, beyond deciding what amendments are needed, we need to agree on an important issue. Who is responsible to review and draft amendments for a new Constitution?
In the Colonial time, a Constitution Commissioner was appointed by the Colonial Secretary of State. He was a legal academic expert in the field. He proceeded as follows: He met all stakeholders, from political leaders, MLAs, Ministers, Opposition MLAs and he requested from them their suggestions in writing. But above all he also consulted the ordinary lay citizens and listened to their opinions and received submissions from them as well. He also consulted other experts in the field.
Now, compare how we are going about with amending our Constitution! It is essentially a secret affair between specific political parties, normally initiated by the party in power. For all intents and purposes, it is a pre-electoral alliance negotiation. I shall say no more until such time as a proper body is constituted to undertake this important task of amending our Constitution.
What is really needed is a reform of how political parties function, from electing their leaders to their financing and criteria for choosing local candidates! We shall cross the constitutional amendment bridge when we get there after party political reforms!
* What remains unfinished business is the “complete decolonisation of Mauritius” – the unresolved issue of the Chagos Archipelago, Mauritius’ sovereignty on the islands, the return of the Chagossians… As a member of the Chagos Refugees Group UK, have you taken the pain to go through the declassified documents relating to the excision of the Chagos from Mauritius and what do they inform you about the responsibility of the Mauritian political leaders present at the Lancaster Conference? Was Chagos “sold” to the British?
My paramount interest in the Chagos issue is primarily based on my humanitarian’s concern for the Chagossian people and to seek redress against the inhumane manner they were evicted from their birth place. I shall continue to endeavour supporting their struggle for the right to return to the Chagos islands and to seek meaningful compensation for their sufferings. No such negotiation or agreements can be reached without the participation of the Chagossians themselves. They must at all times be involved.
Lately, there has been some interesting debates on social networks especially on Facebook concerning the excision of the Chagos islands from Mauritius. It is now very clear without a doubt, that the excision was not a secret deal between the UK and SSR. All four political leaders (Dr S. Ramgoolam, S. Bissoondoyal, AR Mohamed and J. Koenig) were consulted and perhaps were cornered or put under duress to consent to an excision decision (after returning to Mauritius) which they were not properly informed about but above all which they did not have the authority to carry out! Certainly, no excision of territory can and should have taken place when a colony is negotiating its independence. Basic UN rules!
Was Chagos “sold” to the British? I will concur with the statement that you cannot sell anything, let alone part of a country, that does not belong to you. Certainly, no individual leader or government has such power. By the same token, Britain cannot buy something that already belongs to them!
* It has also been argued that if the PMSD had won in 1967, the uk would not have proceeded to granting independence even though chagos was excised in 1965. Does that mean that the Chagos did not constitute the quid pro quo for the granting of independence by the UK to Mauritius, and that independence had really to be won at the 1967 election?
I also concur that independence became “fait accompli” after and only after the 1967 elections. If PMSD had won, of course, no independence would have been granted. It is inconceivable, if not madness, to think that Britain would have reversed the excision Order in Council after a PMSD victory. The US need for Diego Garcia was so big and important to the US and they (US/UK) had planned it years before the 1965 Conference whether one or ten SSR would have stood in their way.
* as consultant to the UK Home Office Prison’s Department, you must be following with keen interest the deliberations of the Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking in Mauritius. From what we hear, the prisons have now been equipped, unbeknown to the authorities, with operational capacity for the apparently smooth running of the drug business. Technology and professional assistance from wardens to lawyers are all provided. What’s your take on that?
I am following this matter from press coverage. I am simply gobsmacked by these revelations. If indeed these revelations are true, such as these “wholesale” visits in a day, then there is something very wrong with the whole penal system. Following the inspections of all Mauritian prisons that I jointly conducted with the UK Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2004, we had then concluded that although still very archaic and suffering serious flaws in several key areas, Mauritius prisons and their management had the potential to improve in quite a few areas. We also noticed that even though the system had its own share of bad apples, by and large the personnel were professional and interested in improving performance. It would now seem that there has been a serious malfunction in the system.
I wish to have the opportunity to share my experiences and knowledge of the UK Prison’s system. Suffice to say that, in England, a prisoner is entitled to on average 3 visits per month (both Social/Family and Legal). It is almost impossible for a lawyer to do two visits per day. Certainly, a lawyer can never see two prisoners at the same time!
* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017