Indians and PR

It is said that proportional representation has been recommended by the Secretary of State to safeguard the rights of the minorities.

Mauritius Times 3rd Year No 89 – Friday 20th April 1956

It is said that proportional representation (PR) has been recommended by the Secretary of State to safeguard the rights of the minorities. In other words, it is the fear of Indian hegemony which is at the bottom of such a recommendation. The political awakening following in the wake of the intellectual and economic advancement of the Indo-Mauritians is looked upon by some people with grave misgivings.

Today PR is deemed to be a solution to the problem, if it can be so called, created by too many Indians getting seats in the Legislative Council. In the light of historical facts, we find that the clock has turned back full circle since twenty five years ago when it was thought by some leading politicians that PR would allow Indians to secure seats in the Council.

Fokeer wrote in 1927 in his book, ‘The Revision Movement’: “Under Proportional Representation it would be found, for example, that ultimately the Indo-Mauritian element and the working classes would be fully represented by members elected in company with other men, representative of different sections of public opinion in proportion to their respective voting strenghts”. But he was only crying in the wilderness. The aim of the Revisionists was not to find means by which the Indo-Mauritians and working classes could secure seats in the Council but how they should be kept in check. It appears rather strange that the very system which was advocated 25 years ago to favour the Indo-Mauritians, should be today brought forward to serve as a barrier to Indian political advancement. Stranger still is the fact that PR was brushed aside when it served the purposes of Indians and there is the probability today of its being forced upon us when it works against them.

At the time when Adrien d’Epinay was agitating for reforms and formulating demands for a legitimate share in the government of the country, there was no question of PR or communal representation for at that time there was no Indian problem. The country was at the time for the “fils du sol” using their own much boasted term. When Remy Ollier came on the political scene, sometime later, he demanded in the virile language common to him that the whites should share power with the coloured people. The work of Remy Ollier was carried on by other coloured leaders until, as a matter of fact, the coloured population began to occupy an eminent position in the political field. Finally the elective principle was introduced in the Council. The Council was the scene of long debates between the Reformists and the Anti-Reformists who were headed by Celicourt Antelme. Many questions were broached, among others that of the probable Indian domination in the near future following as a result of the grant of the new constitution. But there was not even so much as a hint at proportional or communal representation.

The belief in Proportional Representation or communal representation as a means to keep Indo-Mauritians in check is a growth of recent times. It is an outgrowth of the so-called fears of Indians usurping the power which of right belongs to the General Population. These fears were clearly demonstrated by Leon Lame in an article in Le Mauricien of the 29th January 1926 in which he struck a note of warning. It was true, he said, that the Indian had no fascination in his person, wearing as he did the loin-cloth but he knew the value of money and at the sight of his money the prejudices against him vanished. Means were to be found to withhold political power from his grasp.

At the meetings of the Revision Committee, which had come into being, some years earlier, the question of communal representation was discussed. Mr Gebert, president of that movement had proposed separate electoral registers and recommended that out of 21 seats 17 should be reserved for the General Population and 4 for the Asiatics. Here was a proposal the motive behind which is apparently to keep the Indians in political tutelage. In defiance of their numbers only 4 seats were to be allowed to them. Fokeer, a contemporary writer, wrote with indignation at this aspect of things: “… Artificial barriers should be raised to circumscribe their movements! Candidates of the General Population have a right to represent Indians in any constituency but the pretension of candidates of Indian origin offering themselves to represent the General Population in any constituency is a crime in the eyes of that population and therefore laws should be framed to keep at arm’s length such a vain pretension”.

Arthur Rohan was another prominent member of the Revision Movement to advocate communal representation, not of such a form as to ensure to the Indians seats in the Legislative Council in conformity with their numbers in the island but to allow them a strictly limited number of seats.

All members of the Revision Movement were not, however, in favour of communal representation. Edouard Nairac, Member of the Legislative Council, was decidedly opposed to it. On the 29th April 1925, he made a motion in Council for the revision of the Constitution so as to ensure a more extensive representation of the community and give it a larger share in the management of the affairs of this colony.

At least Nairac was not haunted by fears of Indians swamping the minorities. He was fair and just towards them. He was against any mode of representation which would allow the divisions of the Mauritians according to class, creed and colour. He did not want to intensify the communal tendencies of the people. He wrote: “The Indians had not misused the power given and we could not, in our conscience, call upon the Secretary of State to upset such a state of things as would constitute an indignity to them or at least give them some right to believe so.”

How true are his words even today, when Proportional Representation is under discussion! The evils inherent in communal representation are also found in PR. Such a form of representation can be productive of no good. It will only bring forward in a marked way “old jealousies and rivalries and destroy the very foundations of unity. It would also degenerate into questions of caste and creed which would give cause for regret because under the present Constitution, class prejudices are dying out.”

 

*  Published in print edition on 19 October 2017

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