Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the first Prime Minister of Mauritius and regarded as the father of that small island nation in the western Indian Ocean, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 85 years old. Sir Seewoosagur, a former physician, led Mauritius to independence from Britain in 1968 and remained Prime Minister until 1982, when his Labor Party was defeated by a left-wing alliance in a general election. He was appointed Governor General in 1983 and held that largely ceremonial Commonwealth office at his death.
A general practitioner and heart specialist until he became active in the independence movement, Sir Seewoosagur had been ill for the last year. He died peacefully at his official residence in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, a county that is a little smaller than Rhode Island and has a population of about 850,000.
Thousands of mourners filed past his embalmed body, which lay in state in Government House yesterday. His body was to be cremated today and his ashes are to be scattered in the Ganges in India, according to Hindu rite.
The Mauritian Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, who had been visiting in London, returned home yesterday to lead the nation in mourning.
Sir Seewoosagur gained power in the pre-independence period as leader of the Labor Party and became Premier in 1961.
As Prime Minister after independence, Sir Seewoosagur promoted free and universal primary and university education, social security and old-age pensions and comprehensive national health programs. He sought to play a moderating role among Mauritian political parties and to diversify an economy heavily dependent on sugar cane.Continue reading the main story
In the 1950s and 60s, nothing more than the spectre of communism would haunt the western countries notably the US and Britain.
Communism was as much despised as global terrorism is today. As a result, the cold war which set in was like an active volcano but dormant and engaged the attention of the big powers. That was also the time when British colonies began taking interest in the independence movement after the hint thrown by the British government that a decolonisation plan was in the pipeline.
But it seemed a scrutinisation process was carried out before the award of independence to ensure a colony was not under communist influence. Where communism was regarded as a potential threat, the British intervened promptly.The West Indies colony of British Guiana is a typical example of British meddling and dictating its terms in local politics when Cheddi Jagan because of his suspected communist link was overthrown from power to make way for Forbes Burnham.
In all this, the role of the British and American Intelligence service was crucial. The historian Christopher Andrew delving in declassified documents relating to British Guiana concludes that the “MI5 played a more important part in British decolonization than is often realized”. Also active at that time, according to Andrew was the CIA which kept a hawk-like watch over colonies.
The first ‘coup’ staged in British Guiana in 1953 against Dr Cheddi Jagan goes to explain the ruthlessness with which the British government tackled communism. Fear that Jagan could open the colony to the Soviet Union was causing much anxiety not only to Britain but to the US as well. British Guiana (renamed Guyana after independence in 1966), had almost the same characteristics as Mauritius. The Indo-Guyanese whose grandparents were recruited as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations formed the majority of the colony’s population. Changes in the electoral system in the 50s with the introduction of universal adult suffrage enlarged Indo-Guyanese participation giving Jagan’s People’s Progressive party (PPP) a landslide victory in the 1953 election. Described as “an astute and popular politician”, Jagan was no sooner branded a communist for which he was made to pay a price more so that his American wife was a member of the Marxist Youth organization in the US and himself too was fond of Marxist oratory. Adding fuel to the fire, the US complained that Jagan was trying to bring communist threat on “America’s doorstep” and warned London to “ensure that the first leader of independent Guyana in 1966 was not Cheddi Jagan”.
The pressure from the US intensified in the years ahead. President Kennedy’s crystal clear instructions to his national security officers to ‘remove Jagan from power’ followed an earlier message from the US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to the British Foreign Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, urging him to “look urgently whether anything can be done to forestall Jagan’s accession to power.”
In the early 50s, Sir Winston Churchill who was the British prime minister, relying on MI5’s intelligence reports that Jagan was “completely under the control of a communist clique” responded as swiftly and powerfully as one would expect from a World War 11 hero . To “break the communist teeth in British Guiana” as he stated, he ordered a military expedition there to secure key sites and suspended the country’s Constitution. Jagan and his wife were both arrested and kept under house arrest. For three years, the colony was ruled under emergency powers by the British Governor posted there. Yet despite all the odds, Jagan who was said to be a major force in Guyanese politics bounced back with the PPP winning successively the 1957, 1961 and 1964 elections but racial violence prompted by outside secret services was kept at boiling point plunging the colony in absolute chaos. That was a good argument raised by the British to change the rule of the game in order to catapult Forbes Burnham. After independence, Burnham, contrary to expectations, showed his true colours by siding openly with the Soviet Union and Cuba and unleashing a reign of terror and dictatorship.
Anyway, Jagan was lucky enough during those upheavals to be spared of the fate that was to befall the democratically elected Chilean President, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in 1973 in a bloody coup sponsored by what came to be known as the “Yankee imperialism”. Allende created enemies mainly because of his affi nity with Marxist ideology.
Thus, the Cold war kept relationship between western imperialism and the communist bloc in deep freeze. A sentiment of mistrust vitiated the world stage. It is against this background that the rapid political evolution in Mauritius needs to be viewed. The British Guiana’s events became a pet theme for local politician to cite as example for some to put up resistance to independence. It did not take long for the newspaper Le Cerneen representing the interest of the wealthy plantocracy to pick up a close similarity in the manner of doing politics of both Jagan and Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. After the 1948 election which saw the last roar of the old order, it became clear to the sugar barons that political power had slipped out of their hands and there was no chance of it returning. The communist conspiracy was therefore propped up to create a climate of uncertainty and fear. Along with this, a horrendous campaign on communal lines was unleashed to frighten the ‘minority’ sections of the population of a swamping by the ‘majority’ community. It was hoped that by assiduously milking the communist and communal factors, the British government would be bound to take some sort of action as was done in British Guiana. In this pursuit, no one other than Ramgoolam was identifi ed as the villain of the piece by the capitalist class. He was likened to Jagan but more than that, he was described as a “dangerous opportunist” who was “capable of swings of mind”. Displaying his ‘‘Indian nationalist tendency’’ in his speeches, Ramgoolam tried to emerge as the voice of “my community” fuelling more fear of the ‘indianisation’ of the island.
When Ramgoolam spoke of the wholesale nationalisation of the key sectors like the sugar industry, the banks and docks – all held by the Whites – and the distribution of crown lands to the poor, he meant, in other words, that he intended to redress social inequalities, overcome poverty and wealth disparity. The masses cheered as never before was that sort of rhetoric heard of. There was hope that an era of exploitation was coming to an end. On the other side, a fearful private sector took him so seriously that it started a movement to resist changes. When Ramgoolam declared in the Legislative Council his admiration for Marxist and Leninist ideology, his support for the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya against the British, his condemnation for racial discrimination against the black and coloured population in South Africa, his justifi cations for the workers’ strikes in Malaysia and France, all these utterances had nothing more than the trappings of a communist agenda and led to Ramgoolam being cast as ‘‘l’homme de Kremlin’’, that is, a stooge of the Soviet Union. The only way to chase communism out, it was argued, was to drive Ramgoolam to his political sunset. To this end, Noël Marrier d’Unienville (NMU), the Editor of Le Cerneen, who was previously fighting Jules Koenig over the latter’s principled position in politics shifted focus on Ramgoolam. Fuming with rage and spitting venom, NMU was very much excited to do the hatchet job with his gladiatorial pen. But Ramgoolam too was in a mood to give in his own words “a fight to the finish” with the warning bell ringing that “your time is done” and that the “rising proletariat will clean the Augean stable” so that posterity could see “your skeletons in the museum and can realize what monsters you had been…”
But the communist hysteria seemed to have fizzled out. It cut no ice at the Colonial office and with NMU’s death in 1959, it altogether disappeared. As indeed, it is understandable, like all politicians building an electoral clientèle, Ramgoolam acted smartly. He knew that poverty and injustice are indispensable items in the electoral armoury of a politician and are drawn out to mobilise hope and garner votes, something which the Conservatives could not grasp at first. Yet, it seemed the British knew about Ramgoolam’s tactical move, trusted him and left him unscathed. So there was no worry about him making revolutionary Marxist inspired rhetoric that appealed to the population. There was no worry given that he was in all respects a “Britisher” who studied in England and enthusiastic of a Westminsterian style approach. He had intimate connections with ‘old friends’ of the Fabian society and among several British MPs. In contrast, Jagan, trained as a dentist in the US, was less known in Britain to the extent that even the British Labour party curtly declined to help with an “impossible to intervene” reply when he was ousted.
The British would at the end of the day have no other choice than to let Ramgoolam ride smoothly the political waves though they kept up their sleeves an ace called Renganaden Seeneevassen, held in high esteem at the Colonial office just in case the need was felt. But Ramgoolam was regarded as an asset who proved himself, as it is said, good at running with the hares and hunting with the hounds as also he was seen capable of weathering the growing influence of the troublesome duo – Sookdeo and Basdeo Bissoondoyal.
‘‘Displaying his ‘Indian nationalist tendency’ in his speeches, Ramgoolam tried to emerge as the voice of ‘my community’.’’