Ramgoolam: the ‘communist conspiracy’ was but a red herring

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It is a well-known fact that the founder of the Labour party, Maurice Curé, was influenced by the radical French politician, Jean Jaures, who is today claimed by all the political parties in France, that Anquetil was a member of the British Trade Union and that Rozemont was a far more radical figure than any other member of the Labour party and was hated by the Colonial administration. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who wore the mantle of leader of the party after Rozemont’s death was anyhow the most feared, not by the Colonial office, but by the private sector even though he was not committed to revolutionary political violence and agitations as were fashionable in those times in several colonies with budding politicians trying to carve out a niche by climbing the greasy pole.

What was to strike a chord of fear was the leftist posture adopted by Ramgoolam in the 1950s-60s as evidenced in his speeches in the Legislative Council, his writings in the newspaper Advance and on public platform. In a way, Ramgoolam emerged as the smartest political operator outmanoeuvering adversaries and colleagues with a finesse that is rarely seen in today’s politicians.

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam welcomed upon his arrival on February 14, 1982, after a trip to London.[PHOTO D’ARCHIVES]

So incisive was he that the journalist of the London Daily Mail, Sefton Delmer, visiting Mauritius, wrote that despite Rozemont being a “rabble rouser” and the “most popular union leader”, the most influential voice in the Labour party “belongs to a little Indian, Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam…” If this testimony is something to reckon with, then it can be inferred that Rozemont’s Labour party had already come in the grip of Ramgoolam. With all his flamboyance, Rozemont succumbed to the charm of Ramgoolam, brushing aside, by the way, the warning sounded by Edgar Millien that Ramgoolam was a “dangerous Hindu nationalist” and a practitioner of rabid communalism, an assertion shred into pieces by Rozemont and Guy Forget who boldly stood up in defense of Ramgoolam. That prompted Governor Robert Scott to write a confidential despatch to the Secretary of state for the colonies in 1954 that the Ramgoolam - Rozemont relationship developed into what His Excellency described as a “shotgun wedding”. In a sense, Governor Scott assured the Colonial office that the firebrand Rozemont suspected of intimacy with overseas communist connection was now brought under control by none other than Ramgoolam who had, unofficially, taken the lever of the party’s command, confirming the Daily Mail’s statement of the “little Indian” incursion in the Rozemont fortress.

If the Colonial office grew suspicious of Rozemont’s alleged communist connection, what about Ramgoolam who seemed to have openly tom-tommed the communist ideology? More than anyone else in the Labour party, it was Ramgoolam’s statements tinged with aggressive leftish tendencies that began to raise eyebrows in some quarters. Agitation politics like the one pursued by Rozemont was not Ramgoolam’s cup of tea. Nor was Ramgoolam a brilliant orator capable of whipping up passion. Yet, his calculated expedient moves were viewed as those that would play a larger role in defining future national politics. That obviously meant upsetting the apple-cart of conservatism.

Those status-quoists took him so seriously that they harnessed all their efforts to knock him out. As, for example, in one of their strategies, they would hire Noël Marrier D’unienville (NMU) from Paris to raise the banner of revolt in Le Cernéen. Wielding his prolific pen, NMU saddled himself to the task of cutting down to size Ramgoolam upon whom were poured all sorts of ridicules and vitriolic comments. Instead of bringing diminishing returns, those scathing attacks reinforced Ramgoolam’s stature especially within the Hindu community.

Indeed, the Conservative elements had cause for concern because of the rapid unfolding of events locally and internationally Such events impacted severely on the local political environment leaving the Conservatives in a state of uneasiness. That sooner or later their supremacy and power would be thrown out of gear. Changes were imminent, viewed from Ramgoolam’s statement that “whether one likes it or not, the cock will crow and the sun will rise in the East”. The 1948 General elections witnessed a shift in the power structure in Mauritius, aided by the promulgation of the 1947 Constitution. From then on, communal tendencies began to have deep resonance in all spheres of activities. The boiling communal cauldron worried, too, Governors like Mackenzie-Kennedy and Scott who wrote lengthy letters to alert the Colonial office about the “exclusiveness” attitude adopted more specifically by the Indian community which constituted the majority of the population and whose dominance scared the minority communities which began to demand safeguards. But then, communal division in colonies was a hallmark of British colonial policy and Ramgoolam unharmed could enjoy a plain sailing in the choppy waters of Mauritian politics.

On the international arena, the rise of much dreaded communism engulfing the world was seen in a very bad taste by the West, notably Britain and the US. The “romantic side of communism” attracted many of the colonies whose emerging leaders hoped to start a political career swearing by the communist ideology. A communist regime, it was stated, would strip the rich and economically strong of their wealth and privileges and embark on a nationalisation spree. When Ramgoolam articulated on public platform his pledge to nationalise such key sectors as the banks, docks and sugar industry and to reallocate crown lands to the poorer section of the population, it was a clear indication then that his agenda was aligned with the communist prescription, a prescription that was a catch-all phrase for political expediency, to reach out to the masses who were told that the time had come to right the “historical wrongs” perpetrated on them. That was indeed considered a powerful mobiliser and paid handsome political dividends. In British Guyana, Dr Cheddi Jagan because of his communist affiliation was immediately deposed by Britain with the complicity of the US and forced out of the circuit for quite a long time. Ramgoolam was said to be made of the same mettle as Jagan. His adversaries denouncing him as “l’homme de Kremlin” wanted the same fate be handed to him.

But, rather than adopting toughness, the Colonial administration turned a blind eye, hardly cared about Ramgoolam’s moves considering it normal his campaign for the communist cause and his various statements, for example, his support of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya which the British crushed with force or his speeches at times laced with Marx and Lenin messages.

Yet, it was the Conservative class which flexed its muscles and mounted what it called a “crusade” against the “communist conspiracy in Mauritius” hatched by the “old fox”-Ramgoolam. “The man is in reality,” wrote a correspondent of Le Cernéen on 22 May 1953, “a dangerous opportunist who would not stop at anything in his scramble for power”.

What’s wrong, then, in being an “opportunist” in politics like all true politicians are? It was the Conservative class that was to become Ramgoolam’s strongest ally later. Though Ramgoolam reneged on his promises as these could be dismissed as political stunts, he operated with manipulative skills. He showed that in politics, he was not a bizarre character picked up from an old curiosity shop and that power mattered whatever the means that suited him best.

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