Why independence was irresistible

Avec le soutien de

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam during the flag raising ceremony on the 12th March 1968.

The Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in September 1965 convened by the Secretary of state for the colonies, Anthony Greenwood, in order to ‘reach agreement on the ultimate status of Mauritius’ was nothing more than a mere standard formality to complete the final stage of the decolonization process undertaken by the British government. People in Mauritius were led to believe and that myth still persists that the outcome of the general election of 1967 was a decisive one in charting the course of Mauritius towards either independence or a sort of association with Britain peddled by the PMSD. But our politicians raised the stake too high by whipping up passion to a feverish height bordering on communal tension. The 1967 election could be dismissed merely as a contest between Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and Gaetan Duval in the race to the prime ministership of independent Mauritius and nothing else. The fate of Mauritius was sealed in 1964 when Britain caved in to the pressure of the US which moved, it is reported, for “a settlementof the constitutional issue of Mauritiusindependence as quickly as possible”, which included the detachment of the Chagos which the US badly needed for the installation of what was a military base.

In fact, with the decolonisation plan put in place, the march towards independence was “inevitable”. On 24th September 1965 at the plenary session at Lancaster House, Greenwood announced the award of independence as the ultimate status for Mauritius. What Mauritius had to do was the passing of a resolution asking for independence and passed by a single majority in the Legislative Council.

Yet, despite the fact that association embraced by the PMSD was ruled out, the party continued clinging to that concept which no doubt would have carried some benefits had it been realised. Byflogging a dead horse, the PMSD hoped to grab power and nearly succeeded in doing so. Even if the PMSD would have won the 1967 election, the British being the colonial master would not have fallen back on association as the pressure for speeding up the independence of Mauritius was set in high gear by the US as well, a strategic ally of Britain in the war against therising menace of communism. Let alone Jules Koenig but Duval, a brilliant lawyer and politician always brimming with new ideas, most probably knew about all these manoeuvres and by riding though the rickety chariot of association wanted – in his own inimitable style – to spring a surprise, beating Ramgoolam on the finishing line. Nonetheless, the commitment for independence taken at Lancaster House in 1965 would not have been reversed.

It was Britain’s policy to get rid of its colonies. The sooner it was, the better. It had no such formula as association or integration to pick up from the shelf and hand it to Mauritius which no longer was the star and key.

Some countries opted for the system of integration but failed. For example, all attempts of Dom Mintoff for Malta to be integrated with Britain met with failures though the British gave him a ray of hope at first. At some point, according to a ‘confidential’ minute dated 6 July 1961 of the Mauritius Constitutional Review meeting in London, Ramgoolam said the Mauritius Labour party too was contemplating integration with Britain but discarded the idea after the Malta failure. As an alternative to integration, the British had proposed the grouping of smaller colonies like Mauritius in a Federation and Ramgoolam added after Koenig still insisted on integration that his “own party would be prepared to considerfavourably an association with some biggercountry, perhaps in East Africa”. But this concept of federating colonies by regions, championed by Labour MP Roy Jenkins in 1959 was dropped. The British considered the best option would be to give their colonies complete freedom, hence the Macmillan’s tours of the Asian and African countries in 1959 blowing his famous wind of change speech. Subsequently, Iain Macleod’s visit in 1960 announcing constitutional changes was the turning point. Ramgoolam by then had read the writing on the wall and was quick to position himself prominently on the independence platform.

Thus, the Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House attended by a strong 28–member Mauritian delegation, ‘notfully prepared’ as Sir Satcam Boolell pointed out, in which many had no specific role and probably did not know why they were there for. Greenwood did nothing to bring about a change of attitude or foster better relationship between the two rival factions which remained firmly stuck to their guns except that he set guidelines for the conduct of affairs with the taking over of Mauritius and confirmed the accession of Mauritius to independence.

But broadly, Mauritius seemed to have been of no concern to the British. Their top priority resided only in one thing – the entire detachment of the Chagos Archipelago although the US showed interest in the Diego part only at the initial stage for the establishment of a military base. The Mauritians were made to believe by the British that Diego was going to be used as a communication station which in fact would prove incorrect.

Although the agenda of the Constitutional conference bore no mention of Diego Garcia as item for discussion, Greenwood said he would not mix issues when he invited heads of the Mauritian delegation to a meeting to inform them of the British decision to detach the Chagos. There was unanimity from the Mauritian side to relinquish Diego. Conditions of lease and quantum of compensations to be paid to Mauritius divided the Mauritian party leaders. Here again, the Mauritian members pulled figures randomly from their heads and could not speak with one voice. Nobody wanted to impress and come back home empty-handed. Seeing the division in the Mauritian rank, the British dictated their own terms and walked away triumphantly. And when Harold Wilson met Ramgoolam in a one to one meeting, it is reported, he administered the last rite of the end of colonial Mauritius.

Was then Diego Garcia key to Mauritian independence? Before jumping to a conclusion, one must scrutinize the events unfolding in the world. After the second world war, the spell of the Cold War put a severe strain on relations between the Soviet Union and the western bloc, in particular, the US and with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arm race accelerated, taking alarming proportions to such a point that the two super powers (the US and the Soviet Union) were on the brink of a war. Taking the initiative for promoting peace, President Kennedy averted a major military confrontation with the Soviet Union. But the communist threat was taken so seriously now that China was making common cause with the Soviet Union. The US decided to be on its guard. It needed at all cost a military base in the Indian Ocean to give a tit for tat response to a communist aggression.

According to the historian and researcher, Narainduth Sookhoo, declassified British documents consulted at the National Archives in London reveal that the US Department of State and the British Ministry of Defence held a meeting between 25 to 27 February 1964 in the course of which the US pressed for the detachment of Diego Garcia from Mauritius and the dependency be brought under direct United Kingdom administration. Furthermore, the US delegation, according to Sookhoo on the basis of these documents was “anxious that the settlement of the Constitutionalissue of Mauritius independence bepursued as quickly as possible”.

Although independence and the excision of Diego Garcia were two distinct issues handled separately – (“we should not beseen to be trading independence for the detachmentof the island”, said Greenwood), they converged at some point with the connivance of the US exerting pressure on Britain to tackle the Mauritius independence issue and relieve the Chagos from the control of Mauritius.

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