Did you know that Gandhi Jayanti is also celebrated in Mauritius? While his visits to England and South Africa are well documented, few are aware that he made a 21-day visit to the island country in October 1901. The people of Mauritius did not know at the time how momentous it would be.
Every time he went to India during those 21 years in Africa there was only one thought uppermost in his mind: the plight of the “girmitiyas”. He sought at every Congress meeting to acquaint its leaders with the sore and abject, humiliating, undignified conditions of the indentured labourers.
Many historians in Mauritius felt the trip was a blessing in disguise for the island nation. It is believed that Gandhi’s visit was the outcome of mere chance. The ship in which he was travelling home, SS Nowsehra, had made an unscheduled stopover in Mauritius. Many local newspapers spoke of the event. Gandhi himself makes a brief mention of his visit in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth.
Interestingly, Gandhi’s experiments in Mauritius took place much before his tools of non-violence and satyagraha were applied in India.
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Gandhi became familiar with local conditions and was appalled to see the abject poverty Indians were living in. After observing the plight of Indians, who had migrated to Mauritius in 1834 to work as indentured labourers in sugarcane and plantation farms, he advised them to educate their children and take part in local politics.
Gandhi exhorted them to fight for their social, economic and political rights. His interactions with the Indian community settled there brought about an intellectual transformation among them.
Mauritian author Deolall Thacoor wrote in the book Mahatma Gandhi in Mauritius that Gandhi gave a speech in the capital Port Louis, emphasising that Indian immigrants will only prosper if they are educated.
Indians in Mauritius have gone on to occupy high positions including that of Prime Minister, ministers, vice chancellors of universities and more. The Prime Minister, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, belongs to a Hindu Yadav family. The roots of their achievements go back to when Gandhi made Indian labourers realise the importance of standing up for social justice.
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The people of Mauritius have kept the memory of Gandhi alive. His impact was so strong that the country has a Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Gandhi Bhawan and Gandhi Maidan, with people also wearing and promoting khadi in shops. They not only remember him on his birthday but also celebrate his contributions to the nation on the day he stepped foot in the port.
Gandhi’s visit to Mauritius also had an impact on the man himself. He mentioned the island nation in many of his speeches, notably when he was the President of the Indian National Congress. In 1924, Gandhi brought up Mauritius in reference to the Indian indenture system and the need to abolish it. In 1947, he again mentioned it during partition, asking Hindus and Muslims to embrace brotherhood and live in harmony just like the people there.
Did Gandhi write about Mauritius?
During the 1950s and 1960s, Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal, an Indo-Mauritian Gandhian, repeatedly emphasized in his publications the little known fact that Mauritius had an important influence on the Mahatma and his writings. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi clearly shows that between 1896 and 1914, Gandhi mentioned Mauritius at least ten times in his letters, petitions, official speeches and publications. In 1896, while writing about voting rights for Indians in Natal in South Africa, he alluded to the fact that some Indo-Mauritians qualified for the franchise in British Mauritius thanks to the fact that they were property-owners, wealthy businessmen and could read and write.
In his Satyagraha in South Africa, the father of the Indian nation mentioned Mauritius on different three occasions. He explained that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of Indo-Mauritians as well as Indian traders and indentured labourers had emigrated from Mauritius to Natal. They had made important contributions in the emergence of the sugar industry there as well as in Gandhi’s campaign for their social, economic and political rights. After all, one Mauritian who stood out in particular in Gandhi’s book was Thambi Naidoo who was one of his faithful lieutenants during the satyagraha campaign in South Africa.
In December 1901, in his speech at the 17th session of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma referred to Mauritius along with other colonies such as Fiji and Natal as being places where Indian workers and traders have contributed in the prosperity of those British territories. It should be noted that this speech came just over a month after Gandhi’s historic visit to our small Indian Ocean island. Four years later, in a letter to Professor Gokhale, his political mentor, the Mahatma encouraged him to visit Mauritius while on his way to South Africa.
In 1907, Manilal Doctor arrived in Mauritius and began to work for the political and social emancipation of the Indo-Mauritians and the Indian indentured labourers. Between 1907 and 1911, he sent telegrams to Gandhi on a regular basis informing him of his work in Mauritius. In 1911, in one of his letters from Tolstoy Farm in the Transvaal, South Africa, Gandhi informed Gokhale that:
“Mr Manilal Doctor has, as you are aware, done very good public work in Mauritius and gained the affection of the poor Indians there to whom he became a friend in need.”
Commemorative stamp sheet of the Gandhi Mauritius visit
The Gandhi Mauritius visit
In his famous autobiography “The Story of My Experiment with Truth”, the Mahatma explained that during his three-week stay in Mauritius he had acquainted himself fairly well with local conditions in the colony. This was the primary reason why in 1906, during a brief meeting with Manilal Doctor in London, Gandhi asked him to go to Mauritius. It becomes evident that the plight of the colony’s Indo-Mauritians and the Indian indentured labourers preoccupied the apostle of non-violence even several years after leaving our shores.
During the early 1900s, Gandhi was instrumental in getting the indentured labour system abolished in the British Empire. In his letter of 1911 to Gokhale, Gandhi stated that Manilal Doctor was proceeding to India to attend an important meeting of the Indian National Congress where he would campaign to get a resolution passed condemning the indentured labour system in all British territories. The Mahatma mentioned that he supported Manilal’s initiative who has seen the terrible living and working conditions of the indentured workers in Mauritius.
Many years later, in 1924, as the President of the Indian National Congress, the Mahatma, although taken up with India’s freedom struggle, referred to Mauritius when speaking about the inhumane treatment of the indentured overseas Indians. He was fully aware that during the course of that same year, hundreds of indentured workers were sent to work on some of the Mauritian sugar estates following a visit of some Mauritian planters to the Indian subcontinent who were in search of labour.
Between the 1910s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi came in touch with several Mauritians such as R.K. Boodhun, P. Lutchmaya, J.N. Roy and B. Bissoondoyal. He encouraged them to work for the social, political and economic betterment of all Mauritians. Thus, it is not surprising that over the years, these brief encounters with prominent Mauritians constantly reminded him of his visit to Mauritius. In 1936, Dr. K. Hazareesingh, the former Director of the MGI and a well-known Mauritian writer, sent a letter to Gandhi requesting information about his stay in Mauritius. Interestingly enough, Gandhi replied shortly after that he clearly remembered his visit to Mauritius and that he had been a guest of Governor Sir Charles Bruce.
In 1942, the Mahatma wrote a letter to Marshal Chiang-Kai-Shek, the Chinese national leader, in which he revealed that between 1905 and 1913, he had been in close contact with Indians and Chinese settled in Mauritius. In 1947, at the height of inter-religious riots in India, in one of his post-prayer morning speeches, Gandhiji mentioned that in Mauritius, Hindus and Muslims lived in peace and harmony.
More than two decades, in The Truth About Mauritius, Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal accurately explained that: “As many as 46 years after his visit to Mauritius, he was so kind as to tell his countrymen that this tiny island could teach India something”.
It is obvious that Mauritius did have an important influence on the father of the Indian Republic and his writings. Furthermore, the annual celebrations of the Mahatma’s birth are a clear indication that Mauritius and Mauritians have always shared a special relationship with M.K. Gandhi.