It might not be a big surprise that superstar Amitabh Bachchan stares down at you from Le Pavillon shopping mall in downtown Port Louis, capital of Mauritius, almost 5,000 kilometres south of the Indian mainland. But the picture next to Bachchan’s is not what you would expect in a place that seems to be caught in a time warp—the much younger Deepika Padukone. The Indian line-up ends there. Two more stars from Hollywood, omnipresent on the world stage, complete the quartet.
But these are not the only Indian stars the Mauritians love. “I watch Kapil Sharma regularly,” says Kapeel, a hotel executive. (Kapil Dev, or for that matter, cricket, is not much of a hit in the country.) “I learnt Hindi at school, but don’t use it much,” he adds. Kapeel is a descendant of indentured labourers who were taken to cultivate sugarcane on the island following the abolition of slavery. The working and living conditions of indentured labourers were only slightly better than those of the erstwhile slaves: they received a wage and accommodation nearby.
Kapeel, and Jayram Gunnoo, a sales representative at a car rental, and his colleagues Chellen and Mevin are among the fifth-generation descendants of Indian indentured labourers who have branched out into various trades and businesses since the country became independent in 1968. The polity is controlled and determined by Indian-origin people, who form 60 per cent of the population, while a majority of the land is held by “Franco-Mauritians”, descendants of the French who settled in Mauritius before the British conquest of the islands. Neither the British nor rulers of the independent country thought it fit to enact land-reform laws.
The Indians I spoke to said they were from “somewhere in Bihar” and that their forefathers were brought to Mauritius via Kolkata. After the British took over the administration, the Tamils, Telugus, and Marathas moved in to service the indentured Indians. The Indians in Mauritius still retain their distinct Hindu identity and have installed massive statues of Durga and Siva in Ganga Talao, one part of the island.
Apart from its claim to fame as a country of a million banks, Mauritius was in the news recently for asserting its rights over the Chagos Islands, with at least two international platforms, the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, favouring Mauritian claims on Chagos over Britain’s.
But the island nation has been unable to get it back. Some history: the UK, which had captured the Mauritian territories, separated the Chagos Archipelago from the rest of Mauritius ahead of granting independence to the country. Not just that, the largest of the islands in the archipelago, Diego Garcia, was given to the US to establish a military base.
In the air
The politics of protest of a small island nation is rather interesting because it is quite literally in the air. One of the most interesting sights at Mauritius’ Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) International Airport on March 5 was an Airbus A330neo named Chagos Archipelago. A crew member told me that this was the second Airbus in the fleet, and that the name had a history to it.
When Chagos Archipelago landed at the SSR airport for the first time in 2019, the Chagossian community, expelled from the archipelago, was present to welcome it. An Air Mauritius Facebook post welcomed it thus: “Welcome home Chagos Archipelago.” Obviously, this is a long fight and a permanent issue that politicians wrestle with in the island.
“The polity is controlled and determined by Indian-origin people, who form 60 per cent of the population, while a majority of the land is held by “Franco-Mauritians”, descendants of the French who settled in Mauritius before the British conquest of the islands.”
Of domestic interest, the picturesque nation was in the news after its telecom boss Sherry Singh, a close confidant of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, resigned after alleging in the media that Jugnauth allowed India to instal an Internet-monitoring device during his watch.
Singh has kept quiet after that initial outburst, and the government is enquiring into the issue. It was during Singh’s tenure as telecom head that the Chinese mobile equipment and service provider Huawei grew massively in the country. These issues will feature prominently in the campaign during the island’s 2024 national election.
For the well-heeled tourists who visit this upmarket destination, the attraction is not that it is a tax haven, or the India-China jostling, or the country’s problems with the UK and the US. It is the flora, among the most well-preserved in the world, the many locales of breathtaking beauty, and the incredible biodiversity of a nation confined to one large and a few small islands.
R.K. Radhakrishnan is Senior Associate Editor, Frontline.