Punjabis in Mauritius
There is a popular joke about Punjabis that one would find ‘Sher-e Punjab’ dhabha in remotest part of the world. Even Tenzing found it on top of the Everest. Joke apart, Punjabis have traveled to the far off corners of the world. They have gone to African countries also in large numbers, but not so much in case of Mauritius. Mauritius, which is otherwise Indian background people dominated country of West Africa, does not claim to be overwhelmed by Punjabis. Yet, whatever little number of Punjabis reached this small but beautiful country of about 12 million people at present, have made an impact, though little is known about it. Mauritius of today has just seven cities, some towns and hundred odd villages, but is absolutely clean and it beaches are most beautiful in the world.
Formed as an island many centuries ago, out of a volcanic eruption in ocean in West Africa, it remained unnoticed till about 1500 A.D., when some Arab merchants noticed it, but did not stay there. It was then discovered by a Portuguese Domingo Fernandez and named it ‘Cerne’ in 1500. But nobody stayed here till Dutch colonialists decided to take it and they captured it in 1598 and named it Mauritius in the name of one of their Prince Maurice. Even Dutch took long time to have a Governor here and they stayed here up to 1710.In 1686, during Dutch rule there were just 269 persons inhabiting this island, which included 12 Indians among them. Dutch brought slaves from nearby Madagascar, Mozambique etc. and some slaves even in those days came from India as well. There is reference to Goan slaves in Mauritius. According to Dr. Vijya Teelock, noted Mauritian historian one Bengali woman slave Anna had took part in slave revolt against Dutch colonialists in seventeenth century. French Colonialists took over Mauritius in 1715 and ruled here till 1810, when they ceded this colony to British colonialists, who ruled till 1868. Strangely, French rule of 95 years has surpassed British rule of 158 years of Mauritius in terms of cultural and economic hegemony. Under the agreement in 1810, when French surrendered Mauritius to Britain, French interests were not to be touched. So the sugar industry, the only industry of the island remained in French hands along with hegemony of French language. Today the official language of the nation is English, yet all the official communiqués are published in French for public. There is no English daily; only two weeklies are there, one of these is bilingual with French. But there are two French dailies. Mahatama Gandhi visited Mauritius on his way back from South Africa to India in 1904, when his ship was held up in this island for ten days. He stayed with a Muslim family in Moka at that time and was given a civic reception by British Governor. In 1909, Dr. Manilal , a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, started ‘Hindustani’, a Hindi daily from Mauritius, but nowadays there is no Hindi paper or journal of repute published from Mauritius. Over the period Creole has become lingua franca, though it has no script yet, but this is the language evolved for public communication by this multi lingual, multi cultural and multi racial nation. Creole has been evolved from the mixture of French, Bhojpuri and African.
Indians have been coming are being brought into Mauritius from the very foundation of the country. Thus during French rule in 1766, Indian population among a total of about two thousand stood at 578. It rose to fifteen thousand out of total 86273 in 1827. In 1761, during slavery, the number of Indian slaves in Mauritius stood at 73 males and 26 females. In 1810, when British troops took over Mauritius from French, they came with 24000 troops including 9000 Indians. In 1833, slavery was abolished by British Parliament and 6000 slaves including many Indians were freed. But they found the need for cheap labour on sugar farms, so Indian migration through indentured labour started in 1835 from India, which continued till 1910. In Folk Museum on Indian indentured labour migration at Mahatma Gandhi institute in Mauritius has records of this migration in 164 registers from 1842 to 1910. About 4.5 lakh Indians came to Mauritius as indentured labour from during this period on hundreds of ships sailed from Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, as these cities were called in those days. Out of these about two and half lakh returned, but more than two lakh made Mauritius their home.Of about 1.25 lakh photographs of indentured labour are also there in these records. Majority of Indians went from Bihar and U.P., but large numbers went from Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Small numbers went from Bengal, few from Punjab too. There are references of people going from Nabha and Patiala state in these records. Apart from Indians, Africans and Chinese, French made the Mauritius a multi cultural society. These laborers shed their blood and sweat and suffered lots of tortures at the hands of British and French colonial masters to make this country ‘A Heaven without Snakes’ in the words of eminent Hindi writer Yashpal. Today, Indians form more than fifty percent of Mauritian population. There were 450 Arya Samaj Temples, 185 Sanatan Dharm Temples, 130 Tamil Kovils, 121 Mosques, 70 Telugu Andhra Mahasabha Temples, 42 Churches, 12 Pagodas, and Ten Marathi Temples in Mauritus in year 2000. The number of these religious temples must have increased in this period and One Gurdwara which has come into existence during this period was visited by me to take the feel of Punjabi population in Mauritus during my seven weeks lecture tour under scholar exchange programme of UGC. On an earlier occasion during seventies, a Gurdwara was established in the home of a retired army officer in Mombasa area, but that continued only till his officer wife on duty stayed in Mauritius. This new Gurdwara near capital Port Louise has come on the land given by Mauritian Government and it holds weekly congregations on Sunday, sponsored by some Punjabi Sikh or Hindu working in Mauritius. As per information given by officials of Gurdwara committee, there are only 5-6 Mauritian Punjabi families in the country and about 500 to one thousand Punjabis-Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims together might be in Mauritius on short term jobs, some on senior executive positions and some workers. Many from this or that side of Punjab have become Mauritians through marriage to Mauritian spouse. I met a young Muslim Punjabi from Lahore in a Sunday market in Qatra Bon, who had married a Mauritian girl. Same way the daughter in law of late Vice President of the country Ravinder Gharbharn, Anju Monga Gharbarn came to Mauritius 28 years ago by marrying his son. Son in law of present President of the country Anuruddh Jugannath, Dr. Malhotra is from a village near Ambala, which Dr. Jugannath visited during his last visit to India. However Dr. Malhotra with his wife has established medical practice in England now.
Most illustrious person from Punjabi background in Mauritius was Kher Jagat Singh, a close associate of freedom fighter and first Prime Minister of the country Dr. Shiva Sagar Ramgoolam. Mauritian Labour Party formed in early thirties, had a constitutional struggle to achieve freedom for the country. Dr. Ramgoolam had close relations with Indian National Congress during his medical student days in London and Mauritius had great impact of Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore on its nation. Kher Jagat Singh was actually Kehar Singh Jagat Singh and was born to a Sikh father Kehar Singh in Amritsar on 23rd July 1931. At the age of three months, he came to Mauritius with his parents. His father was a prison inspector in British service and he married a Mauritian woman. In his book ‘Petals of Dust’, published in 1981, Jagat Singh has depicted one of his visits to his ancestral place Amritsar in sixties, but the present living family of Jagat Singh has no contact with his relatives now. They don’t even know their whereabouts. Jagat Singh became an eminent journalist after completing his education and worked for ‘Times of India’ Delhi for some time. He co-founded ‘The Mauritian Times’, ‘The Nation’, ‘The Mauritian Today’ and daily ‘Advance’. He worked for ‘Slough Observer’ and ‘The Paddington Times’ of London as well. In 1958, he founded Triveni Cultural Centre, which today is an eminent cultural place in Mombasa. Since 1948, he became active in politics and joined Mauritian Labour Party and got elected to pre-independence Mauritian legislature in 1959 and got reelected every time till 1982, when Mauritian Labour Party suffered the worst defeat in elections, even Prime Minister Dr. Ramgoolam loosing his seat. Mauritius gained independence on 12th March 1968 and Dr. Ramgoolam taking over as Prime Minister. Kher Jagat Singh served as Minister of Health, Economic Planning and Development and finally as Minister of Education and Culture. It was during Labour Party rule that Mauritius developed into a social welfare state with free public education, health service and old age pension. Kher Jagat Singh played a major role in shaping these welfare policies of Mauritian Government. His role was particularly appreciated in the field of education and culture. Under his stewardship, free education and school education reached in every nook and corner of the country. Today Mauritius is almost complete literate country, though lagging behind in higher education.
In 1980, Kher Jagat Singh was knighted by British queen. He remained General Secretary of Mauritian Labour Party from 1961 to 1982. However Mauritian Labour Party suffered worst defeat in 1982 general elections loosing almost all sixty seats of Parliament to opposition. As Dr. Ramgoolam was considered the ‘Father of the Nation’, like Gandhi in India; he was made Governor General in 1982, which he served till his death in 1985 at a ripe age. Kher Jagat Singh, a sensitive soul and a lover of literature and arts also did not live long and he passed away in July 1985 at the relatively young age of 53 years. Jagat Singh is survived by his still active wife Lady Radhika Jagat Singh and four children. His eldest son is named after him and so is his elder daughter named after her mother. Her younger son is named as Kher Sanjay Singh and her youngest daughter, who must be just 3-4 years old at the time of his father’s death, is named Krittica. A dentist by profession, she wished to be named as Krittca ‘Kaur’ as per his grandfather family tradition. I met Lady Jagat Singh and Dr. Krattica twice and was presented with ‘Petals of Dust’ written by Kher Jagat Singh. A bust of Kher Jagat Singh has been installed in Mombasa area, where Kher lived for long time. This bust was inaugurated by present Prime Minister Dr. Navin Chander Ramgoolam son of Dr. Shiva Sagar Ramgoolam in 2008.
Kher Jagat Singh has such deep attachment to literature and culture that in 1977, when Abhimanyu Anat’s Hindi novel ‘Lal Pasina’(Red Sweat) was released in Delhi and the writer himself could not come, it was Kher Jagat Singh, who represented him and his country on that occasion. This classic novel of Mauritius has now been translated into French, whose introduction has been written by this year’s Noble Laureate of literature-Klazio.
Though small in numbers, Punjabis did play an important role in making Mauritius beautiful and colorful and in lone Gurudwara, there is always more non Punjabi Mauritian than Punjabis, listening soulful rendering of Gurbani, thus further contributing to multiculturism of the nation.