The tiny African country India almost invaded

Mauritius is India's only Hindu-majority country. So why did India almost invade it?

The tiny African nation of Mauritius is located thousands of kilometres from India, but you would not know it by looking; as Hindu temples dot the country, Diwali is a public holiday, and two-thirds of the country trace their origins to South Asia. Mauritius is Africa’s only majority Hindu nation, and enjoys close ties to India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi even described Mauritius as “Little India” during his 2015 trip to the country. So why did India almost invade Mauritius in 1983? In order to tell such a bizarre tale, we must first delve deeper into how a tiny sliver of India was created off the coast of Africa.

While occasional visits by Arab, Portuguese and Dutch explorers had previously confirmed the island’s existence, Mauritius remained one of the last places on earth to be colonized by humans. Mauritius lies 2,000 kilometres south-east of the African mainland, making already remote Madagascar look positively neighbourly by comparison. Despite such vast distances, Mauritius is a member of the African Union, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The creation of Mauritius is inextricably tied to the needs of European colonial powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the island’s incorporation into the French, and then later British colonial empires, the island was uninhabited. You have most likely already heard about the colonization of Mauritius, even if you do not know it. This is because Mauritius was the home of the flightless dodo, whose rapid demise at the hands of European explorers remains one of the most iconic stories in history.

Uninhabited Mauritius makes for a unique colonial experiment

Despite lacking a native population, Mauritius’ colonial masters soon imported foreign cash crops and slaves from Africa in order to establish a plantation economy and reap a modicum of profit from this far flung isle. Following Britain’s acquisition of the island in the early 19th century and subsequent abolition of the slave trade, migration patterns to Mauritius changed. Despite the abolition of slavery, the UK nevertheless required labourers, with Britain turning instead to India, acquiring indentured servants to man Mauritian plantations.

This combination of African and South Asian forced labour led to the creation of a creole society, with around a quarter of Mauritius’ population tracing their origins to Africa and the rest (excluding the small European and Chinese communities) with roots in South Asia. This little of slice of South Asia adrift in the vast Indian Ocean has, unsurprisingly, fostered strong ties with India. Indeed, following Mauritius’ bid for independence in 1968, the Indian government even tasked the chief justice of Allahabad, Bidhu Bhushan Malik, with drafting the island nation’s constitution.

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The influence of Indian culture on Mauritius can be seen in all facets of public and private life on the island. This is especially true in the case of Mauritian politics, which unfortunately have come to mirror many of the same concerns about religion and minority representation that  plague Indian politics.

Both India and Mauritius inherited a system of colonial administration which went to great pains to subdivide and categorize the population into various ethno-religious groups. These groups in turn enjoyed different rights, depending on which tier in the racial hierarchies of their colonial masters they occupied. Said groups also carried with them a long legacy of confrontation and identity politics, facets promoted and exploited by the British to maintain power and keep elements of society divided against each other.

Post-independence, Mauritius (like India) had to - and continues to - contend with what exactly constitutes Mauritian identity. “Ethnicity is highly relevant in the current political system,” writes researcher Amenah Jahangeer-Chojoo, “which favours divisive tendencies, to the detriment of federative ones.” The problem for both Mauritius and India is that religious, caste, and ethnic identities influence voting behaviour, leading to various political parties effectively coming to represent only certain elements of society.

While the Mauritian constitution makes allowances for the representation of minorities, the criteria determining which groups constitute a minority remains contentious. For instance, whereas two-thirds of the population was initially grouped together under the label ‘Indo-Mauritian’, the island’s Muslim community sought the creation of a separate group, with the aforementioned category split along religious lines in 1962. This was preceded by the creation of the exclusionary Comité d’ Action Musulman (CAM) - a Muslim political party - by Abdool Razack Mohamed in 1958.

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The fear was that since Hindus comprised the majority of the Indo-Mauritian group, they would dominate in a first-past-the-post system and monopolize any seats reserved for adequate minority representation. Similar fears were articulated by the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate, the only anti-independence party, which garnered support from the island’s minorities by warning that independence would only lead to a Hindu monopoly on power.

Why 'Little India' found itself in 'Big India's' cross-hairs

In a certain sense, these fears have been realized, as Mauritius has only had one non-Hindu prime minister - Paul Bérenger (2003-2005) - since achieving independence in 1968.

That being said, from 1968 to the 1980s, efforts were made to facilitate the representation of minorities, with big tent coalitions forming government This inclusive attitude came to end in the 1980s as PM Anerood Jugnauth sought out to rally the Hindu vote behind one party, and thus guarantee election success. Jugnauth sought to accomplish this goal by stealing the Hindu vote from its traditional home in the Mauritian Labour Party.

Jugnauth's later power struggles with the constituent elements of his own ruling coalition only further motivated him to focus on the Hindu vote to the detriment of other voting blocs. Specifically, while originally affiliated with Paul Bérenger’s Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), Jugnauth was forced to deal with the fragmentation of the ruling coalition in 1982.

A power struggle with finance minister Paul Bérenger led to a crisis in governance as both men sought to exercise control over the coalition government. Tensions rose to such a level that some feared a potential power grab by Bérenger. These fears were powerful enough to find their way all the way to India, where the government of Indira Gandhi took note. The MMM, led by Jugnauth and Bérenger had already come to India's attention by defeating the pro-India Labour Party in the 1982 election.

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Unsurprisingly, India has not enthused by the prospect of a Jugnauth government, but concerns about Bérenger’s political beliefs soon turned the outspoken finance minister into a common enemy for both Jugnauth and New Delhi. Of particular concern were Paul Bérenger’s pro-Soviet leanings, which together with the championing of minority rights led India to fear that Bérenger “[could] favour the Creole and Muslim minorities and potentially provoke a refugee exodus of Hindus.”

While India had good relations with the Soviet Union, Bérenger’s pro-minority stance combined with his support for the Libyan government made him a threat in the eyes of New Delhi. If you wondering how Libya fits into the equation, India was concerned about Libya due to its ties with Pakistan, as well as the efforts by the Libyan embassy in Mauritius to convert Hindus to Islam.

As previously noted, India has long had interests in Mauritius, with Indira Gandhi becoming the first Indian leader to visit the country in 1970. Gandhi was also the one who originally popularized the ‘Little India’ moniker which Modi also used in his 2015 trip. Fearing a potential coup by Bérenger, Jugnauth approached India for support, which began drawing up plans for a military intervention, codenamed Operation Lal Dora in 1983.

The fact that India was willing to gamble on an invasion (especially given its limited maritime assets) on the other side of the Indian Ocean demonstrates just how much of a stake New Delhi had (and has) in ‘Little India’.

Focus on identity politics sees Mauritius mirror India's sectarian tensions

Fortunately for all concerned, the Mauritian leadership crisis was resolved in 1983 when Jugnauth defeated Bérenger in the 1983 election. Ironically, Jugnauth's new party Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM) entered a coalition with the Labour Party (same party Jugnauth had helped to undermine) to defeat the MMM.

The fallout from this power struggle also led to a breakdown in efforts to foster big tent politics as Jugnauth sought to marginalize the Muslim minority as punishment for their support of Bérenger and the MMM during the election. While Jugnauth focused more on overcoming inter-caste issues, the Muslim population increasingly felt like outcasts. Consequently, “political discontent, articulated through the collective feeling of victimization.” notes writer O. Hollop, “was directed into religious reforms and Islamic revivalism.”

Some Muslims resented the fact that I did not say that I was a Muslim first and foremost. I am first and foremost a Mauritian [...] I practice my religion. But I believe in universal values. I believe in nation building.
— Dr. Rashid Beebeejaun, deputy PM of Mauritius (2005-2010)

This trend saw the breakaway Muslim Democratic League splinter off of from CAM, as well as the rise of Islamist groups in the country; such as the Zam Zam Society, Mauritian Solidarity Front and the Islamic Society of Mauritius. The early 1990s also witnessed the creation of the Hizbullah party (now Front Solidarité Mauricien) in Mauritius, which won a seat in government in 1995 and 2010. In 1992, Jugnauth also expelled the Libyan ambassador from the country in response to Libya's aforementioned efforts to convert the country’s Hindus.

While these tensions have simmered for decades, there has been a marked up-tick in recent years. During the 2010 election (in which Hizbullah won a seat) the incumbent government faced heated campaigning rhetoric which played on issues of religion. In particular, deputy prime minister, Ahmed Rashid Beebeejaun, was attacked by Muslim opponents as not being a faithful Muslim. Speaking to The Hindu, Beebeejaun noted that “some Muslims resented the fact that I did not say that I was a Muslim first and foremost. I am first and foremost a Mauritian. I am a man of deep personal faith. I practice my religion. But I believe in universal values. I believe in nation building.”

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Furthermore, the 2010 election once again saw fears of Hindu domination arise among Mauritian minorities. This anger was only further fanned by comments by a government minister during a campaign rally. Speaking in Hindi to the Vaish Welfare Association, the minister proclaimed that “the prime minister [Navin Ramgoolam] belongs to the Vaish [Hindu caste] first, then to the country, and finally, to the world. When the Prime Minister and the government are yours what do you have to fear? You have total control over the country.”

This kind of rhetoric only validates the fears of the Muslim minority community, and further entrenches divisive identity politics. These comments are also of note because discussions of caste in Mauritian politics is considered impolitic. Mauritians often critique India’s continuing obsession with caste, and point to their own efforts at incorporating various castes into Mauritius political structure in the 1980s as evidence of the country’s inclusive attitude.

While caste issues remain, the nature of how Mauritius subdivides its population (Indo-Mauritian, Muslim, Creole etc.) and how these subdivisions impact minority representation in government leads the Hindu community to downplay caste differences in order to maintain unity. Viewing Hindus in Mauritius as one community, and thus one voting bloc in turn perpetuates the narrative of Mauritius as a Hindu majority nation.

Mathieu Claveyrolas, a CNRS research fellow in ethnology and social anthropology at the Centre of South Asian Studies in Paris, elaborates on this point in greater detail.

“[The disappearance of caste in Mauritius] is seen as an indication of a modern and liberal Hinduism that only non-Indian Hindus have proved able to promote. According to Hindu activists, the recurrent resurgence of caste issues in the local media is merely the result of manipulation by non-Hindus aiming to criticize and divide the Hindu-Mauritian community. Differentiating between the various castes could indeed lead to contesting the general idea of a Hindu majority in Mauritius [...] which underlies the fragile balance of Mauritian identities.”

The stronger emphasis on religion and identity politics in recent years has mirrored developments in India where similar trends are occurring. Such is the connection between the two countries, that divisive Indian figures are recreating the kind of controversy they elicit at home, in Mauritius. In November 2017, the controversial chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yogi Adityanath, visited Mauritius to mark the 183rd anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers to the island.

Adityanath is seen as a Hindu hard-liner, and is accused of targeting the Muslim minority population in UP. He is also a staunch supporter of PM Modi, who appointed him to his current position in 2016. As previously noted, PM Modi is also characterized as a Hindu nationalist, and his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots targeting the state’s Muslim minority continues to hang over his image.

News of Adityanath’s visit raised tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Mauritius, with the MMM calling for the cancellation of the visit. Anger over the Yogi’s visit saw the vandalization of Hindu temples on the island ahead of the visit, acts which The Voice of the Hindu called “acts of terror.”

Hindu hardl-iners in turn questioned their opponents why the Muslim community had not voiced their opposition to the 2012 visit by Zakin Naik, a fiery Indian Islamic preacher, who engenders the same kind of response within the Hindu community, as Adityanath does among Muslims.

Expect continued Indian machinations in run-up to 2019 election

Just as India casts a long shadow over Mauritius’ past, the island nation continues to be rocked by events tied to India. In many ways, when India sneezes, Mauritius is the one that gets the cold. India views Mauritius as part of its Indian Ocean sphere of influence, and as such takes an active interest in the affairs of the island.

At first glance this relationship seems to go in both directions, as somehow tiny Mauritius constitutes India’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), with the island nation outspending the United States and UK to take the lion’s share of FDI in India in 2018. For instance in 2014, Mauritius provided India with FDI worth $10 billion, despite the entire country’s GDP being only $12 billion. You may rightly wonder how a nation of scarcely 1.3 million can outspend the world’s largest economies.

Obviously Mauritius is not spending almost its entire income on investments in India, rather these funds are actually being redirected by Indian money laundering operations and companies through Mauritius back to India. With Modi’s government seeking to tackle corruption and black money, the government of Anerood Jugnauth jumped on board in 2015, launching a whisper campaign against the prominent Mauritian financial institution, Bramer Bank. What complicates the matter is that Jugnauth seized control of the bank, citing unspecified improprieties, which is run by Dawood A. Rawat, a friend of former prime minister, Navinchandra Ramgoolam.

By targeting Rawat - a Muslim - some Mauritians are complaining that this incident is but another anti-Muslim operation by the Jugnauth government. There are also claims that PM Jugnauth ordered secret police to harass prominent Muslim minority leaders. The fact that his son Pravind replaced him as prime minister in 2017 also undermines his reputation, with the move inciting protests from opposition parties and bolstering claims that Anerood is attempting to build a political dynasty.

Pravind’s administration is also facing corruption scandals, centred around the misdeeds of President Ameenah Gurib, who resigned on March 23rd, 2018. With elections scheduled for 2019 and Mauritius’ main opposition leader, Ramgoolam doing well in the polls, Pravind is turning to India for support. Both Pravind and his father Anerood enjoy close relations with PM Modi’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) government, which itself is criticized in India for its Hindu nationalist background. Conversely, Ramgoolam was known to have a warm rapport with Modi’s predecessor from the rival Indian National Congress, Manmohan Singh.

Conclusion

One of the last places to be colonized by humans, Mauritius changed hands several times, as successive colonial powers imported labour to create a creole society blending elements of Africa and India alike. Mauritius' ties to India run deep, as the tiny island has the distinction of being Africa's only Hindu-majority nation. As a result, India's shadow looms large over the island nation.

Since independence, there have been many debates as to what exactly constitutes Mauritian identity. Efforts to promote the representation of minorities - building off of colonial-era racial classifications - has made for divisive politics in recent decades, as political parties targetting specific ethno-religious voting blocs to win elections.

Concerns about the dominance of the island's Hindu majority has led the Muslim population, and other minorities, to foster their own collective identities, further politicizing religion. While issues of caste do not plague Mauritius to the same degree as India, the island nation continues to be buffeted by the winds of Indian politics. Political developments in India, as well as the arrival of controversial figures from the subcontinent, rock Mauritius with a certain regularity, as India's political and religious clashes are played out on a smaller stage in the far south of the Indian Ocean.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.