The birthday of the father of the nation is a special occasion every year in India and even more so in 2019 as it marks the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary.
But 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.
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.
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 current 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.