There could not have been a better venue for a regional conclave of the Indian diaspora than Mauritius. It is indeed the Indian diaspora capital of the world, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of the most concentrated presence of people of Indian origin per square kilometre. Mauritius also has the distinction of having elected a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) for the first time in history as a head of the government. “We planned a ‘mini’ Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), but there is nothing ‘mini’ about this PBD…. Next time, we should organise one, not in the Swami Vivekananda Hall (the largest facility on the island), but on the beaches where every Mauritian can join in”, said Indian high commissioner T P Seetharam. According to him, the registration had to be closed several days before the event as it had exceeded the target of 800 participants.
An African PBD had already been held in Durban earlier and so the Mauritius PBD was basically for the Indian Ocean islands, including Reunion, Madagascar and Comoros and quite naturally, Mauritius embraced it with warmth and enthusiasm. The Government of Mauritius worked with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the High Commission of India to create a PBD to remember and one of the best-organised ones. It was an occasion for uninhibited celebration of the links with India and for demonstrating that India’s umbilical chord with the majority of Mauritius citizens is strong and durable.
In the early days of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks in Washington following the 1998 nuclear tests, Talbott asked Jaswant Singh whether the latter could think of any country in the world, which would support India unconditionally if India faced a threat. While Jaswant Singh was still thinking of an answer, Talbott said, “I mean, excluding Mauritius and Bhutan”. Jaswant Singh said nothing. This may not be a true story, but it tells a lot of the truth. There is at least one resolution, Pakistan’s proposal for a ‘Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in South Asia’ which is tabled every year in the UN General Assembly against which only India, Mauritius and Bhutan vote. All others either support the resolution or, as a gesture to India, abstain at best. Our point that a NWFZ in South Asia is untenable when nuclear weapons are present in the near neighbourhood has few takers as they consider NWFZs as holy cows.
Mauritius supports the Indian positions in the UN more as a gesture of solidarity than on merit. It has not signed the CTBT till today, because of India’s difficulties with it. Some other countries, which are close to India, constantly plead with us to understand that they may have to vote differently from India on issues of no direct interest to India to establish their credibility in the international community, but Mauritius supports our positions unconditionally. We have come to expect it as a matter of course so much so that when Mauritius omitted to mention support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council in the General Assembly debate this year, there was some commotion in South Block. Mauritius repeatedly explained that it was an omission on the part of the delegation in New York, which thought that it was not a live issue this year.
Indian diaspora in many countries help in the formulation of pro-India policies by their governments, particularly in countries, in which the community has a decisive say. However, there is no automaticity of support, except in Mauritius. Fiji, despite its significant Indian community, followed its own policies. In its quest to maintain special ties with the west, Fiji did not join the Non Aligned Movement on the ground that Fiji was so non-aligned that it could not join even the NAM. The Bavadra government, which came to power in 1987, was contemplating to join, but it was ousted in a military coup within 30 days. Indian Americans were very supportive of the nuclear deal, but they were the severest critics of the 1975 Emergency. Only Mauritius supports India, whether India is right or wrong.
Mauritius has 80 per cent PIOs in its 1.3 million population and there is no pressure from the others to distance it from India. Uninhabited till the Dutch took possession of the island in the eighteenth century; it has no indigenous people to claim special rights. The only Dutch contribution to the island was that they consumed to extinction the dodo, a flightless indigenous bird, giving the English language the expression ‘as dead as a dodo’. It is the most successful democracy in Africa, with stability and racial harmony and it is a social and economic success story. The Indian link is fully accepted by the population and the government does not have to balance India with any other power. France and China have influence, but even they do not challenge the Indian connection. In the debate on diaspora’s expectations of India, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was that children did not have to define their expectations of the mother. Mother India could be trusted to act in their best interests, as was evident in the various educational and cultural institutions that India had built. Their further aspirations like building a PIO University or tracing their roots in India at a reasonable cost are voiced with the expectation that India fulfil them, like a mother will do, when circumstances permit. There are no shrilling demands, no threats of disillusionment. Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam stressed that India-Mauritius relations transcended consideration of immediate benefits for either country.
Minister for overseas Indian affairs Vayalar Ravi pointed out that 40 per cent of the foreign direct investment (FDI) in India came through Mauritius. The treaty between the two countries on Double Taxation Avoidance is the reason for the emergence of Mauritius as the dominant channel of FDI. The situation immensely benefits Mauritius by way of employment opportunities and service fees, though alleged abuse of the facility by Indian resident investors has alerted Indian tax authorities to seek changes in the treaty. Mauritius is confident that the two countries can work together to remove the abuses without affecting bilateral links. “Let me state very clearly that we will collaborate to prevent any alleged misuse of the treaty. In view of the historical, cultural, political and diplomatic ties between the two countries, we need a global solution that will not penalise Mauritius”, said the then Mauritius finance minister Ram Sithanine in 2006. Such mundane matters were not allowed to vitiate the celebration of traditional ties. Foreign secretary Anund Neewoor admonished a journalist for raising the issue with me at a foreign office lecture on India-Diaspora relations.
Prime Minister Ramgoolam praised the PBD as a unique institution that brought India’s children abroad back to their mother’s lap. Vayalar Ravi responded equally warmly about India’s children abroad. Mauritians appeared to relish their mother’s embrace as they soaked in contemporary Indian paintings of Namboodiri, Santhana Krishnan, Subramanian and Devi Seetharam, the Rajesh Khanna show, the Kathakali and the Mohiniyattam, together with mutual vows of eternal friendship.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.