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Rajni Lallah on Women in Chagos & Diego Garcia Struggles


This paper is the English version of the paper LALIT member Rajni Lallah presented on the last day of LALIT's International Conference for Action on Diego Garcia & Chagos issue held at the Mother Earth Hall 0in Grande Riviere on which her speech was based. Rajni Lallah participated in solidarity action for the first all-women Chagossian hunger strike in 1978 when she was still in her early teens.

The Role of Women in the Diego Garcia struggle
Women made an enormous contribution in the struggle to free Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos, particularly in the first phase of the struggle. Women brought an important dimension to this struggle. In Chagos, in the coconut company both men and women had the same working conditions, and were treated relatively equally as workers. So even there though was class inequality in a feudal-type working system there, this equality in terms of work conditions meant that women were in a relatively stronger position. So when the people of Chagos were uprooted and were landed in Mauritius, men, it seems, were more weakened than women.

So in September 1978, when there was a first hunger strike of the people of Chagos in Bain Des Dames, it was a an all-women's hunger strike, 6 women in all. Women from LALIT and the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (Women's Liberation Movement) were active in the holding of an all-night solidarity event to mobilize support for the hunger strike. The all-women's hunger strike of women had two important effects:-
1. It made the struggle for the return of Diego Garcia become centre stage on the national political agenda, and at the same time
2. The struggle became a central one for the Women's Movement.

The fact that women were in the forefront of the struggle for Diego, made the MLF and LALIT think about the political significance of Chagossian women standing up so courageously against the world's most powerful state and its military might; standing up against the Mauritian State lying low on the Chagos question and calling for solidarity from workers and oppressed people in Mauritius.

At the international level, the women's movement during this period were in the forefront of protests against militarism, against military bases, against nuclear armament and against an economy that leans on militarism. In the women's movement, we realised that women in general, are responsible for peace-keeping - whether in the family institution, in the neighbourhood, in public space.. In everyday life, the physical presence of women on the streets, at home and at work makes a difference. It discourages men to use abusive macho language; it discourages unnecessary fights that degenerate. That fact that women in general have the capacity to "keep peace" in the family and in the locality means prevents police from invading the family, the neighbourhood, public spaces. The police and army, are institutions that have the license to inflict violence on behalf of the state. The police and the army are typical patriarchal institutions with a pyramid-like structure where a patriarch right at the top of the hierarchy rules over several layers of sub-chiefs, who in turn rule over "sub-sub" chiefs. The police and the army are one of the key instruments of the patriarchal system in which macho men oppress all women and almost all men too. Women know that under police and army reign, under war or military occupation, patriarchal domination becomes extreme in degree. So, the role of women as "peace keepers" has played a key role in the struggle.

Another interesting and dynamic dimension in the 1980's period where women were in the forefront of the struggle for Diego is that it was in this particular phase that the first political platform of interlinked demands for the closing down the military base, the decolonisation of the Chagos archipelagos and the right of return and reparation for the harm caused to the people of Chagos, was first built and formed the basis for action. This was what happened when there was the second all-women's hunger strike of 8 Chagossian women in March 1981 in front of the British High Commission in Port-Louis. Amongst the hunger strikers were Virginie Besage, Noeline Selmour, Renette Isai, Louise Dorie Simon, Patricia Lamb. On the ninth day of the hunger strike, when the media and public opinion had still not noticed the hunger strike right before their eyes, Muvman Liberasyon Fam took the formal decision to meet a delegation of the Chagos women coordinating the hunger strike. It was in this meeting, that the interlinked demands in the platform were agreed upon and this formed the basis for the spectacular action in Port-Louis that followed.

In the meeting, it was decided that a women demonstration with banners with slogans based on what the platform commonly agreed upon would be held the following day at 11.30 a.m. The next day, about 50-60 Chagossian women together with militants of the Muvman Liberasyon Fam and LALIT distributed paper banners, hid them inside clothes, and when the right moment came, pulled the banners out taking the RIOT police by surprise. The demonstration took an unusual form of the police running to catch up with a quickly-paced women's demonstation. Women with their banners, were shouted: "What do we want? Diego", "Close down the base and get out". No wonder people wanted to know what was happening. The event triggered off a shift in public opinion as more and more people learnt about what had happened to the Chagossian people and got to know of the political program on which these actions were based. This form of all-women's demonstrations went on for two days. Then on the third day, the Cabinet of Ministers was to meet: the Chagossian women organisers and Muvman Liberasyon Fam /LALIT knew that the demonstrations would not suffice. Something else had to be invented.

And so it was. On the third day, 27th of March 1981, a Friday that the Cabinet would meet, 100-200 women took over the street in front of Parliament, just in front of the statue of Queen Victoria, shouting the platform demands. RIOT police tried to push demonstrating women to the side of the road by interlinking their arms and marching forwards. That was when the women of Chagos taught us a new tactic to deal with this kind of repression; a tactic which we took note of and made it a point to transmit to other women in the women's movement. Their tactic was to grab the weakest point of every RIOT man and squeeze as hard as necessary. The interlinked arms of RIOT police got unlinked in a hurry and at this crucial point women whacked their heads once or twice with umbrellas for good measure.

Immediately after, these 100-200 women demonstrators changed their tactic. They walked down 'La Chaussee' and sat on the street near the women on hunger-strike in front of the British High Commission. It was there that the battle of women v/s RIOT police took place. Lindsey Collen and Kisna Kistnasamy were in the thick of it. Women inflicted defeat on RIOT police. The women were assisted in their action by people on the street. Hawkers and cleaners working in nearby buildings who could see what was happening threw stones, bottles, plates, or anything throwable they could get their hands on at RIOT police. The people of Chagos were no longer isolated - with or without the media, ordinary people started to get involved in the battle. RIOT police had to retreat and concede defeat.

The demonstration was followed by the notorious Court case in which 8 women that they identified as being the ring-leaders of the demonstrations at La Chaussee were charged under the Public Order Act (POA). Lindsey Collen and Kisna Kistnasamy were amongst them. The women won their case because the RIOT police was neither able to admit that they had beaten the women, nor admit that they got beaten by women!

Up till that period, people in Mauritius knew little about Diego and the Chagos, At the international level, people knew even less. When the members of Muvman Liberasyon Fam sent telegrams to women's associations abroad, asking them for solidarity messages one women organisation replied in a telegram: " Who is Diego? Make sure it's a women's issue". Action based on this women's political platform was what helped in making people in Mauritius and all around the world know what happened in Diego, made them aware of the interlinked demands: close the military base, decolonise Chagos, and reparations for the people of Chagos.

The lesson we learnt was that the government had to concede because women's mobilisation and actions were based on a strong political platform of interlinked demands. This was what dragged Bhinod Bacha, Secretary of the Mauritian Cabinet, the symbol of the State of Mauritius to the "Zardin Konpanyi", in person to give reassurance that the Mauritian State was giving all due consideration to the movement's demands. The demonstrations and actions of women on the basis of a political platform with its interlinked demands made the British government make concessions and pay some compensation to the people of Chagos.

Women, as from that first phase, were at the head of the struggle of the people of Chagos. Charlesia Alexia were the leaders for the following phases. Rita ( Olivier Bancoult's mother), Ansi Jafar, Aurelie Talate and several other women were leaders.

These first phases of struggle where women were at the forefront were rich in experience and provided us with lessons for today, for the future. This phase shows the power of a program with interlinked political demands such as those we are putting forward today. It taught us about new forms of actions that were possible. It taught us that in the course of action, when the situation changes rapidly, we need to learnt to recognize when and how to change rhythm, when and how to change tactics instantly. It taught us in the women's movement in Mauritius, not to be scared of the police, to stand against patriarchs, and to act without fear and with dignity.
Rajni Lallah
2nd November, 2010