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LALIT members speak at Book Cafe event on Diego Garcia


The Book Cafe in Rose-Hill hosted Bashir Khan, the Chagos Refugees Group UK representative, for a talk on Thursday 30 June, 2011 at 6:30 pm. He is the man quoted recently by The Guardian in the UK as having referred accurately to the USA armed forces as “military squatters” on Diego Garcia. He gave an outline of events between 1965 and 1968, and the way the Chagossians were not taken into consideration by the US, the UK or the Mauritian pre-Independence government. The event was chaired by Shaffiq Osman.
Mr. Khan, in his talk, criticized the Jean-Claude de L’Estrac line to the effect that pre-Independence Chief Minister, Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, had “sold” Diego Garcia and the Chagos. He said it would not have been possible for him to sell something that was not his to sell. He added that any agreement with Harold Wilson, UK Prime Minsiter, was extracted anyway under duress, during pre-Independence talks. He pointed out that Ramgoolam represented merely a political party, anyway. He, however, strongly criticized the Labour Government from not having immediately taken up the issue after Independence.
LALIT members, in their interventions, responded to a defeatist and somewhat irrational point of view that a speaker from the floor came up with. He said that it was impossible to get Diego Garcia and the Chagos back and, curiously, that Mauritius is in any case (according to him) selling off Agalega, so therefore we should all face the reality and give up any struggle.
Lindsey Collen deplored this defeatism. She said that it is important for victory that we keep all the three aspects of the struggle in mind: that is to say, opposing the root cause, i.e the US military base, and also opposing its direct consequences i.e. the UK dismantling Mauritius and then cruelly displacing the people living there. These three wrongs are all inter-connected. We cannot barter one against the other. We cannot just seek sovereignty like the Mauritian Government is doing, without opposing the base. We cannot just seek the right to return, as many Chagossian groups do, without opposing the military base which is the cause of the expulsions. She said that, as for the line of blaming dead politicians from pre-Independence times, that was a sure way of letting the UK and USA off the hook. She also reminded people that Jean-Claude de L’Estrac’s research assistant for the book he has just published is Nad Sivaramen, who works for the Pentagon.
Ram Seegobin said that when the different Chagossian groups think that they can negotiate away Diego Garcia and Chagos to Britain for its Marine Protected Area in exchange for being involved in planning the Marine Park, it is a bit like what everyone is now agreeing to have been the ridiculous thing Dr. Ramgoolam did in 1965: negotiating away something that was not his to negotiate away. Chagos is part of Mauritius by international law, he said. Everyone knows that. So, if the Chagos Refugees Group or other Chagossian groups, think they can negotiate away Chagos, it is a bit like a dangerous tendency in other domains today in Mauritius. It is comparable to the situation where a tourist hotel company, Ram Seegobin said, blocks public access to the beach as part of its profit-making enterprize, and is then opposed by a group of fishermen who genuinely are suffering from the blocked access to the beach. Then the hotel bosses offer them few hundred thousand rupees, as if the beach were theirs to sign away. That beach is public. It belongs to everyone. Chagos, too, being part of Mauritius, belongs to us all, collectively.
Ram Seegobin said that he thought Dr. Ramgoolam had indeed not “sold” the Chagos to the British, as everyone is now finally realizing, because it was indeed not his to sell because it was then British, so buyer and seller were indeed both one and the same legal person, but Ramgoolam had sold something: He had sold out his moral right to speak out after Independence about the illegal occupation by Britain and the US.
In response to other speakers, Lindsey Collen also said how there had been very powerful struggles in the past, and she outlined them. She spoke of the fight between Chagossian and LALIT women and the RIOT police in 1981, and how this prolonged struggle, including three days of street demonstrations, and 10 days of hunger strike, had after four or five years struggle, reached a water-shed, and then huge political gains became possible. It was, she said, because of mobilization around the three demands: “Ferm baz militer!” “Rann nu Diego!” ek “Drwa de Retur ek reparasyon”. She also spoke about the Rann Nu Diego Committee and the International Conference held last year.
Present for the debate were Mauritian university students, academics, four or five LALIT activists, other activists and one or two intellectuals interested in broad issues like this one.
The debate ended at 8:30pm over a glass of iced tea.