The Quest for the Truth in the Face of Falsification on the Death of Kaya and on the Uprising that Followed
In LALIT branches all over the country, there have been discussions on the importance of seeking both the truth and also justice on two events: the death of Kaya, Reginald Topize, in police cells twenty years ago, and the uprising against police violence that ensued. At a meeting of the Muvman Liberasyon Fam earlier this week, there was also analysis of these two related events. This article is based on all these discussions. It is written in the context of recent polemics in the press regarding organizations that have now rather suddenly, twenty years later, begun to pay homage to Kaya.
Death of Kaya: Two Narratives
From the day Kaya’s dead body was found in a police cell at Alcatraz in Port Louis on 21 February 1999, there have been two narratives. One has been increasingly discredited from the very beginning and the other has gradually gained credence and can now be considered to be nearing the truth, in a broad view, as to how he was killed.
The State’s Defensive Version
The State and its witting and unwitting supporters have put out variations on the following narrative from the very beginning:
“Kaya, having confessed to smoking a joint at a concert organized by Rama Valayden in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, was arrested as is natural for anyone who is breaking a law of the land, and he was locked up in a cell and then, his being a supposed drug addict or alcoholic led to him having fits as part of withdrawal, and he ended up hurling himself around his cell in delirium, until he fell flat on his face, causing a fatal injury to his head. When his guards opened the cell door, there he lay, dead.”
The Police Communiqué published in the Press the day after Kaya’s death already put out an early version of this false narrative: “The Police is in presence of a statement of an independent person indicating that this man [Kaya]’s behaviour prior to his collapse almost certainly led to his own death.” (This communiqué turned out, during the Judicial Enquiry, to have been a complete fabrication.) That is the State’s version in a nutshell: Kaya’s behaviour caused his death. It is a cover-up. Two years later, the Matadeen Report into the Riots (and not into Kaya’s death), even found off-the-cuff that, “Kaya’s detention in Alcatraz poses a number of questions relating to the desirability and propriety of detaining drug addicts in police cells,” thus giving a megaphone to State’s scurrilous narrative. And the cover-up continues. Everyone needs to be aware of the dangers of becoming part of it.
All the do-gooders who suddenly praise Kaya twenty years later, or who set up Projet de Societé in his name, or collect money under defamatory slogans like “10 gram pou Kaya”, or even those who pretend to be commemorating his death and yet who remain silent about the need for a proper Commission of Enquiry into the cause of his death, collude with this narrative invented and maintained first by the Police, then by the whole of the State and most of the Mauritian intellectual elite.
It is important to put into question this mendacious narrative, and to do so in memory of Kaya. It is also important to seek the truth in order to understand the nature of the uprising as it unfurled, stage by stage, in order to get justice for those whose houses were at the bitter end, in a choreographed pretence of revenge, torched.
The police-driven fiction has been discredited by evidence of all kinds. We list some that came up in the Judicial Enquiry:
1. First there are the police photographs of Kaya’s body lying face-down on the cell floor.
a) The blood that ran out of his nose, did not run down into the cement floor as gravity demands it should; it ran, instead, the photographs bear witness to this miracle, upwards into his ear and then even further up on to the back of his neck (which faced the ceiling) and collected there, also against the very laws of gravity.
b) The marks of the metal door on the soles of Kaya’s feet are a proof that someone else slammed the door on his feet. He could not have jammed his own feet under the cell door after having fallen down flat on his face in the course of alcohol or drug withdrawal fits as the police version implies.
2) All four doctors involved in post-mortem examinations of Kaya’s body found it riddled with injuries, including two on his back, and it was accepted that they were inflicted between his arrest and his death; much of his hair was detached from his scalp.
3) Dr. David I. Graham, Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Glasgow, on examining Kaya’s preserved brain finally laid to rest the debate, writing up his findings:
a) Kaya did not die a natural death, and
b) Kaya’s brain showed no signs of the effects of alcohol or drug abuse.
All those who believe that the State narrative is a total invention, and a dangerous invention at that, unanimously call for a Commission of Enquiry into the death of Kaya. We seek the truth.
Those calling for a Commission of Enquiry include Kaya’s widow, Ms Veronique Topize, LALIT, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam and the community of musicians in Mauritius. When JUSTICE: Association Against Violence by Officers of the State is active, it, too, calls for a Commission of Enquiry.
Anyone who wants to honour Kaya, his music, his lyrics or his contribution to art, has a duty to start by honouring him as a person, and calling for a Commission of Enquiry. Finding out the truth is what permits healing, and allows closure. It also opens the door for an honest interpretation of the justified uprising against the police that followed.
The More Likely Way that Kaya was Killed
The Judicial Enquiry was a weird experience that went on for over four years and was totally unconvincing. The DPP’s office, for a start, instead of looking for someone to put on trial over Kaya’s death – as is its duty – saw its role instead as being to protect the police officers from any blame. The DPP even brought in a witness, Dr. White, to do a literary criticism disguised as a counter-autopsy to the counter-autopsy (See Ram Seegobin’s booklet Kaya’s Death: The Medical Evidence, 2005.)
We do not know what a Commission of Enquiry might find. We in LALIT have a fair picture of what probably happened. It took hard work by a collective of individuals in order to get this overview. We, for example, sent delegates to listen to all the sessions of the Judicial Enquiry over literally years. We thought individually and discussed collectively all the events surrounding his death over two decades. MLF organized 14 night vigils all over Mauritius. And both LALIT and MLF have written up and published analyses of why Kaya was arrested, of the medical evidence, of the Matadeen Report into the Riots. So, the outline of the truth is likely to be something like this:
“When the police, under pressure from the Press, arrested a handful of the thousands of people who had two days before been smoking joints at a Concert organized by Rama Valayden in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, each of those selected for arrest denied the charges and was released, and that would have been that, except for the fact that Kaya said he had, in fact, smoked a joint. Good for him. He believed in it, he did it, and he said he did it. Of course, the forensic evidence that what he smoked was, in fact, marijuana had already gone up in smoke. This means no conviction would ever have been possible, ever. So, he was arrested strictly for nothing – from a prosecution point of view. There was no case.
“They should simply have granted Kaya bail on his own recognizance, and then quietly dropped all charges.
“But, he was arrested and locked up in the notorious Alcatraz police cells. The police officers on guard duty at Alcatraz had no interest in torturing him. However, it is known that enquiring officers (those actually doing the investigation), with the collusion of the police officers on guard duty, take prisoners away for torturing them elsewhere – in police jeeps, to Montagne Jacot, or to Midlands to a building site, for example.
“Note also that, there was no need to extract a confession from Kaya by torture. He had already confessed. But there are other obvious motivations for torture: like, to make Kaya say who provided him with the joint, thus implicating, say, the concert organizer, someone who would in fact six years later become Navin Ramgoolam’s Minister of Justice and who was already a political figure of note, close to the former Prime Minister.
“Kaya may have refused to implicate anyone. So, the beating and torture continued until he was dead.
“His body was then returned to his cell, hurled in headlong face-down, and the metal door jammed over the upturned soles of his feet, leaving a mark for the police photographs.
“The clothes Kaya was wearing at the time were never returned, as is practice, to his widow. They were disappeared.”
Neither police officers in charge of the enquiry nor the guards at Alcatraz were suspended, or arrested. This omission was the main precipitating cause of the uprising that followed, when young people rose up against the police.
But now, today, twenty years later, only a Commission of Enquiry will show who killed Kaya.
The Narrative of the “Riots” put out by the State and by the intellectual Elites
The narrative that is put out by the State and the intellectual elites about the “riots” that were sparked by Kaya’s death in detention is somewhat colonial in content, extremely communalist and totally false. This is the main thrust of the State’s version:
“Kaya was supposedly not so much a great musician, singer and lyricist popular amongst youngsters nation-wide, as a representative or symbol of communal “identity”. Broad masses of ignorant people of the same communal identity mistakenly blamed the police for Kaya’s death, which was in fact supposedly caused by his own previous drug-use, and then, being savages, these mobs took to attacking people of another community senselessly just because they are perceived as somehow being confused with the police. Or alternatively, it was Kaya himself who caused the senseless rioting by going and getting himself killed, by his own behaviour. Anyway, the confrontation between two communities then escalated,” this erroneous narrative runs on, “until some people in the second community, also ignorant and also being savages, and conveniently already armed with flame-throwers leap spontaneously on to trucks that have appeared out of nowhere, and quickly select two hamlets with a high percentage of the first community in them, to wreak vengeance upon them by torching all their homes in revenge for their supposed prior attacks. Meanwhile, these same people – on both sides – take to pillaging, in their spare time, at supermarkets and godowns. All through this the Police did their level best to separate the warring tribes, but Navin Ramgoolam was a bad Prime Minister because he did not use enough repression to quell the rioting hordes. Nevertheless, eventually the State restored order, people got tired and went home, and then all the burnt vehicles, tyres, rocks and street signs, were removed, and peace and order was restored. Mauritius then continued to be a harmonious paradise.” Everyone in the Mauritian elite and intelligentsia thus has two “knowledge-bites” to take home: Kaya supposedly died from drug-abuse; the rioting that ensued was supposedly communal.” Both are false.
This means we really do need a Commission of Enquiry into the police violence already established in the pathology reports, and that led to Kaya’s death. It also means we need criminal proceedings against those who used flame-throwers to torch peoples’ homes. Both involve officers of the State.
What actually happened in the Riots
Unlike the issue of Kaya’s death, there has, in fact, been a Commission of Enquiry into the February 1999 Mass Riots. It is, however, worse than useless. It is known as “The Matadeen Report”, 2000. It is named after the judge who was Chair of the Commission. Alongside him were, curiously, of all people, a representative of the private sector bosses Azad Jeetun, and almost as odd, a former Clerk of the National Assembly and defender of Free Masonry, the late Rivaltz Quenette. Their Report is truly scurrilous. It has been demolished by LALIT in a booklet entitled The Matadeen Report and Human Rights (2000). However, the Report does put together some of the relevant facts, on its way towards its absurd conclusions. What LALIT totally rejects are the conclusions. They are at best useless, at worst harmful. The Report’s findings are both a reflection of the State’s erroneous version of the riots, and a contributing factor to maintaining this false narrative until today 2019, twenty years on.
So, we have to outline what happened based on our own enquiries as well as reports and the Commission Report. Some of us especially in LALIT but also in the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, formally interviewed people from all over the country, took notes, and tried to understand in detail, while many of us were eye witnesses to the various phases of the uprising in different places ourselves.
What happened is this:
1. Kaya, the most popular musician in Mauritius and who is closely associated with the creation of a new rhythm for music, was found dead in police cells with brand new injuries all over his body. No police officers were suspended or arrested.
2. During preparations for Kaya’s funeral, people heard that the police were going to take his body back, in a bid to prevent a second autopsy.
3. People, angry about police violence, and understandably so because Kaya’s death was the third in 6 weeks in police cells, set up barricades on the roads, and began to attack police stations, and in fact destroyed nine. They were young men all over the main island of Mauritius – countryside and towns. Policemen fled most police stations. A large group of young men, watched by thousands of supporters, opened up the prison at Grand River North West. All the prisoners got themselves formally signed out. Prison guards left incognito. When the Special Mobile Force observed this huge, peaceful crowd from inside the armed tank sent there, the Authorities decided, rightly, to withdraw.
4. In a very unequal society, if the police are completely absent and if there is no political program uniting people, then there is likely to be pillaging. There was. This was mainly by women and children in their home-clothes.
5. Later gangs organized in trucks began looting on a large scale, and intentionally burnt down warehouses, presumably to destroy evidence that might be used against them.
6. Murky elements in the police resorted to rumours, even the Matadeen Report confirms this, “Some rumours were transmitted from the PIOR [Police Information and Operations Room] in Line Barracks to several police stations,” and mobilized some men in the North of the country to set fire to families’ houses with flame-throwers (lans-flam) in two different hamlets in the North, one near Triolet, the other near Goodlands. The aim was to convert an uprising that had always been directed against the police and against the property of the rich, into a communal confrontation amongst the poor (both from then on, and also retrospectively), and by means of this “conversion” to thus quell the uprising.
7. People stopped the uprising.
8. Armed people in plain clothes then cleared away barricades all over the country.
9. Amongst the people, anger remained.
10. For some two years, police cars could not go into working class areas, whether in the cities, towns or countryside villages, and when they finally did venture in, it was in vehicles with wire netting over the windows and windscreens.
11. People, mainly women, were charged with theft, for being part of the pillaging.
12. The people who burnt down houses were never, as far as we know, charged. They roam free.
13. In 2019, the L’Express newspaper ran an editorial on 23 February, headed Mea Culpa, in which it expressed regret, importantly, for its article calling for arrests to be made after the concert was long over, and also for its erroneous publication that Kaya had died of a fractured skull when much later pathological reports would attribute his death to either one or two non-fracture head injuries.
There are two demands that we make today of the Authorities:
1. A Commission of Enquiry into Kaya’s death so as to establish who killed him.
2. Continued enquiries into and then prosecutions against those who used lans-flam to burn down peoples’ houses.
And we have an important call to make to all do-gooders, NGOs’, money-collectors in Kaya’s memory, concert-holders, journalists and academics:
In all our actions, call for these two demands.
In all our analyses, respect the truth, and find a way to call for these two demands.
Once anyone understands the way Kaya was killed and once anyone understands the way the uprising was turned into a supposedly communal riot by means of a theatrically organized arson attack against isolated hamlets in the north, then it becomes clear that mistakes are today, in 2019, being made by do-gooders. These do-gooders become what we referred to at the beginning of the article as the “unwitting” part of the “witting or unwitting supporters” of the State and the intellectual elite’s erroneous, lying narrative.
If you collect money under the project title of “10 gram pou Kaya”, of course you are supporting the police narrative that he died of drug or alcohol withdrawal. People use “grams” for measuring heroine. Rezannah and Company cannot just pretend they are talking about the weight of a Rs 20 coin. Fortunately, they have finally announced that they will change the name. But, can you just raise money for a statue of Kaya or for a concert in honour of his memory without making clear your position about the need for a Commission of Enquiry into how his musical creativity and his very life were cut so short? And, if you organize, like Oodiah and Company, to go and do Kaya paintings in Cité Ste Claire in Goodlands, again, you are implying that the uprising itself was communal, when it was not. This hamlet is related, in any special way, to Kaya only through the communal plot organized by murky bits of the State allied with truck owners and perhaps bigger private sector bosses for torching. Otherwise the people of this Cité have no special link with Kaya; he was popular there, as everywhere else. The houses of people in that and another Cité were cruelly targeted for arson attacks with lans-flam as part of a pre-planned “drama” orchestrated by elements of the State in order to give a communal angle, in retrospective, to the justified uprising against police violence. So, any do-gooding needs to be done with a clear understanding of the truth about this link.
So, the class of the intellectual elite that had remained silent for 20 years, colluding with the lies about both the way Kaya met his early death and about what the uprising actually was. When it begins to raise its voice in support of Kaya, it is dishonest to do so without confronting the lies about his death supposedly being due to “his own behaviour”, on the one hand, and the lies about the uprising being a “communal riot” by mobs, on the other hand. It is our duty to expose the lies as cover-ups. That is what they are.
Editing done on 9 April 2019, to change order of numbering in one of the sections.