150 people gathered in Company Gardens yesterday morning 13 July to pay homage – through speeches, poems and songs, all set in an arresting exhibition of huge photographs and Press cuttings – to the 50-year women’s struggle that kept the Chagos issue on the agenda throughout modern history.
It was this women’s struggle, as the exhibition showed and as the four speeches highlighted, that permitted the recent resounding victory of the Mauritian State against the UK-USA at both the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (2015) and then the International Court of Justice and in the General Assembly of the UN this year. It was on the basis of a long and broad struggle of Chagossian and Mauritian women that history was taken forward at key moments.
The multi-media event was organized by LALIT with the collaboration of the women’s organization, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, both of which were involved, together with hundreds of Chagossian women, in the early struggles to put the three key issues on the agenda and throughout the time since then: Re-unification of Mauritius after Britain’s excision of the Chagos, the right of return and for full compensation for all Chagossians, and the closure of the US military base on Diego Garcia, the cause of all the crimes.
The event, both celebratory and commemorative, was highly charged emotionally and had a central theme: while the Mauritian State was in 1981 beating up, brutalising, arresting, charging and attempting to lock up in jail Chagossian and LALIT women, this same Mauritian State has in 2019 today, as a result of this struggle, been in a position, itself, to take up the very issues that the women’s struggle was taking up then. The Mauritian State has finally gone to the UN General Assembly and the ICJ and won. The very Mauritian State that accused the eight woman, arrested and charged in 1981, of causing “disorder” and of committing crimes, has today not only formally done what the women called for at the time, but accurately now accuses the UK State of committing “a crime against humanity”. This was the very cry of the women’s demonstrations, “Angle Kriminel”, the British State is criminal!
So, the real victory today is not just that of the Mauritian State and one or two leaders but, at a much deeper level, it is the victory of peoples’ struggles, in particular of women’s struggle. Yesterday’s event celebrated this in itself, and as a vindication.
The guest speakers were Former President of the Republic Cassam Uteem and Chagos Refugees Group leader Olivier Bancoult. Cassam Uteem spoke of the wisdom of the early women’s struggles in selecting the two main slogans of the epoch, still so important: Rann Nu Diego! and Ki nu pe rode? Diego! -- although everyone knew the reference was to the whole of Chagos. Speaking earlier at the event, Olivier Bancoult made a similar point, saying that the slogan Rann Nu Diego! although he and many Chagossians are from other islands in the Chagos Archipelago, had and still has all its merit. Ragini Kistnasamy, who was a participant-witness of the 1981 street battle with the Riot Police, in her speech made the point equally clearly, quoting how the late Aurelie Talate, Chagossian leader, had expressed it in a nugget of wisdom, “Diego lakle” or “Diego Garcia is the key to the struggle”. The convergence of the content of the four speeches was notable.
Cassam Uteem put emphasis rightly on the need to get the US military base on Diego Garcia closed down. He argued that we cannot have B-52 bombers being launched from territory for which we are responsible, and then going and bombing people with whom we have no quarrel, whether they live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.
Olivier Bancoult, after paying homage to the women’s struggles, commented on the land-mark decision in the National Assembly the day before that Chagos would be part of a constituency. This marks a practical step in the implementation of the ICJ decision, and the UN General Assembly call.
In her speech, Lindsey Collen presiding for LALIT, said that progress in history is, in general, not the result of just one or two Prime Ministers like Navin Ramgoolam and Pravind Jugnauth – however important their moves to go to the UN Tribunal on the Law of the Sea and to the ICJ via the UN General Assembly – nor of the tireless UN representative Jugdish Koonjal – however well he did his job, in fact we take out hats off to him – but of peoples’ struggles. These struggles, these actions, when based on clear analysis, on shared understanding of what people are doing together, actually move history forward.
This is why, she said, we are showing pictures of the street battle between women – Chagossians and LALIT and MLF women – when the Riot Police attacked their peaceful demonstration on 27 March, 1981. She paid homage, in the presence of his widow, daughter and family, to the late Vel Kadarassen, L’Express photographer, who had captured both the tragic arrival of the Nordvaer bearing the final voyage of traumatized Chagossians to the Port Louis wharf side in 1973, as well as the Riot Police assault on demonstrating women. As a photographer, Vel Kadarassen managed to capture in visual form these two key moments in history that are still on the agenda today: the deportation itself, and the women’s struggle against the crimes involved.
As well as the photographs of 1981, there were also blown up photographs of LALIT street demonstrations in 2010 and demonstrations in front of the US Embassy 2012, and a night vigil in 2015 – showing the on-going nature of the struggle. The three panels prepared by the MLF, using the LALIT documentation Centre, showed the contribution, via mainly press cuttings, of many, many organizations. These included, amongst others, the Comité Ilois Organisation Fraternelle including Elie and Sylvio Michel, the MMM, including Paul Bérenger, the MMMSP, the Comité National Soutien aux Ilois, the Komite Moris Losean Indyin including Kishore Mundil, CEDREFI including Pynee Chellapermal, the Chagos Refugees Group, and the Comité Social Chagossien including Fernand Mandarin and their lawyer Hervé Lassemillante, Komite Rann Nu Diego!, Sahringon, the Nelson Mandela Centre, Komite Diego, Labour party in the UNCLOS victory, the present Government for the ICJ and UN General Assembly victories, as well as individuals like Henri Marimootoo for his Diego Files, and Week-End in general, Jugdish Koonjal at the UN, Rajsoomer Lallah who was legal advisory that helped Seychelles retrieve Aldabra and other Seychelles Islands out of the BIOT, Cassam Uteem as President and former President. The on-going LALIT struggle is also highlighted, included the two Declarations after LALIT International Action Conferences on Diego Garcia and Chagos in 2010 and 2016.
Also on show was a bust of Aurelie (Lisette) Talate sculpted by Emmanuel Richon and loaned from the Blue Penny Museum for the event.
Darma Mootien and Anne-Marie Joly gave a rendering of a poem-song by Lindsey Collen on the echoes of Chagos and Diego Garcia.
Three original compositions – all focussed, just like the women’s street demonstration slogans, on Diego Garcia as the key to Chagos – were performed in an electric atmosphere.
First Joelle Hoseiny’s rendering of Rajni Lallah’s composition, Lamer Mo Pei Dilo, with Rajni sublime on the synthesizer, brought tears to peoples’ eyes. (On a 2012 performance at the Centre Nelson Mandela in the crystal-clear quiet of their hall, the two musicians had found their performance brought to a halt in the middle by the two of them, and the entire audience of Chagos and MLF women present, bursting into tears. Then, after tears had been wiped, and been replaced by laughter, the song was taken up again.)
Then, Menwar, accompanied by and in musical conversation with Rajni Lallah, sang his powerful song, “Bom la pu bombarde”, bombs end up bombarding, in his signature voice, proudly emotional but devoid of any touch of sentimentality.
Finally, Zulu accompanied by Rajni Lallah, sang his heart-rending composition with lyrics by him and his partner Uvi, song in his unusual, powerful voice.
All three songs added a strong emotional content to an already strong atmosphere in the Company Gardens – Gardens that were witness, as Ragini Kistnasamy put it, to so many important struggles over the years. The last two big demonstrations there were in fact LALIT demonstrations held in 2018 together with some 50 local housing committees fighting for replacement of asbestos housing.
The event was symbolic in another way: it showed the importance of working together with different currents, on the one hand, and on the need to delineate oneself from currents that are not the same, on the other hand.
So, yesterday, there were the following currents present:
- part of the women’s movement i.e. the MLF
- former president of the Republic of Mauritius
- 10 or 12 representatives of the Chagos Refugees Group.
- Journalists like Yvan Martial, who has been relentless in supporting the Chagos struggle.
- Representatives of trade unions, like the GTU.
- Representatives of Associations, like the Centre Goomany, and Abaim.
- Different cultural currents for songs, and dramatized poetry.
plus the public.
And these currents all put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the grass-roots struggle, the role of the broad masses of people in history.
And in the exhibition at the event, literally all currents that had ever participated over any length of time were represented.