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MAURITIUS: LALIT's struggle for "equality, liberty, humanity"


From Green Left Weekly 1st June 2005, Australia

MAURITIUS: Lalit's struggle for "equality, liberty, humanity"

Norm Dixon

"Equality, liberty, humanity, feminism, ecology" are the watchwords of Lalit, the revolutionary socialist party active in the Indian Ocean state of Mauritius. "Lalit nurtures a love of and respect for ordinary people, and gives value to their ongoing quest for freedom, equality, justice, ecology and women's liberation", declares the party's website.

Ram Seegobin, a leading member of Lalit, attended the Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference (APISC), held in Sydney at Easter. He spoke to Green Left Weekly about Lalit's history and activities.

"Lalit is a revolutionary socialist organisation that has existed since 1982 as a distinct public party", Seegobin explained. However, it has its origins in the upsurge in class struggles in post-independence Mauritius in the 1970s.

Lalit's founders were radicalised in the 1975 mass student rebellion that erupted under the slogan "equality". At the same time, other activists were drawn into left activity through the women's liberation movement, which linked up with striking women workers from the exploitative "export processing zone", and through trade union militancy.

The young Lalit leadership was also bolstered by Mauritians returning from France, Britain, South Africa and the United States, who had joined revolutionary parties while abroad. As a result, from the beginning Lalit was influenced and enriched by the experiences of several Marxist traditions.

Throughout the mid- to late-1970s, there were mass strikes against the anti-worker structural adjustment programs implemented by the Mauritian government at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The strikes culminated in a general strike in 1979. In the 1970s, Lalit was already campaigning for the return of Diego Garcia to Mauritius and for the right of its inhabitants to return home.

"In 1976, we began to organise around a publication called Lalit de Klas, which means 'the class struggle'. Most of us in the group were militants in the trade union movement, the student movement and the women's movement", Seegobin explained. "The publication was written entirely in the Kreol language, the language spoken by Mauritius' working class and poor. Kreol was rarely written at the time. Although some people would complain that they had difficulty reading this new phonetic language that we had started to invent, we stuck to our guns. We wanted workers to read our political publication and write for it.

"Most trade union activists could not write in French or English [Mauritius' official languages], whereas if the magazine was in Kreol they could more easily write about their experiences and political activities. We stuck to our guns, and we were right because literally hundreds of workers, trade union activists and young people did in fact write for the publication."

"Over the years the publication developed into a structured thing, with an editorial committee elected by an assembly of the people who were distributing it", Seegobin told GLW. The influence of the Lalit de Klas magazine and the organisation that had grown around it resulted in Lalit activists becoming the "political leadership" of the 1979 general strike, he added. Lalit won the support of large numbers of rank-and-file trade unionists, as well as winning some trade union leadership positions.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Lalit operated as a tendency within the Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), a broad left-nationalist front that was supported by most working people. At the same time, Lalit militants were also active in the various social movements.

"We used to be called the 'class struggle tendency' within the MMM", Seegobin told GLW. "Lalit left the MMM in 1982,after the leadership started its drift to the right. It began to say that class struggle was no longer necessary and proposed instead a 'new social contract', which meant class collaboration. Obviously, our presence within the MMM had become totally incompatible, so we left as a group and set up Lalit as a party."

That same year, the MMM won the election and the Mauritian people clamoured for real change. Unfortunately, the MMM imposed the same IMF-World Bank policies as did the previous government. Ever since, successive coalition governments have attempted to impose austerity policies, rapidly lost support, causing each new governing coalition to collapse and go to elections before their five-year terms were up.

Seegobin believes that Lalit has survived and prospered because it "was born in an organic fashion, through two big upsurges - in the student movement and in the trade union movement. Parties that are born in real upsurges in the class struggle tend to survive better than the ones formed in the telephone kiosk." Lalit's success is a product of its membership and activity being firmly "implanted" in the working class and that it continues to attract young people to its ranks, Seegobin stressed.

Apart from its key long-term campaigns of opposition to privatisation, unemployment and austerity, and the closure of the US base on Diego Garcia and its reunification with Mauritius, Lalit has also been at the forefront of mass opposition to police brutality and to the introduction of repressive "anti-terrorism" laws.

"We are well known for massive leaflet distribution. Every month or two, if there's an important issue, we distribute something like 15,000 leaflets. In a small country like Mauritius [population 1.1 million in 1997], that means we have a constant presence among the working class."

Lalit also participates in municipal and general elections, said Seegobin. "There is a very strong polarisation in electoral politics between the two big bourgeois electoral alliances and most people vote to either vote one bloc in or bring down the other bloc. So although a lot of people approve of our politics, Our electoral strength is fairly limited. At the 2000 election, Lalit got more votes than ever before. In some constituencies we got up to 7%.

"Because we have existed for such a long time and developed a certain credibility among workers, young people and women, our political influence is much more than our electoral results. Quite often we are in a position to influence the agenda of an electoral campaign, even if we end up with just 1% of the vote. For us, elections are a tactic, not a strategy. Six months before an election, we've already decided what will be the central points of our campaign. We campaign really hard until we manage to make those issues central in the electoral agenda, and force the mainstream bourgeois parties to reply to them."

Seegobin outlined two major issues that Lalit today is attempting to force to the top of the political agenda. The first is the struggle to have the illegally excised Chagos Archipelago returned to Mauritius, so that the dispossessed Chagossian people can return to their homelands and the massive US military base on Diego Garcia can be closed and removed (see GLW #623). The second is the need for an "alternative political economy" for Mauritius.

Neoliberal "free trade" has placed the Mauritian economy "on the edge of a real precipice", Seegobin explained. Due to World Trade Organisation rules, the country's two main export industries, which employ tens of thousands of Mauritians - sugar and garments - are about to lose their preferential access (via guaranteed quotas and/or above-market prices) to markets in Europe and the United States, resulting in foreign corporations shutting up shop in Mauritius.

The termination of the 30-year-old Multi-Fibre Agreement on January 1, which gave former colonies access to Western markets through a quota system for textiles and garments, means that Mauritius' exports must suddenly compete with much cheaper products from China, India and Vietnam. "This is putting terrible downward pressure on the prices received for products produced in Mauritius. Every week a textile factory is closing down", Seegobin noted. With the loss of Mauritius' preferential access to Western markets, foreign- and Mauritian-owned corporations are relocating to countries where wages are much lower and trade union rights non-existent.

"All our sugar is exported to Europe, at the moment the European Union is proposing a 35% reduction in the price it will pay for sugar. We don't think the sugar industry in Mauritius will survive (I don't think it will survive in Fiji or Trinidad either). Already, the sugar industry in Mauritius has started laying off people in their thousands.

"Every time a sugar factory closes that's 300-400 jobs that disappear. The government is introducing measures that will allow the sugar corporations to parcel out agricultural land to build luxury bungalows on and sell them to the international jet set for cash flow. That is not going to help much in terms of employment and long-term economic stability.

"The government is also trying to get the sugar companies to burn sugarcane fibre to produce electricity in privately owned power plants, so the government is privatising electricity production. It is paying the sugar companies far more for the electricity they produce than it costs the government itself to produce electricity."

Seegobin said that in response Lalit is calling for a radical restructuring of Mauritius' economy based on developing new forms of agro-industries. As Lalit pointed out in a statement on the January 16 launch of its campaign for an "alternative political economy": "The landowners and sugar corporations have the land but do not want to create jobs or plant food crops. The people who want jobs and would like to cultivate food crops do not have the land. This is why Lalit members met to launch the new campaign to bring about new forms of agro-industry that are based on the peoples' traditional knowledge and science."

Lalit expressed complete opposition to the government's promotion of genetically modified organisms, which it sees as another attack on traditional Mauritian farming methods.

Another key element of Lalit's "alternative political economy" is the encouragement of clean and renewable production of energy.