India-Mauritius relations: has it always been “willing subordination”?

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In recent years the Indian relationship with Mauritius has been marked by an increasing strategic footprint, such as in Agalega, and increased infrastructure on offer within Mauritius.

In recent years the Indian relationship with Mauritius has been marked by an increasing strategic footprint, such as in Agalega, and increased infrastructure on offer within Mauritius.

Diplomats and academics have termed the relationship between India and Mauritius as one of “willing subordination”. Has this always been so? The evolution of the relationship between New Delhi and Port-Louis shows how India’s role in Mauritius has changed over time.

The 1970s: the take-off

Mauritius is once again in the news for hosting funds run by the Adani group, which has been implicated in reports of problems within that major Indian conglomerate. At the same time, in recent years, Mauritius has steadily shifted ever-closer to New Delhi by agreeing to host an Indian naval facility on Agalega, New Delhi becoming for the first time an interested party in the Chagos dispute, and Mauritius taking part in the Indian-run regional security grouping the Colombo Security Conclave. 

So how has the relationship between India and Mauritius evolved over time? In many ways, the relationship predates Mauritian independence, with India opening a commission as far back as 1948. “Mauritius had the highest number of indentured labourers coming from India,” says Dr. Roukaya Kasenally, scholar at the University of Mauritius and co-author of a recent report looking at the India-Chinese competition playing out within Mauritius, “basically it’s always been a cultural relationship”. Before and after independence, Vijay Makhan, ex-foreign secretary of Mauritius, points out that “there were two kinds of relations taking place: one between states and another between the civil societies of the two countries; Mauritian musicians would go to India, lots of Mauritians studied there and Mauritian authors got their books published in India”. 

For him the reason that Mauritius took on such an outsized role in Indian strategic thought rather than other island-states with a similar history of Indian indentured labour such as Fiji, Trinidad or Guyana was that “Mauritius was in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In Mauritius, this was seen much more emotionally whereas in India it was clear from the start that this was about securing what they saw as their backyard”. This was made clear during the independence day celebrations itself: out of the 120 foreign guests attending the celebrations, India sent the largest contingent just after the UK itself, including Krishna Menon, was the only other state to send a ship to Mauritius to oversee the celebrations: alongside the UK’s HMS Tartar was the Indian cruiser the INS Delhi.

The security relationship

It did not take long for New Delhi to fill in the security gap left behind by the UK. In 1974, India and Mauritius came to an agreement to allow Indian officers to head Mauritius’ coast guard – started off with a Calcutta-built second-hand ship, the Amar (this was after the UK had refused Mauritius’ requests for a coast guard boat) –, and helicopter squad. “At the time we did not have many skilled people, so it was just easier to get these people from India in a number of fields,” says Milan Meetarbhan, Mauritius’ ex-top diplomat at the UN. That same year, Indian submarines began visiting Port-Louis starting off with the INS Vagir and INS Vela, two Soviet-built subs supplied to the Indian navy. For Mauritius, this growing security dependence on New Delhi meant that Port-Louis calibrated its foreign policy to echo Delhi’s concerns. 

In 1982, Indira Gandhi and New Delhi swung their support from the Labour Party to the MMM-PSM government, and then Sir Anerood Jugnauth when that coalition broke up.

The first was signing up to non-alignment. “The non-aligned movement was quite strong in those days as a third pole between the US and the USSR and the strong ties between Mauritian and Indian governments influenced Mauritius,” says Makhan. Port-Louis toed the non-aligned line on a number of international issues, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea. Within the Indian Ocean, Mauritius formally subscribed to the ‘Zone of Peace’ idea pushed by New Delhi under which Port-Louis opposed foreign military bases of major powers such as the US, USSR and France, but not of India as a littoral state. The point, for New Delhi, was to push Mauritius to oppose the expansion of the US military base on Diego Garcia. Although India had welcomed US regional involvement in its 1962 war with China, by 1971 this had soured after the US backed Pakistan against India in the Bangladesh war. “Relations between India and the US were at their lowest. But Mauritius could not afford to push too hard on Diego Garcia because things were difficult economically and we depended a lot on the Commonwealth and Europe for our sugar. So, we had to live with that and could not take the lead in challenging the UK and Europe,” says Meetarbhan. What followed was a balancing act where Mauritius would voice out its support for the zone of peace, but do little practically. 

The growing closeness between the two states translated into them figuring in each other’s politics in strange ways: in June 1975, PMSD leader Gaëtan Duval announced that the Soviets had got the Labour Party to sign a secret agreement in New Delhi that would see an electoral alliance with the MMM in the 1976 elections. Following a visit by Indira Gandhi to Mauritius with Sanjay Gandhi in tow, in a public meeting in December 1976, where Duval brought Azor Adelaide’s brother on stage, he argued that the MMM was being financed by East Germany and Labour by the Indians. In return, the PMSD was accused of being financed by South Africa and France. 

Since 1983, Mauritius has hired Indians as National Security Advisors starting with J. N. Tamini who stayed on for nearly a decade.

In the meantime, the Labour Party’s press was blowing up stories of CIA plots to topple Indira Gandhi’s government. On the other side of the sea, Mauritius became a site of intrigue and financial skulduggery in the Indian political imagination (a perception that still continues): in 1977, shortly after Indira Gandhi’s election defeat, Subramanian Swamy, a member of the Janata party – the precursor to the current day BJP – charged that Gandhi’s government had broken foreign exchange laws by shifting money to influence Mauritian elections in 1976. And that the Soviets were bankrolling India’s intelligence service RAW’s overseas operations out of Mauritius. That same year, the Mauritian Prime Minister had to rush to Delhi to reassure the new Indian government after one of its minister’s, Charan Singh, had argued that Indira Gandhi had shifted huge sums of money to Mauritius during her time in power.

The 80s and 90s: the entry into local politics

The 1980s saw a decisive shift in the bilateral relationship with New Delhi turning from a security provider to an active participant in local Mauritian politics. In 1982, the Labour government headed by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was ousted by a MMMPSM government. Indira Gandhi – who by now had returned to power in India – switched from backing Labour to backing the new government headed by Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth. She signalled this with a visit to Mauritius and signing a Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA). The MMM-PSM government soon tore itself apart between Jugnauth and MMM leader Paul Bérenger with Jugnauth going to Delhi in February 1983 to look for support against an imagined MMM-led coup. 

Afraid of a refugee exodus landing on its shores, the Indian government started operation Lal Dora in 1983: an abortive attempt to militarily intervene in Mauritius to back Jugnauth which soon fell apart because the Indian army and navy could not agree who would lead the operation. Instead, Gandhi sent in N. F. Suntook, the head of RAW, to work with Prem Singh, Indian high commissioner since 1982, to cobble together an anti-MMM coalition behind Jugnauth. It worked. The 1983 election saw the newly-founded MSM led by Jugnauth allied with Labour and PMSD beating back the MMM. Following that episode, Jugnauth started the practice of hiring National Security Advisors straight from New Delhi (which still continues today) starting with Major General J. N. Tamini. 

New Delhi was now a major player in local politics, though it still had to proceed cautiously. Prem Singh, who had full-throatily supported Jugnauth and was coming to occupy an outsized role within Mauritian politics – and began being compared to a pro-consul in Mauritian politics – was swiftly recalled to New Delhi in 1986. “The moment was ripe for India to fill what it saw as a vacuum opening up. The communal aspect of our politics also played a major part in that,” says Makhan, “while Ramgoolam had a British national security advisor (Rewcastle -ed.) Jugnauth started with the practice of hiring Indian ones.” 

But even then, there were limits to India’s clout within Mauritius. If India was politically important but economically marginal for Mauritius, South Africa was the mirror opposite; it was not even invited to attend Mauritian independence celebrations (represented by an executive from South African airways); nevertheless, it had grown to become an important economic partner sending tourists, buying Mauritian tea, exporting animal fodder; and its ports used to tranship goods to and from Mauritius. In 1979, when Mauritian representative at the UN Radha Ramphul criticised South Africa harshly, tea growers lobbied the Mauritian government to recall him from the UN lest Pretoria refuse to pay premium prices for their tea. By 1983, Pretoria had opened a trade office in Mauritius – one of the few African states to continue trading with it. So, when in July 1986, Rajiv Gandhi came to Mauritius demanding that Port-Louis join in a trade boycott of South Africa, Mauritius refused point blank. 

Then in the 1990s, two things happened: India shed its homespun socialism and opened up its economy and the resulting economic growth helped fuel its growing ambitions to build a modernized navy. “The 1990s was a milestone. Although nobody anticipated India’s opening, the DTAA that was signed 10 years ago was dusted off and we started working very closely with Indian financial and legal firms. Now we had a deep economic relationship as well,” argues Meetarbhan. The DTAA became the foundation for the offshore sector that today makes up 12 per cent of the economy. In return, India progressively pried open the cosseted Mauritian market to Indian business. “Before the 1990s, India did not play a very important economic role in the country,” says Kasenally. 

And New Delhi’s increased ambitions put new demands on Mauritian diplomacy: Port-Louis had to back India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council as a matter of course and had to indulge in some creative diplomacy – as happened in 1996 when Australia pushed for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the UN to try to roll back India’s nuclear programme. The Mauritian government was split down the middle: one part led by Paul Bérenger backed the resolution, while another headed by Navin Ramgoolam chose to back New Delhi’s position. Mauritius ended up as just one of a handful of states, along with Cuba, Syria, Tanzania and Lebanon, to abstain from the resolution. For Port-Louis nuclear weapons are bad in Africa, in Asia not so much.

Strategic partners

In the 2000s, the relationship continued to become skewed in New Delhi’s favour; after the EU ended the preferential trade agreement for Mauritian sugar and textiles, the reliance on India continued to grow, making it all the more difficult for Port-Louis to refuse New Delhi. Even when it came to the DTAA. “The financial press in India started a campaign against Mauritius and pressured the Indian government to amend it,” says Makhan. While initially Port-Louis resisted calls to rework the treaty, but in 2016 it threw in the towel. 

This was also the time when New Delhi began expanding its strategic footprint: in 2003, it started patrolling Mauritian waters, installed a coastal radar network to monitor regional shipping, by 2015, had succeeded in securing Agalega as a military facility. This growing footprint also saw Mauritius aligning itself closer with New Delhi in its competition with China fuelled by lines of credit: in the past two decades, India has offered USD 954.8 million in lines of credit to Mauritius for civilian and defence projects, as Kasenally’s report outlines, two-thirds of this coming after 2016 when India began strategically positioning itself in the region. “We should be careful about taking these loans in foreign currency,” Makhan points out. “Is it proper to just keep taking loans from a single source all the time?” 

The problem according to Meetarbhan is that although regional dynamics have changed fast – with older colonial powers such as the UK and France, increasingly being side-lined by newer players with their own interests, Mauritian attitudes have not, “India is more politically and economically influential with a more assertive bureaucracy. There is a rapprochement between India and the US and the rise of China. The kith and kin aspect of the bilateral relationship has taken a backseat. But we in Mauritius have failed to grasp these changes. The historical relationship will continue, but in our foreign relations we have to take these changing realities on board as well as the fact that India’s interests are now different.” 

For Makhan, the point is Mauritius having a conversation about where it wants to be 20 years from now, “but all I see is Mauritian governments doing things ad-hoc for local consumption and elections. We agree on much more than we disagree on with India, but India has other interests as well as do we such as regional cooperation or working with Africa, rather than putting all our eggs in the same basket”. Mauritius needs to know how to play its cards right, concludes Kasenally, and part of that is moving beyond the emotional narratives of the past: “If we are aligning behind one country and shedding non-alignment, we cannot be driven by emotion alone. If there are questions about Agalega, for instance, we cannot dismiss that as India-bashing, just as questions over Jin Fei were dismissed as China-bashing in the recent past. How can you have a clear-headed, balanced and rational debate about Mauritius’ own interests like that?”

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