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India-Mauritius: A Mutually Rewarding Partnership of Choice

  • Geopolitics
  • 11 Months ago
  • 11 min read
India Mauritius partnership

© NatStrat

Shantanu Mukharji
Shantanu Mukharji - Adviser NatStrat, former National Security Advisor in Mauritius, retired IPS officer

Distorted narratives in certain sections of the print and social media in Mauritius have begun to divert public perceptions about Indo-Mauritian ties on a Gobbelsian path. It is time to set the record straight by appreciating the time-tested relationship in its correct perspective.

A Relationship Unique but Not Unusual

India and Mauritius enjoy close ties from the colonial period, when thousands of Indians migrated to Mauritius for a variety of reasons, over the sea routes. People of Indian ethnicity belonging to different castes and creeds, arrived in a steady trickle over nearly two centuries, thus playing a key role in the making of the modern Mauritian nation.

"The anthropological composition of Mauritian society has a major contribution from people of Indian descent, who comprise the majority. It was, therefore, natural for the pioneering leaders of Mauritius to look at India as a source of support for political, cultural and economic reasons, even before Mauritius became an independent nation in 1968."

Mauritian political leaders striving for independence from colonial rule were inspired by the Indian freedom movement. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) had stopped by Mauritius in 1901, from October 29 till November 15, during a sea voyage from South Africa to India. As brought out by Mauritian author Pahlad Ramsurrun, during his stay, Mahatma Gandhi was the guest of Mr. Ahmed Goolam Mohammed and was introduced in the Mauritius Supreme Court by Henry Bertin. Gandhi was also invited to a social function at the Governor’s residence at Le Réduit in this period, exemplifying his popular appeal in cross section of the Mauritian society1. Even today, Mahatma Gandhi remains a highly revered figure in Mauritius. It was not surprising then that the Father of the Mauritian nation and its first Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, decided upon 12 March as the date of Mauritius’ independence, as it commemorated the commencement of the Dandi Salt March (Satyagraha) by Mahatma Gandhi in India, in 1930.

Such close political contacts, and strong cultural affinity between people of both countries have created a relationship that is unique in some ways but certainly not unusual. Even a cursory scan on the global canvas would reveal that many nations tend to preserve special political ties with other nations based on cultural and civilisational affinities. The example of Australia and New Zealand and their relationship with the United Kingdom (UK) comes foremost to mind. Both, Australia and New Zealand are independent democratic nations., However, they have no qualms about their special relationship with the United Kingdom, due to historical and cultural reasons. In no way does this special relationship affect the sovereignty and strategic autonomy of any of the partners involved. Many more such examples can be cited, prominently of the special relationship between the United States and UK, Germany and Austria, Egypt and Tunisia, Russia and Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the special ties between Turkey and Pakistan.

Indian Contribution to the Growth of Independent, Prosperous Mauritius

After Mauritius achieved Independence, India steadfastly supported Mauritius in every possible sphere. The desire to invest in the relationship and the conviction behind it was natural and mutual, given the close historical ties. While New Delhi saw Mauritius as a fellow traveller of the Global South negotiating the early years of decolonisation; within Mauritian political circles, maintaining close and strong ties with India was considered a cornerstone of Port Louis’s external policy. Most early political leaders of Mauritius, be it Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Maurice Cure, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Sir Satcam Boolell, Basdeo and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal brothers, Paul Berenger, Heeralall Bhugaloo, Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, Kadar Bhayat, Prem Nabasingh, Kher Jagatsingh, Dev Virahsawmy and even Sir Gaetan Duval, invariably viewed India as a source of support, irrespective of their political predilections. In the challenging decades of the 1960s and 70s, India’s support was not only political, but also in important fields of health, education, in development of dairy and agriculture, and as a source of essential consumer goods.

India’s role in promoting the economic prosperity of Mauritius is often relegated to a footnote in the contemporary domestic discourse of Mauritius. It bears recall though that India has been a major economic partner of Mauritius since its independence. Traditionally, the primary contributions to the Mauritian economy came from the sugar industry, later from textiles, tourism, financial services and information technology. Notwithstanding its status as a developing economy, India contributed silently towards the growth of each of these sectors. Mauritian students returning from India with higher education formed the backbone of the skilled human resource which picked up the gauntlet of growing the fledging Mauritian economy of the 1980s. This was the period when the textile sector in Mauritius was scoring impressive growth, fetching precious foreign exchange from exports.

The India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Convention (DTAC), concluded in 1983, came as a game-changer in many ways for Mauritius. In subsequent decades, when the sugar and textile sectors in Mauritius faced stagnation due to global competition, the financial services sector was seen as the most important, contributing over 10 percent to the GDP of Mauritius. The DTAC helped Mauritius tide over recession and developed its financial services industry over time. This also contributed to Mauritius establishing itself as an international financial services hub, and a financial “gateway” to Africa. At the beginning of the new century, there were clear signs that the DTAC, which provided for capital tax exemptions in Mauritius was being increasingly misused as a means to evade and avoid tax through treaty-shopping and round-tripping. With no capital gains tax payable in Mauritius, the “Mauritius route”, as it came to be colloquially known, became a channel for unaccounted money flows into India. This was increasingly questioned in India for the loss it was causing due to tax evasion. India patiently negotiated with Mauritius to remedy the unsustainable situation, and after a dozen rounds of negotiations over 15 years, the two sides signed the revised DTAC in May 2016. The revenue loss for India due to evaded taxes on capital gains has been estimated to be more than $3 billion2. India’s stoicism through this period was shored with the firm conviction that the thriving economic relationship with Mauritius was mutually rewarding, also helpful in supporting ties in other sectors. This has been given a lasting, enduring form by conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) in 2017.

India has also been a key financial aid partner of Mauritius. Indian grants and concessional loan assistance, rendered through many decades, has created numerous iconic facilities in Mauritius that have served the common people. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute; Upadhyaya Training Centre; Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital; Subramania Bharati Eye Centre; Rajiv Gandhi Science Centre; Rabindranath Tagore Institute; Eben Cyber Tower; Swami Vivekananda International Conference Centre; New ENT Hospital, Supreme Court building, Social Housing project, Metro Rail project are some prominent examples.

The Mutually Rewarding Security Relationship

Given the robust ties that India and Mauritius have enjoyed around their "comprehensive strategic partnership", it is unfortunate that the privileged defence and security cooperation between the two sides is being made to appear by some quarters as a sort of a submission or a "sell out" by Port Louis to New Delhi. Those who tend to harbour such misplaced notions perhaps fail to realise that it is perfectly normal in international relations for countries to have preferred strategic partners. It does not make beneficiary states clients of their preferred partners. For example, for many decades the UK was a major security partner of South Africa; the US has been the major security partner of the UK, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Israel and many other democratic nations. France has been a preeminent security partner of many countries in Africa, even of some of its former colonies. Turkey is a preferred security partner of Qatar. China's active support looms large in Pakistan's strategic landscape. Does that make any of the beneficiary states clients of their benefactors? If Mauritius has considered India as its preferred security/strategic partner over many decades, it should be seen as perfectly normal state behaviour.

"India's support to Mauritius in defence and security matters can be traced to the years preceding Mauritian independence when the future of British colonial possessions in the Indian Ocean was being decided. Former Mauritian politician, journalist and author Jean Claude de L’Estrac notes in his book “Next Year in Diego Garcia” that India had been supportive of Mauritius independence in the true spirit of UN General Assembly Resolution concerning decolonisation."

As far back as on August 14, 1965, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has expressed its concern over the Anglo-American plan to create a US military base at Diego Garcia, by pointing out to the Head of the UK Chancery in New Delhi that Article 73 of the UN Charter did not allow colonial powers to change the territory of their settlements unilaterally and arbitrarily3. Subsequently, after the issue assumed the form of a dispute between Mauritius and UK, New Delhi has been consistent in its diplomatic support to Mauritius on the question of its sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago.

Evidently, Mauritius was concerned about its security in the Indian Ocean in the period soon after its independence. At Mauritian request, India agreed to help in maritime security to overcome the void created by the departure of British Royal Navy from the region, after the British withdrawal east of Suez. India's assistance of donating a naval patrol boat (AMAR) in 1974 and seconding trained human resource for mentoring Mauritian maritime security professionals has served Mauritius well and withstood the test of time. It is not lost upon successive Mauritian governments that the nation's entitlement of maritime zones in the Indian Ocean, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is disproportionately large in comparison to its land territory and it needs strong maritime surveillance and law enforcement capabilities to keep its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) safe and secure.

In this backdrop, cooperation in the domain of defence and security steadily assumed an important dimension in India-Mauritius bilateral ties. On Mauritian request, Government of India has periodically deployed ships of the Indian Navy for various support missions, be it for joint surveillance of the vast EEZ of Mauritius, hydrographic surveys, marine salvage, search and rescue, and for training of personnel of the Mauritian Coast Guard.

Illegal fishing, piracy, poaching, drug running etc., are major challenges in the region, and regular joint patrols undertaken by Indian Navy and Mauritius Coast Guard have helped to keep these problems in check. Indian ships which come for joint patrols are permitted by Mauritius to use its harbours for meeting their operational needs. Likewise, the use of airports by visiting military aircraft is also specified by Mauritius. It is totally a matter for Mauritius to decide which ports or airports could be visited by Indian ships, or aircraft, when they come for missions in support of Mauritius.

Agalega: Much Ado about Nothing?

Much has been said and written in sinister tones about the aviation and maritime infrastructure jointly developed by India and Mauritius at Agalega. If one considers dispassionately various factors impinging on the issue, it looks like a case of “much ado about nothing”. Mauritius has always wanted to improve infrastructure and communication systems at its Outer Islands, including Cardagos Carajos shoals (Saint Brandon), Agalega, and Rodrigues to overcome the persistent difficulties being that have been encountered in transporting food, medicines, goods, emergency supplies etc. The Mauritian government also needs to frequently evacuate Agalegans out of the islands for emergency medical treatment at main island of Mauritius, as well as transporting Agalegan school children to the main island for their educational needs.

To address such challenges, the need to seek assistance in building optimal infrastructure like a proper airstrip for bigger aircraft and wharf for sea vessels, with associated amenities, has been discussed in the Mauritian Parliament for at least the last 16 years, under successive governments.

After preliminary discussions under various administrations, India responded positively to Mauritian government’s request for assistance in building these facilities in Agalega.A ‘Memorandum of Understanding for the Improvement in Sea and Air Transportation Facilities at Agalega Island of Mauritius’ was worked upon between both sides and signed publicly during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mauritius in March 2015. All agreements signed between the two countries are in full purview of their governments.

Arguably, the joint endeavour has received bipartisan endorsement in official circles of Mauritius, irrespective of the political parties in power; be it under Alliance Sociale (2005), Aliiance de L’Avenir(2010), Alliance Lepep (2014), and Alliance Morisien(2019). It has been emphasised by responsible personalities, including in the Parliament of Mauritius that there has not been any opacity about the project implemented by India in collaboration with Mauritius.

It is well-recognised among knowledgeable circles that the infrastructure developed at Agalega will prove to be a boon for the people of Mauritius in multiple ways. Apart from providing better marine and air connectivity between Agalega and Mauritius proper, the infrastructure improvement project in Agalega is aimed at facilitating better surveillance and management of Mauritius’ vast EEZ, which is critical to effectively counter serious maritime crime like piracy, narcotics and arms smuggling, illegal immigration and illegal fishing, as also address environmental threats, natural disasters, marine accidents, and search and rescue at sea. The people Mauritius are well aware that these are not just sub-conventional security threats; they can have huge deleterious socio-economic impacts and cost millions of dollars of loss to the Mauritian economy.

Obviously, better infrastructure in the Outer Islands like Agalega, remotely located in the Indian Ocean, would be helpful in better surveillance and security of the vast sea areas of Mauritius and preventing maritime crime. It is amply evident that within the broader framework of strategic cooperation the primary shared objective of both nations is to enhance the security of the Mauritian EEZ by providing much needed “longer sea legs” to the National Coast Guard of Mauritius and support the development of Outer Islands by improving their connectivity with the main island of Mauritius. To what extent can India make use of the facilities jointly developed by the two nations would be a determination that Mauritius would be required to make in its larger national interest. There is nothing to suggest that there is any pressure over Port Louis from New Delhi over this aspect. This political convergence is underpinned by abiding trust and confidence in India as a preferred partner within the professional security establishment of Mauritius.

A Partnership of Choice which shall Endure

"The special partnership between India and Mauritius is one of choice. Neither India nor Mauritius believes in coercion or manipulation in achieving their strategic objectives aimed at upholding peace and security in the Indian Ocean." 

As Port Louis makes progress in its ongoing international negotiations towards establishing its sovereign control over the Chagos archipelago, the importance of Agalaga is bound to grow further for any government in Mauritius. The operational facilities at Agalega could effectively serve as a "pit stop" for travel and transportation, by sea and air, between Mauritius proper and Chagos. This important consideration seems to be lost upon the critics who are adept at making a big hullabaloo about some sort of imaginary "Indian military base" at Agalega.

It is time to set the record straight in light of the negative commentary over the security dimension has appeared frequently in certain sections of Mauritius media in the past few years. A small but influential lot of journalists have displayed special interest in fear-mongering about India’s “agenda” in Mauritius, even resorting to personal comments in poor form on Indian diplomats in Mauritius. While these aberrations pose no threat to the strong bonds of friendship between the people of India and Mauritius, disinformation left unchallenged could negatively impact the overwhelming positivity in the special relationship. It is time for perspicacious Mauritian and Indian leaders to step up and contextualise Indo-Mauritian relations properly in the public space. 


1 Also see compilation of impressions of the people of Mauritius about Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948, while he visited Mauritius in 1901 in ‘Mahatma Gandhi and his impact on Mauritius’ by Pahlad Ramsurrun.

2 The revised Double-Taxation Avoidance Convention (DTAC) with Mauritius will improve transparency in tax matters and significantly reduce revenue loss for the Indian government by curbing tax evasion and tax avoidance, according to Mr. M. Ganapathi, a former High Commissioner of India to Mauritius and a former Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs. The quantum of revenue loss for India, also a subject of considerable difference between the two Governments, was estimated by some sources at more than ₹22,000 crores. Observer Research Foundation: Revised DTAC with Mauritius will help reduce revenue-loss, says former High Commissioner. 

3Jean Claude de L’Estrac, ‘next year in Diego Garcia…’ (translated by Touriya Prayag), Editions le Printemps Ltd, Elp Publications, 2011.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


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