Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Goodnight Dad

I remember my dad saying to me a couple of years ago that he would not be around forever and I immediately insisted that he had at least another 15-20 years left ahead of him.  His untimely passing has come as such a devastating shock to us all.  There was no warning, no long goodbye, no chance to say farewell.  Two weeks on we still can’t make any sense of it.

And of all the days for us to receive the news on: March 12th.  It’s the date we all know as Mauritian Independence Day.  It was also the day in 1987 when my dad took us from our mum and we went to live with him.  Coincidentally this also happened to be on a Thursday.

My dad: the man who arrived in the country at the age of 14 and did something which really wasn’t common three decades ago- a stable parent figure raising a young family.  Gina, Michelle and I initially, but later on there were times when Tony would come stay with us for a while when things got too much with mum.

And things were hard for dad; really hard.  He lost his house a quarter of a century ago, just one of the many sacrifices that I could only truly appreciate the magnitude of once I had reached adulthood.  But he made the best of the hand he was dealt, there was the weekend trips to the seaside, the holiday camps at Pontins or Butlins and of course that never  to be forgotten two month trip to Mauritius.

I did three further trips to Mauritius with my dad, and there was also a visit in 2006 when our trips clashed coincidentally and wasn’t planned at all.  The first time we did a holiday just the two of us was in March 2007 when he was helping me to get my Mauritian ID card.  This was my 4th trip in two years so I was starting to get confident, but I soon realised that his wisdom and experience was so essential as I ran into wall after wall trying to get my citizenship.

The first time they told me I would not have the citizenship, we left the office building and made our way to Caudan Waterfront in Port Louis. I was convinced my dreams were over, but dad was so relaxed.  It’s like he knew this was not the end of it, and he told me that there is no consistency when it comes to Mauritian bureaucracy and that I should not give up.  So I didn’t, and a year and two months later I was holding my certificate of citizenship.

Even when I did trips without him, most recently four months ago, I never felt like I was alone.  One of the first things I always did whenever I landed in Mauritius would always be to buy a local simcard and send my dad a text so he had my temporary Mauritian number. Who taught me that trick? That’s right: dad, on our 2007 trip. I’d been racking up a fortune in roaming charges even for basic things like sending a text message and suddenly I was now able to call the UK from my mobile for peanuts!

I would always be able to have that security of knowing dad was never far away.  He may have been 7000 miles away in North London, but he was available instantly through a text message or in an emergency on the phone.  His guidance, knowledge and experience when it came to Mauritius would be so valuable.  As he always pointed out to me: I’ve visited Mauritius a lot in the last decade, but I’ve never lived there and he had that unique viewpoint.

A lot of people have told me I’ve been so lucky to have a relationship with my dad which a lot of people will never have, and it’s true, there is so much to be thankful for.  Yet equally I have often asked the question during the past fortnight that if we had a more conventional relationship, then maybe the pain would not be as sharp.  I would be mourning the loss of parent, but then I would not be distraught over losing such a valuable friend.

So many people have tried to be so supportive, giving the prep talk on bereavements.  But the truth is I’m very experienced when it comes to grief- I’m the one who lost two friends to gun crime, who lost all his grandparents in 2.5 years. The trouble is the one I turned to in all those dark moments is the one we are gathered here today to remember and I really need his help now because I really feel lost.

I caught some of the coverage of the Jeremy Paxman interviews this week, but couldn’t pay attention for more than five minutes.  This would be something I’d normally be able to talk to my dad about. I can’t follow any of the football and I can’t find any comfort in watching Arsenal.  It’s all just too painful.

Practically everyone knows me and dad had our moments down the years and indeed our relationship could be broadly broken up into three chapters: the era up to me leaving London in 2001, the period between when I was 22 and 27 and then the part since I was 28.  I take away positives from all three chapters, but it was definitely the last 7 years which were the best.  I saw dad more often than at any time since I had left London 13.5 years ago.

I was looking at Facebook the other day and found some messages between us from spring 2011, I had sent him something which I had written about the AV referendum. He was full of praise and even felt that I was educating him which I found surprising and I responded back to him that he had shaped my political outlook on life. I explained that if anything it was him who was continuing to teach me: well into my 30s.

But now that precious tuition has been closed down permanently, and it’s really scary.  We’re distraught that we will never hear his reassuring voice again.  We will miss his calming (he mellowed so much in later years) influence and wisdom.  And most of all we will miss the love that he had for us all.

I used to hate having the name Clency as a kid, which morphed into “Clency Jnr” and “Little Clence”. It sounded so condescending and patronising.  Now I am so proud that Michelle and I had his names from birth, because now that he has gone, he will live on. Quite literally.

When we met the funeral directors for the first time, I noted that the time of the service today was fitting.  3.45pm would normally be half-time in a traditional Saturday afternoon football fixture.  And for us, his children, this really is half-time in our lives. We now have to utilise all the expertise and knowledge that he provided us during the first half of our time on this earth. Now the second half begins and this 3.45pm ceremony serves as a reminder to us all that while we may feel like life as we know it is over, in many ways, it is only half-time. We must now pick ourselves up from this unbelievable shock and make dad proud of us: to prove to him that all the selfless sacrifices he made were justified.  That will be the perfect way to honour his memory and ensure that his incredible legacy will survive.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

End of the Road

10.45pm on Wednesday 6th October 2004.  My life was about to change and I didn’t even realise it.  I sat down and watched a documentary by the respected journalist John Pilger on the British Television channel ITV.  The content was on something I had only come across once in my life before, when my dad alerted me to a court case that had taken place some four years earlier.  The documentary was called “Stealing a Nation” and it was about the depopulation of the Chagos Islands and the injustice that continued up to the present day.

The following day I looked on the internet for more information and came across contact details for the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA).  It was the beginning of my time as an activist for the Chagossian quest for justice and a right of return to the islands they were illegally removed from.

Today that chapter comes to an end.  It feels weird.  It feels strange.  There are emotions of guilt and sadness, but deep down I know it is the right decision to take.

I had previously warned that working with the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) after leaving the UKChSA could be one of those complicated scenarios.  It could be a situation where you have the best of intentions but ultimately cause more damage or at best add to the problem.  It is not why I got involved in October 2004.

Last summer I lifted the lid on the reasons behind why three senior members of the UKChSA left the organisation simultaneously.  I have always maintained that the organisation is not fit for purpose and should be closed down immediately.  It is not a message that I have ever deviated from over the past eleven months since that now watershed AGM in April 2014.

It is true that the UKChSA experience did leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  A long working relationship which came to such a thunderous end amidst recriminations, I would not be human to suggest that I did not have a sense of anger at the way things ended.  However this was always been so much more than individuals or a clash of personalities.  This was about good, honest people who sympathised with the Chagossians’ fight for justice and donated money believing that their contributions were being used to benefit a community that had been treated so shamefully.

I refused to sit back in silence while the UKChSA continued to plead for donations, when I knew that I had seen for myself practices which were borderline criminal.  Whether anyone listened to me, that’s their prerogative, but at least I knew that I had enabled them to make an informed decision.  If they still wanted to donate, well as the cliché goes: some people really do have more money than sense sometimes.

It is my insistence on ensuring that everyone knew the truth about the UKChSA that is a big reason behind things coming to a head recently.  They were not allegations fished out of thin-air, and every point can still be substantiated by the mountain of emails I have retained to this day.  Like the one from the treasurer asking for receipts for a football team which never existed.

Sadly it is not a view that is shared any more.  Others feel that because the long awaited Feasibility Study has been completed, it is a delicate time and I should effectively refrain from repeating the truth.  This doesn’t sit easily with me.  My experience of working on this cause at different levels, including the executive committee of the UKChSA, means I know precisely how things work.

I know that when the Chagossians are in the news, as they have been recently, there is a natural spike in interest.  Inevitably this leads to the UKChSA being contacted in the same way that I found them all those years ago.  To suggest my silence under such circumstances would be unethical would probably be the understatement of the decade.
I cannot do it.  I will not do it.

I got a lot of stick down the years from friends who never got their head around my passion for helping the Chagossians fight back.  My response to them was always that I thought that maybe one day it would help me get to heaven.  To ask me to be complicit in a conspiracy to bury the truth from my time at the UKChSA completely undermines that.

Olivier Bancoult and Sabrina Jean are good people.  Whatever they’ve done or continue to do have always been in the best interests of Chagossians all over the world.  I understand the reason why they think it’s for the best for me to tone down my vocal opposition to the UKChSA.  I strongly disagree with their view, but I understand completely the reasons for their position.

I am just sad that it means I can’t continue to work on this cause anymore.  I can’t highlight the Chagossian quest for justice under those restrictions because I know that my efforts will benefit the UKChSA by raising awareness and they will reap the rewards of that.  It doesn’t matter that I am not personally financially benefiting from the arrangement, I would be no better than anyone who I had spent the past year exposing.

It was an unbelievable dilemma to be placed in.  On one side I could break a promise I made to Sabrina years ago that the only way I’d stop being an activist is when the Chagossians had the right to return the Chagos Islands.   Alternatively I could keep that promise, but help to conceal a dirty little secret about an organisation I no longer worked with or the reasons why I believe that the organisation should be closed down.

Today it is the end of that road and I am officially a former Chagossian activist.  I hope the Chagossians secure a right of return and I wish everyone connected to the CRG well.   If anyone asks me about the cause, I will be unable to help.  This will be the post that I circulate as my response to the questions that will inevitably arise.  I just hope that everyone understands the reason behind why I have taken the decision I have.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

An Alternative Utopia

It’s been almost three weeks since I returned to Britain after spending 34 dazzling days on the tropical island of Mauritius.  Perhaps the most satisfying element of the holiday revolved around the fact that even after ten years across twelve visits, I still explored new experiences.  Whether it was catching a bus on Christmas Day, enjoying a party on a Catamaran late into the night or raving in a sugar cane field under a full-moon.

I booked the flight for my adventure in July, so it was something of a treat when I realised that the Mauritian General Election would be taking place during my stay.  I had of course experienced my first Mauritian Election during my 2010 visit, but it was something I observed from a distance.  I witnessed some local canvassing in and around the Grand Baie area, but the event largely passed me by.  I was distracted by preparations for my impending birthday party and not even my Politics-addiction would impose upon that.

This time around was a completely different story.  I ensured that I explained to as many friends as possible from the moment I arrived that I was eager to experience how elections were conducted in the land of my father’s birth.  Fortunately for me, a friend of a friend (Kugan Parapen) has been involved in working with a relatively new Political Party called “Rezistans ek Alternativ”.  I was invited to come along and assist in their preparations a couple of days before polling day, an opportunity I seized without a moment’s thought.

As the name suggested, Rezistans were aiming to offer a new and alternative vision for the people of Mauritius.  They were firmly entrenched on the far-left of the political spectrum, so it didn’t take long for me to quickly find myself on the same page as the Party.  Pro-wealth redistribution, anti-communalism, protecting workers rights and measures to combat global-warming: this was a Manifesto that I could fully subscribe to without exception.

Although formed in 2005, this was the first time that their members could stand because candidates were not required to declare their ethnicity.  This was a huge step in the right direction- moving the Republic away from the perils of communalism, the origins of so many problems during the first three decades following Independence.

I was deeply impressed observing this refreshing voice in Mauritian politics.  Not just because they had produced a list of policies which I found myself in full agreement with, but also because they had captured the imagination of younger voters and engaged disenfranchised parts of the electorate across the country.  Everything about them reinforced a notion that they were a breath of fresh air.

The crucial element here was that it represented something new.  Not simply the same personalities rebranded under a sparkly redesigned logo, but a genuine collective of individuals who thought they could offer an alternative way of running Mauritius.  They were not ex-members of MMM, Labour or MSM who had left (or been expelled) for example.  They were a welcome relief in a Republic which had been dominated by two families, the Ramgoolams & the Jugnauths, who had shared power since Independence from Britain in 1968.

Rezistans went on to secure 3.5% of the vote on polling day, a remarkable achievement considering this was the first time they had contested elections nationally.  Kugan himself secured 6.5% in his seat of Quatre Bornes and the organisations most experienced figure achieved over 8% in their constituency.  It is an incredibly solid platform to build upon in years to come, not just in 2019 but in subsequent contests as well.  I had to explain to Kugan and his friends that in Britain a relatively new political faction, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), had taken far longer to make such an impression on a national scale.  Indeed it is only some 22 years after being created that they are on the verge of making an impact at a British General Election, which is scheduled to take place in May 2015.

Aside from the fact that both parties are relatively new, Rezistans and UKIP couldn’t be more different.  UKIP positions itself very much on the hard-right of the political spectrum.  They would screech in horror at the policies offered by Kugan and his colleagues.  Naturally this relates to the idea that in the UK the political debate has for over three decades taken place on the right of the spectrum.  In Mauritius, as I have noted previously, the opposite is true where a traditional culture of political debate on the left exists.

I saw Kugan again around a week after the Mauritian Elections and I explained that I felt inspired by how he and other like-minded individuals had shown such tremendous initiative to work so hard to project their alternative vision of what Mauritius should look like.  Kugan had spent some time living in the UK during a period studying at Warwick University, and I joked that he should consider visiting us again in the UK soon to show us how we too could replicate what they had achieved in Mauritius.  But just how feasible is such a prospect anyway?

Britain has been dominated by two parties for almost a century, albeit not quite the family dynasties that exist in Mauritius.  Nonetheless, they are two very imposing institutions which would initially suggest that what Rezistans did in Mauritius could not possibly be replicated in the UK.

Or could it?

Data from the 2010 British General Election suggests that maybe Britain is crying out for a Kugan or a Rezistans to offer a new direction.  I have written previously about the need for a break from the consensus-style politics which have poisoned the British political landscape since the mid-1980s.  Yet even more alarmingly is the fact that the number of people on the electoral roll register who did not even register a vote in 2010 would significantly outnumber the tallies of every other political group on offer in the UK.  That would include UKIP who stood in the same election.  This is a shocking revelation and shows just how many people are currently disengaged from the political process in Britain.

Kugan and Rezistans showed how offering an alternative message, entrenched in strong left-wing values, can reach out and invigorate sections of the electorate to become involved in the process again.  This was especially true of younger voters.  It’s a proportion of the electorate which poses an enormous problem in the UK, for example: at the last election fewer than 50% of voters under the age of 35 actually voted.  This was part of a national turnout of 65%, and if we analyse the figures for voters between the ages of 18-24, the figures are even more astonishing where the figure falls to below 45%.  Even that was propped-up by male voters because a snapshot of female voters under the age of 24 shows the figure slipping beneath 40%.

It’s unrealistic to suggest that a new Party could be created tomorrow and would have enough time to make an impact at the British General Election in less than 15 weeks’ time.  However it is not so outlandish that a Political Party started soon could make an impact in 2020, in time for another General Election.  Rezistans ek Altenativ offered a brand new vision for Mauritius and came from nowhere to snatch 3.5% of the vote in their debut national poll.  It wasn’t a stroke of fortune and may provide hope for us all.  It can inspire like-minded individuals to come together and work towards offering an alternative direction for Britain, something that resonates with left-wing voters who otherwise feel ostracised.

It might amount to a proposal which inspires many of the near-16 million voters to engage once again.