(The following is an excerpt from a memoir that Mr. Rawat, Chairman of British American Investment Group, is writing. The book will be published internationally in 2015.)
India – one of the world's most diverse and complex cultures – and France with a regal colonial empire, have a distinct connection on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. The island is Mauritius, and it possesses breathtaking beauty.
My ancestors came here more than 150 years ago from the Surat region of the western Indian state of Gujarat. One of those men – traders all – was my grandfather, Ismail Hossen Rawat. Defying all cultural and social conventions, he married a Frenchwoman, Marie Aimee: they married for love.
When my father, the last of their thirteen children, was three years old my grandfather went to India; he never returned to Mauritius. It would be expected that during this time period, a man well over fifty might not make the return trip. As result, my father had no memory of his father, and the lessons of life, and family values of integrity and Islamic faith, were transmitted from his mother.
Her nationality has always been a topic of conversation in our family, an eclectic brood of thirteen children with a distinct set of behaviors as compared to other Muslim families; we were always questioning and sometimes even doubting that a Muslim Indian trader and an European lady could marry in those distant days.
The undeniable features of French descent, and the personality quirks trademark our French descent. It is said that my grandfather’s qualities did not define him as a great businessman or trader, but more so, a man passionate about religion, and a compulsion to improve the human condition.
For this reason, he was known as a man who guided lost souls in times of distress. It was my grandmother’s hard work that catered for the family, and it was she who instilled into our DNA and our tradition, the ethics of honesty, respect, and sharing. The same can be said about the second generation that dabbled in different businesses without much success.
On my mother’s side, some did very well, and one grandfather was even considered a kind of genius for major accomplishments during his life such as setting up electricity, and from this he created an ice making center that produced blocks of ice that people used to put in their iceboxes. He built prefab and concrete in the late 1800s to upgrade the housing construction. He built a movie house with a large fan to ensure the comfort of the patrons. One of my first jobs as a youngster was working in the movie theater, Luna Park.
The other grandfather went into politics and became the first Asian Mayor of the capital Port Louis, and worked on providing free education for all.
From the travels of Marco Polo to the voyage journals of European pioneers of 18th to 20th history, the history of European families settling in faraway lands is well documented. The Asian pioneers, workers, and mass migration also have been documented.
But the story of the Rawat family presents a different picture, not fully Indian, not fully French, a fusion of East and West. My family, though having achieved greatness as demonstrated by my maternal grandfathers, is mostly left out of written history or celebrated history in Mauritius. That is a prime reason why I’m writing this memoir.
After my French grandmother married my Indian grandfather, she was erased from her family history. Our only exchange with extended family was from the Indian side. Both paternal and maternal sides of my family showed initiatives early after their arrival; originally traders, they soon evolved into starting and maintaining service-provider businesses.
Both my grandfathers evolved away from trade into the entertainment business. They built and managed cinemas that provided both Hollywood and Bollywood movies. This was the first culture-defining moment of my family; those cinemas redefined the weekend for Mauritian families, and they coupled the cinemas with restaurants, even printing and publishing. Hence, it was dinner and a movie, or relaxing at home with some good reading.
The Gujarati community was close knit and extended support to new immigrants. I grew up in this supportive environment that lasted almost to the early seventies. The inclusive nature of the community was common with all communities in the region – this meant that mingling with other Gujarati societies from Reunion Island, South Africa, and Madagascar was approved, but the white, Hindu, or African communities were off limits. This was similar in all the other communities – steadfast support by society, school, and families.
The whole country behaved in a way that made you feel that you were different. Even as Indian immigrant, we were not from the Muslim group as laborers, a status, we were conscious of and thankful for. However, none was better than the white community. The Creoles lived under the umbrella of the white culture and were indifferent to other groups at that time. They acceded to education earlier through their closeness to those in power, and many benefited from higher studies mainly overseas. They were excellent French writers, which enabled their gracious entry in media at a time, when changes were happening in the world and recounting the correct story was critical to keep the peace.
The media of today, retains this “colonial gentlemen’s club” approach where one is not necessarily rejected because of community or background, but especially in case of revolutionary minds who want to use the media to expand knowledge and challenge established ways to create a momentum for democracy. This would be part of my life misfortune in later years when I returned to Mauritius after a professionally successful tenure with BAI in the United States.
It was through Mauritius that the world was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most brilliant minds to change our understanding of the human condition. While the whites managed the country, organized la saison des bals, and la saison de la chasse, the Creoles were running the printing press, the indentured workers from India worked hard to save every penny to educate their children; the traders and businessmen of the Muslim communities also had defined their cultural traditions, as did the Chinese.
Each group had a lifestyle, and inter-dependence kept the communal silos operating as a population. Mistrust inherent between communities, would seep into each generation until today. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world has not only closed the communal gap, but also accepted through the establishment of protective laws, applicable to all kinds social and ethnic groups.
Members of my family and community were those who brought Mahatma Gandhi to Mauritius. It is in our blood to seek the unknown, to be attracted to those who preach equality and respect for all. The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi triggered one of the only beautifully defining moments in the history of the island, and free thinkers from all communities organized themselves as a unified group to demand independence from the British Empire.
I realize today, that I might have thought that forcing forward as this group had, was the way to change our society, to break the silos and create one people united for growth and survival in a world bigger than such a island could ever imagine. David did fight Goliath, but it was merely one battle: my battle in Mauritius has lasted for the last 40 years.
Perhaps I should say I lasted forty years until the deadly blow to my hard work, my dreams, and my desire to live in my country according to what it calls itself on paper, a democracy. However, the soul, infrastructure, and desire of the people are colonial. I close my eyes and the hard part of all this is to understand my love and passion for this little island and for those who do not like me.
Today, those who humiliate my daughters, their husbands and I, through vicious attacks in the media or through false accusations, while they claim to be the guardians of democracy or adhere to an ancient gentleman code actually present the reality of this island – the dichotomy of the democratic society versus the entrenched culture established by the original settlers of the island.
The impression generally projected through propaganda is that the inhabitants of the island like each other, and thus the reason for peaceful coexistence of so many communities, some ancient from faraway lands, and others created through mixed marriages or second illegal families or children. In reality, it is the reverse; it is mutual mistrust that keeps them living along side each other in this island-state of 1.2 million people.
The communal silos still live quite separate lives and have all retained their religious and social customs to this day. The matrimonial exchanges among communities are not generally accepted unless the couple to be married comes from same financial background, or if the less financially able has light skin. There is a level of exchange that is accepted, as mentioned: financial stability and family name will override religion in some cases. In business, it is a layer of complexity that I realize that maybe I found so aberrant that I ignored or I honestly thought had faded. I believed that educated people should not have such primitive mind-sets.
In business, the same silos system prevails. Among the top 100 companies of the island, white corporations have mostly white shareholders with a sprinkling of other community board members for ease in business process. The trend of community-based shareholding and board members is similar for Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and other communities. Businesses tend to follow cultural trends and show similar patterns of cluster of people of similar communities.
My group of companies was different from the beginning, not solely by my doing, as it was originally an American company. While the paintings of the board members of the original company – which was founded in The Bahamas in 1920 – will show a group of white men, the leadership, and eventually the ownership, was not reserved for only one group. I was not privileged to inherit a business or even have the family support to gain a university education. I started selling insurance, and worked my way up through hard work that spans more than 40 years.
Unlike those in the traditional business sectors who started with inheritance, and land, or those who were fortunate to gain a university education prior to entering the workforce, I worked and studied at night to become the man I am today. I pride myself on being totally self-made.
While the stratification and silos of the society in terms of culture can be easily defined after spending some time in Mauritius, the intricate underground network in the business community is extremely difficult to unravel, as the connections are not solely based on community but also on personal agendas.
The business and agricultural businesses were rebranded post independence as the traditional private sector. (According to the literature, Mauritius was uninhabited when the Dutch took possession in 1598. Abandoned in 1710, it was taken over by the French in 1715 and seized by the British in 1810. It gained independence in 1968 as a constitutional monarchy, with executive power nominally vested in the British monarch. Mauritius became a republic in 1992.)
Until the late nineties, the traditional private sector was the sole major contributor to the economy, and remains the majority shareholder of most of arable land. During those 25 years, barriers to new entry in the business sector, innovation or expansion of existing business were almost guaranteed due to the restrictive nature of the local laws.
As exposure to international business created external pressures for the lifting of restrictions, which allowed others to enter and grow in the market, traditional markets did not readily accept the intrusion. Through banks and financial services they controlled most of the market, and the media; they certainly did not seem to embrace anyone who conducted business differently.
This is my case, and it probably will explain what I have been through recently and also throw light on the antipathy toward me that has prevailed since my early start in business. Ironically, though I am condemned for having done too much and too openly, those who condemn me did so in huge full-page spreads in the media, openly attacking me during most of my career.
From the very beginning I was told a number of times by leaders of the private sector that my company would not last six months after I was placed at the helm of the company in Mauritius in the very early 70's.
I was 27 years old and the American management believed I could do the job, and offered me the challenge. This is the moment when I understood what a democracy is. The traditional press was often not kind or out to add a slight spin to make the reader question our endeavors. As the years went by, the slight spin became sharper, with snide comments and, eventually, outright attacks.
Recently – which is to say after the national election of December 2014 – the gloves came off, and the traditional media made it clear that my daughters and I would be destroyed by any means necessary; they made it clear that according to their assessment of the situation, I am guilty of creating and sustaining a Ponzi Scheme, and they used derogatory words and expressions against my daughters and I that can incite violence and extreme prejudice. The authorities, under one pretext or the other, began adhering to an ever-changing set of “principles.”
The traditional press has used me to define their raison d’etre, the protection of traditional business and the colonial infrastructure at any cost – even if it means the destruction of thousands of jobs, and the destruction of the financial reputation.
I believe my business “death sentence” was plotted and administered as a concerted effort of several groups that had worked separately in the past. Certainly among these groups are the traditional business sector and its loyal media, and some politicians who believe in a sharing system to balance traditional business sectors to keep the masses in check. The last group is the one I never expected; for their personal agenda or self-protection, it linked all the groups.
I have sustained multiple attacks on my integrity through four decades. But I have created thousands of jobs, and through the services my companies offered I put smiles on the faces of many people. I broke into established sectors such as the healthcare to offer the poor the same treatment as the rich. I ensured equal employment in the 1970s. I gave some many young people opportunities for professional advancement and social progress, and I empowered many deserving people to realize their dreams.
I spearheaded the inception of Insurance Commission and was President of the Mauritius Employers Federation (MEF). The people who worked for me received above market-rate remuneration. I offered my sales team awards of travel for their hard work. I supported the education of many employees who grew with the company and up to recently their children and grandchildren worked for the company.
I sold insurance in villages by candlelight and opened branches in regions where the poorest people lived. Today I am attacked, accused, and my private and business accounts decided upon and debated in the press. My personal properties have been seized; my family’s bank accounts have been frozen. The unacceptable behavior of the traditional press against my family is surely an indication that they have been called to full action to relentlessly attack until the Rawat Family’s complete destruction is assured. One point of support is the thank-you that one minister of the government gave to the media for the support he claims they provided during the ongoing BAI saga.
The continual media attacks on my daughters and their hapless husbands would put to shame any decent human being -- but here again I am using my own standards of decency to judge others, while a minister of the government thanked the media for the excellent work venal journalists had done.
I am astounded by the vulgar, venomous journalism in Mauritius these days, and the officially sanctioned abuse of freedom of expression on the part of the media and their fellow travelers. Well, what is the difference between their conduct and the primitive behavior they laugh at and condemn with regard to other cultures?
I now see very little difference between those who use weapons to murder innocents and those who use their pens to do so, as I am now convinced that outward religious actions are unconnected to faith. With much sadness, I watch vultures peck at my hard work. I also understand that a society governed and driven by hatred will eventually suffocate itself rather than evolve for survival.
The organized band and its trumpet toting media, know we have never done what we are being accused of having done or practiced. Some have openly stated that my friendship with former Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam was the cause of the witch-hunt against my family and me. Other than talk there is no proof of any political donation, favors acquired, or the ex-PM’s involvement in my business.
However, I would like to open the debate on all those who donate to political parties, who they are, and their motives. What has happened to my group can be considered a clear example of what happens when democracy is superimposed on a colonial structure, and political power that can be wielded in a way that is sometimes close to a dictatorship. The outside world may – rightly – applaud economic progress in Mauritius, but does it recognize the price paid for that progress?
The Republic of Mauritius has been established on the existing British infrastructure, with the same education system from the colonial days, and the same water and electricity systems. The entire system remains colonial-based; young students are taught the same way their grandfathers were taught. Democracy is a way of life sustained by an adapted economy and social structure, not a piece of paper to say we are democratic and to allow those who think they have the inherent right to rule through traditional media and business barons.
To become a genuine democracy Mauritius must take cognizance of what drives it. I can speak of this from recently acquired experience, of what happens to democracy, to a regulated business environment when the society is driven by hatred rather than a need to
co-exist and grow as a single population rather than silos of ethnic communities.
Since the election of December 2014, political leaders have fought for certain democratic points or points of equality, but it has never been part of a government mandate to update the infrastructure to sustain democracy, which would entail a balance of power between the judiciary, presidency, and prime minister. Paul Berenger went to jail for the rights of workers; Navin Ramgoolam liberalized the economy and adopted a language of one people rather than communal divide and conquer, while the general approach remains based on a traditional basis.
My history is the history of my family, my French grandmother rejected by her family, my grandfather’s achievement forgotten, and even erased, my father’s work lost to brotherly agenda. Today, my life work is on the same track, and anyone who dares to assault me must be fully part of one community or another.
The youth of Mauritius needs to understand what I am saying and learn more about authentic democracy. They need to create a country where if they have dream, they will not have to be weary and mistrust everyone to survive. Our youth need the opportunities and empowerment to grow intellectually and spiritually and morally. They must save the country for generations without having to adhere to outdated government models. Mauritius deserves nothing less.
I may be hurt but I am not finished, for I believe the truth prevails. I realize that maybe I am more like my father than my grandfathers, though I am good in business and worked hard, my passion for the improving the human condition has been greater.
Insurance, Apollo Bramwell Medical Center – those were my dreams that became reality. I would walk the halls of the hospital at all hours, making sure everything was perfect for the patients and their families. I paid my employees well, because I believed in my people.
I generated liberalization of business to create jobs, and support budding entrepreneurs; today my businesses are expropriated, and if Apollo Bramwell is a bad investment as some critics opine, then what is a good investment? Iframac had a guaranteed market prior to being sold to me; after I acquired the business, the guaranteed market vanished, and I took it as an opportunity to hire sales people from all communities and reduce the extremely intensive profit to give everyone a chance to acquire a new vehicle for the safety their families. I changed the selection at Courts to ensure that even the poor would have access to higher-level furniture, including brands from Europe.
Like my forefathers, I innovated precisely for the benefit of all Mauritius. It is, after all, my land, and my family, and Mauritians are my people. No one can take that away from me.
As I reflect on what I’ve written in this introduction, it occurs to me that my book isn’t meant to be a defense of my record and reputation. My memoir is, in effect, a biography of a land I love deeply and of its people – Mauritius. My story is that of truth, of how it has been distorted in the service of dishonest leaders.
And, perhaps above all, my book is about the potential of Mauritius to become a world-class country, a role model of multicultural coexistence where people of every color, creed and community extend their hands to their fellow citizens. That is the romance of Mauritius, not just its awesome physical beauty.
And that is why, notwithstanding the attacks on the Rawat Family, I am more hopeful than ever that a truly egalitarian nation will be created out of a fractured polity. I will be there to see this happen. That’s my promise to Mauritius and its lovely people. Mauritius is my land, and Mauritians are my people. I salute them.