In an interview with The Wire, Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan, Seychelles’ leader of opposition, talks about relations with India, visiting his ancestral village in Bihar, and more.
New Delhi: For the past two years, India’s project to develop military infrastructure on Seychelles’ northern island of Assumption has failed to take off as the agreement has not been tabled in parliament for ratification.
In an interview with The Wire, Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan, Seychelles’ leader of opposition, blamed the island nation’s government for not having foreseen the constitutional roadblocks and for slowing down implementation of the agreement. But he is hopeful that with his party supporting the agreement in principle, the national assembly will give the green light to a modified pact within a couple of months.
Fifty-six-year-old Ramkalawan, an Anglican priest, has an unprecedented role as a powerful opposition leader in the Indian ocean archipelago of 115 islands. For the first time in Seychelles’ history, the ruling party, the People’s Party, lost the 2016 parliamentary elections and the majority of seats in the 33-member house went to the opposition coalition, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS). Therefore, despite the literal definition of his formal designation, Ramkalawan is the leader of the majority of the members in the parliament. Seychelles has a presidential form of government, but parliament has significant powers of oversight.
India has been looking to consolidate and strengthen its strategic position in the Indian ocean region, especially with China’s growing naval presence and pro-active courting of small island nations. Seychelles’ Assumption, along with Agalega in Mauritius, were two islands in the Indian Ocean that India had committed to develop ‘infrastructure’ in, during Narendra Modi’s visit in 2015. These were supposed to be among the concrete outcomes of India’s revamped strategy for the Indian ocean region, launched as SAGAR.
Under Seychelles law, the Assumption island agreement must be ratified bythe parliament. But, former president James Michel did not bring the agreement before the national assembly, even though he had the numbers at that time.
With the opposition controlling the house, the current Seychelles president Danny Faure knew that he needed their support. One of Faure’s first steps had been to show the text of the agreement with India to Ramkalawan.
Even as the opposition came on board, there was more delay as the Seychelles government wanted to modify some clauses. These related to the capacity of the military infrastructure that India had committed to build for the Seychelles defence forces. According to Ramkalawan, Seychelles would like to see larger facilities in keeping with the demand of the defence forces, since Assumption island would be the hub to patrol its waters to prevent illegal fishing and drug smuggling in the region. There were also some other technical issues, like the location of the jetty.
India will also get access to these facilities on the island, strategically located on the southern Indian ocean. However, despite such descriptors used in some media reports, Ramkalawan insisted that Assumption was not a military base for India.
According to Indian officials, New Delhi is still awaiting the amendments from Seychelles to the agreement. Once they agree on the changes, the amendments would get the approval through an exchange of letters by the two countries. Thereafter, the finalised document will be tabled in the Seychelles parliament.
Ramkalawan indicated that the agreement would come to parliament by February – with the possibility of earlier passage by the end of this month.
India has had a very close security relationship with Seychelles, providing training and equipment for its defence forces. New Delhi has provided two patrol boats, one interceptor and a Dornier aircraft to the coast guard. India conducted a hydrographic survey for Seychelles in December 2015. Six coastal radar systems were installed by India. However, three of them were damaged in a recent cyclone, while the other three may also need to be upgraded. The intimacy in this relationship over the years can be easily demonstrated by the fact that in 1986, the then Seychelles president Francis Albert Rene rushed back home from Zimbabwe on ‘Air India One’ loaned by Rajiv Gandhi, after receiving news of a possible coup.
Seychellois of Indian origin account for over 10% of the total population of 96,000. That’s why Ramkalawan’s current trip to India is even more significant. He is participating in the meeting of parliamentarians of Indian origin, but in a personal milestone, will become the first person from Seychelles who will be travelling back to India to successfully trace their origin.
As per Mauritian government records, his grandfather, ‘Harrychurn’ left the village of ‘Pursounee’ in Chhapra district in 1883, boarded a ship, the Shaw Alam, in Kolkata and arrived in Mauritius after a 10 or 12 week journey to work as an indentured labourer. After he died at the age of 48, his wife and two sons migrated to Seychelles.
With the help of the Indian government, Ramkalawan will be tracing his great-grandfather’s steps back to the village in Bihar this week.
Here are edited excerpts from Seychelles Leader of Opposition Wavel Ramkalawan’s interview with The Wire:
What are the reasons for the delay in starting the Assumption Island project? Is it only to do with legal issues?
They should have foreseen the legal issues and dealt with them. For example, when the prime minister came to Seychelles, the ruling party had an absolute majority in the parliament.
But, (president) James Michel, sort of, did not want to talk about the project. He just did not want to talk about the project.
Why was that?
I don’t understand. I mean these are questions that I ask myself. Why didn’t he come out openly to talk about the project, so that things could move on.
Were you surprised when the project was announced during PM Modi’s visit?
It was not even announced.
But the MoU was signed.
Yes, the MoU was signed, but no details were given. This is what made a lot of us suspicious. What is it about? What is not being told to us? There were all these questions. This is when some countries started to say that this is going to be a military base.
When did you finally access the agreement document?
When I became the leader of the opposition, that’s when the present president knew that he had to bring it to the assembly for ratification. Given it was a sensitive document, he called me and gave me a copy.
That was in 2016 and now we are in 2018. Why is it taking so long to get the agreement to the parliament for ratification?
Our minister of foreign affairs has been very slow. You will be surprised to know that foreign secretary and principal secretary have both been replaced and now hopefully, there will be a new surge of energy so that these things move forward.
I spoke to the president last night (January 7) and said that things need to happen. Because they were supposed to have happened on December 15 (2017). This was supposed to have been tabled then. But, then the ministry of foreign affairs failed to see sense. Now, we are hoping, because the president in the new year visited Assumption island, along with the attorney general and the head of the military, now hopefully, ratification could be as early as end of this month.
In the final document, which would need to be signed off by both parties, there will be certain changes.
Has Seychelles agreed to be part of China’s one belt, one road (OBOR)?
China must certainly be pushing for Seychelles to be part of its maritime silk road project.
Yes, I know.
What would the opposition’s position be if the Seychelles government agrees to be part of OBOR?
Well, it will have to be cleared by the parliament. Until I see what the implications are, I will not be able to give you a clear answer. When you talk of military, what is it all about? Is it like… well, we were part of the European Union military cooperation in the fight against piracy. We knew what exactly was in there.
In the Indian ocean region, China is an increasingly dominant player. How do you see the power dynamics evolving in the region and India’s role vis-à-vis China?
When you look at Mauritius, the fact (is) that you have a population that is over 50% Indian origin. There is a natural affinity towards India. Seychelles is the same way. You have a strong Indian base population in Seychelles. The link is there. The same with the Maldives. With Sri Lanka, there have been problems, still there is the connection. Same with the Comoros as well. So, whatever influence China specifically may want to have in the Indian Ocean, it will be totally different from the natural influence that India will have.
Yes, at the same time, it is not something that we can take for granted.
Take for example – in Seychelles, China came along and gave us the Supreme Court, the law courts, the national assembly, poly technic and they are also involved in the construction of houses. However, even though they are giving all these things, we know that they are doing so not because of the natural affinity as far as the people are concerned, but because they are buying us – and this is what makes the difference.
And I think that the role of India will always be a powerful role and therefore, I do not see how any country – especially when we are talking of China – how they will have the same influence.
If I may give an example in your neighbourhood. India has had a very close relationship with Maldives, with a big aid budget and inter-connected economic linkages. However, the Chinese have made definite inroads into Maldives, with big infrastructure projects. India may have historical links with all the countries in Indian Ocean region, but that cannot be taken for granted.
No, no…nothing can be taken for granted. But, at the same time, given that there is a basis for this relationship among the countries in the Indian Ocean – I think this basis gives it added strength.
India doesn’t have to buy its way through. When you buy your way through, you are not sure whether it’s real or not.
You can compare it to the role of Taiwan. Taiwan assisted the ANC (African National Congress) during the liberation years. But then it was based on money. It was based on who could pay more. And now of course, China is the main partner (of South Africa). But why is that so? This is because it was just a question of buying. There was nothing deep. There was no affinity. They could drop Taiwan and go for China. It is basically the same difference. Whereas, with India, there is a link.
True. But even then, aren’t bilateral relations between nations basically transactional at a certain level?
Yes, there is that element. But at the same time, I also believe that there is something extra. I can take myself as an example. I mean having known that my great grandfather was an indentured labourer who came from Bihar – automatically, there is now something deeper. There is an affinity (with India). This search to go back to Bihar and hopefully meet my ancient relatives.
In fact, I know myself, I may end up saying that I want to make a positive contribution towards the education of say my great-great cousin. So, the emotional attachment will have a greater significance.
Whereas with China, this does not exist. And this is where I feel that the role of India will be taken more seriously.
India is being proactive and we are following everything… This is what will matter. You are right that nothing can be taken for granted. India is not taking anything for granted. Just like other European countries as well vis-à-vis China in Africa.
The ruling party has been in power since 1977. How would you assess this one year of unique situation where the president and parliament are controlled by different political parties? Has there been a learning curve to working with each other?
We had a one very strong ruling party. That was the former Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP), then it changes its name to Seychelles People’s Progressive Front and now People’s Party (Parti Lepep or PL). That party was so powerful that it believed it would never lose any election.
In fact, when I started politics and we talked about change, their members would laugh and suggested that it may happen in 2050 or 3000.
Things started to change in 2015, when for the first time we had the second round in presidential elections and they (PL) felt that things were not too good.
After they lost the majority in the house at the national assembly elections, the president then, Mr Michel, felt that he could not work with the opposition, because he is not someone who is prepared to negotiate. That’s why he stepped down and Mr Faure, the present president came in.
He (President Faure) took a different attitude. He felt from day one that his party had lost its popularity. He was more of a realist. And thus, we started to talk.
And soon, as we started to talk, it was a different story. He has made the difference with his approach.
There is a lot of consultation which goes on right now. I am one who had always said that I am prepared to talk, I am prepared to consult to share views because it is not about myself, it is about the country. And Mr Faure has presented himself as the person who is ready to talk.
Are there still some major issues that cause friction between you and the president, for example on the budget?
Well, there are differences in the way the parties think. But again, another element that is important for you to know (is) that having taken over as president, Mr Faure – and these were his exact words – he divorced himself from the party.
He was the secretary general of the party and at the election of the party executive, everybody thought he would be the party leader. But he did not present himself as a candidate. So now, he is not a member of the party executive. In fact, the vice president is the president of the party.
When he took the decision not to be involved in party politics, this was another indication that he wanted to move away and be independent.
But, yes, we do disagree on certain things that he wants to put forward.
When we discuss the budget, there are many things we don’t accept. This year when we look at the budget for the president’s office, we decided to freeze certain million rupees. We have said to them that we are not happy with the way things were. Please sort it out and come back to us.
When we look at some of the structures of (the) state, we do not agree. But at the same time, I am the leader of opposition. I have said that I am not the executive. The people of Seychelles voted for them to be in the executive. Until the people of Seychelles decide otherwise, we also have a duty to allow the executive to function. So, this is where we give them leeway to function. Even though we are not satisfied with certain structures, we still give them the money to run that programme.
Will you put your name forward in the next presidential elections?
I intend to put my name forward as the presidential candidate for the party (Seychelles National Party or SNP). It would, of course, be for the party to decide. But I will definitely stand. As I said, I lost the presidential elections in 2015 by 193 votes. And in 2016, the party won the popular vote and therefore I feel that I stand a good chance of winning the election. It is not just that I have a good chance of winning the election, but it is also about working for the country. I also think that the party has a very good programme for the country.
You are the chair of the truth and reconciliation committee of the parliament which was created for the first time after the elections. There is not much awareness in the rest of the world about what happened in the ‘dark years’ as you had referred to it. Why it is necessary for those days to be remembered and accountability to be fixed?
In 1977, we had the coup d’état. Mr (France Albert) Rene declared Seychelles as a one-party state and shut down all other political parties. Supporters of the other parties, especially the party of Mr (James) Mancham, were persecuted. They were seen as enemies of the people. People were detained illegally. They were rounded up and placed in prisons. Some people spent over six months in prisons. Some even longer. Upon being released, they were told that they could not stay in Seychelles. That’s when lots of them left and went into exile in England, in Canada in France and in Australia. These were the four main countries, and some in South Africa. But apart from that, a number of people were killed. Bodies of some were found. Bodies were considered disappeared.
Then the government brought in a law to acquire anyone’s property. There was a compulsory acquisition of property and it was mainly land belonging to opponents of the ruling party. People would lose their jobs, because they were thought to be belonging to the party of Mr Mancham. (A) number of people were arrested, tortured and then released. That was the time also when the army was formed, as we didn’t have one before.
Human right abuses were rampant and people lived in a lot of fear. People were scared to talk. Thousands left the country.
Even the schooling regime was changed. Upon reaching the age of 13, all students who want to continue with their education, were placed in villages called national youth service. It meant that between the age of 13-14 and 16, they were removed from their parents. It was to instil communism in them. But this failed miserably. This is part of the dark years, and we want to sort this out through this commission and hopefully move on.
You have said that next month the Seychelles parliament may consider a new law to set up a national commission to hear testimonies about those years of suppression. But this law will also be to provide immunity to persons of even heinous crimes, if they confess. Are you including even the two former presidents under this?
There are two issues here. One, the constitution prescribes that a former president can only be charged within three years of leaving office. After that, he has immunity. One thing that we in the opposition are thinking of changing is to amend this section in the constitution. We do not have two-third majority, but we want to have cooperation of the ruling party.
This is also related to the fight against corruption. Evidences of corrupt practices often surface much later. That’s why we want to remove the immunity.
That is the first step that we have to take. Once we take this step and remove the immunity, only then will the possibility of bringing a former president to court on evidence of witnesses under the truth commission be there. Until the first step is taken, the second step cannot happen.
Mr Michel still falls within those three years, that’s true. If there is anything that is found against him, then yes, we should be able to initiate something there.
You are the first person from Seychelles who would be going to their ancestral village. Why has it taken so much time?
The more I think of it, I am starting to believe that my family were the only descendants of an indentured labourer from Bihar, who actually made it from Mauritius to Seychelles.
The first piece of information that I got was the birth certificate of my grandfather from Mauritius. I knew his name from the marriage certificate. So, when I knew his name, I got his birth certificate. And on his birth certificate, which was interesting, was the immigration number of his father who was an indentured labourer.
So, with that number, I then, through the Mahatma Gandhi institute (in Mauritius), got all his details which include the age that he left, his height (5’6), his village (‘Pursounee’ in Chapra district).
I got this (details from Mauritius) a couple of years back. But, I had received the birth certificate of my grandfather some time earlier.
Then why did it take you so long to come to India to trace back your family’s journey?
I had always said that I would do it (visit the village in India). But, when the opportunity arose, I did some more research on the village, the diaspora – and the interest grew.
They have identified the village. So, hopefully, I would be getting to meet my relatives there.