The story of the Chagossians

Vidisha Biswas investigates the story of the Chagossians - forcibly removed from their Indian Ocean

Four decades and three legal defeats later, the British Foreign Office is still unwilling to allow some 5000 Chagossians to return to their island homes.

It has tried virtually everything in its power to prevent them, from pretending the Chagos islands had never been inhabited - other than by migrant labourers - to invoking the royal prerogative to overturn a British High Court ruling.

Now several hundred have agreed to renounce their right to return. Despite this, the government has been reluctant to meet even the modest demands that they are making in lieu.

The tragedy of the Chagossians dates back to the 1960s, when Washington decided that the island of Diego Garcia was perfect setting for a US military base. Diego Garcia is the largest of the 60 plus islands that form the Chagos archipelago, located in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Britain bought these islands from Mauritius in 1965 for £3 million. Its population is estimated to have been about 2000 at the time. The dilemma facing the US and UK governments was how to clear the islands of its inhabitants, to make way for the American base.

They resolved this dilemma by tricking or intimidating the islanders into leaving. “We were then dumped in the sordid slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis,” recalls Olivier Bancoult, leader of almost 4000 Chagossians, many of whom are based, to this day, in those same slums.

In return for the use of the island, the US is believed to have given the UK a $14m discount on its purchase of a Polaris nuclear missile system. But it was ten years from the time of expulsion, before the islanders received any sort of compensation from the British government. The money when it did arrive, was - at £3,000-a-head - both too little and came too late, insists Mr Bancoult.

A British High Court judgement last year denounced the government’s actions as “repugnant”. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the royal prerogative, which allows decisions to be made by ministers without consulting Parliament, had been unlawful. The Court of Appeal also refused the Foreign Office leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

That should have been the end of the matter. But earlier this year, the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords directly for the right to appeal. If the Law Lords cede to the government’s demands then the case will be heard in 2008. The legal battle so far is estimated to have cost the taxpayer up to £4m.

“The ruling about the royal prerogative did not apply just to the Chagos islands,” explains a spokesperson for the Foreign Office. “It has implications for other overseas territories as well. If royal prerogatives are challengeable, it makes all legislation unsound. That is why the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords.”

But Richard Gifford, the Chagossians' lawyer, thinks otherwise. “The islanders have been delayed by endless litigation from returning home,” he said. “The government has used every means of obstructing them in the hope perhaps that as many as possible will die off, and the instinct to go back will lessen.”

If that indeed is the case, then government efforts appear to have been successful, at least as far as the British Indian Ocean People’s Party (BIOPP) is concerned. This group, which comprises of several hundred Chagossian families that have migrated in recent years to Crawley, West Sussex, no longer desires to return to the Chagos archipelago.

“The way of life now, compared to the way of life 40 years ago, is completely different," explains Allen Vincatassin, leader of the BIOPP. “Our island homes, moreover, have long been reduced to wild, forest land. To make them habitable once again will mean spending huge amounts of public money.

“It will be near impossible to take up from where we left off. The islander’s can have a much better future in the UK. This is where they can recover from what they have lost and all that they have had to suffer.”

Easier said than done. Mr Vincatassin’s party has been campaigning since 2004 for Chagossians- who are all British passport holders - to be entitled to welfare benefits immediately following arrival in the UK.

Their demands were rejected by the British High Court last year. The matter is currently being considered by the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected within the next month.

“My people have to pass the habitual residence test. They can’t claim state benefits for three months,” explains Mr Vincatassin.

“This may not seem like a very long waiting period to most people. But for many Chagossians, who arrive in the UK with next to nothing, it can mean the difference between life and death.

“The government says that the residency rule applies to all British citizens. It was on these grounds that the High Court dismissed our claims.

“But we believe that we should be exceptions to that rule. After all, we have had to give up our homes in the name of British national interest. They owe us at least this much. But even in this regard, the UK government has so far failed us.

“Still we will not give up hope. We eagerly await the Court of Appeal's judgement. Till the very end, we will hold on to the hope that Britain will eventually heed the call of justice.”

Olivier Bancoult, however, accuses Mr Vincatassin of selling out. He said: “The only way the UK government can redeem itself is by allowing the Chagossians to return home as soon as possible, and by putting in place the necessary infrastructure that will allow them to carry on with their lives as before.

“I speak for the majority of Chagossians, who share the same demands. In any case, irrespective of whether or not all the islanders ultimately return, the point is that they should be given the right and the means to return... in other words, the choice.

“I find it hard to believe the lengths the British government will go to. Every time we think we have won the fight, it finds a new way of prolonging our misery. Many of us have given up hope of ever seeing our homeland again.

“How can a government that claims that it gives the greatest importance to human rights refuse to recognise the rights and dignity of the islanders, who too are British citizens?”

Vidisha Biswas specialised in literature before deciding to pursue a career in journalism. Her interests include human rights, foreign politics, music and philosophy.
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain