Did India have any “ulterior motive” in seeking to help Mauritius? The answer, according to a cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Port Louis on December 15, 2006, citing Mauritian and Indian diplomats, was that India indeed had a subtext to its moves, and oil prospecting was one of them. Surprisingly, Mauritians, as the cable noted, were not only aware of this, but also ready to let India have its way, even indicating “willing subordination” (89644: confidential).
The Indian Ocean archipelago and India have strong cultural-historical links. Between the 18th century and the mid-20th century, the French and British colonisers of Mauritius brought Indians to work in the plantations or build its cities. Many of them settled in the island, and today more than half of the country's population is of Indian origin. Bilateral trade has been growing: in 2008 India exported goods worth Mauritian Rupees.31.76 billion (about $1 billion).
In 2006, reports appeared in the press alleging that Mauritius was thinking of ceding to India the 2,600-hectare twin Agalega islands, which are located 1,000 km north of Mauritius, en route to the Seychelles. Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam categorically denied these reports in the Mauritian Parliament. He stated that the “Government of India was willing to develop an economic development plan for the islands,” and might improve an unusable landing strip.
However, after speaking to top aides of Mr. Ramgoolam, who apparently denied the reports, the U.S. diplomats recorded that Mauritian officials “displayed an unusual degree of nervousness and word parsing, which might indicate that there is more to these reports that the government has admitted.”
There were also additional reasons for U.S. diplomats to suspect India's hidden interest in Mauritius.
The cable said: “Capt. Guy Adam, the President of the Seychelles Petroleum Company, told Conoff [consular officer] that he suspects there is exploitable oil reserves in the region between Seychelles and Agalega, and that this explained India's interest.”
In October 2006, a three-member team from India visited the islands and assessed it. In addition, India, on its own initiative, carried out a hydrographic survey of the Agalega region, “at no cost to Mauritius.” None of these assessments were handed over to the Mauritian government at least till the date on which the cable was sent. To Mauritian politicians, according to the cable, it was increasingly becoming evident that the motivation for India's assistance did not stem “from cultural affinity or magnanimity.” Indian diplomats too confirmed to U.S. diplomats that ‘Mother India' was not offering help “for cultural or sentimental reasons.”
None of these seem to have been a matter of concern either to the government or the opposition parties. “The Leader of the Opposition privately told the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in early 2006 that he supported the government's tilt towards India because ‘India is the wave of the future and Mauritius is going to ride that wave',” the cable noted. It added that “India's domination of this relationship is skewed further by Mauritius' sense of economic vulnerability,” partly caused by the EU's sugar pricing policy.
For the U.S., Mauritius has particular strategic importance because of Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos islands, where it has a military base. In 1965, these islands, which once belonged to Mauritius, were ‘separated and retained by Britain.'
(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)