Mon. May 23rd, 2022
Seychelles’ First Hindu MP Sathya Naidu – Indian Defence Research Wing


SOURCE: THE WIRE

When President Wavel Ramkalawan’s historical electoral victory ended the 43-year-old single-party rule in Seychelles in October, it also marked another important milestone – the election of the island nation’s first Hindu member of parliament.

The results of the general elections in October marked a seismic change in the country made of 115 islands and a population of 98,000 in the Western Indian ocean. It was the first time that the United Seychelles party had lost power since the archipelago became independent in 1976 and it turned towards a multi-party system in 1993. Ramkalawan not only became president on his sixth attempt, but the opposition alliance, Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS), got an absolute majority.

For Sathyanarayanan Sudarsan Naidu, the victory was also a vindication for his 17-year-old self – the age when he became politically active despite professing anti-establishment views that could have had serious ramifications. A decade later, his political activism remains exceptional in the small Indian community, which keeps its head down and prefers to be just involved in the business.

He is, however, not just the first politician of Indian origin in Seychelles. An Anglican priest, Ramkalawan traced the journey of his great-grandfather from Bihar’s Chapra district to becoming an indentured plantation worker in Mauritius.

Like several other Indian families in Seychelles, Naidu traced his family links to Tamil Nadu’s Mayavaram district, which his grandfather left in 1917.

Speaking to The Wire, Naidu said that his was the first Hindu name on the ballot paper in Seychelles, but this lineage was also the target of attacks during the election campaign. He noted that it was a major “talking point” during the elections, with his opponents having a “tough time dealing with the fact that I was a Seychellois of Indian origin”. The strident criticism of his loyalty led Ramkalawan to issue a statement calling on then president Danny Faure to break his silence on the targeted “insults” from the ruling party.

There was also the hangover from the political scandal of the Assumption Island project. During the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, India and Seychelles signed an agreement for infrastructure development in Assumption, a remote outer island. It was a sign of Seychelles’ importance in India’s strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific, where the rising visibility of China had led to competing powers to jostle for a dominant position.

However, the Seychelles government could not get the agreement approved before parliament, where opposition LDS held a simple majority. In his last foreign trip as foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, now India’s external affairs minister, signed the revised agreement in 2018 for Assumption Island for India to develop infrastructure to allow Seychelles coast guard to operate a forward base to patrol a section of its extended economic zone. It was a bid to bring back the stalled project onto the rails.

But, in less than two months, the project received a major setback when the classified agreement along with a ‘secret’ side letter was leaked on a social media account. The Wire had been the first to report on the breach. It led to the government deciding to not even bring the agreement for ratification before parliament.

A member of Ramkalawan’s Seychelles National Party, Naidu asserts the party position that the Assumption Island project cannot go ahead now. “I’m not in favour of any foreign military base in Seychelles,” he told The Wire. “There were no consultations with the people regarding this project. We only came to know about what had happened when there were some leaks,” he added.

The opposition against the India-sponsored Assumption Island project even spilled into hostility against the Indian community in the Seychelles, which accounts for around 6% of the population. “Unfortunately, because us Seychellois feared that a foreign base will undermine the sovereignty of our nation. The Indian community which had nothing to do with the agreement was unfairly targeted as a result. They took the hit,” he said.

He felt that if India continued with its strategy of other development projects like the construction of the magistrate’s court, which are in line with “aspirations” of Seychellois, then “there is no problem”.

India has several other ongoing projects in Seychelles, which include the construction of a new government house, police headquarters, and attorney general’s office at a cost of over $90 million.

Signalling that Seychelles remained crucial for India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Indian external affairs minister Jaishankar visited the island nation a month after President Ramkalawan’s electoral victory. He extended an invitation to President Ramkalawan to visit India in 2021.

Here are the excerpts of The Wire’s interview with Sathya Naidu, Seychelles’ newly-elected MP on phone. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

How did you get into politics?

At the age of 17, I began advocating for SNP and what it stood for. It was my first baby steps into the political world. I understood the importance of change which was evident at that time. The corruption and the persecution for simply exercising one’s right to hold one’s own political opinions was not something I could tolerate. Through my activism, it led me to meet President Ramkalawan whom I have always held in very high regard. His fighting spirit and the love for his people inspired me to pursue politics and someday stand in an election myself. I wanted to serve my people to the best of my abilities, and I have always felt strongly that this was my calling in life.

It was politics that triggered in me a sense of curiosity to learn the law which led me to pursue an LLB (Hons) degree in Sri Lanka. Even throughout the university, during my holidays, I would always fly back to Seychelles to assist my party in major political activities.

What was the reason for the election’s historical mandate?

For 43 years, one party was ruling the country. People outside look at Seychelles for its white sandy beaches, turquoise clear water and consider it paradise, but they don’t realise that it has a rich political history. People had a lot of frustration about the way that things had been working, corruption was widespread.

We are now a maturing democracy. There are still a lot of steps that will have to be taken. In the past, we had to face the repercussions for our political views. One shouldn’t have to be fearful to hold certain political views. This newly elected government will ensure freedom of thought and expression.

The president has been very clear in his message. Our party’s logo – “Sesel pour tou son zanfan” – calls for inclusivity. That’s why a second chance is being given to all the officials under the previous governments to prove themselves competent and able to move this country towards development.

Meanwhile, the truth commission and the anti-corruption commission will continue to work on their mandates. The families who were victimised must get closure. We must move forward as a nation whereby unity shall reign.

Since Seychelles’ population is so small, does a member of parliament have a more immediate impact?

Politics here is very different from the rest of the world whereby we are much closer to our constituents. In fact, apart from attending National Assembly work, most of my time is dedicated to resolving issues of my constituents that have been stagnant for so many years. It is time for the newly elected leaders to work on rebuilding their respective districts and to lift this country up.

(His constituency) Saint Louis has 2,572 eligible voters, so everybody knows each other.

President Ramkalawan hails from Saint Louis. And from the time he stood for the district, the constituents have always supported the party which he is on. Therefore, it has been well represented throughout the years in the National Assembly. In view of that, it is an immense task ahead to prove myself to the people of Saint Louis.

Did your identity as the first Hindu politician from Seychelles’ Indian community figure during your election campaign?

I am Seychellois first, but I cannot deny my Indian lineage. This was a major talking point in the general elections. Therefore, I had to prove my allegiance to the people of Seychelles.

The people of Saint Louis have always been open-hearted, and everyone welcomed me into their homes to talk to them about what I could accomplish for the district and the country. However, my detractors had a tough time dealing with the fact that I was a Seychellois of Indian origin. I was never deterred by this and today I stand as an elected member of parliament. I will serve those who embraced me and those who doubted me equally. I must prove myself to both.

It is a proud moment that I am the first Hindu member of parliament from the Indian community. One of my commitments is to encourage social cohesion and to work towards eliminating indifference. It is paramount to get the Indian community more involved in developing the country not just in terms of business, but in human solutions.

There is a local perception in Seychelles that the Indian community, which has a substantial presence in business, has remained aloof from politics. Is that correct?

As far as politics goes, I am the first person of Hindu background that has really come forth. I was the only person besides my father himself, who was very vocal. Other than that, everybody was a bit afraid. They were afraid because they relied heavily on all governmental organisations, for permit, for licensing, for anything that will have to be done, you need the approval from the government of the day to approve or sanction, for them to be able to proceed with their business. So, they always had the fear that if they were going to be vocal, it would become a hindrance for them to move forward because there was victimisation. If you spoke against the previous government that was in power for all these years, you would be victimised, you would not have job opportunities, loans won’t be sanctions, etc.

So, there is more scope for the Indian community to be socially integrated in Seychelles?

Similar to what I stated earlier, the Indian community must be a part of the human solutions. Currently, the Indian community contributes to the development of business activity in the country, further effort towards creating and supporting solutions to pressing challenges to the nation would go a long way in creating peace and harmony.

In addition to that, as with most minority groups, not limited to Seychelles, they have to put themselves out there to form part of the larger community. So, there is a need for them to be more proactive in this regard. Again, the point that I am reiterating is to be part of human solutions. Currently, our country is facing a lot of challenges, so once they are doing well as far as business is concerned, they must look to support their fellow Seychellois. Especially now that we have to reinvent or rethink progressive ways in which our economies have to function.

They will have to come forward with solutions to take our country forward, so that they are seen as stakeholders. Because, if they are not contributing in terms of solutions, this has become the prominent criticism or is seen as a burden for the vast majority because whilst profit is being made, contribution to human solutions is very minimal.

Did the opposition to the Assumption issue impact the Indian community?

Yes, it did. Unfortunately, because we Seychellois feared that a foreign base will undermine the sovereignty of our nation. The Indian community which had nothing to do with the agreement was unfairly targeted as a result. They took the hit.

What is your view on the Assumption Island project?

There were no consultations with the people regarding this project. We only came to know about what had happened when there were some leaks.

Sovereignty of this land and its people is sacred. It must never be compromised. I’m not in favour of any foreign military base in Seychelles.

Why do you call it a foreign base since India and Seychelles government had never termed it like that?

It may not have been termed as such but that is what it is. President Ramkalawan told CNN’s Richard Quest that there will never be a foreign base in Seychelles, and I agree with him.

What is the role of the Seychelles parliament in taking a major decision like the Assumption Island project?

Former president Danny Faure couldn’t go ahead because the parliament had power, but there was not an absolute majority, it was a simple majority, with which LDS decided not to ratify the agreement as reiterated much earlier that it was a foreign base so there is another interest behind it. We didn’t want to be part of it as we are a small island nation and we want to preserve and protect what we have and ensure our sovereignty is protected at all costs. We are friends to all and enemy to none. That’s the message that we want to send.

When it comes to such agreements, it will have to come before parliament to be ratified. Therefore, the legislative branch has a significant amount of power. This is why there was a deadlock with regards to the Assumption agreement. The executive was trying to push for it at all costs and the legislative branch was having none of it as there was an outcry from the people to not ratify the agreement. As representatives of parliament, they are there to represent the voice of the people.

Besides Assumption, how do you perceive relations between India and Seychelles should move forward in the future?

Partnership with India so far has been fantastic. They have helped us a lot with various projects. Most recently was the magistrate’s court and any support from India rendered towards the development of my country is highly appreciated.

India and Seychelles have had a long-standing friendship, and furthermore, we have prominent members of the Indian community who have taken up positions in leadership roles in the country. So, it is no doubt that the relationship between both countries will only become stronger.

Our president traces his roots to Bihar in India. There is a good probability that he might be going back to India to thank the people in that village in Bihar for having prayed for him to be elected. Therefore, I assume, he has a great amount of gratitude for the thoughtful gesture.

We want that partnership to continue because Seychelles is a small country. Considering how fragile we are, we do have areas that we need to improve, and India has the expertise which they also can collaborate and provide for us to develop.

As long as it is in line with the aspirations of the people, there is no problem.