Roughly 1000 miles south of the southern tip of India, a small cluster of about 40 islands, known as Chagos archipelago, is located right in the middle of the Indian ocean. The biggest and the most important island from this cluster is known as Diego Garcia. The Chagos Archipelago has a great strategic importance as it is located almost at an equal distance from the shores of Africa, India and Indonesia.
This cluster of islands was not inhabited till 18th century, when French colonists, using slave labour, started few coconut plantations on the island. After Napoleonic wars, the British Crown took over the islands. Between 1814 to 1965 the islands were administered from Mauritius. Just three years before Mauritius became independent from Britain, the Chagos islands were detached form Mauritius and were made a part of the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and put under direct British rule. In 1966 the British crown bought the islands and the plantations from private owners as the plantations were any way, highly unprofitable.
In 1971, an agreement was signed between British and US Governments, under which island of Diego Garcia was transferred to US for use as a military base. Surprisingly, no payment was made by Washington to Britain. It is possible that consideration in some other form, such as reduction in the price of some military hardware, might have been made. This was reported in some British Media. Under this agreement no other economic activity is permitted on the island.
In 1971, the island of Diego Garcia had a population of about 2000 inhabitants. These people were known as Chagossians or Ilois people and ware essentially of Indian or African origin. Their ancestors were brought to the island in 18th and 19th centuries by their Colonial Masters to look after coconut or Copra plantations. They lived in three settlements on the island: the main settlement on the eastern rim of the atoll, called as East Point; Minni Minni, 4.5 kilometres north of East Point; and Pointe Marianne, on the western rim. After the agreement about Diego Garcia was signed by the British with US government, British authorities did something, which they probably would have never even dreamt of doing in their own country, Britain. They forcefully depopulated the Diego Garcia island, forcing all 2000 people to move to the Seychelles and then to Mauritius using controversial techniques.
To carry out this totalitarian activity, the commissioner for British Indian Ocean Territory, issued an ordinance in 1967. This unilateral proclamation, highly reminiscent of the British actions in India in early 17th and 18th centuries, was called the Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes (Private Treaty) Ordinance and enabled him to acquire any land he liked (for the UK government). On 3 April 1967, under the provisions of the order, the British government bought all the plantations of the Chagos archipelago for £660,000 and officially closed them.
The idea behind this action was to deprive any source of income to the local population and to make them move from the island. In fact some correspondence within British Bureaucracy, has acknowledged the fact that they have bought with this sum, few rocks and sea gulls along with some Tarzans and Man Fridays. Another document states that the British Government under no condition wants the indigenous people to be called Chagossians or Ilois and should be known as Mauritius or Seychelles citizens.
The British government thereafter issued an ordinance, that island of Diego Garcia would be cleared of all non-inhabitants. This ordinance was cleverly published in a BIOT gazette not read by more than few people. After this, all islanders were simply told that they never belonged to Diego Garcia and must leave for Seychelles. In fact, no one was allowed to return to Diego Garcia form Seychelles.
US military authorities have built an important base in Diego Garcia with some 1700 military personnel and 1500 civilian contractors permanently stationed on the island. The air base served an important function during Iraq operations and is considered as a thorn in the flesh by many countries in the middle east. These countries were pleasantly surprised to know that Andaman Tsunami of 26 December 2004, had completely destroyed the Diego Garcia base. However the news was not true and the military base continues to operate as before.
Meanwhile,since their expulsion from Diego Garcia, the Chagossians regrouped in Britain and continue to assert their right to return to Diego Garcia. In April 2006, 102 Chagossians were allowed to visit Diego Garcia for a day, to tend to graves and visit their birthplaces. With help of some British MP’s they appealed to High Court to repeal the ordinance issued in 1967. In 2000 the British High Court upheld the claims of the islanders that the Ordinance was unlawful. In 2002, the UK Parliament enacted legislation, which granted all Chagossian islanders British citizenship, and the legal right to return to the Territory. Subsequently, on June 10, 2004, to negate the effect of this legislation, the British government enacted two Orders, which re-established immigration controls on the islands and effectively banned the islanders from returning home, reversing the 2000 court decision. On May 11, 2006, the High Court ruled again that the 2004 Government Orders were unlawful, and that the Chagossians were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago.
This is where the things stood till end of last month. Many Chagossians had made plans to return home and start sugar cane plantations and Fisheries businesses once the defense agreement between British and US Govenrment expires. But the power of British Bureaucracy can never be undermined. The British Government has now come up with another fantastic bureaucratic brain wave to effectively ban return of Chagossians to their homeland. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced on 1st April that the UK government has decided to create, the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands. The reserve would cover a 545,000-sq-km area around the Indian Ocean archipelago, regarded as one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. This will include an area where commercial fishing will be banned. According to Mr. Milbrand, establishing the reserve would double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection. It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity.
The British Government’s decision drew praise from many conservationists. This raised suspicion in the media that the favourable comments were planted by the Government themselves.
William Marsden from Chagos Conservation Trust commented: “Its creation is a major step forward for protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] itself, but also throughout the world. This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously. Today’s decision by the British government is inspirational. It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity and create a safe haven for breeding fish stocks for the benefit of people in the region. ”
The Chagos archipelago has now suddenly become the the Galapagos Islands of the east and is being compared with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, hosts the world’s biggest living coral structure. The Great Chagos Bank or the coral reef is home to more than 220 coral species – almost half the recorded species of the entire Indian Ocean, and more than 1,000 species of reef fish.
There can be no doubt regarding authenticity of a statement made by a conservationist that “ the Chagos Archipelago has a great combination of tropical islands, unspoiled coral reefs and adjacent oceanic abyss making the area a biodiversity hotspot of global importance.” A question arises regarding the timing of this announcement. Mauritius has asserted a claim to sovereignty over the islands; and the UK has agreed to cede the territory when it is no longer required for defense purposes.
British Government’s decision naturally provoked angry response from the Mauritius authorities that unless the issue of sovereignty and resettlement is settled to the satisfaction of the government of Mauritius, establishing a worlds largest marine reserve on the Territory, which doesn’t even belong to Britain, has no legitimacy.
It is obvious that this decision of the British Government, even though an excellent idea for marine conservation, appears to be just a ploy to continue unhindered occupancy of the Diego Garcia island by the US military even when the defense agreement expires.
In 1980 the BBC had started telecast of highly popular comedy named as Yes Minister. This sitcom embodied the British Bureaucracy’s attitude to authority and politics as a gently hypocritical world filled with doubletalk. The Chagos Archipelago affair, appears to be an even better example of the games played by the British Bureaucracy. It beats Yes Minister on all counts.
4th April 2010