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Cold War victims, Chagos Islanders hope to return home

By Shubha Singh, IANS,

New Delhi : Will the dwindling group of Chagos Islanders, evicted from their island paradise in the Indian Ocean, finally win the right to return home? Victims of Cold War era power play, the islanders have waged a lonely battle for over four decades. They are now looking forward to a decision by the House of Lords on a last ditch appeal by the British government.

The Chagossians were expelled from their island homes when the location of the atoll group became strategically important during the height of the Cold War. The British who administered the islands as a dependency of Mauritius, agreed to hand over the main island of Diego Garcia to the United States on an extendable 50-year lease. It allowed the Americans to build a naval base that gave them a dominating position in the Indian Ocean.

Diego Garcia was a familiar name in India during the 1970s, for the newly built naval base allowed the Americans a free run of the Indian Ocean, giving them a vantage point to overlook the Persian Gulf region as well as the Indian sub-continent. Diego Garcia was a sticky point in India-US relations for long, as the Indian government had objected to a military base just 1,200 km from the Indian coast.

Indian opposition parties, especially the Communists and the socialists, frequently demanded the removal of the American naval base from Diego Garcia. India had actively supported the Mauritius government’s claim to the Chagos Islands, but the end of the Cold War and the improving ties between India and the US pushed the Diego Garcia issue out of public memory in India.

The American naval base became even more important as a staging base for the Americans during the two Gulf Wars and the action against Afghanistan. However, Diego Garcia was once again embroiled in controversy over the charge that the Americans had used the island for interring prisoners. The furore in Britain forced the government to admit that two flights had landed in Diego Garcia.

When the islands were separated from Mauritius, their inhabitants were brutally removed from their homes, packed into boats that first took them to the Seychelles and then deposited them on the wharves in Mauritius. The Chagos islanders have languished since then in distressing circumstances.

They got no compensation at the time of expulsion as the British government claimed that they were “transients” and not permanent settlers of the islands. The Chagos islanders are banned from returning to the islands even for a short visit. The US military considers the islanders as a security risk, but a part of the archipelago is open to yachts from around the world. The Salomon Island is on the regular route for yachts sailing across the Indian Ocean. Yatchie bloggers are full of praise for the pristine beauty of the coral islands and their crystal clear waters.

The Chagos islands are part of the atoll system stretching across from the Lakshadweep group of islands in Indian waters through the Maldives to Chagos, just 500 km south of the Maldives. The 65 islands of Chagos are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory though both Mauritius and Seychelles claim the islands. The Chagos atolls were first settled in the 18th century when coconut plantations were established on the fertile islands. Initially slave labour and later Indian indentured workers were brought to work on the plantations. Their descendents settled in the islands and had lived there for generations in their villages along the lagoons before they were exiled from their homes.

About 2,000 islanders had been evicted in 1973; their number has now dwindled to 800, some of them too old to travel. A large number of islanders and their descendants want to return to the Chagos, though some of them have re-settled in Britain and are not ready to go back. The islanders are convinced that they can make a self-sufficient life in the islands and are willing to settle on any of the smaller islands of the Chagos group, far away from Diego Garcia.

Despite a series of judgements in favour of the islanders in the past seven years, the British government has not allowed them to return to Chagos. The courts, which ruled in the islanders’ favour, described the expulsions as unlawful and a repugnant abuse of power. The Court of Appeal dismissed the government’s appeal against the High Court judgement last year but the government eventually filed an appeal in the House of Lords and even agreed to pay all the costs of the appeal. The islanders have now pinned their hopes on the House of Lords.

(Shubha Singh can be reached at [email protected])