The island nation of Mauritius saw widespread rioting and conflict in February, after a popular Creole rastafarian reggae singer and marijuana advocate died while in police custody. Joseph Topize, known as Kaya, was arrested on Thursday, February 18, for openly smoking marijuana at a legalization rally organized by the Republican Movement Party. After three days in jail Kaya was dead.
Mauritius is located in the Indian Ocean, about 1000km east of Madagascar, and gained independence from Britain in 1968. It has a population of 1.1 million, of which just over half are Hindu. Moslems make up 15% of the rest, while Creoles account for 30%. Creoles are the mixed blood descendants of former slaves, and are the poorest of the three ethnic groups. Creoles are considered an underclass and suffer from discrimination and police abuse. Rastafarianism and marijuana use are most prevalent among the Creoles.
“Each time there is a death in prison, it’s always someone from the Creole community,” said Georges Christophe, leader of an Afro-Creole organization. “Enough is enough.”
The L’Express newspaper reported that police doctor Baboo Harish Surnam, who conducted Kaya’s autopsy, said the 39-year-old Creole singer died of a fractured skull. Police denied this and vowed to do another autopsy.
On Sunday, February 21, the night of Kaya’s death, there was rioting against police stations in three different towns. Crowds of many hundreds of Creoles clashed with police, who attacked them with tear gas.
The next day over 1500 protestors blocked the main highway connecting the capital of Port Louis with the Northern parts of the island.
L’Express reported that police shot and killed a second influential reggae singer, Berger Agathe, during conflict on Monday. Police acknowledged that they “might have” shot Agathe and suspended the officer who gave the order to open fire.
On Tuesday the violent clashes continued, and had spread to more general fighting between Creoles and Hindus. Many businesses, banks and schools closed down to await the outcome. Over 200 vehicles were burned and used to set up roadblocks. In some towns hundreds of Creoles were engaged in street combat with gangs of Hindus.
The fighting persisted throughout Wednesday, and Mauritius’ Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam came on state-owned television to announce that the protestors had “tarnished the island’s reputation” and would therefore be “severely punished.” The riots were described as the island’s worst in 30 years.
On Thursday, police forces managed to reassert their authority and dismantled the roadblocks. By this time three more protestors had been slain by police, while one officer died of a heart attack after returning to the station. Many arrests were made, and as of this writing in early March the situation was still tense and uncertain.