City Life - Port Louis, Mauritius: Melting pot that is starting to boil over

THERE WERE Indian, African and Chinese faces in the crowd jostling to hand over fistfuls of rupees as the minutes ticked by to the start of the next race. The betting slips were in French but the horses had English names. Bookmakers called Herve Wong and S K Joomun chalked up the odds as sari-clad women studied form in La Gazett des Turfistes. In the stands, Creole, Urdu, English and Cantonese could be heard.

The Champ de Mars course in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, is one of the best places to savour the country's rich stew of races and religions. A million people from three continents live on this Indian Ocean island, united on Saturday afternoons between May and November by horse racing, the national passion.

Mauritius is proud of its melting-pot image, a legacy of four centuries of colonial history. The Dutch arrived first, followed by the French and then the British. African slaves were shipped in to work the sugar plantations, while the Indians came as indentured labourers and the Chinese as merchants.

But cracks have appeared in Mauritius's multicultural facade. In February race riots brought Port Louis to a standstill for two days and in May the Chinese casino was destroyed by a fire believed to have been started by Muslim extremists. The riots, the worst since Mauritius gained independence in 1968, were sparked by the death in police custody of a popular Creole musician called Kaya, arrested after he openly smoked marijuana at a decriminalisation rally.

He came from Roche Bois, a Port Louis suburb that is, one local says, the Mauritian Soweto. It is synonymous with la malaise Creole, the resentment of Creoles at their poverty-stricken and marginalised status in a country run by the majority Indian population since independence.

Kaya's name was added to a long list of young Creole men who have died in police custody. Jean Paul Ramstein, a French pathologist from the neighbouring island of Reunion, did a post-mortem examination and concluded he could have been beaten up.

Roche Bois exploded and disturbances spread all over Mauritius. Goaded by attacks on Indian property, Hindus torched Creole homes. Among those killed in the riots, which only subsided after a plea by political and religious leaders, was Berger Agathe, another Roche Bois musician. He was shot as he appealed to police for calm; 92 wounds were found on his body.

Those who mourn for Kaya include Lindsay Morvan, a close friend and Creole activist. "Kaya was an advocate for the Creole cause," he said. "He sang about injustice. His music gave people hope."

Last week a judicial inquiry into Kaya's death opened in Port Louis and delivered a slap in the face to his widow, Veronique Topize. Dissatisfied with Dr Ramstein's findings, the authorities had commissioned a second opinion from a British pathologist, Hugh White. His report, submitted to the inquiry, said there was no proof Kaya had been assaulted. For Mrs Topize,the idea that Mauritius is a haven of tolerance is a cruel joke.

Roche Bois remains a tinderbox. "It could blow up again overnight," said Paul Berenger, a veteran politician. "Mauritius has a picture-postcard image but it is a real place where ugly things happen. "Communal tensions exist, and have done so for centuries. Scratch the national skin and they are there."

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