By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
Contrary to what is being aired right and left, there is no unifying cause which drew a number of citizens to the recent protest march in the streets of the capital. Different groups joined in for different reasons and hoped to reap benefits as varied as the number of causes they claimed to be defending.
For instance, corporate business represented by the private sector oligarchy has its own agenda in offering free transport with five buses filled with fishermen and their families living on the east coast. In normal electoral campaigns the same category of voters have given up the habit of acting as vote banks and inflating numbers to please orators on soap boxes from parties they traditionally voted for. The motivations of the generous bungalow owners and the common folks they ushered into buses are diametrically opposite. The first group uses the second one to send a message to the government. Their main interest is their own corporate interest. They want their share in the billions of public funds allocated by the government to investment, and they want the billions unconditionally.
On the other hand, the idea of a saviour, a king hailing from their own ranks is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the common folks, a phenomenon which V.S. Naipaul observed as ‘kingdoms of the night’ which desperate subdued people re-created with music and songs during gatherings in the middle of the night in colonial times. In the present circumstances they are hoping that a new hero is going to fulfil his promise of defending their cause.
Political parties which saw their vote banks rush to the call for the rally have started thinking things over. They are likely to keep a low profile in the background and adopt a wait-and-see posture or withdraw altogether amid uncertainties over the organizers’ motivations. Given that the parties governed together in the past, depending on their changing alliances, some of them are simply eager to come back to power by whatever means while shady characters among them have no qualms in fanning hatred to the point of threatening social harmony. Media spokespersons change allegiance every five years, with some of them being the right arm of corporate business.
Amid all the cacophony which should not fool the public, what is worth considering is the official prime motive of the organizers who consider their people as victims of historical injustice, and blame governments since Independence for their situation. However, instead of this emotional approach which is characteristic of like-minded defenders of the downtrodden, their case would have been stronger by making a more objective analysis – perhaps with field research by a social scientist or a team of them – to look into the real root causes of their tribulations. Adopting the mindset of the pre-independence period, whereby the traditional private sector oligarchy backed such champions against majoritarian rule in a divide-and-rule strategy which shifted the focus away from the oligarchy’s role in the tribulations of the aggrieved underprivileged people, is not likely to address their problems concretely.
Living conditions, social status, housing issues, land acquisition and squatters’ plight are the major grievances put forward. Reportedly, the rally organizers aired their stance on the necessity of Affirmative Action like in South Africa, another version being Positive Discrimination claimed in the 90s in the US.
However, as mentioned above, all the factors which seemingly are the causes for resentment and hostility have to be examined through the prism of a rational and honest scrutiny, in the context of our broader socio-economic development post independence, to obtain a more balanced national picture. On this score, it would be interesting to know if the Truth and Justice Commission has gone further than assess the historic roots of issues impacting the population today? Have any measures proposed by it been effectively implemented ever since the report was issued? The obstacles hindering the application of solutions have to be identified, such as whether successive governments support the status quo of the bourgeoisie and are reluctant to bring any change.
Factually, land acquisition issue dates back to the late 19th century at a time when liberated slaves – who were not paid by their owners — were not in a position to buy lands, because they were not paid by their owners and therefore had no money. This situation continued into the early 20th century. There were legal provisions which enabled other groups to purchase lands. Thus, in their ignorance, what was legal for some might have been viewed as unfair by others. Why this point is worth considering today is that it is at the root of resentment and claims for a fairer distribution of lands. This is where the authorities have a responsibility and duty to put forward the true picture which historical analysis provides.
As of 2020, hardships to acquire lands and build houses impact on the aspirations of the younger generation in all communities across the board. But when two thousand people illegally occupy coastal lands near the seaside and start building small houses without any permit in one part of the island, then their brethren suddenly walk into unoccupied lands and start measuring them to distribute and build huts or whatever, without considering if the lands are already owned by others, one is bound to ask how fair is this vis-a-vis others who follow the legal route to acquire land and housing?
So it is a real issue which has to be addressed rationally. The point is: Who should part with lands to distribute them to the descendants of those who were deprived of them in the 19th century? It is a fact that governments have continuously built housing estates for the poor, and more plans are in store with the cooperation of the private sector companies. Is it the only option?
The scheme to get fishermen in the oil-spill affected region to work in a cooperative system in boats offered by Japan is well-intentioned. But what the UN calls this ‘bleeding heart’ approach has to be checked against what the fishermen really want. For example, would they prefer to work individually, have their day’s catch, get the money and spend it as they wish? This is where cultural factors have to be considered in any analysis of the issue.
The authorities would be ill-advised if they believe that 30 seconds visibility on television are enough to show a vague acknowledgement of protesters’ claims. The latter should be encouraged to come forward and discuss the cause which they represent on television. It will help the public assess the motivations and worth of ring leaders.
A real dispassionate debate between rally leaders, sociologists, historians, economists, activists and so on is necessary to enlighten one and all. Politicians have shown little interest to promote a culture of debate and discussion of ideas so far. It will be a sign of responsibility and maturity if they start it now.
* Published in print edition on 8 September 2020