By Anil Gujadhur
The last weekend witnessed one more of those horrid crimes which are multiplying themselves. It was a wake-up call. Joannick Martin, a hapless little girl of 7 inhabiting a family home in the poor suburbs of Richelieu, was first raped by a close relative. The latter would then have set her on fire after committing this atrocity out of fear, he claimed, of being identified, as a result of which she died of asphyxia. This story of how an unsuspecting child was mishandled and killed by the very person she had put her trust in is heart-rending. A sensitive fibre in the tissue that defines our common humanity appears to have given way. Other similar crimes have preceded this one and one is alarmed as to which dimensions they may take if they are allowed to proceed unchecked and we are made to stand simply as passive witnesses after the event.
We know from the experience of some other countries how unmanageable the situation becomes when, for some reason or other, extremists take away the lives of scores of innocent people at a go, as it were, a routine activity. We are not in such a situation and we should be thankful that our society’s criminality has not escalated to such a level. But crimes like the one perpetrated against the unfortunate Joannick should beckon us. They are pointing out that we are reaching an unacceptable plateau. Will this event, if it were to become a common occurrence, not harden our heart to a point of accepting a society whose sense of values is being debased by the day? De-escalation of this level of criminality is absolutely necessary if we want to avoid the point of no return.
We should be asking ourselves why offenders are increasingly losing their faculties of self-control and going to such extremes, imposing such a high cost on society and its victims. One can blame these excesses on the abuse of intoxicants and drugs or the adverse social environment in which the offenders live. But the chief cause is the abdication by society of its role as an institution which sets out high standards of behaviour. Consider the element of social stratification that has recently been severely commented upon in the public. In the past, social stratification was different; it was applicable to members of the entire community irrespective of which social group or sub-group they belonged to. In this context, achievers were praised while even those guilty of petty shortcomings were severely publicly censured. This system acted as a brake against anyone who tempted to go beyond certain acceptable bounds laid down by society. Such persons would fall to the lowest stratum and they would not want to take the risk of being seen as a pariah. Individuals’ behaviour was accordingly influenced to reach out towards the highest levels of social acceptance.
Our educators of the past generation contributed immensely to uphold this system which held in high esteem people for the good actions they did. Thanks to their persistent efforts, many who persevered in this manner became refined and respected gentlemen and ladies who were well regarded by society for their achievements. All wanted to become “someone” in society through virtuous deeds. There was a lot of emulation among families. The reputations of those who made it to the top by dint of hard work travelled across the length and breadth of the country. A virtuous character and excellent social behaviour were their hallmarks, virtual CVs in today’s language, even if those CVs were transmitted by mere word of mouth. Emeritus teachers, including those who are referred to at times in the writings in this paper of our friend, Dr Radha Gopee, as men who forged the character of an entire generation were truly committed to a noble cause.
They were best known for their unrelenting efforts to inculcate ambition and drive in the young minds that came to be taught by them. They were themselves the role models. They were not in for the money, wealth or influence they would get out of it. Rather, an elegant commitment to excel in whatever they undertook to teach radiated through them. They acted purely out of a sense of mission and vocation as they enjoyed being held in esteem by their wards. Some of their “products” became railway station masters; others became great teachers; others were able to join the public service and go up the ranks; still others became merchants, directors of companies, craftsmen, engineers, doctors, judges, etc., notwithstanding their having issued from the ranks of extremely poor families. Not all of them became ministers or heads of state but they all raised themselves to much higher self-respecting conditions than where they started from. Many of them did whatever they did out of a sense of perfection and extreme rigour. Society had thus its own established references for raising those who were prepared to work hard enough and for recuperating those who could otherwise have fallen into bad manners.
We have lost many of these bearings on the way. The reflection one is inclined to make from this is the following. If they of the past generation who began with such a big handicap, were able to overcome their severe handicaps at a time when all that the country had to offer them were colonialism, sugar and large-scale unemployment, why should those who are at the bottom today not be able to make it when we have not only sugar but much less unemployment and no colonialism? We now also have many more graduates in the country, and a much wider economic base consisting of a range of manufacturing activities, tourism and the hospitality industry, international financial services, IT-enabled international services and vast marine and maritime resources yet to be exploited. In other words, there is much more scope and facilities than ever the past generation had. The fact is that society in its quest for ever higher levels of material comforts has failed to bring focus on values that should be cherished and pitfalls that should be avoided, preferring perhaps to leave its role to be taken up by the law enforcement authorities through the so-called system of punishments. Thus as the escalation of crime is proving, a serious loss of direction has taken place by society relinquishing its real role.
Instead of the social stratification that we now see being put to use for political convenience, it would be a step in the right direction if we were to give more publicity to those who really achieve. Sometime back, I read about a little girl who, putting her life at stake, moved into a house on fire to save her little brother and sister who were caught up inside. Thanks to her act of bravery, she managed to save them both. I thought that this little girl deserved a national award for her act of bravery. Unless I am mistaken, her name was not on the list of those who were decorated. How then can we hope to find more of such persons who do good deeds and act as a model to those who might be tempted to follow the easier route of committing atrocious crime? We need to create non-sectarian groups of dedicated men and women, preferably from a very young age, who can reinvent our society, which is on the wrong incline, to bring more achievers to the foreground at the national level and thus silence the numerous others who keep passing the bucks for the failed social construct to the “others”. If we don’t invent such checks and balances, we run the risk of devaluing further the standard of social conduct and continuing to reap more atrocious crimes. We deserve much better.
* Published in print edition on 17 September 2010