Let Dragons Sleep

By Anil Gujadhur

The answer to the question is ‘Yes’. Barring a few scuffles, Mauritius has played low key on sectarianism over more than four decades since Independence. It must be quite clear that this relatively long stretch of time of relative calm on this front has helped rather than hindered the country. More people across the board have acceded to higher education, better living conditions have come about and there has been absolute freedom for each and every one to practise his faith without conflict.

People have learnt new skills which did not exist before. Exposure to the external world has gone on increasing. There has taken place significant improvement in everybody’s mobility across the social and economic spectrum. This has contributed to change our outlook to a much higher stage in terms of exchange of views, ideas and enhancing our capacity to produce goods and services. We could not have travelled in this direction if we had turned our sights instead against each other. No annual GDP measure can capture the kind of well-being we have achieved while grounded in the no-conflict state of mind. We have not come to this pass out of sheer luck. How did we come to that? We have consciously avoided falling in the kind of sectarianism which is seen wrecking so many economies over the world.

From a fractured past to unity

But let us consider the matter from another perspective. The 2012 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to the European Union. This was in recognition of efforts made by it to bring together a multiplicity of peoples from continental Europe and the Eastern countries (freshly enfranchised from communism) to share a common destiny. Had new governance measures not been taken by the EU at the continental level towards this construction, this coming together (despite a canvass hurriedly stitched together with evident fault lines) and the promise it holds for future growth would not have been possible.

At first, many expressed doubts whether this award was the best the Nobel Prize Committee could have done. But take a look at European history. This place is chequered by innumerable wars over a long stretch of time going back to the pre-mediaeval era. Vikings, Goths, Visigoths, Normans, Angles, Saxons, Franks and numerous others kept invading and conquering each other. Internal faction fighting within single countries was rife. In some cases, such as the War of the Roses of mediaeval England, infighting concerned a single country. The first and second world wars (which were sparked off in Europe) involved however a number of individual countries fighting destructively against each other over a long stretch of time. In the Second World War, Germans engaged in war seeking to demonstrate their racial superiority over the rest of Europe.

The devastation of the Second World War was so immense that it had brought Europe to its knees. Europe was resuscitated from the extensive ruin it had fallen into with the help of an American Marshall Plan. At the root of all this was the quest for one nation to gain supremacy over the other. For the past 70 years – despite racial troubles in the Balkans — Europe has managed to keep at bay wars opposing countries to each other. This has enabled the continent to concentrate on working towards the collective benefit and advancement of the group as a whole. The Nobel Prize recognizes that by reformulating itself as a union of bigger dimension, Europe has given its citizens other larger considerations to think about than fighting each other unproductively.

A rich kaleidoscope of differentiated cultures

Let us come back to Mauritius. In their quest for making economic sense out of Mauritius as a colony, various colonial settlers brought people here from different parts of the world at different times in our history. The people came from Europe, Africa, India and China principally. The same quest for economic gain has kept up this process of adding up down the years. The latest to add to the list, after the Chinese who came over to look after our Economic Processing Zones of the 1970s and 1980s, are white South Africans. The latter, as well as some rich Europeans, have joined the bandwagon by investing in property in the context of the government’s IRS and ERS projects. Some social forces have already drawn attention – and rightly so — to the fact that the latest settlers may not be too keen to mix up with the rest. This kind of adverse situation existed during most of the colonial period when members of the economic elite would see themselves as an exclusive club separate from people of other races. Long years of struggle have broken down barriers in this respect to some extent and kept alive the hope that frictions of the sort will get reduced, rather than increase, in future for the good of all.

So, like it or not, Mauritius is inhabited by people from different races, cultures and religions; the variegated kaleidoscope that has emerged out of it is one to be happy about. Here, we have the Cartesian mind playing side by side with the colourful emotional folklore drawn from the diverse roots into which the country has delved from time to time. We would be running amiss if any one of the various manifestations of the country’s cultural plenitude were to cease appearing on the stage for one reason or other. Our cultural variety has gathered a momentum of its own and we’ve become part of it all, at times as actors and at others as spectators.

This setup has been here for long and it has been evolving with time. The differentiated social cluster coming up from this process has lived side by side despite a few occasional social flare-ups down the centuries, some of which might have been engineered for pure economic reasons by pitching up one group of the population against the other. Once passions died out, however, the cohabitation resumed as of old.

In other words, barring some opportunistic outbursts on occasion by wielders of public opinion, this factor of racial and other differentiation has not been the principal focus of our togetherness. On the contrary, it is the harmony of living together that has been our focus. Had it not been so, our social progress would have been cluttered up many years ago lost in internecine quarrels of little worth like the ones we’ve been seeing in different parts of the world and are still surging up from nowhere in places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example.

Subordinating sectarianism to moderate national management and rule-of-law

A key factor unifying the Mauritian kaleidoscope has been the moderation with which management of public affairs has been conducted. Successive governments have taken care to accommodate as much as possible competing demands without bringing in negative factors which disrupt social cohesion. Without this element of moderation in the exercise of power, making space for one and all and creating a free-for-all economic space for all to engage in, we could not have forged a shared common destiny. It will be important to preserve that element of moderation to keep the social fabric together.

Moderation in the exercise of political power has thus been the main reason why, despite differences of race, religion and social belonging, we have not fallen apart. Add to this the fact that the foundation of social relations in the country is based on rule-of-law. The latter has proved to be the principal cornerstone of fundamental trust holding us together. It is a combination of these two factors – moderate management of public affairs and a rule-of-law construct — that has served to keep the idea of separate belonging subordinated to the shared common national goals pursued through public policies. The fair play of democracy along with rule-of-law has buttressed an overall sense of confidence in the institutions of the nation by one and all.

This model of development has served us very well in past decades. Setting aside differences of race, culture and religion from the main stage but giving them the full scope to play themselves out in their own space, we have been able to ride over the wave that could have sent us crashing down to the shore of futile confrontation. One can improve its delivery in time to come by limiting the use of discretionary powers in public matters to the minimum. The more we manage to extend the objective space – by reducing the exercise of discretionary powers – the more we will be rewarding those who have drive and initiative to push further out our frontiers of development. This approach has formed the basic foundation of a just society towards one and all.

Let dragons sleep

Now, some historians hold the view that sectarianism will prevail for some time only in disfavoured crisis-wracked parts of the world but that the tide of history will, through some smoothing force, carry one and all towards a common global society devoid of allegiances to sectarianism. They believe in some sort of linear progress in which it is thought that pre-modern allegiances to sectarianism will disappear. This looks very much like the “civilising mission” that western missionaries took to the colonies in the hope that everything will ultimately melt into their ‘superior’ narrative at the day of final judgement.

Nothing is like this kind of assumption in the real world. There is no linear progress towards a common unifying goal. There are cycles of ups and downs rather. Examples abound about how sectarianism has emerged with force where at one time, it was assumed to have died out or been suppressed for good. Did not the British and French colonial empires govern on the basis of “divide and conquer” into which the conquered peoples gave in? Did they not accentuate sectarian and ethnic divisions wherever they existed and invent them outright where they didn’t?

Did not the tribal and ethnic divisions fostered by colonial rule bring to their knees the countries where this was practised? Soon after the American departure from Iraq, did not the Shias and Sunnis clash with each other again? Don’t we have reports of the numbers killed out of acts of reprisals whether in the name of race, ethnicity, religion, confession or tribe in different parts of the world as a modern day reality? Don’t we expect the Taliban to deliver a fight to the end against government forces in Afghanistan, once the NATO forces are out, to define who will actually wield influence and power over the other in the region? Is not Darfur a reminder closer home of on-going sectarian violence?

The fact is that we cannot and should not pretend to obliterate sectarian differences. They are a fact of life. Progress is realized by not making them the chief national preoccupation. It is achieved by making them part and parcel of the overall national effort to engage in actions which produce tangible results and a growing level playing field for all. It must be said that we have done this fairly successfully in past decades. If we go on breaking new grounds, we should be able to impart confidence enough to one and all to participate fairly in the overall superstructure of governance of the country. When decision-making is liberated from having to consider particular interests but it is geared rather to the wider considerations, the mind is freed to focus on the path forward.

This week, Singapore signed a Free Trade Agreement with the 27-Nation European Union. Results like this are not produced all at once. It means that work was going on towards this objective of trade reconstruction for quite some time. We could have done the same thing a long while ago ourselves for having been associated with Europe under the Yaoundé Convention since 1974. We needed the vision. We needed to prioritize by avoiding to bring to the fore what should have safely played out in the background. Once we get time to fix our minds on bigger things the way Singapore does, there will be no time to waste on minor issues which distract from what should have been major national goals. That is what is referred to as converting our potential weaknesses into strengths.

* Published in print edition on 21 December 2012

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