The Indian diaspora has been here for the past 180 years. A lot has changed for it for the better over this span of time. A question which is unconsciously asked is: what will be its position some two centuries forward?
It is difficult to predict how the Indian diaspora in Mauritius will fare 180 years hence. Too many variables change with time. There will be little precision about which course things will take. What will however make a difference will be the pragmatism with which the diaspora, and the entire population together with it, will address the oncoming uncertainties and opportunities.
There are factors which impinge on the future course taken by events from the external front, factors that are not usually under our control. They can change the entire setting of social and economic evolution.
For example, we had international economic liberalisation in the 1980s. Opening up to it became a crucial plank of progress registered by almost every family in Mauritius. Nations which take advantage of such developments to build up their competitive edge, succeed; those which let them pass, fail to create the best opportunities and the necessary additional scope for themselves.
Factors within our control have to do with personal character, a sense of risk-taking in business, clarity of vision of where one wants to be and the political ability to give the right orientation to both individuals and the larger group. The overall governance structure and accompanying objectivity of public decision-making is also within our power. It is critical. There are examples of autocratic countries in the world to show us how deeply mired in under-development they are, no matter how richly endowed in natural resources they are.
The strengths the diaspora has displayed
The track record of the Indian diaspora in Mauritius points to resilience in the face of adversity as one of its key characteristics having contributed to its current well-being. It is a crucial factor in managing business. Resilience helps the true entrepreneur set aside past failure and go at it again. He will not give up due to one or two past unsuccessful attempts. He will fight it out until the sought objective is achieved, not forgetting lessons learnt in the process.
Resilience in the face of adversity has been positive, no doubt. It needed to be carried forward by nursing ambition enough to transcend boundaries holding it back, whether in business or forming associations with international economic players. This ambition is still at the stage of ‘work-in-progress’ for the diaspora. Its potential can be unlocked to the country’s advantage.
The record overall is a good one, though. They came to Mauritius 180 years ago from different parts of India: Bihar, UP, Gujrat, Maharashtra, Andhra, Madras, Calcutta, the Malabar Coast, Pondicherry… Several died during ocean crossing and did not therefore touch the shores of Mauritius. Some went back; most of them decided to stay. Today, they make up about 70% of the total population of Mauritius.
During the early days of daily hard trials and vicissitudes befalling them here, these workers from India maintained a thread of hope on India. If the worse were to come to the worst, they could still go back to where they came from. Then, they decided instead to give the fight over here, no matter the cost, how steep the mountain, no matter how huge the rock to roll up its flank after failing again and again. We did not have our Jalianwala Bagh of 1857 but we had our Anjalay Coopen, among others. The diaspora survived to see better days by dint of engaging in an epic struggle extending over more than one century.
Unflinching perseverance, sacrifice by families, personal discipline, amongst others, brought many of the erstwhile deeply humble members of the Indian diaspora in Mauritius to eventually occupy some of the highest and most trusted positions of the country: craftsmen of the highest excellence in diverse fields of undertaking from agriculture, construction to engineering. Some became Chief Justice, Governor-General/President of the Country, Prime Minister, Heads of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretaries, Solicitors-General and Senior Office Holders at the State Law Office, Heads of Reputed Private Chambers of Legal Practice, Heads of Private Professional Establishments, Commissioners of Police and Commanders of the Special Mobile Force, Health and Aviation Directors, Governors of the Central Bank and Chief Executives of Commercial Banks, Top Secretaries in the Civil and Diplomatic Services, Heads of the Public Service and similar Commissions, Respected Educationists at all three levels, Heads of Key Parastatal Bodies, Private Newspaper Editors, Electoral Commissioners, Owners of Private Horseracing Stables, Owners of Trading Houses, Writers,… Still others thrived in the provision of sophisticated services, from international trade to manufacturing for domestic consumption and exports, notwithstanding their limited access to inheritances of historical wealth.
The struggle to become high achievers is continuing, despite us not having the kind of clear-headed leadership like the one a place like Singapore has benefited from uninterruptedly for decades. We should make it to the top once this ingredient settles in firmly. The precondition is: the effort should not stop.
Another factor was that the members of the diaspora did not use their belief systems and distinct belongings to bring down the bigger edifice out of self-seeking. They brought with them the variegated Indian culture which is still alive and deeply embedded in them to this day. It acted as a springboard of hopes with which to live up against the cruel hardships life imposed on them at a time they were treated as nothing less than slaves or bonded labour with strict restrictions on their movements within the country.
While each one followed his specific traditions, cults and views of existence, they never used differences, if any, to fight or eliminate each other. When a common danger faced them, it helped them identify it on time so they could gather their strengths, not lose sight of the bigger picture in which to realize their grander ambitions. Today, as the Indian culture is kept alive in all its variety and splendour, the internet is sending the younger generation to the source, giving them the self-confidence they need to understand that they are second to none in terms of depth of culture and that no amount of inferiority complex sought to be imposed on them will instil in them the spirit of defeat to frustrate any daring enterprise they wish to undertake.
Memory of a Hard Crossing
It is with this kind of innate conviction that they braved their daily poverty and deprivations through successive generations. Finally, they managed to cross the impassable threshold that had kept them depressed for long while others focussed on their private economic gains at their expense. Hard work, education and political expression proved to be the cornerstones and passageways for this unbelievable social transformation.
The stones on which their ancestors treaded barefoot not long ago would have a rich tale of achievement to recount to this brilliant generation and no less a lesson to teach the generation now stepping up on to the doorstep of the future. Years of stressful adaptation have firmed up in the diaspora the genes which transcend difficulties, such as barriers to entry on markets, to proper self-education and to occupying with dignity the highest offices of the land. These painful years have taught them how: not to drift after vain pursuits, not to bring in artificial divisions for the sake of self-gratification, to have an eye on longer term perspectives and not to fragment structures with the attendant risk of losing it all, line, hook and sinker!
Living Up to the Times
The European diaspora settled in newer countries (the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) much before the Indian diaspora which was, in fact, a creation of colonizers. Members of the European diaspora have made so much progress that some of them have surpassed in economic, military and political strength the mother country, Britain.
Their geographies have helped them, of course, but Mauritius being an island and not land-locked, is no less open to the unfettered international adventure than, say Hong Kong, Taiwan, Dubai or Singapore and, hence, to move at the global pace. All we needed to do was to empower our people with the drive to go for the newer advances. This comes when the leadership is committed and aware of the stakes.
The European diaspora spared no efforts and we have to learn from it. They moved away from Britain many centuries ago taking up the fruits of 18th Century Industrial Revolution to their new abodes. They kept building up on it, rationally, cool-headedly, taking advantage of all technological breakthroughs. They opened up to new talent from within and outside the country and reaped the fruits of innovation, endeavour and the search after newer markets. They rewarded talent wherever it came from. This is why they have consolidated their initial successes whichever new country they settled in.
It is open to us to learn from them, concentrate on the essential and not lose our way chasing form without substance. The time has come for Mauritius to veer course now. The European diaspora has lighted the path forward since hundreds of years and we need to work hard to regain the time lost and make the economic space we once made for ourselves with the collaboration of one and all.
* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014