Duty of Memory and Balanced Perspectives

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The path of historical knowledge is strewn with changes in viewpoints as fresh material becomes available, such as the release of hitherto classified documents for example. That is why we must be careful of interpretations which, since they are inherently subject to change when new evidence comes to light, can therefore only represent an incomplete view of things past

As we commemorate the arrival of the immigrants that came through Aapravasi Ghat, we must be thankful, to begin with, to Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah who was the first to identify the present site, and have it recognized and declared as the landing area and entry point of practically all the immigrants whose descendants today form the bulk of the Mauritian population.

Next, thanks must be given to the historians and other interested parties who have since taken pains to uncover documentary evidence showing that the immigrants who made their way up these steps were not only of Indian origin, but that they also came from Africa and China.

It is only after this considerable work was done, and that now continues with the establishment of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, that there has been much more public awareness of the importance of this site especially after its being accorded World Heritage Site status.

The resultant of all these separate but interconnected demarches has been to make the remembrance of 2nd November – a date that had to be crucially ‘fought’ for against currents that tended to distort historical realities – a national event, which is now also officially ‘celebrated.’

Of course there is much to celebrate, not least the long march towards material and social progress and the emancipation of the descendants of those brave hearts that were lured by promises mostly unkept. Nevertheless, they made the best of their harsh situations, and although almost half of the original migrants from India who came over went back, those who remained or were retained did not meekly accept the superiority of the masters.

There are stories of bravery that have been written about, and probably many more that need to be told. This will be the work of dedicated professionals and can no doubt constitute a fertile field for research.

Behind the cliché speeches, and the glitter and glamour – which together make up the form of the celebration, it should be quite evident that it is the hard work of individuals with interest in their respective subject matter that is the real substance and that leads to the new discoveries about the past. Putting them together in a rounded, coherent perspective is altogether a different, and harder, matter.

The path of historical knowledge is strewn with changes in viewpoints as fresh material becomes available, such as the release of hitherto classified documents for example. That is why we must be careful of interpretations which, since they are inherently subject to change when new evidence comes to light, can therefore only represent an incomplete view of things past.

In other words, history can never be either completely objective or be an unbiased ‘truth.’ ‘Historical truth’ is by definition a contradiction.

This being the case, it is the duty of professionals to adopt a prudent approach at all times when interpreting their findings of the moment, because facts from the past are not immutable. While governments resort to keeping certain matters as classified or state secrets in the name of national security, free thinking researchers have no such restraints.

Nevertheless, in advancing their points of view it is essential that they take a long term perspective so that the fragile balance that has been arrived at through painful adjustments is not threatened in the quest for an ever elusive ‘truth’ that may never be found. This does not obviate the need for reconciliation where such is felt to be necessary to forge a larger harmony and to foster peace, because there are enough divisive forces at play that we must not add to the sparks.

While it is important to uncover and highlight historical ‘facts,’ such as they are, it is equally important to appreciate that in this long process of securing dignity and honour, many people were involved. Their contributions were cumulative: each one of them played their part in the evolution of the country towards nationhood.

There was resistance along the way — after all, 44% of the population voted against Independence — because people had divergent interests, either out of their own thinking or they were acting as fronts for other interest groups pushing from behind. Nobody may ever know with great exactitude what motivated such people at given times in the past, but together all these tendencies and movements served, in a dialectical manner, to build up the country to its present state.

Credit must be given to everyone, known and unknown, who took part in the building of the national edifice which stands us proud today. Our commitment must be to search for the underlying unifying elements that overcame the more destructive ones, and it is in this spirit that we must ever undertake all national celebrations.

Much more important in my opinion is for people to honour their forbears by living up to the values that they were guided by, and which enabled them to face with great courage and fortitude the many difficulties that they were confronted with in their daily lives. There is a growing body of literature that is available in this regard, and those who are truly interested to allow their past to inform their present and guide them towards the future should make that little effort to consult these sources and learn more about where they came from, and how their situation today is the outcome of long and arduous struggles undergone by their dadas, dadis, nanas and nanis – and why, even by their own parents for that matter!

It is but one generation ago that many of us were living in lacaze lapaille, fetching water from the river or the public fountain, and having a single tap located outside the house, with a closet of the bucket type or the simple pit hole for our toilet needs. The separate experiences of different segments of society can represent a bank of best practices to be shared for the benefit of the Mauritian community at large, and if this were to happen in a disinterested way, we could truly vaunt Mauritius as a genuine rainbow nation with lessons in harmony that the rest of the world can learn from and put into practice for the greater good of one and all.

All this is to say that we have come a long way, and it is only individual and collective sacrifice that has allowed us to be where we are today. Life is relatively short, and all of us at a certain age know this reality for a fact, and come to the conclusion that perpetual recriminations are not conducive to harmonious living either for the individual or for the collectivity.

If we keep that in mind, then all celebrations will become occasions for further consolidation of the nation: surely that is what we as true Mauritians want for our beautiful island?

* Published in print edition on 4 November 2011

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