We may have travelled a long way from 1834, but the journey will never be over. We need landmarks along the way, and milestones to benchmark our progress as we climb the many more steps that are ahead of us
We would not be where we are today if our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had not laid the solid foundations for the future generations. After their harrowing sea voyage from India in sheer survival conditions, our forbears had to undergo further trials and tribulations from the time they landed in the island. Their living and working conditions on the sugar estates where they were contracted to work were hardly different from those of the slaves whom they had come to replace in the sugarcane fields.
Narratives of the Indian immigrant experience in our island continue to be researched and published, and constitute a rich account of our collective history which the present generation must make it their bounden duty to learn about. They must appreciate that the struggle against the prejudices which their forefathers had to face is not over, and that despite appearances to the contrary it is still an uphill task. For example, even settling for the date of 2nd November as the day of commemoration had to be fought for – it did not just happen! At this stage it is useful to recall a saying from the great African writer Chinua Achebe: ‘The best way to control a people is to give them your version of their history.’
Had a sustained thrust not been maintained, in which Mauritius Times played a leading role, 2nd November would not have been officialised.
We do not have to relive the past but we must have enough awarenesss of what happened so as to learn the lessons that can be drawn in order to better pursue the onward march towards the future. If we do not do so, that is, take cognizance of past happenings, we run the risk of taking things for granted and becoming complacent, and assume that our relatively successful condition today was a given. It was not, as the example of the date of remembrance shows. Every commemoration must be for us an occasion to take stock of where we have come from, of the rough road travelled, of the new findings about immigrant life that become available through the dedicated work of professionals in the field, what is our situation now and what are the further leaps required so as to ensure our continued progress both as individuals and at society level as part of our ongoing contribution to the national weal.
It is generally accepted that the non-antagonistic, non-conflictual and accommodating nature of the local Indian diaspora is to a large extent responsible for the social and political stability that the island has enjoyed since the time of independence in 1968. After the initial thrust given to their fight against the injustices of the repressive apparatus of the Indenture system (such as restrictions on movement, the pass system, the double cut system etc) by Adolphe de Plevitz in 1869 through his petition on behalf of the Indians to Governor Gordon, resulting in the setting up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, the next call was from Manilal Doctor, who came here at the turn of the 20th century at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi. He emphasized the need for education and political involvement to achieve emancipation and overcome the conservative forces that were resisting it.
As we look to the future, there are several challenges that beckon, and it is in our interest to do some serious thinking about how to tackle them so that we don’t lose what has been painfully acquired and, more importantly, build on that as a foundation. We will consider the key ones. Before doing so, a preliminary remark: children tend to look up to their parents as models; it is therefore for the youth – who are future parents –, especially the educated, enthusiastic and dynamic ones, to take the lead for the initiatives needed to put them and their progeny on the right path to a good life.
Health and well-being: This is everybody’s concern, but the reason we start with it is that firstly, health is central to human development and secondly, according to our health statistics, Indians suffer disproportionately from what are known as the non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high cholesterol amongst others, and for which they may possibly have a genetic predisposition. When this is combined with the high levels of alcoholism in the Indians, the Hindus in particular, their risks of severe disease and early death are increased several-fold. Shouldn’t this be a matter of serious concern to them, if they truly care about themselves and the future generation? If so, then the question that they must pose themselves is: do they want their children to be healthy and strong, or weak and diseased?
The answer is only too obvious. And the irony is that the way to good health is so straightforward: have proper food, exercise regularly, do not smoke and avoid alcohol. There is plenty of advice being given by the national authorities in this regard, and the least that we must do is to seek out and follow the advice.
Additionally, our ancestral systems of yoga and ayurveda (the latter for the health promotional or well-being aspect, less for the treatment part) can be of great help in keeping us in good health. However, we must push for proper regulation and professionalization in this sector, which in the developed world is emerging as a valuable complement to allopathic medicine, and can even reduce the economic burden of the health sector on the state. Qualified and competent practitioners can drive this as a national agenda for the benefit of all citizens.
Economic security: A combination of historical circumstances led the descendants of the immigrants to look for economic security in the public sector, specially at a time when the doors of the private sector were practically closed to them. Industrialisation, education and professionalism has changed this trend, along with the diversification of the economy with the advent of the EPZ and the textile industry, and in the last decade or so the expansion of the ICT sector. While the State will continue to need highly qualified and trained cadres, as well as lower level functionaries to run its bureaucracy, more and more the tendency will be less dependency on the government as a provider of employment.
It is also a fact that descendants of the Indian immigrants are not as present in the business sector compared to their numbers, and this is something that must be looked into in appropriate forums so as to guide the emerging generation who will be joining the marketplace.
Further, there is a need for accessing and making smarter use of facilities that the State puts at the disposal of all its citizens, and here civil society organizations such as the socio-cultural associations should play a more proactive role in assisting those in need or who are less aware. This would help to give a more positive image of their engagement in the community and, more importantly, they will be doing a real service and meet a felt need.
Education and employment: It is education based on the Indian tradition of knowledge-seeking that has been a pillar in the emancipation and social mobility of the descendants of the original immigrants. However, as we all know, purely academic qualifications and a first degree are no longer sufficient nowadays to secure an employment. Employability depends on qualifications with skills added. It is therefore a must for those going for any type of post-secondary studies to choose carefully their fields of study, and acquire the desired skills, based on projections of what can be on offer, keeping in mind that such projections do vary after a couple of years. They must keep more than one option open, in other words have a Plan B, or even C. Further, they must keep in mind that life-long jobs are less and less the norm, and prepare themselves to face the consequences of such an eventuality in their career path.
A case in point is medicine: there is a glut of medical graduates who are remaining unemployed, and yet more and more students are still going for medicine. Of course every citizen has the constitutional right to freedom of choice – but clearly, this must be tempered with realism in order to avoid frustration later.
On the other hand, learning is a lifelong process, and whatever subject one chooses should be looked upon not only as a means for professional development but also as an entry point for personal advancement. In other words, even if one has to shift to another field, whatever has been acquired earlier by way of knowledge and skills is never lost: it can – like engineers or science graduates becoming financial analysts – be of use in the new field, and can allow one to broaden one’s perspective on life, which is essential for meaningful living in society.
Language and Identity: Society almost imposes on us to have – or declare – an identity, as, in spite of ourselves, we get labelled as belonging to a specific group or community, and then as the ‘other’. But in Mauritius, we have multiple identities which are juxtaposed and superimposed. They are not mutually exclusive, and in practice every Mauritian citizen has at least three, namely a transactional identity, a core identity and a Mauritian identity .
The transactional identity belongs to the public space. It is forged as we go through the educational system, the world of work and civil society at large, where language acts to facilitate our insertion and integration. The predominant languages of this identity in Mauritius are Creole and French, with English predominating in official communication. Mauritians of Indian ancestry are at ease in utilizing these languages and in fact one could say that the transactional identity develops practically automatically as it starts at home, within the family.
Next is our core identity, which belongs, or should, to the private space. It derives from our religion and specific cultural practices such as food customs in the home, community festivals we observe, and our apparel especially on cultural/ religious occasions. The language associated with this identity is that of the foundational scripture, e.g. Sanskrit for Hindus.
The Mauritian identity is a composite of the transactional and core identities, and if we wish to live in peace and mutual respect, whether here or anywhere in the world for that matter, it is the transactional identity that should predominate over the core identity. In the public space one should avoid aggressive affirmations of the core identity. Instead, it should radiate from our whole personality as a quiet force for good that is prepared to reach out to the ‘other’ for mutual exchange and enrichment, in the process reinforcing the sense of nationhood.
Roots and culture: Closely related to language and identity is culture, in which language plays a central role, and connects us to our roots. If we are the trees and branches, our ancestral culture represents the roots that stabilize and give us a sense of direction in the phenomenal world of constant change which can overwhelm us if we are not firmly anchored. It is the language of the foundational scripture that connects us to our roots, for example for Hindus it is Sanskrit in which the truths of the Vedas are articulated. Therefore, in addition to the provincial languages of our varied geographical origins – such as Bhojpuri and Hindi, Tamil and Telegu, Marathi and Sindhi/Gujarati – Hindus must have a minimum of Sanskrit literacy to understand and participate intelligently during the chanting of prayers and mantras on various occasions.
Our culture gives us what we can call a world-view that provides guidance in life: Who am I? Why am I born? How do I define and live my relation with others, with the world at large? What is life, what is death? – among others.
Further, culture is about art and dance, music, literature and social customs, and being cultured is about being refined in one’s tastes and conduct. There is a danger of losing out on refinement if we mix forms superficially. An example that comes to mind is the popular Bhojpuri songs which are patterned on the local sega: it is neither sega nor Bhojpuri culture – a Bhojpuri troop from India that performed on stage here a few years ago gave a demonstration of what genuine Bhojpuri dance form is from the point of view of rhythm, body language, dress, choreography and so on. There is a case here for the Ministry of Arts and Culture, which is supposed to be the national guardian in these matters, to take suo moto action in support of the performers who want to sincerely preserve their ancestral culture which adds to the richness and diversity of our composite Mauritian culture.
Lastly, socio-cultural associations could organize regular trips to Aapravasi Ghat for children during, for example, school and college holidays to foster interest and appreciation of the history of Indian immigration, where we have built up from and the need not only to preserve but to constantly improve upon this valuable legacy for posterity.
As can be seen, we may have travelled a long way from 1834, but the journey will never be over. We need landmarks along the way, and milestones to benchmark our progress as we climb the many more steps that are ahead of us. Aapravasi Ghat will help us to steer the course, and its further development and the multiplication of activities centred on it is our common concern, and our contribution to the World Heritage. Let us be proud of it, and render homage to those whom it calls to remembrance as well as to those who are directly involved in its enhancement and upkeep.
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
‘Convergence: Language, Identity, Apravasi Ghat, the Diaspora…’, Dr R Neerunjun Gopee, Mauritius Times, 1 November 2012
* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014