Dr Vijaya Teelock

Interview: Dr Vijaya Teelock

“We have a history of exploiting everyone here – and a tradition of hiding it” 

* “How can you be proud of a history of exploitation? People have led miserable lives and many continue to do so” 

* “Financial compensation can help to heal the past psychologically. But there are of course many other types of compensation that should not be excluded”  Historian and researcher, Dr Vijaya Teelock has had an extensive exposure to our historical legacy in years past thanks to her involvement in work associated with the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and the Truth and Justice Commission. She is duty bound not to disclose the findings and recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission but, she says, what if we delved a bit into the half truths that are usually given out as pertaining to History?  

Mauritius Times: Your association with the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund (as chairperson) and the Truth and Justice Commission (as Vice Chairperson) has surely given you another perspective about the truth and the realities of the situation of slaves and indentured workers/immigrants. Is that indeed the case? Tell us about it. 

Dr Vijaya Teelock: At this stage I cannot tell you much about the report of the Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) itself, but yes having been exposed for the past two and a half years to people from all walks of life and from the corners of Mauritius that one normally hears of, I have got a different perspective on Mauritius than some years ago. By being immersed in Truth and Justice Commission work and less of Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, it has also given me an insight into how people who are not of Indian origin or who have rejected their Indian origin, see indentured labourers and their descendants.  

I have also realized how many people of Indian origin are actually not of indentured origin and do not fit into the stereotypes we have so carefully cultivated in the official representation of History.  

I have to be frank, and as an historian, I admit some years ago to not accepting there was an ‘official’ history of indenture or an acceptable version of indenture, but now I realise how much myth has surrounded the writing of History and how far there is an acceptable version and unacceptable versions too which contradict each other.  

This makes me uneasy being at the head of an institution such as Aapravasi Ghat, supposed to be a semi-autonomous institution. We proposed a different version of History, which is not quite accepted. History is also an interpretation by one individual and this is and needs to be redefined constantly: I am not sure official history can accept being constantly redefined, yet that is the nature of true History writing. 

We also as historians try to see the true nature of things and accept to consider all viewpoints before we make a decision on what we ourselves think, that is not always possible in an official institution. I have realized that the most fundamental divide in Mauritius is cultural and this affects how we conduct ourselves as economic beings, how we relate to one another, how we study or don’t. Many of the best-intentioned policies fail because the cultural factor has not been taken into account: economic policies, poverty… It is a pity that economists and such persons do not always reckon with this factor (which of course is not completely quantifiable) when formulating policies because taking them into account would be infinitely more comprehensive and successful. Instead, we impose one or two cultural models on people…

The last thing I have to say also about this is not enough people have the opportunity to speak out and somehow Mauritian society has to create more channels for people to express themselves. Of course we have the media but this seems to be of the more sensational type rather than the discursive and reflective one. Group discussion is important. And there is not enough of it. 

* Is it likely that the research, inquiries, etc., undertaken by the Truth and Justice Commission will bring to light the real truth about our past – different from the ‘truth’ that we think we know? 

I speak as a historian and not as a Commissioner: there is not one real truth but many, depending on where you stand in society.  

There is also the question of understanding: I think we can propose to Mauritians how to better understand their past, whatever that past may be and where to place their experience in the general scheme of things, and also how better to FACE their past. That is the real challenge as there are numerous people who feel uneasy about the past and feel they have not got a square deal, then and now.  

It is also important for the truths to confront each other: that will be painful but necessary for Mauritius to move on. I hope people will understand that. There is a need for people to be talked to and advised, and to be able, as I said earlier, to express their joys, sorrows, hopes and expectations. There is currently nowhere for many to go to in this regard. We are in distress at the Commission when people come and pour out their problems; in most cases we are incapable of helping, as we have no authority or power to do so.  

For two years we have listened and we will recommend, let us hope those who hear will also listen. 

* Some people have argued in the past that the best way to deal with the past is to forget about it… That was way back in the 1970s when the Aapravasi Ghat was being rehabilitated, and the same sentiments were voiced by a few when the Truth and Justice Commission was being set up. Would you say that they were wrong? 

The same people who tell you to forget the past are also invoking the past when their rights are threatened, so this is the paradox! 

And there are also those who have interests and positions to protect who say things like this!! And there are those who are afraid of confronting their past — many are like that. 

* It is said that most countries are proud of their history. Why is it that we do not seem proud of our history? 

How can you be proud of a history of exploitation? People have led miserable lives and many continue to do so.  

And I am talking not only about non-Europeans. What about all those French orphaned children brought here to work in the 18th century, convicts who were never allowed to return and completely lost in history books? 

We have a history of exploiting everyone here — white, black, brown, or yellow! But we also have a tradition of hiding it, behind our bamboo hedges and stonewalls.  

* Can it be said that the workings of both the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and the Truth and Justice Commission will help shape our future? 

Aapravasi Ghat changed completely our way of looking at History not just through history books but through physical structures. It has also fired our imagination and now we look at places in a different light. Not that there were not sites before, but something clicked in the Mauritian population: everybody now wants an Aapravasi Ghat in their backyard!! 

In Agalega and in Rodrigues, people are also proud of their history and are still waiting for Mauritius to list their heritage sites and they have plenty of them over there too! 

As for the Truth and Justice Commission, it is making recommendations; it remains to be seen whether the recommendations will make an impact or not.  

* Would you say that slaves and indentured labourers share essentially a common history in spite of their ethnic and other differences? 

Of course, they were brought here to work — nothing else. The ethnicity difference is only due to the century they found themselves in! One could not take Africans in the 19th century because the British would have been accused of practising another form of slavery so they got labourers from Asia. Don’t forget that slavery was still legal in India even after the abolition of slavery in 1835 (India was exempted from abolition). 

Employers do not care too much about the colour of the labour as long as it is docile and cheap. We have overethnicised our History: maybe people thought that doing this would bring them benefits but it actually blurs many other differences in our society. It is a pity people do not think enough about who actually benefits from communalism and from having a divided labour force. Intellectuals seem to be too unilinear in their thinking these days. 

* In an earlier interview in this paper you had said that the question of financial compensation for past injuries can only be answered after we have undertaken « a profound study of the situation of slaves and indentured labourers in Mauritius: how much labour was extracted of the slave and his family for generations? What was the profitability of estates at that time? What did the slave want when he was freed? » Many present-day descendants of both slaves and indentured labourers will want to have an answer to that question. How would you react to that? 

I am afraid you will have to wait for the report to get an answer to these very specific questions. 

 * Do you personally think that past injuries have to be compensated for financially? If not, what are the alternative types of “compensations” that the presumed victims should be entitled to?  

I think financial compensation can help to heal the past psychologically. But there are of course many other types of compensation; one does not exclude the others. Moral compensation is important too sometimes and for very specific cases — although in the experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it seems to have helped the perpetrators more than the victims. But while an apology can heal a psychological wound, in our case, the perpetrators are long since gone.  

The bigger challenge, in my personal view, as an historian, is the reconciliation aspect. As in South Africa that will be a harder nut to crack because the economic structures have not changed, and that explains the rise of Julius Mulema in South Africa – and the fear that seems to pervade many white and black south Africans who are wealthy in view of what he advocates, given those pervasive economic structures. 

* Isn’t there a risk that the setting up of a Truth and Justice Commission might have raised expectations that cannot be met in practice? 

Again I would request you to wait until our report comes out; I cannot divulge anything now. It is true the expectations are high but, again, hopefully people will take our recommendations seriously and act upon them. 

* Apravasi Ghat, which was the beginning of the journey, must be seen as the opportunity for renewal… we owe it to our forbears but also to our children to keep moving forward and not to slip backwards, wrote a contributor in this paper some time ago. It does not look like we are moving forward, isn’t it?

We seem to have lost the inspiration and the optimism and the pioneering spirit of our forbears — that is for sure. My great grandmother was totally illiterate and an indentured labourer, but that did not stop her from persevering, buying little plot of land after little plot. She was in a foreign country, and could not speak the language… I could not do what she has done. 

Yes, we have lost something from that vision but that is perhaps more due to prosperity than anything else. It may also be the case that our education is less socialising and less familial; parents do not have the time to spend with their children; they do not teach them values, manners, what is important about life… And now as the school does not do this anymore, children are being left without boundaries. They are also living in a land of opportunities, but which has a glass ceiling; that causes frustration for them. 

* The question of separate identity for diverse groups among the population comes on the table from time to time. And we have seen how dividends are drawn by groups and individuals from this state of separateness. That’s not likely to change, isn’t it?  

I personally think that needs to be discouraged totally: politicians thrive on it to get votes, but that is just that: votes. 

Of course cultural differences need to be respected and not stifled, and all groups need to be represented. This is where the problem may lie. For many years, for example, the Indo-Christians have been asking for their identity to be recognized and to be invited at AG as a separate entity. This has always been refused… Why?? 

On the other hand, we accept separate identities of Tamil-speaking, Telugu-speaking groups, etc. This can understandably cause frustration but, more importantly, the population needs to be consulted. Often we get to hear only the self-appointed leaders. My question is: if people across the board had been leading decent lives, would they be fighting for crumbs of the cake?

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