Mauritian society has thrived more on its differences than on its commonalities. It is time we leave behind those bad habits.In the olden days of great misery across the board, people claimed superiority over each other by their degree of proximity to the owner of the sugar estate (the centre of economic power). If they did not have the same skin colour as the latter, at least they shared the same religion with him and deemed themselves to be therefore on a par with him at this level and superior to the others who followed a different path. Among the latter, superiority was claimed, in turn, on the basis of social differentiation. People tended to band together according to a pre-established social differentiation factor. Some put themselves at the top of this kind of social scaling ladder, considering the others inferior to themselves and, hence, worthy of their contempt or look-down attitudes. Divisions were rife despite the subsequent introduction in the country of social movements which took an integrative and diametrically opposed stand, in opposition to those artificial social scaling factors. It was the good fortune of Mauritius that the elections of 1967 had the effect of dissolving such artificial barriers affecting a majority of the population, as far as politics was concerned. In its bid to seize political power,the political alliance which was opposed to independence made a severe onslaught verging on racism against those who had been nursing the social scaling differences among themselves. Forced to react against this head-on assault, they rallied together in the elections of1967. Despite repeated attempts to fracture the bonding together that came about at that time amongst this group, people have remained vigilant, politically at least, not to be carried away by high faluting ideals such as nurturing a classless society. Suspicions of a hidden agenda against such political promises have kept those voters more or less together, notwithstanding the 60-0 win of the MMM in 1982.
Despite the so-called formula of “unity in diversity”, Mauritius has remained vulnerable to the same feelings of superiority and inferiority as prevailed in the olden days. Thus, even after getting their act together at the time of voting, some leaders belonging to the majority community deliberately cultivated separate identities as regards their social behaviour vis-a-vis each other. This separation continued to be based on the existing artificial social scaling factor among the Hindus. This has been happening despite the massive role played by education and professional training to level down differences across all parts of Mauritian society. Several Hindus who considered themselves as belonging to socially distinct levels, formed invisible exclusive social clubs for themselves. Action led to reaction and everybody started looking for his own vantage points, thus accentuating the forces of division. This clubbing together is in reality premised on nothing higher than the seeking of personal advantages by those at the top of the various group hierarchies created. Members of the distinct clubs so formed lying lower down the hierarchy had no choice than to toe the line lest failing to identify themselves with the club deprive them of a potential future advantage derived from the specific belonging. In any event, the latter are systematically rounded up into distinct “families” preceding each election.
It is in this context that we have to put down the utterances of Minister Choonee at a recent meeting of the Vaish Welfare Association. The Minister of Culture comforted those attending the meeting, stating that the Prime Minister was obliged first and foremost to them for having voted him to power; only then was he accountable to the nation and finally to the world. He emphasized that it was they who had brought the government to power and that they should feel proud of their deed. The PM has promptly contradicted the Minister, stating that he was Mauritian first and foremost and that he had always advised his Ministers to stick to the broader national identity. He has thus not hesitated to repudiate publicly an equivocal stand taken by a Cabinet colleague going in the direction of intensifying social division and privileging a few who were assembled on that occasion, at the expense of the larger nation.
Another case has come up in the last week which appears to indicate the risk associated with possible political clientelism. Minister Shakeel Mohamed summoned the Director-General of the MBC-TV, the official radio-television Corporation, to appear before him for having suspended an employee of the Corporation, Rehana Ameer, for alleged involvement in a matter of defamatory anonymous letters. The Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations had directly summoned earlier on the Human Resource Manager of the MBC-TV to appear before him in this connection. The Director-General rightly refused to answer the call as it had not been made through the proper channel. In any event, staff suspension in companies takes place as a matter of course and it does not warrant that the Minister should invest himself in the matter each time such a thing takes place or is brought to his notice directly. There are officials who are paid for doing this sort of work.
The same Minister did not think it fit to convene to his office the Director-General of the MBC-TV a week or so earlier when another employee of the Corporation, Pamela Patten, had equally been suspended. He did not deem it fit to summon the CEO of Air Mauritius either to discuss with him the suspension last week of Raj Ramlugun by the national carrier. We have equally not heard of other similar summons issued in the wake of a string of suspensions affecting other employees of Air Mauritius, namely Messrs Ahveenash Ruggoo, Krishnaduth Raudhay, Thierry Edmund Pierre, Basdeo Bageeruthee. This looks like a differential behaviour in the case of those suspended employees in other no less important public institutions, and one needs to know the reasons for adopting such behaviour.
This kind of cacophony must have represented a field day to the Opposition. But the latter has adopted a selective stance. The Leader of the Opposition promptly condemned Minister Choonee for the non-National stand he took during the meeting of the Vaish Welfare Association but he has refrained from taking a similarly strong position in the case involving Rehana Ameer and Minister Shakeel Mohamed. One cannot castigate “incorrect” behaviour in one case and condone it in another.
We should ask ourselves the question as to what will be the finality of pursuing the agenda of cultivating differences among the different components of the nation. Politicians and those who imitate them frequently employ the so-called slogan of “unity in the diversity”. One suspects whether the real objective of politicians advocating differences through this kind of formula is to really get a seamless unity of the nation. Is it not rather to perpetuate the differences of old, the better to secure votes? Such a platform will keep the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. Hostilities may flare up on the least pretexts among groups which perceive themselves as distinct from each other. Everybody must be realising the danger of perpetuating differentiation, but none would kill the hen that lays the golden eggs.
At the same time, institutions will not head decisively towards their modernisation and face up efficiently to the challenges coming up from the world. They will get stuffed up instead with minions who are not necessarily the best we have to offer ourselves. We will travel back to a painful past of not many years ago when everybody who thought that his group has been instrumental to bring the government to power, will claim his specific pound of flesh and thus keep undermining the efficiency of our institutions. By giving way to such intrusions, we will not only be impairing the proper functioning of our institutions. We will also be creating negative GDP (Produit Inférieur Brut instead of Produit Intérieur Brut), destroying whatever good work has been done in the past. It is a wonder how long we will keep tracking and nurturing differences and missing out on the benefits of cultivating instead a less fragmented society around us.
Some amount of disciplining is not out of place. If Ministers had to get cracking doing real substantive work, they would get no time to indulge in cheap prattle along sectarian lines. They would have no time for this kind of activity. They would start showing results in terms of bigger GDPs and levels of employment. Ministries would shine as the paragons of performance. Ministers would spend more of their time thinking out about how to give greater flexibility and, hence, employability, to workers.
They would be working towards producing that platform on which the best would automatically gravitate to the top in both public and private sectors because the system will tolerate nothing less. They will be equipping all workers as well as the non-employed to the maximum so that the workers will constantly rise from their present station and see the scope for going up increase with time. That will happen if we keep extending our fields of activity and applying minds more meticulously beyond what the politics of communal apartness is producing. When bravado will be replaced by real action, there will be less time to sharpen differences as well as the intolerance that goes with it. There will also be little opportunity for political parties and voters to perpetuate self-defeating old moulds of doing politics; we will then be going towards the right real modernisation agenda that the country should have been pursuing since long.