After the recent episode of a second republic, there was another rapprochement of views between the MMM leader and the Prime Minister. This time it was about setting up a Mauritian Cultural Centre. It is known that several such centres were set up in the 2000-05 period, including Tamil, Telegu and Marathi centres, whereas the General Post Office in Port Louis was designated to become the Nelson Mandela centre presumably for African culture. The MMM did not, at the time, consider the advisability of setting up cultural centres likewise for other components of the population. The idea of setting up centres for distinct groups within the General Population, Islamic and Hindi groups, for example, was probably not considered a priority as a manner of giving expression to divergent currents that may be flowing in those groups as well. The current proposal by the MMM leader and its endorsement by the PM, to set up a Mauritian Cultural Centre implies that none of the predecessors was a truly Mauritian Cultural Centre which is why such a centre is now needed to celebrate the desired diversity in the population.
No one will disagree on the idea that people who find their fuller social expression in distinct associations should be encouraged to do so. This is the spirit perhaps in which the MBC, the national TV and radio broadcaster, has recently launched dedicated channels in Telugu, Tamil and Urdu on a 24/7 basis. Such a development will broaden the choices available to the targeted groups and, to that extent, impact on the client base of competing broadcasters. By the same token, it will win the loyalty of listeners/viewers in favour of the MBC-TV. This kind of competition for an audience is commonplace in developed countries and, one dare say, we are catching up in the process with some of the developing countries as well which have stolen many a march against us in the field of objective broadcasting. In other words, the more the better from a consumer point of view.
While the different cultural centres serve their own purpose, a truly bonding factor that brings the nation together in patriotic fervour is lacking. We do not have a common enemy, as other countries sometimes have, whose hostile action tends to bond the nation together in common opposition to the hostile bid. We also do not have some mighty good national sporting team at the global level which could have held us together as a nation whenever the stakes are high. We needed to invent this bonding together somehow but most socio-cultural and religious organisations have tended to pursue their own goals and objectives separately. Each one operates on its own wavelength, gathers its own audience to which it delivers its specific message and, from time to time, makes a national celebration on some occasion or other but one that the people as a whole do not look forward to as a collective enriching experience.
Much as one would have wished that there was really something in common to celebrate as a transcending hallmark of achievement for the nation as a whole, this factor has kept eluding us. Neither independence nor republic has been able to get this sincere adherence to a lasting unifying factor, beyond boundaries of distinct creed and culture. On the other hand, there is no absence of factors, from trivial to significant, that have kept the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads at the slightest provocation. Many are led to fear or simply negate the “other”. People are made to believe, on distinct group basis, that unless you remain united as a group, the “other one” will trounce you up to your perdition in a sort of generalisation of several minority syndromes.
In simple words, the lack of a deep common cultural thread has nurtured a solidly entrenched separateness of group identities. Many accept this as a fact of life with which to live and one in which the particular always supersedes the general interest. We have only recently been hearing voices of protest against conversion by particular sects from one religion to another. Tension has built up on this. Instead of that, would non-interfering co-existence in a place like Mauritius not have better served to steer the ship of state with more serenity? Is it right to belittle the other one’s system of beliefs and still hope that it will all be passively accepted?
Factors reinforcing the forces of division have been too strong for truly common causes endorsed by the nation as a whole to emerge. We have not developed a united front against the drug merchants; we have excused abuses by some on the grounds that others have also resorted to similar abuses in the past; whenever we have condemned an atrocious crime, we have not really defended the values that should have prevented the perpetuation of such anti-social behaviour. We have instead taken comfort from suggestions that the protagonists involved belong to a group which is distinct from our own, only to stumble a couple of days later on something identical being perpetrated from what we consider to be belonging to our separate fold. Our society has suffered from a lack of an objective system of values that everyone would adhere to, irrespective of which creed or culture he belongs to. Dispensation of justice comes close to this norm of objectivity but we have even seen judgements delivered by our courts come under severe attack when particular interests are threatened by them.
What does all this point to? First, that it will be a long way before we can persuade ourselves to put the collective national interest above individual group or even personal considerations. Second, it will take an enormous amount of syncretisation to eliminate particular concerns, keeping in a distance therefore a “flat-world” acceptance of differences in attitudes and failing to prize universally accepted codes of private conduct in our society. Third, there will always be someone or other who will find himself disadvantaged if a coalition of views and consensuses levelling out differences were to emerge; so, he will work to obstruct any such thing coming up. Such persons will do their best to thwart progress towards unification. Fourth, many people will keep feeling more cosy by being held together in their specific cocoons than by having to give them or part of them up for the sake of building national consensus.
In the circumstances, we will have to develop a maximum number of situations in which picking up a nationally unifying factor will be more rewarding than each one going his own separate ways. This element goes beyond culture or cultural centres. It belongs rather to a shared sense of values from any field of activity that anyone will be willing to endorse. It will bring unity not from fear of being overwhelmed by a common external adversary. It will bring unity by something better that can be achieved by working together. For example, setting up a textile or other factory will give employment to all indiscriminately, it will increase the national GDP, it will open up opportunities for second or third round activities dependent on it that will favour all without privileging anyone belonging to a separate creed or culture, it will project a positive image of our nation on the world stage. It will do away, for instance, with views held from the past that women should not engage in public economic activity; it will promote them rather putting to good use their talents for the good of one and all.
The more we consolidate institutions like objectivity and meritocracy, the less we will need of the preaching to get to our national goals. Everyone must feel confident that all those who take decisions will not be swayed by tribal considerations when it comes to the crunch and that we will be satisfied with nothing less than selection of the best by giving equal opportunities to everyone to shine. We will also not be neglecting the public duty to make society compassionate enough by not allowing those who are handicapped at some stage to drop by the wayside for want of being justly assisted.
One needs to get deeper conviction across the board that the established rules of fairness will not be departed from under any circumstances. This will signal that the truly national consolidation project is materialising. This kind of conviction will not necessarily come through constructs of façades that give a semblance of action being taken to legitimize separatisms that have become facts of life today. Each time governments come to seek a vote, they should be judged by the number of decisions they have actually implemented during the last mandate which have extended this fundamental force of fair treatment to all across the board, not by other hyperboles. We do not necessarily have to dismiss the existing mould of separate identities; they will take a secondary role when we are seen to have firmly embarked on something all-embracing on a significant scale. At that stage people will be convinced that working to advance national objectives yields superior results compared with parochial pursuits.
* Published in print edition on 4 November 2010