Some thrive by creating differences 


Mauritius Times

From a professional research angle, this should not be a very demanding exercise. You can draw conclusions from the available data regarding broad patterns establishing or rejecting the hypothesis behind your research without having to append details of the individual sheets from which you came to your opinion. Any researcher knows that there are sensitivities to manage in such social matters. This should be clear from the fact that some newspapers have already jumped to the conclusion that the MGI would be frustrating access to records as it would be having a hidden agenda to help certain people conceal their true castes as shown in the original immigration documents compared to the castes to which they claim belonging to currently. For such as these, the research would be useless because they have already drawn the conclusion that suits their political agenda, let alone instilling in the concerned people an apprehension that some uncomfortable “truth will be out”.  

this week carries a number of articles on the issue of castes in Mauritius, following extensive recent reports on the matter in the local media. Our contributors have penned down their thoughts in the context of the clash that was occasioned recently between the Commission Justice et Vérité (CJV) and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) concerning access to documents pertaining to Indian immigration in Mauritius. 

From time immemorial, people have differentiated themselves from each other with a view to claiming a social position preferably not inferior to their current one. Thus, Jews have distinguished themselves at one time from “the uncircumcised Philistines”, the circumcision being supposedly a mark of their superiority over the “un-chosen” people. When the Angles, Saxons and Normans conquered Britain, they differentiated themselves from the Celt and Pict serfs who preceded them in that land. One need not go that far in primitive times. Some of the graduates from Imperial College, London, will not speak to another graduate unless he is from Imperial. Those who have been educated at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge Universities keep snubbing each other to this day because each would consider himself a person of superior learning compared to the other. Obviously, all this is nonsense but people like to wear badges of distinction when it serves to elevate them socially (and economically) and even use it as a tool for preferential clubbing among members of the same clan to the detriment of others. Some Englishmen will not address words to Scots because they consider it below their dignity to do so. Closer home in Africa, a million people were massacred due to different tribal belongings in Rwanda a decade or so ago although the observer from outside sees no differences in either features or behavioural codes that could help him distinguish one from the other. 

It is not specific to Indian society therefore that there are caste and economic differentiations at the basis of its set-up. The tendency has been for such sectional differences to even out once economic well-being is kept on the rise. However, the objective of a civilized society should be to whittle down futile differences based on hereditary appurtenances and lean more towards setting down objective criteria for every society whereby men and women will be remarked by to be above the lot by their ability to rise above their historical/hereditary constraints. In such a case, there is no need to perpetuate artificial differences that had a meaning in a different society under different economic and social circumstances. There is no need to re-create this society in an increasingly cosmopolitan place like Mauritius. This makes eminent sense as the alternative is to remain frozen in an old mould that loses its relevance as society progresses towards more universal marks of distinction. The plants which really grow and evolve are those that branch out to outside their original enclosures because by limiting themselves to their enclosures, they will find their growth and development stunted. Our regular fight in MT is towards this kind of opening up without losing our essential moorings.

In the present case, it is unfortunate that we no longer have officials in Mauritius of a sufficiently high calibre who master the consequences of inaction on their part when it comes to sensitive issues of the sort. A public servant in charge of the dossier should have reconciled differences between the two institutions, with each one sticking to its brief without stirring up a hornets’ nest in public. In that case, the leader of the Opposition would not have had the opportunity to suggest that freedom of access to information was somehow being debarred. Others would not have come out asking for the sensitive information being declassified wholesale. If the American government is getting ready to bring to trial the founder of WikiLeaks for disclosing information that was de-classifiable with time, in any case, what is it that warrants ventilating in public highly private information belonging historically to specific families in the case of Mauritius?  

The fact is that politics has always thrived in Mauritius by creating grey areas. It likes to give the impression that someone somewhere is masking the truth. Its predilection is to let the people guess that someone would be taking undue advantage by making some vague insinuations about “hidden facts”. When persons entrusted with public duties facilitate this process by going public to sort out their differences, the impression is created that some in the corridors of power would be manipulating the strings to avoid getting embarrassing facts into the public.  

The media associated with this brand of doing politics is quick to jump on the opportunity to drive the wedge where it is likely to hurt the most. This is what we are seeing: an attempt to accentuate differences that have been fading away anyway except for the essential cultural content, with social transformation under globalisation. It is the best strategy the manipulators have found to keep society fractured to a past mode to suit the politics of divide and rule. All those who have given in to this policy have been losers. These events prove that Mauritius has to be led out of the emotional trap of variegated micro-level belongings into which it is drawn from time to time, not least when elections are at the doorstep. At this moment, elections are far off but does it cost anything to keep up the tempo of artificial differentiation? Not so, it appears, as the specific media coverage of the CJV/MGI incident displays quite clearly.  

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2011

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