“We definitely need strong leadership to combat intolerance and promote political and social stability…

Interview – Dr Satish Kumar Mahadeo

… but let us not confuse ‘firmness’ with ‘aggressivity’ or ‘brutality’”

There is much anger in our society, and the onus is on politicians, academics and journalists… to address the roots of anger”

“We indeed need a system of education which produces a ‘talent meritocracy’ rather than an ‘exam meritocracy’”

The incidents which occurred during the past weekend have captivated the attention of politicians, sociocultural organisations as well as large sections of the media , including the social networks. All appealed for calm and peace with a view to the maintenance of racial and religious harmony. These incidents are the subject of intense scrutiny this week on the part of Dr Satish Kumar Mahadeo, Associate Professor, who holds a doctorate in Humanities from Durham University, UK, and teaches in the Department of English studies at the University of Mauritius. He also addresses in this interview issues of identity and religion in a multicultural society faced with the challenges of Globalisation.

Mauritius Times: The incidents, which occurred in the south of the island during the weekend, must have jolted us all from our comfort zones, awakening us to the ever-present dangers that exist in a multiethnic society. Hadn’t we already exorcised the monsters of the past, or are there new monsters that are taking shape and that may come and disturb the quiet and peace of the place?

Dr Satish Kumar Mahadeo: The incidents in the South are said to be isolated and concern only a few individuals instigated to perpetrate acts of vandalism under the influence of alcohol, according to press reports, or politically motivated, according to the Prime Minister. I think that this is too simplistic, self-serving and expedient an explanation, given the polarised political climate in Mauritius which makes genuine independence of thinking a rare commodity. Alcohol consumption does not explain everything. Not everyone who is drunk goes on a rampage and destroys statues in a temple, followed by retaliatory attacks against a mosque.

While the vast majority of Mauritians may not support the specific acts of violence by such individuals, the existence of so much anger in our society – evidenced also by the case of an apparently deranged man who vents out his resentment against his own mother and kills her without any remorse — is a symptom of tension in the larger society that finds a particularly virulent expression in certain individuals. I have been wondering for some time whether we are not living in an ‘affectless’ society where especially younger sections of our population are finding the process of negotiating their place in the world and forming their identity difficult. There is much anger in our society, and the onus is on politicians, academics and journalists and all those concerned with the radical mutations taking place in our midst to address the roots of anger.

* We shall not dwell on whether what happened during the weekend are the doings of a bunch of disrespectful hotheads or of some organised gangs of trouble-makers out to stir up ethnic antagonisms – the police will certainly look into this and bring them to face justice – but public reaction to those incidents suggests that the vast majority of Mauritians do not wish to see the foundations of our social harmony shaken. We seem to have made progress on the front, haven’t we?

Opinion leaders seem very often to hold a contradictory discourse on our rainbow nation, which consists in saying that Mauritius is a model of racial harmony and peaceful coexistence in diversity, and, in the same breath, acknowledge the fragile nature of the social fabric. I ask myself the question as to how our society can follow a tolerant approach towards different ethnic groups and promote the idea of multiculturalism and meritocracy as a racial equaliser.

This government bears the responsibility of managing ethnic relations and the task of nation-building should things go wrong. Therefore it is a sheer exercise in futility in indulging in a ‘name and shame’ blame game, as was evident in the National Assembly this week. Besides, the evidence presented in the Parliament was flimsy, to say the least, for the simple reason that when x coexists with y, it does not necessarily follow that x causes y. This is basic reasoning in any scientific argumentation.

Is it not high time to go beyond the ritual gathering of religious leaders from different faiths on prime time news, and have an open discussion on issues related to race and religion in this country? Racial harmony cannot be achieved through passive tolerance of the ‘other’ or by adopting ‘political correctness’ in public space while adopting a different stance in private. We must provide space for different ethnic groups to exchange ideas and find solutions for issues creating problems of coexistence.

Reformative actions – not rhetoric – must be taken to bring about an overall harmonious society. Non-government organisations, community members, academic and other people working on issues of race and religion need to bring their contribution to combat intolerance and encourage genuine racial and religious harmony.

* We would have thought the communal animal that had reared its head decades ago has now been tamed. Thanks to politicians, religious men, the press, who have been generally responsible?

People in authority must — sooner rather later – take a serious look at the appropriate conceptual response to problems between religions arising from the existence of deep religious diversity. Nita Deerpalsing, in the past government, had the merit of coming with a Private Member Motion saying that the Constitution of Mauritius be amended to provide for the secular nature of the State to be enshrined therein. But she never made explicit which model of secularism would be compatible with the Mauritian ‘character’. Is it the American or European or Indian model of secularism?

Of all available alternatives, secularism remains our best bet to help us deal with religious diversity and the problems endemic to it. Western conceptions of political secularism, however, do not appear to have translated all that well to other societies like ours. Such conceptions and the secular states they underpin are coming under strain even in the West where only some time back they were believed to be securely and firmly entrenched. The unprecedented religious diversity in Europe, resulting from intensified globalisation and migration from former colonies — which will evidently be exacerbated by the migrant crisis taking place before our eyes these days — is bound to weaken the public monopoly of single religions, and may generate mutual suspicion, distrust, even hostility, as was dramatically highlighted by the headscarf issue in France and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, shortly after the release of his controversial film about Islamic culture, and, more recently, the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

This week itself, in the USA, which practises a strict form of secularism where neither the State nor religion is meant to interfere in the domain of the other, a county clerk, Kim Davis, in an act of defiance against the Supreme Court, which is a secular authority, refused to issue a marriage licence to a same-sex couple, and preferred to go to jail, claiming that it would violate her conscience and go against her religious beliefs. So should people owe loyalty to God or loyalty to our Constitution? In this connection, does Indian secularism, which is inextricably tied to deep religious diversity, offer the best alternative? It is a question worth asking.

* To come back to the incidents in the South, the long hand of the law can tackle trouble-makers – the ‘apprentis sorciers’ and other ‘pyromanes’ operating locally or on social media platforms, but would that be sufficient? What else is required?

I would like to dwell on the identity issue here. In the context of globalisation, culture, identity and community often serve as a focus of resistance to centralising and homogenising forces. We Mauritians have a golden opportunity to live in a country which offers us a chance to develop dynamic ‘multiple identities’ influenced by a variety of cultural, social and other factors. Who will teach our children that a static, closed and ‘essentialist’ approach to culture and identity can be a recipe for disaster? Not the politicians, as far as I know. As long as politicians themselves thrive on the politics of identity, and claim ownership of respective religions in this country, as long as our Constitution classifies us as Hindi-Speaking, Urdu-Speaking, Tamil- speaking, Telegu-Speaking, Mandarin-Speaking, we will continue to feel insecure and inward-looking and remain obsessed by our own mental frontiers.

* Beyond our ‘frontiers’, that is if we look outside our shores, we see things and events happening elsewhere which may have a bearing on our society without ourselves really being prepared to face the consequences of such happenings. It’s bound to challenge society’s coping mechanisms in the years ahead. Do we have an answer to that?

Let me put things in their proper academic perspective for us to grasp in what way international events impact on our coping mechanisms, as you say. At the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama proclaimed that we had witnessed the ‘end of history’, and that there was no serious challenger to liberal capitalism and democracy. While this thesis was contested, principally by Samuel Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’, which presented a paradigm urging policy makers to consider the world as divided between competing religions and civilisations, this dominant narrative has prevailed in western thought at least.

The events of 11 September 2001, however, sent Huntingdon’s book rather than Fukuyama’s to the top of the ‘New York Times’ bestseller list because his division of the world into conflicting civilisations acquired greater resonance with an attack against iconic symbols of the West, founded on Judeo-Christian principles. It is against this backdrop that we must confront the challenges of living in a globalised age marked by a different struggle for power based on a discourse of ‘otherness’.

During the Cold war era, the ‘others’ were the Communists, especially the Soviets. In the contemporary era, the western political discourse has witnessed the construction of religion as the ‘other’. A Manichaen world view dividing the world into good (like us) and evil (the other) encourages a confrontational paradigm that consolidates notions of identity and perceptions of threat. However farfetched, what happened in the South feeds into the narrative of difference and otherness with which we as a nation have not yet come to terms with in spite of almost 50 years of independence.

Religious based identity politics will become increasingly problematic for governments faced with sensitive religious audiences. So the lesson for us here is not make religion a designator of otherness – if we want to eliminate the psychology of mistrust, suspicion and intolerance.

* It would not seem that strong governments alone could provide an answer to that challenge and be a good guarantor of peace and stability, isn’t it?

We definitely need strong leadership to combat intolerance and promote political and social stability and harmony. But let us not confuse ‘firmness’ with ‘aggressivity’ or ‘brutality’. On the other hand, guaranteeing peace and stability is also the work of all Mauritians who must reconstruct our respective notions of identity in a diverse society.

* Let’s talk about education. Tell us what you think of the reform proposals of Minister Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun and her 9-Year Schooling plan? Is it what is required in the present circumstances and in view of Mauritius’ ambitions for the future?

The 9-Year schooling has provoked lot of debate in the media, so I will spare your readers the risk of repeating what is already known to the public. However, I will react to it in my capacity as a staunch defender of liberal education and Humanities.

The Minister has proposed the setting up of a School of Arts to promote the holistic learner development which appeals to me. We indeed need a system of education which produces a ‘talent meritocracy’ rather than an ‘exam meritocracy’ as it is our case. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well – like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. These are areas where Mauritius must learn the culture of learning in other countries whose education stresses the importance of Science and technology – but not at the expense of the Arts and Humanities.

I have read that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of ‘Facebook’, was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and was a psychology major when he attended college. The crucial insights that made Facebook the giant it is today have as much to do with psychology as they do with technology. So I would say that educational reforms must be geared towards stimulating creativity, imagination, and, above all, innovation rather than memorisation and a fixation with an exam culture.

* It has been argued by educationists and no less than a previous Minister of Education that not much will change in terms of the “rat race” competition for “Star Schools”-cum-Academies, nor the prevalence of private tuitions, and we’ll end up discriminating students residing in rural areas with the Reform’s regionalisation proposals. We’ll end up back to square one should these fears be confirmed, isn’t it?

As I said, no educational reform will be successfully implemented as long as an examination-oriented culture and obsession with grade results, which are at the root of the ‘rat-race’ you speak of. Sheila Bunwaree, who was, until recently, Professor at the UOM and who has extensively written on the issue of education in Mauritius, has this to say on this: “Education cannot be truly reformed if attention is focused on the quantitative aspect only. Infrastructure, buildings and transport are certainly important but more importantly, there is a need for a paradigm shift, a revolution of mentality.”

* Is an educational reform considered apt if only it does away with the excessive competition that school goers have got used to so far?

Competition is inherent to our survival, no doubt. But competition should not be restricted to the academic domain only. I am always amazed by the rich array of talents that I see on Indian television shows in disciplines such as dance, song and drama. I would love to see our education system giving a high status and prestige to our best dancers and singers and others who excel in different forms of art. Why don’t we create a separate stream in our schools for the award of scholarships to promising artists?

* What is said to be equally if not more important in the job market of today and increasingly so in that of tomorrow is the exit profile, the employability quotient of school leavers and our young graduates. We do not seem to be faring well on that score relative to students in most Western as well as Asian countries, and even to the wards of settlers of Mauritian origin in such places like Canada, UK, etc., where private tuitions and even homework in some places are unheard of. Is there something about their education system which somehow manages to bring out the best in their students? Why are we unable to do that?

Our job market in future will require more and more graduates who display creativity, problem solving, decision-making, persuasive arguing, and management skills. Knowledge Economy as we know it is being eclipsed by something new – call it the Creativity Economy. You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world. But you can’t sell it for a reasonable price unless you have built a story around it. The same is true for cars, clothes, and coffee. The value added is in the brand – how it is imagined, presented, sold, and sustained. What I am stressing is once again creativity and imagination – the domain of the liberal arts. Will the educational reforms develop such kinds of intelligence? Time will tell.

* If we want real change to happen, it might be necessary to invest not only in a new – holistic – education programme, but also in the agents for change – the teachers – instead of tablets or other electronic blackboards. PRB is not enough, it might require more than pecuniary benefits. What do you think?

The 9-year schooling indeed says hardly anything about raising the quality and status of teaching, which has been devalued as a profession over the last few decades. The ‘best and brightest’ are not joining what used to be called a noble profession. Teachers hold in their hands the success of our country and the well-being of its citizens; they are the key to helping every child in this country to realise their full potential.

Teachers are the critical guardians of the intellectual life of a nation. They give children the tools by which they can become authors of their own life story and builders of a better world. So I would definitely say reforms in education would be incomplete if they are not designed to empower teachers, and give them more power and more prestige in our society. The Minister of Education, herself a former teacher, has the moral responsibility to save this profession from reputational decline.

* How about having less of government in the education sector – the government which directs by way of circulars and regulations? Will that help the system as well as the stakeholders?

Far too long education policy in Mauritius has been driven by narrow political agendas, often ignoring all advice from different quarters, including the teaching profession itself.

Would it not be a great idea if this government were to set up an independent body composed of the present Minister of Education, former Ministers such as Armoogum Parsuramen, Kadress Pillay, Steve Obeegadoo, Dharam Gokhool, and Vasant Bunwaree, along with other stakeholders, who would work on a long term policy on Education, separated from the shifting demands of party politics.

Five years is often not enough time to bring about the right change. It has to be cross party as governments change. Parents and teachers would also have much greater confidence in an education system with less political interference.

 

  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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