“I think things will get worse before they get better…

Interview: Dr Vijaya Teelock – Historian

We need a third force (not just political but intellectual, philosophical, etc) and inspirational and that unfortunately has not manifested itself yet”
“We have a lost generation which needs to be regrouped, retrained and given hope otherwise they will destroy”

Dr Vijaya Teelock was at one time the chairperson of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and who spearheaded the adoption of the Aapravasi Ghat as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. She is therefore eminently qualified to comment on the commemoration of the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured Labour to the country. As she does so, she also makes a frank analysis of the several factors in our educational system and among our politicians, elite and social groups whose vested interests and contradictory positionings are failing to prepare the country adequately for the future of its youth.

 

Mauritius Times: ‘Aapravasi Ghat, which was the beginning of the journey, must be seen as the opportunity for renewal… we owe it to our forebears but also to our children to keep moving forward and not to slip backwards.’ These comments from a contributor to this paper a few years ago are still valid today – the more so perhaps given the particular circumstances presently. Where do we stand today in terms of the “renewal” process as we commemorate the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian immigrants here?

The Aapravasi Ghat came to the forefront in the 1970s when Beekrumsing Ramlallah started campaigning for it to be recognized as a National Heritage site (long before the National Heritage Fund existed!). The Mahatma Gandhi Institute also got involved since its creation in the 1980s by proposing an Indentured Labour Route and transferring the artefacts and immigration registers to MGI for safe keeping. Then the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund was created in 2002 and all the research and restoration work that most people are now familiar with today begun.

So I do not think there is any danger of non-renewal. Different institutions and individuals will take up the ‘flambeau’ of renewal and preservation and each one will do it in their own way. It is not right to say that young people are not interested: many are not given the opportunity to show what they can do or are given the chance to experience such events. I don’t know what the term ‘backwards’ means therefore, there are new paradigms and new ways of looking at things and ‘going back to the past’ or ‘unearthing the past’ however distasteful, is not slipping backwards: the problem is how you present it and how you contextualize it: as the past and no more no less. Maybe the communication skills of those accused of ‘slipping backwards’ are not so good!

* There’s the Chinese saying that “the first generation works hard to create wealth, the second generation reaps the benefit and the third generation squanders it.” Does it look like we have kept sufficiently alive the inspiration and the pioneering spirit of our forebears to be able to keep moving forward?

As I teach at the University, I come across many hundreds of students every year. I don’t think my students are squandering their parents’ money! Some don’t have that kind of money to squander I am afraid. But it is true that those born after independence do not realize how difficult life was in the past, materially as well as psychologically, when one was forced to change one’s name and religion to get a job or gain social mobility or hide one’s frizzy hair (the pencil test). It is also true that the spirit of our forbears (of all nationalities) has perhaps not been infused and demonstrated strongly enough in our educational system or through popular programmes: there is a culture of ‘entertainment’ which seems to prevail, probably in a ‘populist’ aim in official celebrations.

But we have first to identify and agree on what part and what values we want to promote. And here a national consensus is required, not a top-down approach by the authorities. Or forcing values down our throats. For example, it is no use telling families to keep the family together, mothers to look after their children more when the economic system being implemented with the long hours at work, work abroad, is separating families.

Nor am I sure that looking backwards all the time is good if one wants to innovate and go in ‘fast forward’ mode.

* However important are the annual ceremonies held on 2nd November to honour the memory and sacrifices of our forebears, these last only a few hours or days, and we then fall back to our usual comfort zone. We do not seem to realise the pressing need to set out an agenda for the further growth and development of the descendants of the Indo-Mauritian community in a manner which aligns with the national interest. What’s holding us back? And whatever happened to the elite?

I don’t know what happened to the intellectual elite but I do know that our youth do not have direction required and desperately need it. Something has gone wrong and we really need to find a way to put the youth back on track. They will and are losing out on the international arena where everybody else is moving forward. And I am afraid parents are no longer providing the direction, values and the current school system is certainly not equipped for this. So who will take care of this lost generation? As an educator, I am very perturbed at the moment by this.

Indo-Mauritian youths’ interest cannot be separated from ‘other’ interests but certainly there is a ‘cultural’ paradigm shift occurring and not necessarily in the right direction. But who is discussing this? Or researching this to be able to formulate policy to ‘treat’ this? Everyone is going in different directions. As I have said before, we have ‘parallel’ cultural discussions within ethno-religious groups where there is always a latent ethnocentric (not to say racist) streak.

The only thing holding us back is ourselves: we allow others of the same faith as us to use us and follow them like sheep. We do not recruit the best qualified but those recommended by politicians: so we have only us to blame when institutions and policies don’t work. Who decided to recruit inexperienced, untrained teachers, and administrators in our public schools? Or create overcrowded classrooms with heavy timetables with poor English and Maths standards? Who forces long hours and low wages on parents? Who forces educators to sign confidentiality agreements so that they do not reveal the real truth about what is going on our public schools? Then we wonder why teachers cannot cope with unruly children? Or the family is breaking up? We have ourselves to blame and yet no one says anything: the few who do are howling in the dark.

But I do have faith in the youth, despite the failures of their elders. Authorities need to step up fast and take action where families and previous authorities have failed. We have a lost generation which needs to be regrouped, retrained and given hope otherwise they will destroy, as they have nothing to lose.

* What according to you should constitute the agenda for the future? What are the issues that should be addressed as a matter of priority as well as for the long term?

This is too big a question to be answered here I am afraid but as far as my own field is concerned and the mass of young people, I believe a new educational vision is required, to enable our children to face the 21st century with better training and vision than they are obtaining currently. We must stop the educational system being guided by politics (ethnic, religious or otherwise), by untrained bureaucrats, by the commercial sector (people wanting to sell their books) and pseudo-intellectuals. For a tiny island like Mauritius, it is entirely possible for our children to become ‘local cosmopolitans’, to be fully aware of what is going on in the world, to be competent in many languages and skills, to be able to seek employment elsewhere.

Our cultural diversity and our people are our wealth and we should learn to appreciate it more fully and use it to our advantage, instead of allowing fake leaders turning this precious cultural wealth against ourselves.

It is very short-sighted for our ‘intellectuals’ to do so as they will themselves become victims of it.

* The Jewish, Chinese and Indian diasporas are some of the most vibrant diasporas settled in various countries of the world and each has its own stories of how they have made it in the host societies. Are there lessons to be learnt and models which may be adapted to our circumstances?

One must compare the comparable: In Mauritius there was no indigenous population so success stories can be publicized and lauded.

However, one has to distinguish labour diasporas (i.e. indentured labour) and diasporas of modern migrants (NRIs in USA, Mauritians in UK) as they are very different groups from the labour immigrants.

But in non-European countries where indigenous people existed: the diaspora you are referring to may be vibrant but we have first to analyse their impact on the host societies. I don’t think the Palestinians appreciate some of the activities of the Jewish diaspora in the US for example. Or what the modern Chinese and Indian diasporas are currently doing in Africa: ask poor Africans today whether they feel they have benefited fully from their economic activities? African businessmen and the African middle class may have but what of the masses? Do these diasporas integrate and care for the people in the host society?

Certainly there are lessons to be learnt: we must respect the people whose country we have chosen to live in and who have allowed us to stay in their countries, and work for their benefit as well as our own.

* Investment in education, in property and agriculture, as well as political engagement have in great measure been instrumental in helping us to achieve the kind of progress we have registered in a relatively short time. But things do not look bright in the latter two fields: falling sugar prices and the present generation’s reluctance to go back to the fields have resulted in the abandonment of thousands of acres of land; and political fratricide has lately been cause for serious concern. What’s your take on these issues?

First, that sugar prices would fall was not news to anyone and despite attempts to mitigate the consequences, it is labourers, artisans and small planters who have borne the brunt of this. The crumbs received from the EU to compensate for losses will not encourage any youth to embark in agriculture unless government acts firmly and knowledgeably to find credible and profitable alternatives. The rich became richer, and the poor became poorer. The long-term consequences of the VRS have yet to be studied and evaluated. If it worked well for some, it did not for most others, many of whom have gone back to work for the sugar estates with far less benefits. It is in a way ‘back to the contract labour’ of the 19th century. Who will take responsibility for this?

If other countries can create profitable small businesses and plantations, why not Mauritius? The problem is we have people in crucial posts who have a finger in the pie and will not act against vested interests, they will only pay lip service, they do not really want to encourage small and medium businesses where they won’t derive any material benefit. We saw plenty of them parading before us at the Truth and Justice Commission (TJC).

You should not be surprised that young people do not want to enter agricultural pursuits. And there is little hope for the future of former small sugar planters. Good agricultural land is being converted to useless commercial pursuits because it brings easy money. Many Mauritians have become caught up in this and do not realize that a country needs to produce goods not just ‘service’ the wealthy of this world.

I really hesitate to talk about politics as I do not follow all political news. But there does not seem to be any longer, as I have said before, any unity of purpose because unlike the not too distant past (post-independence period) despite being in different political parties, there was this underlying unity. Today people are divided not because of differing ideological standpoints but they simply represent different interest groups or are fighting for personal reasons. I think there is also a certain measure of arrogance and greed for power. Some politicians and their followers actually foster these divisions and build careers on them. Others follow blindly. At the end of the day, it is the people of Mauritius who are the losers.

* Besides the present difficulties in agriculture, we have not made much headway in terms of economic empowerment despite the democratisation of the economy agenda of the present government. We are totally absent from the commanding heights of the economy… Your opinion?

Again the push has to come from authorities and political decisions. The strong decisions are simply not there or come packaged with a host of conditions that deflect from the spirit behind it. This is what has happened to the recommendations of the TJC. If these recommendations had been put in place and civil society placed in charge of implementation, we would have gone a long way. The TJC has created more frustrated individuals and dashed hopes. It could have been a unique opportunity to democratize Mauritius further, foster reconciliation and achieve greater social justice. Responsibility for implementation was placed in institutions which were themselves partially responsible for the situation of continued legacies of slavery and indenture; sometimes I wonder if this was deliberately placed in those hands in order for implementation not to occur.

I do not see the situation changing in the near future

* As regards cohesion within the community itself, do you think that it is really more fractured than ever before as the different language and provincial groupings would suggest? Or are these inevitable expressions of the diversity that constitutes the community?

I think as Hindus become bourgeoisified, more sanskritised these old differences are brought to the surface again to allow ambitious people in these newly-formed groups to attain political, economic and social positions. But I am not sure that the masses derive any benefit. If they do, it is short-term benefits. It does not help their long-term insertion into the ‘Mauritian’ community. What is worse you now have also colour consciousness: you may have noticed all these cosmetics catering for the ‘Indo-Indian’ obsession for ‘fairness’. These should be banned! We are an ex-slave society where ‘blackness’ was reviled: now we encourage people to buy products to make themselves fair?? How much more sick can our society get?

* As regards the fractures within the community, there may however be political dividends to be drawn from this state of separateness and its maintenance…

The colonial elite knew how to ‘divide and rule’, so did/does the economic elite. Now the political elite is doing it. Keep power among the few. Encourage communalism because only this will keep the economic and political elite in power and they won’t think about their common affinity with the other labouring classes of Mauritius.

The spectre of ‘Hindus losing power’ is brandished on regular occasions: but who said you had power to begin with? It is only a semblance of power as behind the scenes, it is a very different world.

The media has been criticizing the socio-cultural groups but at least they don’t hide who they represent: what of the hypocritical politicians who claim to be defending one ethno-religious group or another but secretly deal with others and give them benefits other common mortals only dream of ?

Do Mauritians, especially the youth, have the intellectual tools and common sense to avoid falling into these traps? I hope so.

* Are there nevertheless reasons to hope for a better future? On what pillars do you think this future should be built and where to find guidance about the direction this future should take?

I think things will get worse before they get better. We need a third force (not just political but intellectual, philosophical, etc) and inspirational and that unfortunately has not manifested itself yet very visibly. Maybe in another generation? with a different mindset and way of doing things because right now, quite frankly, I don’t see anyone with the same calibre as our currently fast-aging politicians taking over. One has to give them their due. While such a generation emerges of young, competent, educated (in the largest sense of the word), articulate, with a sense of history and culture, and above all, strict honesty, Mauritians can ask for several things:

more transparency in accounts, the right to information, the right to our archives and files, encourage participatory democracy, force all politicians and senior civil servants to declare their assets as well as those of the members of their family and posts occupied by their family members as well as all secret societies or other societies they belong too; force the private companies to recruit a more culturally diverse body of employees and more Mauritians in higher posts, etc.

–       It is no use saying that public institutions must recruit more so-called ‘minorities’: let us see the number of applications received from such persons, but also the correlation between occupation, qualifications and ethnicity in the private sector too! There has to be a better balance and fairness in both private and public sector.

–       A better education system that can produce the qualities enumerated above. I am not saying that such persons don’t exist, simply there are not enough, are not given the visibility or posts they deserve, or they are out of the country.

–       I hear current politicians saying that they are not in it for themselves but for the country: well if you believe this, start putting the above in practice when you come to power and then Mauritians shall judge whether this was the case or not.

* To come back to the 180th anniversary of the arrival of indentured immigrants, if a young person were to ask you why should we commemorate this event, what would you say?

All people, young or old, must honour the soil they walk on, because others have laboured the soil before them to give them the liberty they enjoy today. They should never forget that, and what best occasion to remind people of this than the 1st February and 2nd November, even if it is only for a day or two. Meaningful activities surrounding anniversaries can imprint upon a person’s mind forever.

But other groups must not be forgotten and that is why historical research must continue to unearth the history of those who are still forgotten in our history books. Commemorations have become communal despite the efforts of the institutions concerned to counter this.

 

* Published in print edition on 31 Ocotober 2014

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