“Beyond the emotional narrative of transnational belongingthe reality of state power is the same the world over”

Interview: Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain

Diaspora, Youth and Languages — we might be well advised to focus on this triadic relationship in the near future”


In view of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event that is taking place this weekend, we have thought it appropriate to consider some of the issues relating to ‘Shared Roots, Common Destiny’ which is the theme announced. There are matters of local and diasporic identity, which are interrelated in complex ways, bearing the imprint of colonial history and dominance, as well as the porous and interpenetrable boundaries between different socio-ethnic and racial groups that make up the nation – and contribute to the identities. The landscape of the future looks at times scary, at times confusing – but at all times challenging. To give us some insights into some of these challenges and their historical evolution in our local context, we have requested Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, University of Mauritius academic, to share her views with our readers.

Mauritius Times: “Shared roots, common destiny” – that’s the broad theme of the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to be held in Mauritius today and during the weekend. The first element of this broad theme is quite obvious, but what about the destiny element? Is there indeed a common destiny for the Pravasi Bharatiya?

Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: Well, the very existence of the conference speaks of a belief in a common destiny, though in pragmatic terms the new version of the common destiny speaks the language of trade and finance in the new global reality of the Financescapes (dixit: Arjun Appadurai), it is undeniable that the ‘shared roots’ exists at the level of memory, oral tradition and the cultural imagination of Indianness. That cultural tradition has itself known many transformations over the decades, from a fixed, idealised projection of an India which remains unchanged in the imagination – and is therefore to be recuperated through the rediscovery of culture through dance, music, language, religious celebrations, to the renewed understanding that India has a lot to offer in addition to all the above.

As in all diasporic realities the land of origin remains a point of reference, even though the ground reality changes at the level of both the host and the home countries. I will refer you here to the diasporic nostalgia which structures the commonality of Jewish diasporic identity, even though in many cases the settlement of Jewish families and their entry into the world of international finance and global power have been ongoing for many generations now. Embracing transnational cultural identification cannot be stopped by either the pragmatism of state legislation or the tyranny of political correctness. It is there at the level of a broad imaginative understanding, as well as the unchanging emotional mythology of place and space which is transmitted through inherited cultural narratives – and here I mean not only in terms of oral narratives but also in terms of the mythopoeic transformation of land, heath and home through these inherited frames of reference.

* I believe you have made the point earlier that “the discourse surrounding Indo-Mauritian identity with its focus on the diasporic connection is presented as antithetical to the construction of a national identity”. Does that focus on the diasporic connection really run counter to the construction of a national identity, or can it instead contribute to strengthening that national identity?

Well, in the early phases of the discussion around Mauritian national identity, way back in the 1930s, it is a fact that Mauritian identity was envisaged along the terms of a French-speaking, homogeneous Catholic nation where all differences would be gradually obliterated by a natural process of dilution in confrontation with the dominant narrative of the ruling colonial elite. The discussions around national identity around the time of independence absorbed the legacy of these ideas when the Indian component of the population was constructed as an ‘Other’, in the years leading up to Independence.

The campaigns against Independence were ugly and aimed at a clear schism between two perceptions of the nation. One would be perceived as unmarked, dominant and the other as marked, other, peripheral to the new nation state coming into being. It is within this panorama that the diasporic connection was perceived as antithetical to this version of the nation. However, the anti-Independence campaigns had the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the emotional allegiance to the idea of transnational diasporic belonging. In the early twenty-first century, when all nations the world over are rethinking the notion of a homogeneous narrative of national identity, we in Mauritius who, on the contrary, have inherited a narrative forged in multiciplicity, are yearning towards a diluted cultural homogenisation, devoid of apparent cultural markedness. Is that not ironical? When multiculturalism is entrenched in the contemporary understanding of the nation, we want to renege our own legacy of multiculturalism.

* In any case what is, or how do we define, ‘national identity’?

National identity is a very problematic and constantly changing concept. In popular terms it means simply love for the nation, and this patriotism has certainly been overlaid with the power of popular culture. However, in scholarly terms we know that there are different ways of understanding national identity. On the one hand national identity can be ‘Ethnic Primordialism’, of the kind being promoted by Right-wing groups everywhere in the world, which excludes the right to difference and refers back to icons of racial exclusivism, for instance groups like Ku Klux Clan, Front National, etc… On the other hand we have the modernist understanding of the nation as evolving from the advent of the modern structures of the common regional interest. The latter is of relatively recent development — it is only a few centuries old. Benedict Anderson terms it Civic Nationalism, which comes into being through the projection of a unified national imaginary and determines the shape of the nation at the level of the collective national imaginary first.

* The term “Indo-Mauritian” was, many decades ago, commonly used to refer to all persons of Indian descent irrespective of religious or linguistic differences. Its political dimension scared some people who have worked hard on reducing it to insignificance. The result today is that the term Indo-Mauritian is almost extinct. It’s argued that the Indo-Mauritians equally face extinction as a community unless they work towards preserving their common historical, cultural and political affinities. An uphill task, isn’t it?

Yes, there has been over the decades a fragmentation of the common denomination. First, through the schism between the Hindu and Muslim groups, which followed in the wake of differing allegiances around the time of the Indian partition; then, the North- South divide within Hindu identity, which to this day surprises many visitors to the country. It is indeed surprising that for subgroups which have so much overlap in cultural references, there is a strong sense of internal differentiation. There have been many attempts to further fragment the tenuous cohesion around class/caste lines. However, all these in fact proceed from self-referential political logic – where added fragmentation impounds the statistical equation which dominates our electoral system, with a view to changing the balance of political power. I suppose that these processes of contestation of political legitimacy are inevitable in a democracy, but at least everyone has the right to contest the perceived majority dominance within politics, whereas in many countries the possibilities of protest and contestation have disappeared or they were never there.

I don’t think that the term Indo-Mauritian is extinct, but I do concede that because the Indo-Mauritian is often the target of political and cultural contestation within this multicultural democracy, there has been established an understanding of cultural neutrality where it is delicate to project yourself publicly as Indo-Mauritian – because that entails the danger of being labelled as ‘communautariste’. I will point out to you the ease with which individuals from other communities can affirm themselves publicly as Chinese, Muslims or Creoles. I even recall this prominent Franco-Mauritian figure who used to sign his papers in the press as ‘Francais et Mauricien’. It is far less easy for the Indo-Mauritian to publicly proclaim himself as ‘Indien et Mauricien’. However, if we leave the censored public sphere for a while, we will see that within the codes of the private sphere, the practice or embracement of Indian identity is still vibrant, through language, dress, religious practice, but also popular culture referents, where Indianness is associated with designer chic at many levels. There is certainly no fear of extinction here but a reinvented, rejuvenated Indianness, which is here to stay.

* It’s also said that India is quite comfortable with whichever political configuration is in place here or elsewhere in the wider Diaspora, as her interests transcend the sentimental ties associated with shared roots/shared belonging. What this means is that the Indo-Mauritian, for instance, will have to wage his own battle. Rightly so?

I believe sometimes Indian nationals are themselves surprised by the emotional ties which the diaspora seems to have with the home country. And this has been rightly exploited by the Indian government by formalising the informal networks of exchange through the Pravasi Bharatya Divas conferences which are running into their first decade of existence now. However, India has to deal with its own geopolitical reality- and that covers issues of control over the Indian Ocean, against the presence of the so-called international superpowers, as well as the realities of International Trade. I believe India knows it has to compete with China as both countries are keen to use Mauritius as a point of entry into Africa. In this configuration, the small country that we are benefits from the contending geopolitical ambitions. But we have also shown that we are up to the game as a country — despite all the internal rivalries this country works as a democracy, and it is probably the most sophisticated political and economic presence in the Indian Ocean. So yes, I guess India would be ready to do business with whichever political configuration Mauritius offers. And honestly any government which comes to power will have to abide by the same type of geopolitical diplomacy.

* Many of the past and present generations of the Indian diaspora are attached to India because they were brought up in the tradition of India. With the digital age, the new generation may not be interested in reading about the myths and legends of Indian culture. Do you think that there will come a time when there will be a definitive break of the diaspora from the cultural anchor?

You are talking of the best and the worse possible scenario, depending on which side of the border you situate yourself in Mauritian society. But how can there ever be a schism in the emotional perception of diasporic belonging? I remember this Indian professor in Australia who made it a point to finish his guest lecture on Race and Culture on the way Andrew Lloyd Webber has reinvented his own musical creativity through the input of AR Rahman in the musical Bollywood Dreams. There is so much exchange taking place at all levels where India and Indian culture is a major player, be it in fashion, music, art (the foremost British artist now is Anish Kapoor), in cinema, not to speak of the Silicon Valley Indian experts and the great class of professionals who occupy key positions from Wall Street to Fleet Street, as well as the heath and scientific sectors. One of the great surprises of American politics is to find somebody like Bobby Jindal within the ranks of the Republican Party. But what this shows is that there is enough confidence in Indianness to enable Indians not to conform to the official narrative of the diasporic expatriate. So I don’t think the disaffection with Indianness is a reality. But what has happened certainly is a transformation in the understanding of Indianness, more in tune with the reality of the digital age you refer to, in the era of fast connectivity and transnational information flow. It is clear that the codes have changed. One can be culturally Indian while not having to refer back exclusively to ancestral codes of mythological references and the kind of fixed, fetichised image of diasporic belonging which the early defensive phases of diasporic self-affirmation put in place.

* Officially, Mauritius and India have always claimed to have “special ties” with each other, and this is interpreted to mean that India and Mauritius will support each other no matter what. Yet, the Indian media in general and, lately, politicians have not missed an opportunity to cast hard negative opinions about Mauritius. Why do you think that is so?

As I said earlier the diasporic nostalgia plays one way, not two ways. India has its own fish to fry and frankly beyond the emotional narrative of transnational belonging the reality of state power is the same the world over. Mauritius has so far exploited these diasporic ties but also played its own games in relation to international politics. I guess our local strategy is based upon becoming visible despite our small size no matter what this may take. And we all know that the ambition to position oneself as a financial hub has its perks as well as its problems, the state of international finance being itself so riven with dark corridors, skewed lines and shady dealings which are legitimised through a two-faced public system. Maybe therein lies the rub – in that if Cinderella wants to be treated as an adult, well she had better be ready to face the consequences!

* Does the youth have any role to play in sustaining the diaspora? Is language of any importance in this process?

I think the youth do have a role to play in the diaspora – but I don’t think they should be tied down to an ancestral perception of diasporic identity. Frankly the codes of the world are fast changing and who knows what new transmogrified reality our future generations will have to face? I don’t think young people particularly want to be reminded of the codes of community belonging forged during decades of social tension and mutual distrust. However, it is obvious that the cultural narrative is not linear. The project of gradual cultural dilution will never happen because the pattern of reality is circular.

In the articulation of our contemporary identities at both individual and collective level, we are all responding to immediate contexts and targeted narratives, and it will be no less complicated for the young people. They want to be introduced to the world through dynamic narratives – they are living in the digital age and frankly if we miss the boat and fail to take that on board, we will have no one but ourselves to blame.

You refer to the issue of language — in the local context we all know that due to the uneven condition of settlement there has been established an informal hierarchy of language, which formally disempowers non-European languages at affective level within the school curriculum. But have you noticed as soon as young people are out of school they become very knowledgeable in Hindi. They might have dis-identified with it at school but they do have a passive knowledge of the language through the family circle, through the codes of socialisation, codes of cultural performativity and implicit linguistic knowledge. They hear things all around them all the time. Now the question is, why does the school curriculum produce such a disaffection with the learning of languages?

It might be good to remind ourselves here of the means through which “Oriental Languages” entered the school curriculum. It was through the aegis of British colonial policy that educators from India were brought to Mauritius to teach Hinduism and Hindi in schools, whereas such teaching was totally absent from the educational system up to then. Therefore when introduced, Hindi was already marginalised in the educational system. The political and cultural reality might have changed but the appellation has remained the same as more and more Oriental languages have been introduced in the school syllabus within the same space of ‘Othering.’ This helps to create unconsciously an understanding of the marked and the unmarked language, where the marked language is spoken by only few where the unmarked language is spoken by all. It goes back to the culturally tendentious imaginative dimensions of the initial project of the nation state I spoke about earlier, dating back to the 1930s.

However, the appellation remains, with its social connotations. This could explain some of the defensive attitude of teachers of Oriental language as well as the apparently unchanging curriculum and pedagogical methods. Oriental languages are still taught within an imaginative context of defensiveness. That translates as archaic teaching methods where the focus is on learning by heart, repetition, a strict disciplinarian teacher-student relationship, as well as outdated teaching materials which fail to take into account the changing cultural imagination of Indianness. Indianness is still presented in these textbooks as tied to the home and hearth, where Mira sweeps the floor, Ma cooks the food while Pa reads the newspapers and Raju goes out to play with his friends. Can you see where the problem lies? What is a reality of gendered social conservatism, which all societies have had to deal with, is here presented as the cornerstone of Indian identity. Where is the narrative of newness?

Yes people pray, eat, clean the home and pay respect to elders. But do they not do more than this? Could the textbooks not reflect that renewed reality? Be closer to the way people live and imagine their world? There lies the real reason for the disaffection towards Indian languages. For languages are not merely structural realities — they have to exist at the imaginative level, they have to open the way to articulation as well as to a world of possibilities and larger narratives of identification. It seems to me this is where things have stalled.

Beyond the defensive posture our formal practice of language teaching has remained unchanged, therefore leading young people to turn towards other languages. Given that French cultural policy is very aggressive in our country, it is not surprising where youth attention goes — and we cannot expect others to be less aggressive while we remain passive. However, on a final note it has to be said here that all languages are permeable. English for instance has been very permeable to other cultural influences, so has French to some extent. Diaspora, Youth and Languages, we might be well advised to focus on this triadic relationship in the near future.

* Published in print edition on 27 October 2012

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