Interview Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain
“If we carry on with our present generalised blindness things will worsen…
… and the only advice to young people will be to leave”
“We have to acknowledge the power of media to act as a guard dog against the abuse of power, and offer a platform for dissemination of information which would otherwise remain within closed circles”
Our guest today is Mrs Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, academic at the University of Mauritius.
With her sharp eye on the many events that have been marking the country of late, some positive, others less so and if not altogether potentially subversive still definitely very disturbing, she makes insightful comments that help us to understand the occult and overt forces and currents that underlie the multifarious societal phenomena that the country is grappling with. Although she does not end on a pessimistic note, like many right-thinking patriots she points out to areas of critical concern and issues that must be addressed urgently and imperatively if we do not want to stop the march of progress we have undertaken. Read on…
Mauritius Times: Alleged scandals and competition from other emotionally charged and exciting news stories, which seem to be becoming the norm these days, are displacing the Mauritian public’s attention from more important issues and whatever else that may be positive and happening in the local context. Let’s start with the good news: anything positive and inspiring that caught your attention lately and is a matter of intellectual comfort?
Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: Well that’s a tricky question, as one remembers the causes for worry most, maybe because we are worriers by nature. A few of the positive things I can think of in the public field is the recent appointment of a woman at the top management of the University, the recent success of a research team at the Faculty of Science in obtaining international recognition for its research, as well as the recent classification of our country in the top economic index of Africa.
Though I do not know whether the latter is really good news in ideological terms, since it celebrates our success within the capitalistic model which is itself the cause of so much economic imbalance with its well-known dire social consequences. However, I do feel that despite the many problems we have to manage Mauritius still remains the most sophisticated unaided economy in the Indian Ocean and an example of a functioning democracy in our small part of the world.
* But the positive and inspiring seem to be few and far between. What does this say about the state of the nation’s soul? Or is it an incorrect reflection of Mauritian society as portrayed by the media which finds it more profitable to sell sensationalism?
It is true that the media thrives on sensationalism the world over, what is not sensational is not newsworthy. And it is difficult to escape from this ‘model.’ However, we have to acknowledge the power of media to act as a guard dog against the abuse of power, and offer a platform for dissemination of information which would otherwise remain within closed circles. In that sense the media has done an excellent job in uncovering terrible stories and helping to reach a happy solution. I am thinking here of the recent case of the poor Nepalese students conned by a fake university. And there are many more positive cases. Often when institutions seem not to be functioning, the ordinary citizen has recourse to the goodwill of the media to speak for them.
However, what we do notice is that the media for the most part has its own interest to serve, probably related to the interests of those who hold the purse. And because of this they have their own local sense of news hierarchy which is not always objective. It is maybe because of the repeated bias that we see in news hierarchy, which can be read through areas of silence, or when information is minimised or the privileged voices or points of view which are predominantly metonymic of some cultural narratives at the expense of others, that often many feel that the press presents a biased picture of the nation. Because you do not only have responsibility when working in this field, you also have power — the power to make and to unmake, the power to create scandals or to minimise others. Sometimes in protecting unstated interests press silence is a very effective weapon in willingly making invisible that which needs to be protected from public attention. A case in point is the terrible financial embezzlements in the banking sector, the notorious MCB-NPF scandal which has been allowed to fade into oblivion, as well as the minimisation of the recent round of criminal enquiries into MCB top management in a case of dubious transfer of funds.
So, to answer your question, it is a tight rope to walk for the media.
* Whether one agrees or not about the extent of the media’s contribution towards this perception of a depressing state of affairs, such headlines as the CID inquiries and arrests in relation with the importation of limos under the Returning Resident Scheme, the polemics in the tertiary sector surrounding the EIILM’s non-recognition by India’s University Grant Commission – coming hardly after the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius had been made to step down –, the plot of State land distracted from the Trou-aux-Biches public beach and leased away to India’s University Grant Commission… these constitute the stuff emotionally charged media-cum-political cocktails are made up of. What do you think?
Well, this is exactly what I am talking about — the media does not create these scandals. Shady, behind closed doors dealings create untenable situations of power abuse in all sectors. I do not think this is because we are a postcolonial nation still grappling with its multiple legacies, because it seems that all countries big and small have their own share of scandals which explode from time to time. The one who gets conned is the ordinary citizen who is brought up to believe that hard work and meritocracy prevail throughout life, that all are equally imbued with a sense of collective responsibility which they will exercise for the collective good.
But the cases mentioned show that in fact there is one law for the ordinary citizen and there is a secret structure of power at work which involves disrupting the simplicities of the public discourse of collective responsibility. And it does not look as though this is likely to end soon. Power breeds power, be it economic power or political power. There must be a secret code which exists between these two, despite the fact that we know of the real divisions within the country along the economic/political power lines. As long as personal profits are cashed in, the people holding economic and political power can carry on royally.
The only difference is that political power demands accountability, hence is more visible whereas economic power is regulated by its own obscure laws of self-preservation which thrives on silence and invisibility. This is where you see that media is biased towards preserving the interest of one against the other, because of the media’s unwillingness to reveal the source of cash flows behind economic power, either because they do not know or they do not want to. And, as I say, the ordinary citizen is caught in between, being taught a code of ethics which the puppet masters themselves neither believe in nor implement.
* But one should also not forget about the politician’s own contribution towards this seemingly gloomy situation. If you were asked to comment on the content of the speeches and lectures delivered by the leaders on both sides of the political spectrum on different public platforms and in the midst of socio-cultural groupings, or by their nagging brigades during their weekly press conferences, what would you say? An economist would say that none of these contribute to GDP…
There is not much ideology circulating nowadays, be it in Labour or MMM circles. Labour has to cover up for the faults of its members while MMM is ready to jump on any opportunity to try to attack its opponents; there is no constructive opposition. Some are so keen on changing the government, going so far as asking the Prime Minister to step down. But for what, for whom? It does not seem as though the opposition has any clear agenda as to how they will manage government. As it is, they already resort to tactics similar to those they denounce on the other side.
Remember the outrage caused by Choonee speaking at a political meeting in Bhojpuri? Well Alan Ganoo has done a similar thing recently on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi — he thanked the Marathi community for getting him elected over many election ballots. The opposition is asking for a secularisation of political discourse, but they will be the first to practise the uncanny mix of communal politics. What else was Berenger’s recent surprising public statement about L’Amicale? He wanted justice to be done and the prisoners to be released. What was the point of making such a statement? – to ensure the adherence of a communal base important for the MMM.
We should stop expecting that politics, as we understand it, will change this country’s destiny. Whichever government will be in power will be Blanc-Bonnet Bonnet-Blanc, maybe with a slight alteration in the network of friends and immediate beneficiaries who will profit. Any party functioning within this political system will behave exactly in the same way — make hay while the sun shines.
* As far as the polemics in the tertiary sector are concerned, I presume that these must have been quite disheartening for academics like you and for your colleagues generally. We do seem to have a long way to go before we attain the level of institutional and academic excellence which will enable us to fulfil our ambition of being an education hub, don’t we? What exactly should we be doing to achieve this ?
What happened in the case of Professor Rughooputh is very unfortunate. It’s not the first time that interests extraneous to the academic well-being of the University have influenced matters. Professor Konrad Morgan was forced out in the recent past in not exactly the same circumstances but through a similar mix of external manoeuvrings and obscure lobbies. So I will tell you, at the University the feeling is “On en a vu d’autres”.
The University was established initially as a teaching university but with the development of the nation it is clear that we have to move towards becoming a full-fledged research university. However, despite the bright minds it hires, the University with its present structure, heavily skewed on administrative rather than academic interests, is lethargic and unable to provide conditions to reinvigorate research. Research funding is of course a big issue, which it seems many outside academia do not understand, be it bureaucrats, budget directors or Finance ministers. The focus now is on teaching. But at some point somebody will realise that at university level teaching without research soon becomes outdated.
Functioning in a network of academic exchange of ideas through individual or collaborative research, conference attendance and hosting, and specially access to up-to-date research databases are the simple features which could revitalise a mental set-up, which can now only struggle against the dominant conditions, where teaching rather than research is the focus. To become an educational hub does not mean increasing statistical access but rather qualitative access to the networks of knowledge. But as long as we squabble over who will control the University, nothing will change.
* In the meantime, the Ministry of Education is organising its Assises de l’Education next month, to carry out a “review of the CPE” and a “rethinking of the ZEP strategy focusing on reinforcing the good practices and addressing the weaknesses of the system”. What do you expect will come out of this exercise?
I suppose the desired aim is once again to reform the structure of primary schooling and examining system. The inability of successive governments to tackle the CPE question is indicative of the mistaken focus on the technicalities of the examining process. Unfortunately, I believe many are cynical as to the real outcomes of such workshops. But maybe they have to take place as there are many mutually contradictory vested interests in continuing or changing the system that have to be expressed. These Assisses would probably have a therapeutic function. If they come up with concrete proposals then all well and good. However, my question is about the educational advisors who have been working full time on such issues. What concrete proposals can they make as to the educational vision which they aim to bring about?
Universal literacy is one thing. Knowledge and skills acquisition is another important issue. But we are also dealing with a system which aims to be egalitarian. But education has never been a level playing field. Democratisation of access to education brings in its wake an inevitable levelling down, but it would be wrong to do so at the expense of those who can perform in the system. Education has been a revolutionary force in this country. It has helped bring about dramatic social changes. But the general feeling is that the nature of change is not dramatic enough, at least not in the direction expected. If we replace our short focal lenses of ethnicity with parallel lenses where class is the dominant definition, we will realise that education works extremely well for the capitalist class — it provides them with a secure reproductive structure where access to the best teaching methods promises a future which secures the transmission of privilege.
The education of the middle classes is the most visible subject of discussion generally and this is where most of the recriminations lie. However, it is to be realised that the middle class is in a precarious position of acting as the buffer zone between the haves and the have-nots. This is the target of most recriminations for those who wish to promote a better education system for the have-nots. Teaching methods certainly have to change, curriculum focus should be altered. However, we cannot limit ourselves to these only. We also should focus on the cultural narratives which constitute the background of any educational system and the interaction of individual children with the model proposed. Because the educational system as we know it is a product of colonialism, it proposes an educational model which mainstreams and marginalises identities, not always in the directions which are most voluble.
This is a big debate for which we would need more time. However, we need to discuss this in order to address teacher and parent orientation and their contribution to the success of the system. For without them no amount of curriculum revision will bring any change.
* As for the two other issues I had raised earlier: the alleged fraud cases in relation to the importation of limos (an editorial in a weekly referred to it in terms of “blanchiment du crime”), and the Trou-aux-Biches state land leased to the priest – to make good on the electoral promise of the present ruling alliance in favour of the democratisation of the economy. What’s your take on these?
Well, let the judiciary function. This is where the press should muster its investigative powers and investigate into all similar cases of misappropriation of public lands in the last two decades or so, as well as the ongoing cases of tax evasions practised by big earners. I am sure that is only the tip of the iceberg. Iframac recently signified their satisfaction that the market for luxury cars had gone up by 40%!!! How can these figures be? We are supposed to be in times of economic crisis. We always hear alarmist bells from public and private sector on this. And yet it is clear that some have been benefiting from the system in inordinate ways. The rich have been getting richer. And we are talking of democratisation of the economy here!
By virtue of its inherent flaws the capitalist system within which we function is bound to increase wealth where it already exists and increase the wage gap between the top and lower levels of society. Capitalism does not merely create wealth, it creates poverty massively, by exploiting the poor, the ordinary citizen through an apparent legal structure whose inner workings remain abstruse to but a few initiates. So, talk about the democratisation of the economy is obviously an attempt to change the balance of economic power. But this is a far away dream which has no chance of succeeding within the present structure. For behind this one case of publicly visible nepotism are many invisible benefits granted to historical capital to ensure the continued functioning of the capitalist machinery so as to maintain our country within the international system of exchange.
* There is also the question of crime and violence, a recurrent issue in our society, which again seems to be undermining the postcard image of the country and of its people. Most people would today generally agree that violence in different forms and which is targeted against the young and the elderly, at home or on the roads is becoming a serious cause for concern – whatever statistics may suggest. Do you share this feeling?
This is the perfect follow-up to what I’ve said before. Because one of the factors which is often ignored in understanding the causes of violence is the reality of the systemic violence of the social structures we are embedded in. This systemic violence is the direct consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic and political system. We can personalise the issue and give specific cases where robbery, assault and murder have been caused by the unhealthy and ostentatious exposure of wealth in the tourist industry to workers who are themselves from backgrounds of poverty and deprivation. But everyone will have their own examples to illustrate this systemic violence.
The personal helplessness which is created by the system often leaves no place for moral ethics. For the helplessness is translated often into the desire to regain control through enacting forms of power and control over those who are vulnerable by the already vulnerable. This subjective violence is often the product of systemic violence. We are used to consider subjective violence from the standpoint of non-violent zero level. But that non-violent zero level does not exist, only in our voluntarily skewed perceptions — for the objective violence of systems of exploitation embed us.
This is not to remove responsibility for action from the individual. But it is clear that all religious and moralising discourses on violence are ineffective. That could be because there is never any questioning of the symbolic violence which exists in our worldview as mediated by language, which promotes a certain universe of meaning bent on reproducing social domination at gendered, race and class levels, reproduced in our habitual speech forms.
The taking for granted of the invisible violence of language creates a psychology of latent violence in individuals which make them impervious to the concrete manifestation of violence. I don’t know where this insight will lead, how it can help change the way we approach the problem. But it is clear to me that the direction of our enquiry must change because rather than improving, as you point out, the statistics are getting more and more alarming.
* All told, are you optimistic about the future of the country?
I am in two minds about this country’s future. If we carry on with our present generalised blindness things will worsen and the only advice to young people will be to leave. However, we do have enough goodwill, there are enough people who wish to make things better for future generations. Let us hope they succeed.
* Published in print edition on 27 September 2013