Interview: Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain
“Mauritius functions as a two-speed nation…
And there is a lot still to do to change the mindset on both sides”
* “It has suddenly become politically correct to exonerate the financial and social elite from blame in appropriation of resources, and transfer the ire elsewhere…”
* “Anyone can accuse State institutions of discrimination and get their photos published in the press for it, forever churning the ethnic card” Mauritius will celebrate the 44th anniversary of its accession to an independent status within the next 10 days. We have no doubt travelled a long distance since 1968, but independent Mauritius has also missed out on a number of opportunities. Mauritius Times talked to Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, University of Mauritius academic, about the missed opportunities, the development of a genuine nationalist sentiment in the country, the strong vindications of ethnic identity over the late twenty years – and also about the Best Loser system, education… Read on:Mauritius Times: Mauritius is celebrating the 44th anniversary of its accession to an independent status within the next 10 days. Looks like it’s another welcome Monday-public holiday that offers the perfect opportunity to a vast majority of the people to unwind during a three-day weekend. But doesn’t this also indicate that the fervour about this celebration got lost along the way, or is it in the normal scheme of things that this should be so?
Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: Indeed, Independence Day has come to mean a public holiday for most people. Maybe only at the level of primary schools does the meaning of this day still remain very crucial in helping to foster a sense of belonging in young children’s minds and the way they construct themselves as citizens of the nation. Given that the country has achieved a relative degree of prosperity in the last 44 years, against all the prophets of doom who predicted that it would sink into poverty at the time independence was granted, it is inevitable that the ralliement to the cause of nationhood should have subsided. You will note that people have less of a sense of urgency now. But if you talk to people who have known those pre-independence years and the associated precariousness and uncertainty, they still remember the conditions which led to the desire for independence, specially the febrile political climate of the time, where causes were defined. Now that the enemy is less clearly defined, the internal fragmentation has revealed other sources of friction, which disrupt the idealization of national belonging from the inside.
* There have been a number of articles in the local press lately that clearly sought to ‘demystify’ the Independence struggle: it was in the pipeline; it was offered on a platter, it was good riddance for the British anyway. The long struggle waged since the early 1900s to bring down the unjust, blatantly discriminatory old regime that prevailed and which culminated with Independence is conveniently ignored. How do you react to this?
Well yes, there seems to exist a trend towards political revisionism in this respect. Luckily historical memory survives in the form of written testimonies as well as oral narratives about how those early years of the twentieth century were fraught with suffering for the people. And also about the difficulties of persuading the colonial powers of our capacity to self-govern. That talks nearly collapsed at the constitutional conference because of conflicts between various factions at the time of negotiations in London, that the ideology of colonial powers did not yet permit the progressive mindset which fosters equality and that to them representatives of third world nations were dependent on their whim, which explains a lot of the concessions which our political representatives were forced to agree to.
But Mauritius is a special case really with a unique scenario. Between 1810 and 1968, the implementation of a British colonial government which made a pact with the existing local Franco-Mauritian elite, created a curious situation where the official colonial power had little influence within the nation. It was the local elite — which had been there since the early days of French settlement up to now — that determined the structure of social organization from the top of the pyramid, defining language, belonging and access to land resources, almost as though they were exonerated from the blame of exploitation of land and people through this providential phantom enemy. So when we talk of colonial powers it never really reflects the real inequalities on the ground, for the local elite also put themselves in the anti-colonial bracket.
To this day the nation has still been unable to address the paradoxical situation of a local elite who defines themselves as an independent world within the nation itself, sticking to unabated privileges. In fact it is clear that Mauritius functions as a two-speed nation. And there is a lot still to do to change the mindset on both sides. Whether we will ever succeed is a moot question for it has suddenly become politically correct to exonerate this financial and social elite from blame in appropriation of resources, and transfer the ire elsewhere.
The conditions of dire exploitation of the people which were rife since the first days of settlement to the early decades of the twentieth century – in the form of discriminatory laws, prejudices about language and dress, difficulty of access to education, conditions of habitation – might have materially disappeared through the implementation of more democratic legislation over the decades. But it persists in the form of implicit understanding of pyramidal social privileges, and the kind of revisionist mindset you are talking about. This kind of amnesia amounts to social control which takes place through dominant public discourses associated with major institutions and the way it has conditioned our understanding of what is mainstream and non-mainstream at the level of language, dress, codes of greeting, etc., all of which affect deeper realities of access to resources. It is indeed very surprising that very few people talk of the hate campaigns of the 1950s, which took place through the press, forcing some to emigrate massively towards Australia and South Africa for fear that the land would fall to the barbarians.
* Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss, according to Scott Fitzgerald. We have travelled a long distance since 1968, but independent Mauritius has however also missed out on a number of opportunities. What are the ones that come to your mind?
Well if there is one major failure in our post-independence history, it is certainly the failure to address the internal colonial ideology which I have just spoken about, which is daily being reinforced through modes of social control and valorization of some public discourses while the real exploitative situation remains hidden from public awareness, though visible to discerning minds.
* Would you also say that we have missed out on the development of a genuine nationalist sentiment and ideology?
In the first place, let it be clearly stated that the notion of nationalism is relatively new in world history; it dates from the late eighteenth/ nineteenth century. The construction of the idea of the nation took place through what Benedict Anderson calls Imagined Communities, which he associates with the advent of printing. Anderson further argues that to collectively imagine the nation in the European context was itself a challenge, because the particular realities of local subcultures always exist as centrifugal challenges to the relatively novel idea of collective belonging. In the process primordial networks always challenge the new civic nationalism of post-nineteenth century society.
Now in a country like ours has undergone a complex process of settlement and where various groups of people have entered at differing points on the social scale, creating an internalization of notions of belonging, which differs for various groups. Add to this the problem of reaffirmation of primordial ideologies constantly being reinforced through new networks of rediscovered cultural belonging, whether from France. Africa, the Middle East, India and China. And the fact that the juxtaposition of the ideology of cultural belonging along the five axes outlined above determine the constructions of the individual’s identity in the first ten years of life in the midst of the family.
We have indeed a difficult situation where the nationalist ideology (itself considered problematic, as it is constantly being fostered by right wing groups like Front National in France, Skin Heads across Europe and conservative parties) comes into conflict with these primordial realities. As more and more of these transnational discourses of cultural belonging become reinforced through new modes of communication, the idea of the nation will come under greater challenge. But it will never disappear and will continue to exist in dynamic relationship with the primordial realities. What we have to emphasize is civic belonging rather than nationalism — that is, the responsibility of the citizen towards the country and its institutions.
* Do you think that the press – written and spoken –, the religious bodies, the University have played their role in fostering this sentiment of nationhood?
They could certainly have done a better job. Let me remind you that when the University was first established it was set up as an Agricultural College which was gradually turned into a tertiary institution offering the range of courses it does nowadays. At the time it was important to offer training in practical subjects. The Faculty of Social Studies and Humanities is a relatively new creation. It came into being in the early 1990s. In terms of interaction with the grand narratives of nationalism, this was already too late, for the 1990s was the decade during which we witnessed the great anti-globalisation backlash which resulted in the rediscovery of primordial ethnicities with a vengeance. Since then I believe there has been academic engagement with the complexity of the nationalist-ethnic debate.
As far as the press is concerned, the role of some titles still remains confusedly colonial, promoting status quo and playing with coverage in such a way as to control public perceptions, but certainly History tells us that in the debates leading up to Independence it was through the press that the nationalist sentiment was fostered through the grand editorialists of the time and their radical positions. As far as religious bodies are concerned, although there are occasional attempts at public posturing – which seem to privilege national interest, it is inevitable, given that religion and culture are intimately linked, that the parallel discourses of belonging within the multicultural framework which is our reality, will always function in opposition to any neutral idea of nationhood.
* If we go by all the debates regarding the recent calls for the abolition of the Best Loser system, it would appear that generating nationhood in a multicultural, multiethnic context is clearly a difficult proposition – although some would argue that plural Mauritius has by and large already done so. What’s your take on this issue?
Yes, certainly nationhood is not a given. But, as I said earlier, we should not realistically aspire to an either-or situation but accept that nationhood will have to coexist with reinforced transnational cultural realities. Human identity cannot be limited to one sole facet and the successful harmonization of the multiple aspects of belonging should be our priority. We know that access to resources is far from being egalitarian in our country, but nevertheless a strong promotion of civic nationalism should always coexist side by side with these other realities, stressing the responsibility of the citizen towards the institutions. But it is also important that this is not a one way process — institutions have also to evolve and adapt to the new realities, and we are already doing that at the level of education, legislation, the press, etc…
* One can understand the comfort that is derived from constitutional guarantees – like, for example, those sought for the maintenance of the Best Loser system. But aren’t we in Mauritius gradually giving in to all manner of minority demands like reserved seats in confessional schools or best loser seats in Parliament even when these clearly perpetuate either a form of discrimination in the school or a communal bent in our political system?
Both of the examples you mention are very pertinent. The Best Loser system was established in late 1960s to ensure political representation of numerical minority groups within parliament in our First Past The Post system. If we thought that the need for such guarantees had disappeared with the increased prosperity which has been our lot during these incredible 44 years, then recent shrill demands for maintenance of the Best Loser system from various factions show indeed that the primordial interest is still dominant.
As far as the issue of 50% reserved seats in confessional schools is concerned, this was the unhappy product of a misunderstanding in basic notions of pedagogy where primordial readings rather than rationality came into play. At the time the incredible argument was that if Oriental Languages were counted for CPE it would mean that students taking a fifth subject would be undeservedly advantaged over their brethrens who could not be assessed on an Oriental Language. That is why the brokers came to the agreement that maintaining Oriental Languages at CPE would be counterbalanced by the 50% reserved seats in confessional schools. That honestly is one of the stupidest arguments ever.
Pedagogically speaking an additional examinable subject is a burden on the child, and rather than being an advantage the risk is that it might affect their performance in other subjects adversely. It is there that pedagogues should have come forward to explain and deconstruct the clumsy logic which gave rise to this agreement. But no one did. Everyone cowered where they were waiting for the storm to pass because it was clear that this issue transcended the school and syllabus and echoed through the corridors of ethnicity. Yes, this was a huge concession to ethnic primordial demands, which has created a frustratingly unfair situation, guaranteed by the State.
* Irrespective of the BLS, do you think that those who call themselves minorities have been left behind altogether in different sectors, for example education and business?
Definitely not! Although there are regular attempts at gaining political capital as well as garnering media interest on the part of some individuals who play on the idea of disempowerment, for instance of Creoles, the truth of the matter is that a strong Creole middle class exists in this country. One only has to look at the private sector employees and their lifestyles, educational and business prospects to realize this. Poverty is a trans-ethnic reality, it does not limit itself to any group but the strong vindications of ethnic identity over the late twenty years or so have created a situation where anyone can accuse State institutions of discrimination and get their photos published in the press for it, forever churning the ethnic card.
* Perhaps Sir Kher Jagatsingh was right after all when he said this is a country peopled by minorities only. Minorityism as a political tool and ideology as canvassed by political alchemists and vested interests will therefore continue to hold sway especially when you have weak governments in place. What do you think?
I will not call it a weak government but one that is hostage to the sway of minority demands. And honestly any government that comes to power will have to play the same game given that we are in such a situation of fractured, conflictual Imagined Communities of belonging. Despite postures of nationalism in the opposition, when these parties came to power they knew that realpolitik demands playing with the demands of ethnic lobbies. Honestly, sometimes it is sickening. Maybe yes, some day we will have a leader who will be able to transcend realpolitik and say ‘nay nay’ to all ethnic demands. Mais ce n’est pas demain la veille.
* Going by the daily chatter amongst many in the intellectual class, there is a feeling that the country seems to have gone into standstill mode. While the Prime Minister has been busy negotiating in India and discussing about Somalia and its pirates in London, many of the country’s flagships – Air Mauritius, the University of Mauritius, etc., — seem to have fallen in the meantime into an uncomfortable posture. There is also the ongoing water shortage problem. What do all these indicate about public governance in Mauritius today?
Apart from the rim countries, which have their own imbrications in international politics there is no other country – apart from Mauritius – in the Indian Ocean that could have undertaken the responsibility of the Somalia pirates. Reunion is not neutral ground, given that it belongs to France and is under French legislation. All are ready to recognize that Mauritius is the most prosperous of the autonomous Indian Ocean islands. This will give us further international visibility as well as help improve the relevant institutions.
Air Mauritius has been a long ongoing saga. It is true that there are many institutions which have been without CEOs for a long time. The University has recently been added to the list. But I am sure it is business as usual everywhere. However, as far as grand policy directions are concerned, there is not much that can be addressed without CEOs at the head of these institutions. But the institutions you mention all have their own internal problems to deal with and even the nomination of new bright minds will not solve all the problems, which have festered for decades.
As far as the water crisis is concerned – now this is an unbelievable situation. We have been speaking about the risks of the drying up of Mare aux Vacoas for the last 12 years. And no government has deemed fit to get out of its hibernation for all of these years and tackle the issue! There is the need to replace water pipes, to address loss of water, but it seems that other darker realities also exist — deforestation, take-over of the buffer zone to create a leisure park, increased usage of water through the setting up of new hotels, businesses, and residential properties, as well as a proliferation of shopping centres which need daily massive cleaning ‘à grande eau’ while domestic consumption suffers.
The network of water distribution has not kept up with the massive urbanisation, which we have experienced over the last decade. And the worse is that permits are still being granted for new hotels, IRS villas, luxury marinas and other shopping centres. This means that the real use of water has more than doubled. This, in addition to deforestation, is what is creating the real problem. Decision makers will have to soon decide about the implications of granting more and more construction permits. The country has long passed the line of saturation. Who will dare strike! The thing is that we cannot wait for too long — matters are getting critical. This is where we would need strong leadership.
* As an educationist, would you say that the existing model of tertiary education is still adequate for the country’s future needs in terms of our human resource requirements and strategic orientation or do we need another model?
Tertiary education in Mauritius is only a few decades old. When it started, the UOM was an agricultural college. At the time it responded to the needs of the country to train young people for the demands of the job market. But that job market has not only expanded, it has also become more and more complex. We have to ask ourselves what is the ultimate end of education – is it merely to train graduates to join existing services or to inculcate a sense of excellence which would help them transform the face of the institutions they join? Are we teaching graduates to remain followers or do we want them to become leaders in their fields, capable of shrew decision-making and innovative thinking?
It is true that we tend to think structurally, supplying technicians to the job market. But we do not need merely technicians. The tertiary sector has to imperatively train critical minds who will be able to engage with the new challenges facing them at all turns. I am not sure that we have succeeded in the latter. We are still too fixed on end-oriented teaching rather than the process-oriented approach which is the only survival kit for the future. This applies throughout the education sector but at tertiary level it is more dramatic as we are forming future professionals and training young adults entering the workforce. If we do not train them at the tertiary level it is too late when they join the job sector.
* How do you react to the government project to have a third university set up in Montagne Blanche?
Well, it is a double axed subject. On the one hand the two Universities we have are stretched beyond capacity as far as space and teaching resources are concerned. There is certainly a need to expand the possibility of access. But opening a new University is not a meagre affair. It is truly unfortunate that rather than help reinforce the existing institutions which face all sorts of challenges and are constantly burdened by inadequate financial resources, which limit research, with an impact on quality of teaching, the investment is going towards building a new institution which will probably take many years, maybe decades before it begins to function properly.
* With graduates from the UOM not finding jobs in their fields, and a surplus of doctors knocking at the government’s doors, as an experienced educationist what is your opinion about having ‘a graduate in every family’?
That is Utopic! Strategically impossible and even undesirable. As it is there is already a lot of seething dissatisfaction and anger. There are many unemployed and frustrated young graduates. We have a small job market, which already cannot cope with the yearly influx of graduates. In addition if you bear in mind that there are various forms of intelligence, which cannot be measured solely in terms of abstract intellectual thinking. Practical intelligence is also very important. We need to train people in all categories, that is where vocational education is crucial. However, the populist statement of one graduate per family will only work if tertiary institutions are equipped to offer quality services and there is a well-planned job market strategy to absorb all the new graduates. We have neither of those for the time being. We have to beware of the backlash – we will be creating a whole population of angry dissatisfied youngsters with the dire consequences that this implies.