Interview: Sada Reddi, Historian
* ‘Citizens should continue to air their grievances through protests, and the culture of street protest must become well established in our society’
* ‘The middle class cannot just wait for others to fight their battles, hold protests and wait to reap the benefits’
Sada Reddi, historian, shares his insights in today’s issue on the factors and forces that have coloured the political evolution of the country since the time of indenture and slavery. For him, throughout the changing landscape what remains an issue of constant concern is the economic situation and welfare of the people. Politicians in his view are failing the people and he sees coming a potential social explosion given the contraction of the economy in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the consequent loss of livelihoods across all sectors, the impact of which will impact most severely those with little or no savings. He sees street protest as a legitimate form of forcing government to act in a democracy when it is not meeting the people’s expectations especially in moments of crisis such as we are going through.
Mauritius Times: More than 185 years have elapsed since Indian indentured immigrants came to these shores, and even longer it has been for slaves from Africa. The present times are a completely different world from what it was then with different aspirations and challenges in a totally dissimilar socio-political and economic context. How do you see their descendants coping in this new – and rapidly changing – environment?
Sada Reddi: It is true that the world has changed and will keep on changing. The perennial issue in a changing world remains the economic situation and the welfare of the people. This is a constant. The government’s mishandling of the economic situation since 2014, and now with the advent of covid-19, has only worsened matters to such an extent that it appears incapable of developing at the very least even a short-term strategy. It is proceeding by trial and error, and that is only worsening the situation.
As for the population, it is being left on its own to cope. Apart from the large financial assistance wrongly given out, in my view, to some large employers, and the Wage Assistance Scheme which has benefited a category of employees, the unemployment situation is deteriorating fast, and the savings of our citizens have depreciated more than 30% since 2014.
All of this has a differential impact on various segments of the population. Some will manage to survive thanks to their savings; others without any savings or financial support are heading for an uncertain future. Family tragedies and domestic violence have as background economic problems. I have apprehensions for the future, especially for 2021 when we are going to feel the full brunt of the economic depression unless appropriate measures are taken. Time will tell if we’ll be able to avoid a social explosion next year.
* Mahatma Gandhi’s tools for their emancipation – investment in education and politics – which he tendered as an advice to the Indian immigrants at the reception given in his honour at Taher Bagh in Port Louis have served successive generations of their descendants well. Are these tools still valid today or do we need a new set?
Mahatma Gandhi of 1900 is not the same as the Gandhi in the 1920s and thereafter. In 1900, Gandhi was a loyal British citizen who cooperated with the British government during the First World War. When he lost trust in the British government, he came up with a new strategy: mass mobilization, which culminated in the mass movement of non-cooperation in the 1920s, the Salt March of the 1930s and the Quit India movement of 1942.
He nevertheless remained a moderate and a liberal and feared the power of the people. If he had not stopped the Quit India movement in 1942, Indians would have driven away the British but also brought about a radical agrarian and economic reform. So his advice to Indians here in 1901 was a limited one, though useful and relevant – investment in education and participation in politics — just like any liberal politician would have recommended in those days.
His advice is still relevant today for the emancipation of any person, but we have to consider structural factors which hinder the development of the individual, of a community even if the latter have received some form of education and participate actively in politics. Unemployment, economic marginalization, unemployed graduates and the historical legacy are just a few of the structural factors hindering the development of an individual and a community.
* As regards politics, if it’s a widely accepted fact that it has become more partisan now, it might or it might not have become more divisive. What’s your view on that?
I attended a forum last week where an ex-Finance minister and a specialist in electoral matters said, if I have understood well, that his studies of the subject indicate that it’s identity and economic interest that have been the dominating influence on voter behaviour. This has been true for Mauritius in all elections since 1886. I totally agree with this conclusion however you define economic interest or identity. We all know that in the 19th century, the major cause of political conflict in elections was the rivalry between the white oligarchy and the coloured people. It was mostly a racial conflict but it also had to do with class.
From the beginning of the 20th century, it was the emerging conflict between the General population and the Indians. Admittedly there was an ephemeral alliance between the Coloured and the Indians in 1911. later this latent conflict culminated in the Retrocessionist Movement in 1921. But basically, it was not racial movement but a cultural one but also with some economic interests. The leaders of the retrocessionists were fighting to preserve French culture and values which they felt were threatened by the participation of Indians in politics. Dr Cure was against those whom he called the “nationalist Indians” who wanted to introduce Indian culture in Mauritian society which he then defined as French in culture and values.
It is well known that the perceived threat to French language, culture and religion was embraced by many politicians in the 1950s, 1960 and even thereafter. So, the cultural divide in our society has hardly changed, and moreover culture has economic dimensions.
* How would you rate the present generation of politicians belonging to the fourth or fifth generation of the descendants of Indian immigrants in terms of competence, culture, trustworthiness and integrity? Would it be unfair to suggest that they have not lived up to the expectations of their followers?
I do not see any difference. Politicians, the descendants of Indian immigrants, are the same as in the past as well as in the present; it is always a mixed bag. What has changed is the context in which they operate.
Different contexts may have different impacts on politicians’ behaviour as well as on the electorate. Some politicians are competent and others less so, and sometimes they become a disaster to the country when responsibilities, which they cannot handle, are foisted on them. In the past, a good leadership at the top would have mitigated such disasters, but this does not appear to be the case at the moment.
It is tempting to see ‘a golden age’ with respect to our past politicians, but this is not really so. Today we know more about them than in the past. There are so many stories about wayward politicians of that time and across the board, but we also know of popular trade unionists who were on the payroll of the sugar oligarchy. Historians would not refer to these details because they are not important to their particular research. Sometimes, their descendants are furious when such assertions are made, and even when backed by documentary evidence.
I remember one fellow historian who was making a remark about a politician during an event; the son of the politician happened to be present among the audience, he stood up and rebuked the historian for ‘denigrating the memory of his father’. Take, for example, Sir Anerood Jugnauth. He is a politician from the past but also of the present times. The reader can decide for himself what has changed or not changed in his personality or his behaviour.
* Do you get the feeling that politicians – and governments — have down the years become weaker in the face of different interest groups, due to the increasingly pervasive influence of neo-liberal forces in the economy and which might be responsible for some of the problems which Mauritius is facing, like access to lands for housing, increasing inequality, poverty, economic concentration in the hands of a few, etc – issues which affect a wide cross-section of our society?
The problems which you highlight are true. There are major problems related to housing, poverty and inequality. Neo-liberal forces play an important part, so is the historical legacy of the past, principally land ownership and present economic exclusion practised by the conglomerates.
Land grants had been given to French inhabitants right from 1726 and over the centuries many of the lands had been transferred from one person to another in the land market legally. The land consolidation process might have been done legally but also by default. In other words, proprietors who vested their lands in a particular estate for cane cultivation might not have claimed them back over several generations, and their lands have been annexed to the estate without any proprietary rights.
If you walk in a sugarcane field, you come across big boulders on which are written certain numbers to identify a particular plot of land. Labourers and sirdars do not refer to these fields by these numbers but by the names of the proprietors such as ‘carreau Bernard’, Carreau Fabien’, etc. In other words, these were old proprietors.
Another example, the survey report drawn up when Illovo acquired its lands in Mauritius, in the case of the sugar estate of Britannia, that its boundaries could not be located. Surely other lands belonging to other proprietors had been annexed. There is also the case of a hotel in the north of the island, built on a plot of land which does not belong to the present proprietor. This has been reported by family members of the group.
Whatever be the illegal practices, Mauritius remains a liberal democratic society – at least formally. The distortions caused by neo-liberal forces and the open economy are important factors. But the Mauritian state is an interventionist state on which everybody from the great corporate proprietor to the unemployed are dependent. It is the role of the state to correct any imbalance which tilts too much towards the big conglomerates.
2000 acres were taken by the Labour government for social projects. What has happened to the lands apart from some acres being used for the setting up of some project? We must also blame the government of the day for abdicating its role as an arbitrator who should have juggled with the conflicting interests of the many instead of throwing all its weight on the side of the conglomerates.
* It has taken a hunger strike (by Clency Harmon) for the Government to become alive to the need for some form of redress in the matter of land dispossession. It took similar hunger strikes by lady school cleaners, BAI policy holders/investors or CWA contract labour for things to start moving. These have mostly been grassroots initiatives or in some cases driven by trade unionists – not by politicians. What does this tell you about the people’s faith in politics and politicians in today’s society?
This does not reflect any loss of faith in politics or politicians. Popular protests have always existed in all societies and in Mauritius too. It is an inherent part of the system. Governments have at times given the authorization for public protests but placed at the same time many hurdles in their way. For example, when an association in my locality wrote to ask for permission to hold a protest march on a Saturday, the authorisation reached the organiser late on Friday so that it proved impossible to mobilize the people for the Saturday protest.
This is just one of the tactics used by the police to prevent protest actions, and there are many stratagems resorted to by our “independent” police in collusion with the government to stifle protests. Citizens should continue to air their grievances through protests, and the culture of street protest must become well established in our society and some of the laws regarding public gatherings must also be repealed
* In fact, it is mostly “small parties” or trade unionists and grassroots movements which are bringing up serious issues affecting our present and the future in relation to the environment, urbanisation, etc. We rarely get to see such initiatives coming from the “mainstream” parties? Have they lost touch with the people and their needs and expectations?
One interpretation is that the mainstream parties have lost contact with the population.
This could be a valid interpretation, but it may well be a strategy of the mainstream parties to allow the people to take the initiative. Such initiatives serve to infuse some dynamism in the population; it will add up to the establishment of a participatory democracy in the country.
Political parties cannot always spoon-feed the population. To put it cynically, mainstream parties have nothing to lose in letting the population take its own initiatives. Their only concern maybe is to be cautious so as not to be overtaken by new parties or social movements in terms of trust and support.
* As regards access to lands for housing, we have seen the large land holders focussing on Smart Cities, IRS and ERS projects that bring in FDI, there does not seem to be any interest in housing projects for the middle class and people down the social ladder, nor is there any compulsion by government upon these property developers despite the billions of the Mauritius Investment Corporation that will go to bail out some of their distressed companies. What’s your take on that?
Both the middle class and the government are to be blamed. The middle class cannot just wait for others to fight their battles, hold protests and wait to reap the benefits. Any serious government would have negotiated a trade-off for facilities and assistance being provided given to large landholders. But has the government the negotiating skills after what happened to the DTA in India? The idea of a trade-off is neither their objective nor the priority. So many problems facing the middle class will find no solution if they remain apathetic and only wait for the crumbs to fall on their lap.
* A Land Division will now be set up within the Supreme Court to hear disputes in relation to land dispossession. But that’s a hugely complex issue, necessitating access to information buried in very old legal deeds some of which may be well beyond 100 years, and some of the lands could have been acquired (in good faith) by other parties or through legally valid prescriptions. Aren’t we selling false hopes to those who are saying that they have been robbed of their lands?
I do not think we are giving false hopes to those whose lands have been robbed. It is unfair to write off a struggle before it starts. Give it time and we shall see how it evolves. We have a judiciary which is capable to hear and give its ruling on many issues, however complicated they may be. It is true though that the odds are against those who rightly or wrongly feel they had been robbed.
Barring the legal prescriptions, there are cases where there was no prescription at all. My uncle had a shop in Plaines Magnien, which he rented out and we used to collect the rent. After his death no one went to collect the rent. The property had not been prescribed. May be the tenant is waiting to prescribe it. There may be thousands of cases like this one. There are cases where the big landowners had simply taken land from people whose heirs today still have a legal claim to the land.
* Activists point to what they call dubious notarial deeds drawn up by some public notaries, themselves forming part of a chasse gardée in years gone, and which have cast a shadow of suspicion over land rights in Mauritius. On top of that it would appear that access to the notarial deeds at our National Archives have lately been severely curtailed. What’s going on?
Land deeds, which were not registered in the past, were subject to all kinds of anomalies. Have we not heard about the story of an accountant who became one of the proprietors of a big conglomerate? This story has to be researched and verified. Why have the Archives been suddenly been instructed to prevent researchers from delving into notary deeds? Even historians are deprived of their freedom to research on these notary deeds. This is an aberration which has to be corrected – the sooner the better. If not, we will have another protest on this issue.
One wonders whether the government wants to see justice done to those who had been penalized in the past. The government will content itself to dishing out superficial concessions, symbolic ones but will refuse to address fundamental issues and go at root of many problems.
For example, an ex-minister seems to have mentioned that the housing problem is mostly a Rodriguan problem. He is absolutely right on this dimension of the problem which affects all other groups in society and all classes. But nobody has given consideration to the fact that there are as many Rodriguans in the island of Mauritius as there are in Rodrigues – about 30,000 of them. As a migrant population, like all migrants who have moved to more urbanized regions, they face more problems than others.
This is true for immigrants in London, or migrants in Nairobi, Bombay or any other city. So, we need a proper diagnosis of many issues before we can propose solutions. If not, the problems will appear insoluble and the solutions proffered will only be cosmetic.
* Published in print edition on 2 November 2020