Mauritius: A Secular State? 

Points to Ponder

By Lex

A First Point: The Indian Constitution, in its Preamble, starts with the following words:

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and opportunity, and to promote among them all;
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation…” Clearly, India is a secular State as its supreme law has declared. However, every Indian is guaranteed the freedom to practice the religion of his choice. Our Constitution makes no reference that Mauritius also is a secular State, so in spite of that, can we deduce that it is a secular State? According to me, we cannot do that for then we shall be adding to our Constitution something that has been omitted and deliberately so, I would say.

However, our Constitution guarantees us the freedom to practise our religion. I think that it is better for me to quote in extenso section 11 of the Constitution.

“11.     Protection of freedom of conscience

 (1)      Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this section, that freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

 (2)      Except with his own consent (or, if he is a minor, the consent of his guardian), no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion that he does not profess.

 (3)      No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from making provision for the giving, by persons lawfully in Mauritius, of religious instruction to persons of that community or denomination in the course of any education provided by that community or denomination.

 (4)      No person shall be compelled to take any oath that is contrary to his religion or belief or to take any oath in a manner that is contrary to his religion or belief.

 (5)      Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision –

 (a) in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or

 (b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons, including the right to observe and practise any religion or belief without the unsolicited intervention of persons professing any other religion or belief,

 except so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under its authority is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

Section 11 quoted above comes in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which bears the title ‘Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual’. This shows how important religion is considered in the country, the more so when we consider that most, if not all Mauritians, are deeply religious and they practise their religion both in public and in private. Those who say that they do not believe in any religion somehow do believe in something else – this much I know.

Our Constitution goes still further. It has made provision for so many persons occupying the highest posts in the country to subscribe to an oath or to solemnly affirm according to their belief before they are allowed to start performing their function.

Why is it that so many persons are against politicians practising their religion in public, haut et fort, in all places? Do those persons know that the Christian religion was the only recognized religion by the authorities from the time that Mauritius was permanently settled till about 50 years ago? That Hinduism was an ignored religion? And so was Islam as well as Buddhism? Do they know that only Roman Catholics and the Anglicans were being given subsidies? That Hindus were ignored as if Hinduism was not a religion worthy of consideration? Nor could Islam or Buddhism? Do they know that so many persons were forced by the authorities to give up their own religion and become baptized as Christians? Now that the Labour Party has tried to establish some sort of equality and equity for all religions practised in Mauritius, some people are not happy. What is wrong with the policy of giving subsidies to every religion on a capita basis? At least government now recognizes that we are a religious people.

I recall when I was at the primary school, I mean at the government primary school, we were forced to say a prayer before class started. All the pupils were Hindus, but we were forced to say “Our Father, thou art in heaven…” or the French version “Notre Père qui es aux cieux…”. We were all very small kids and we just prayed as we were instructed. Was this fair and reasonable? Can those responsible give us back our religion and our culture?

I would like to call upon the authorities to consider the purport of Section 11(5) quoted above and bring in legislation to protect “the rights and freedoms of other persons, including the right to observe and practise any religion or belief without the unsolicited intervention of persons professing any other religion or belief.” It is known to everybody that representatives of different groups of Christians go from door to door and try to convince Hindus to give up their religion and become Christians and get baptized. At times they do it under the guise of doing some service but their real intention is to get you converted to Christianity. It is high time to stop such disgusting practices.

Hindu politicians must continue doing their Pujas in public and preach Hinduism to the Hindus and others should accept the fact that for Hindus, doing politics does not mean that the politician becomes less of a religious person than others. Attend all political functions, but by all means do attend all the Puja and Hawan functions as well. I will not say that you are Hindus first then politicians, but I will say that you are both a Hindu as well as a politician and the one does not exclude the other.  

One culture, one language? 

A Second Point: Every time that a crime against a child is reported, there is an outcry throughout the length and breadth of the country but very soon the outcry dies down. Something is definitely wrong with our people. We must accept that we are still not a nation, it will take time and perhaps one day we may be able to say that we are a nation. But the process must not be rushed into, give the people the necessary time to live their life as dictated by their religion, their culture, their education and at the same time, they should respect the culture and religion and the languages of the other Mauritians.

We must not assume that all of us in Mauritius have a common culture and language. I am not going to talk of the professionals of the various religions existing in our God-loving country. I have a great respect for Religion or if you prefer it for all the various religions that we know of. How many of us really know what religion is? How many of the professionals of religion themselves know what they should teach to the followers of particular religions? If they do not know what real religion entails, what would they teach?

Though our ancestors came here as indentured workers, yet here they continued with the social set-up with which they were used to in the villages from which they migrated to Mauritius. First and foremost, there was the system of Baitka, it could be called differently, depending from which region in India our forefathers came but the institution was very much there.

In a village there could be anything from two to maybe ten Baitkas, depending on the size of the Hindu population. Every Hindu had to be a member of a Baitka and the social life of the village was centered upon the Baitkas and I remember the members of one Baitka visiting the other Baitkas to celebrate “Phagwa” or “Holi” as others call this ceremony.

A building was erected on a portion of land voluntarily donated by a member, and that building was used for meetings, and then as a school to teach Indian languages and also all the ceremonies, religious and social, were held there.

The main purpose of the system of Baitka was to see to it that the members stay within the limit of social behavior, without in any way forcing anything on the members. The Baitka system was not a rigid organization, it still helped to keep the people together; it helped the members and in return the members helped the Baitka. Now that the Baitka system has more or less disappeared, the Hindus have lost their sense of direction in life. They do not know on whom to rely, they do not have any organization to protect or advise them. Many Hindus have turned to drinks and they are going away from their religion and their culture.

What is happening to the Hindu society is also happening to the other communities, except to the Muslim community. Among the Muslims, the Masjid plays a very strong part, as well as the Makhtab. All the children are taken care of right from their childhood for their religious and social upbringing. They are taught Urdu, Arabic as well as the Holy Koran for the eventual benefit of society.

Now that the religious leaders have failed in their duty, it is no wonder that people have no landmarks that will guide them. And society also has no landmarks and the sequel to this is that we see such a surge in criminal activities. The case of that poor child who was raped then burnt by her uncle is a vivid example of what we must endure. But who will take the responsibility of organizing the people in social groups to preserve whatever is left of our social, cultural and religious life?

I know the Hindu society and I can say that the young Hindus are now well qualified and they want to have answers to their questions on religion that will satisfy their intellect. They do not want to accept what the supposed pundits tell them, they can read what is to be found in the books from which the pundits read. They want answers that go beyond the books and Hinduism has all the answers to satisfy anybody. Hinduism is full of symbolism which must be properly interpreted. A katha is not the religion, it is simply an example to understand the religion proper.

And then there is this fact that the authorities treat every Mauritian as if they have one culture and one language. This has to change. 

We shall be a Nation when the time will be ripe… 

A Third Point: In 2007 Lee Kwan Yew, the grand old man of Singapore, gave an interview to the International Herald Tribune. In that interview, he said, inter alia, “we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors, a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.”

These words made me think of us Mauritians, and of Mauritius. Let me say that I fully subscribe to the idea put forward by Lee Kwan Yew concerning a nation.

In Mauritius as well, we do not have a homogeneous population, because we come from Asia, Africa and Europe. We do not have a common language because we have our Asian languages, we had our African languages and we have our European languages. We have different cultures, the different varieties of Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the European culture and we had our African culture. And we do not have a common destiny, depending to which community we belong and where we are heading.

People wonder how such different communities can stay together in such a small place without any major conflict arising between these different communities. We say that this is part of the Mauritian genius; we have accepted our neighbours, though we are proud to be what we are. Who cares whether we are yet a nation or not? We shall be one when the time will be ripe for that and it will take the time that it will take. 

Rodrigues: Autonomy and Independence 

A Fourth Point: Some persons in Rodrigues have already started talking about the independence of Rodrigues. All this started with the passing of a piece of legislation known as “The Rodrigues Regional Assembly” in 2001 if I am not mistaken. I had then said that the next step after the creation of the Regional Assembly would be the demand of independence.

The persons who were responsible for the creation of the Regional Assembly knew or should have known what was forthcoming. And they are responsible for dismantling our territory. What are they saying now? Nothing, as if they are not concerned for their acts and doings.

Think of the consequences. Rodrigues can never feed its population, it will have to rely on other countries to assure its existence. It wants to separate from Mauritius; the question is with which country is it going to attach itself? To France, because of religion? To the United Kingdom maybe for economic reasons, with the expectation that the British will create a territory of their own now that the tide is turning against them over the British Indian Ocean Territory and all the Rodriguans will be given the possibility to become Englishmen? But there is something more serious that is brewing. We have our sea all around the country, extending to millions of square kilometers. The State of Mauritius includes

(1)   the island of Mauritius, Rodrigues, Agalega, Tromelin, Cargados Carajos and the Chagos Archipelago including Diego Carcia and any other island comprising in the State of Mauritius,

(2)   the territorial sea and the air space above the territorial sea

(3)   the continental shelf

(4)   such places or areas as are designated by public notice by the Prime Minister the right over which are or may become exercisable by the government. (Vide Interpretation and General Clauses Act.)

This is how the law defines our country. If a part is distracted from the country, for whatever reason, and allegedly given some sort of supposed independence to it, when in fact it will be controlled by some foreign power, not only the land mass that will be distracted but also the territorial sea and the space above as well as the continental shelf. I am sure that this is not acceptable to the Government of Mauritius and measures should be taken to counter the move of those few Rodriguans who have an ambition that cannot be satisfied.

We know that there are several countries that are interested to lay their hands on Rodrigues and I wonder for which country those persons are working? 

* Published in print edition on 24 September 2010

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