The official discourse on how descendants of coolies have evolved usually highlights achievements through hard work, education, ambition and social mobility. It is equally important to focus on what they have really become today
By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
November 2nd is a symbolic date for thousands of Mauritians of Indian origin whose forefathers landed at Aapravasi Ghat after a long journey across the seas. A big chunk of them were driven away by impoverishment in the villages, where their means of livelihood was disrupted by the introduction of new agricultural policy for exportation imposed by the colonial power. Apart from the villagers of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madras, others were merchants, artisans and mercenaries from various parts including Gujarat and the south-western part of India. The land of the vast subcontinent of India is the cultural root of all the migrants who came here with their legacy of several languages, customs and religious celebrations.
It is a day of remembrance of and gratitude to the early settlers who came here with few belongings and eked out a living mostly from toiling in sugarcane fields. On this occasion, tribute is paid to some leaders who contributed to the political, economic and social emancipation of Indian migrants who stayed in the island they initially called Marich Desh. The French ‘r’ sound of Maurice was certainly a challenge to Bhojpuri speakers. Adolphe de Plevitz, Manilal Doctor, and later on, Professor Bissoondoyal and SSR stand out as the key leaders in raising political awareness and safeguarding cultural heritage.
Doctor Idriss Goomany who volunteered to treat migrants suffering from cholera and died very young after being contaminated with the disease is going to have a fitting tribute paid to him this year. It is high time to honour the young doctor as an illustrious son of the country who selflessly put his medical experience to serve and treat sick people hailing from his homeland and who were shunned by the local physicians. The tragedy of his early death and the grief endured by his relatives should be remembered. Indeed, the story of his life and the genuine desire to serve others is certainly an inspiring role model for contemporary society which has drifted away from altruistic values and gone too materialistic and selfish.
History books depicting the background and contribution of some key historical figures among Indian migrants will be most useful to pupils today and society in general. It is quite puzzling that there is no official government body which takes the trouble to delve into history and find out inspiring figures who should be remembered. Leaving each community to do their own research work and struggle for recognition of one of their peers is not a viable solution in the long run.
Election, consultation, confrontation of ideas and compromise are also a legacy of local village councils, the panchayats in India, which ease the democratic process in the island. Everything is not perfect, but it is worth mentioning that being a democracy is no big deal for India and Mauritius. It is in the DNA of people of Indian origin. It comes most naturally to them while others may be tempted to turn their back ideologically from the Indian model and get drawn to totalitarian or military rule found in other countries.
The common Indian heritage has been a binding force among the various communities, and has helped to foster understanding, build trust and good relationship with other communities despite conflicting interests, clashes and paradoxes in the course of time.
Descendants of Migrants Today
The official discourse on how descendants of coolies of all hues, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have evolved usually highlights achievements through hard work, education, ambition and social mobility. It is equally important to focus on what they have really become today, on the political and economic development that has moulded and shaped the mindset and general outlook of today’s people of Indian origin. The picture is far from being flattering, if anything.
No need to ask a psychoanalyst to explain why people of Indian origin, specially Hindus use the term ‘labourer’ as an insult to disparage others. It is used by those who think they have made it in life and therefore, unconsciously internalizes the class prejudices of their former colonial masters and looks down on the social category of labourers. You hear it from ministers, doctors and all. A few days ago a police inspector claimed that he works hard, not like a labourer – a most stupid remark. As if labouring in fields was not hard job.
Notwithstanding lengthy talks on religion and values delivered on every occasion, the real religion is Money, the iron god. Money-mindedness permeates all sections of society. We are not talking about poor people struggling to make ends meet. We are talking about those who already have amassed wealth, often by corrupt means, who still crave for more and never part with their money to gift something to others. A shelter for the homeless, a club for the young and elderly, sponsoring of sports or associations. You hear about that in India and other developing countries. Nothing, absolutely nothing in Marich Desh.
TV programme ‘Qui veut gagner des millions’ is a perfect illustration of the poor intellect of the average Mauritian. If the candidates were asked: ‘What is the colour of the white horse of Henry IV?’, they would still rack their brains to find the right answer. Private radios present similar games and we guess they adapt the questions to the standard of general knowledge their audience is afflicted with – a disaster the Minister of Education should take seriously. It speaks volumes about what the public knows of the human anatomy, trees and animals around them, fruits, vegetables, historical events, etc… Some of the candidates are teachers! As the young laureate on the Arts side from Triolet put it, there is not much ‘thinking’ in the population. What he probably meant is that education is more about learning than thinking.
And worse still, all those who are in a position of authority in the Civil Service, teachers in schools, doctors and nurses in hospitals do not want the public, pupils or patients to think and question them. They expect obedience, silence and submission. Airport employees display the same stupid authoritarian attitude.
Pluralism of ideas and free speech is best conveyed through more than one television channel. The sole existence of a state-run television channel reins in free expression, hampers the development of critical thinking and ultimately, impacts negatively on the intellectual development of the people.
So there is a gap between the apparent natural bent for consultation, discussion and compromise which characterize democratic functioning of a society and the propensity to act in an authoritarian manner. Puzzling paradox.
Little wonder that such a situation is likely to encourage specific intolerant bigoted groups of people to feel entitled to muzzle other people’s expression, threaten and harass anyone who holds different views. And the same people present a totally different picture of themselves in their writings and speeches which vaunt respect for others, freedom of speech, tolerance and all the virtues of democracy. A facade to appear civilized, democratic and modern. Deep within lies the inclination towards fascism and tyranny.
Schizophrenic, if you ask me. An interesting case for psychiatrists.
Indeed, appearance matters more than substance. Whether it results from wildcat capitalism is another question. What you have, what you look like, what you say matter more than who you really are. And all this is a direct product of burgeoning economic prosperity in the early 1990s which sent people running and scrambling to seize whatever opportunity to improve their living standards, start businesses, grab contracts, run away with the best deals, ruthlessly dumping business partners, fighting to get the biggest slice of the cake and amass wealth by any means.
With lack of cultural policy to ensure a general balanced development of the public, the heaviest casualties are minds and hearts, and the thoughts and feelings embedded in them. For decades, the quality of political leadership, the dubious integrity of many, the unrefined language and reprehensible behaviour of some have negatively impacted on the public and prompted folks to follow the wrong example of those who conduct the country’s affairs.
The spirit of competition infests almost everything, creating jealousy and envy of others even at the intellectual level. In this respect, an overdose of male chauvinism in the most misogynistic circle among a specific group leads to aggressive hostility towards any woman who is seen as having some intellectual clout and who dares to bare out hidden realities which are kept in denial away from public hearing. Their women internalize the males’ prejudices; gang up with them to participate actively in disproportionate number in the wild angry hunt of anyone perceived as an opponent of their way of thinking. Away from direct confrontation and public gaze, of course. Schizophrenic, cowardly, totally irrational and insane. It is an extreme position compared to the spirit of understanding and dialogue which helped early generations of Indian migrants of different hues to live together in the island.
Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter aux malheurs du monde, French writer Albert Camus wrote.
As things stand, lots of brave folks are afflicted with malheurs of all kinds. Call a spade a spade, things have to be named so as to be identified, addressed and resolved in a civilized society.
Just imagine the ancestors taking full stock of what Marich Desh has made of their descendants. Greed, laziness, reckless driving and killing, lack of self-control, high level of blood pressure and adrenalin, getting angry like mad, killing parents and children and so on. Wah! What a picture! Since it reflects society at large, should we rather say Made in Moris?
* Published in print edition on 1 November 2018