It is now time to face the challenges that are coming up in ways that seek the best from all citizens and that are less antagonistic and confrontational
‘Most people’s definition of history is fairly simple. It’s what-really-happened-in-the-past. But professional historians know that the reality of history is hardly so unproblematical. Like all human enterprises, (history is) particularly susceptible to bias, self-righteousness, pride, vanity and, if not outright and intentional perversion of the truth, at least the subconscious obfuscation of some grimmer and grimier reality. People import too much emotional baggage into the formulation of their histories to leave much room for impartiality. One brief event can take on thousands of different meanings when all sorts of people impose their own variations of the truth upon it.’ These words of caution from ‘A Guide to Writing in History and Classics’ should help the reader in his appreciation of whatever is presented to him as constituting the one and only ‘authoritative’ interpretation of history, including our own.
Take the narrative about the circumstances that led to and the men and women who were actively involved in the struggle for independence. That narrative can be so constructed by naysayers and those who lost the battle for the maintenance of the status quo under the ‘Ancien Regime’ as to present the view that there was no such thing as a struggle for independence. The British, it has been argued, had anyway decided to get rid of their former colonies as signalled by the “wind of change” speech of the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in 1960. Struggle in their view should have also entailed violence and bloodshed, with party leaders and activists imprisoned for political reasons. The naysayers are properly entitled to live with their bias and self-righteousness, but what is condemnable is the outright and intentional perversion of the truth – when their narrative conveniently and deliberately sweeps under the carpet the other aspect of that struggle, which was a major obstacle against independence mounted by the oligarchs and their then political arm, the Parti Mauricien and their minions in part of the media.
People who have lived those years would remember the vile and racially based campaign, peppered with violence and harassment, targeted against those who were campaigning or supported the idea of a just and equitable society. Latter day pseudo-historians would have none of this, even going to the extent of remaining wilfully oblivious to the fact that the then 1967 campaign had split the population into two distinct blocs at loggerheads with each other on partisan lines, compounded by the racial/religious divide with the ripples of that campaign still felt to this day. They are thankfully fading out, but the harm done to the country no doubt delayed its emancipation.
In this week’s issue devoted to the 50th anniversary of Independence, Vimalen Reddi addresses another issue that has also been canvassed to argue that the independence of Mauritius was conditioned on the detachment of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. The suggestion then is that Sir Seewoosagur would have been involved in a “treasonous” give-and-take transaction with the British in exchange of independence to the detriment of Mauritian sovereignty over the Archipelago. Documentary evidence declassified by the British government and available on the website of the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) show that SSR acted under duress and that that there had never been any such agreement with SSR or the Mauritian delegation present in London in September 1965.
The past can be rewritten in any manner as suits the purpose of political propagandists. The facts relating to Independence and the road travelled since should have put to rest their zeal to distort history. The achievements are many, and these have necessitated the wisdom and sagacity of the political leadership of that time, the collective will and cooperation of numerous Mauritians from all walks of life, as well as social organisations which have helped bridge the divide in place since 1967. Unlike other countries which are suddenly faced with crises of identity and are questioning their models – Melting pot? Multiculturalism? etc – which they deem to have failed them, we are today one nation that has reconciled with the realities of our diversity.
On the economic front, enormous progress has been registered ever since we have sought to move away from our dependence on the sugar industry. More than 20% of the population had no steady work occupation in 1968, and there was sparse prospect of ever getting employed even at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In the two decades after 1968, textile factories were implanted in almost all parts of the island. From one single unit in 1968, some 500 textile units were in operation by the mid-1980s. By 1987, there was full employment in Mauritius. From less than $500 in 1968, our GDP per capita stands today at around $10,000, no mean achievement for a country that has gone on diversifying its economic base. Economic empowerment coming in the wake of independence has improved the lot of nearly all households, nothing comparable to the bleak outlook of 1968, and new pillars have continued to be added to the economic infrastructure.
But, as our guest interviewee Manou Bheenick points out in this issue, the policy continuity and mature, pragmatic political leadership that led to the turnaround of our social and economic landscape at the time of independence has come under threat. This has now come to a peak with the unprecedented crisis at the very apex of the country, with the Prime Minister and the President locked in an ugly stand-off as a result of actions on the part of the latter that are perceived to be unconstitutional. This is not likely to help investor interest in the country.
Which brings us to the issue of constitutional reform, and we must begin at the very top. Is it fair to the people that a President can hold their country in hostage based on the principle that s/he can take decisions in her/his ‘own deliberate judgement’? What if this judgement is flawed? Shouldn’t there be a more ‘systemic’ way around such a possibility? We are currently living through the trauma of such an unacceptable situation and realising the limitations of some of the provisions of our Constitution. Perhaps it is time to hold a referendum on such and other issues of capital importance to the future of the country.
If the former Presidents of Israel, and that of South Korea while in function can be charged and jailed, we do not see why we should not make the necessary amendments to allow similar courses of action in case of default locally too.
In this and other regards, we should seriously be considering the enactment of a Right to Information legislation, as well as Public Interest Litigation legislation that is adapted to local realities. At one time, the question of a second house was also flagged. Given the political events that have of late badly scarred the country locally as well as tarnished its image at the global level, it is perhaps time to launch a serious debate about the issue.
For a good while we have been resting on our laurels. It is now time to face the challenges that are coming up in ways that seek the best from all citizens and that are less antagonistic and confrontational. But where dead wood and obstacles must be removed, let that be done swiftly and efficiently, so that the country can march on towards the better future that its people deserve.
* Published in print edition on 9 March 2018