Multiculturalism and the Mauritian nation: No place for dogmas

Multiculturalism has always been the approach of the masses and elite policies have had to follow the wishes of the people. There is no place for dogmas

Around Thee We Gather
As One People, As One Nation
In Peace, Justice and Liberty

These words from our national anthem are a clarion call to rally around our motherland to nurture a sense of shared identity and unity and to strive towards peace, justice and liberty. For half a century we have been singing these words, perhaps we may pause for a moment and reflect on the road we have travelled so far.

There have been enough publications and programmes in the media on the audit of independence so that it is unnecessary to recall the verdict of so many observers who generally acknowledge that independence has been a success. Since most of the major concerns of the time tend to be economic with only handful worrying about the influence of religion on politics or about communalism, it may still be interesting to find out how we have approached the cultural dimension of nationhood over these last decades.

In our national anthem, the diversity of our people is implicitly acknowledged as we are called upon to come together as one people. While the slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ has been enshrined in state policy even before independence, it has been given full expression in our constitution to reflect the wishes of the population at that time. However, one can identify at least two different approaches to the concept of the nation or to the meaning of one people.

The idea of a nation is a Western concept and a modern creation, which evolved in late 18th and 19th century Europe, and has since been exported to Asian and African countries during the period of decolonization. In 19th century Europe, it was the ethnic group that became the nation in different historical contexts, eliminating or dissolving other groups in the making of the nation-state. For example, during the French revolution, the revolutionaries embarked on a homogenization policy by eliminating other regional languages and dialects to make the nation one and indivisible. In Germany, the elite developed a national consciousness among the German-speaking peoples.

Notwithstanding its western source, our political and social elite at independence wholeheartedly embraced this concept of the nation but gave different meanings to it. While the political elite subscribed to unity in diversity, a section of the elite, particularly the younger generation sought to give it a different meaning, one of cultural homogeneity within a western framework.

A period of cultural innovation

One may remember that the 1970s were a period of cultural innovation when a section of the elite explored new forms of art, music, theatre, language, and dress and even a new history written from below. Religion and ethnicity were unnecessary or even considered an obstacle to become citizen in a society. Individuals and small groups reconfigured culture in the widest sense of the term. Marriages were often celebrated on purely secular lines, and there were even new forms of marriage and new forms of language infused with the vocabulary of class. These new creations that emerged from the work of a few individuals and groups were all united in the name of class.

But there were also compromises. Many proclaimed their secularism in public but deferred to family pressure for religious marriages. Associations or football teams with ethnic names nominally dropped their markers of identities. The political elite who subscribed to these new imaginings sought to galvanize and win the masses into a new cultural order and presented to them not a past that had existed but as they wished it to be. Unfortunately it was a one-way traffic based on the false assumption that since they spoke for the masses on the economic and political front, they also could do so on the cultural front. While the aim of promoting a civic communal identity is commendable, the methods might have been dubious. For to deny membership in a civic society to one who bears a religious or an ethnic identity violates the values inherent in the person and in human rights.

While the masses were able to embrace a vision of a new economic and social order, they were a little bemused by the cultural changes that were promoted. There were many reasons why the masses kept aloof from these cultural changes thus reducing this new cultural elite to a marginal group. The masses were unable to relate to the vision of a homogenized society based on a nondescript universalism. This was alien to the experience and histories of different communities as they had different and unrelated pasts notwithstanding their common resistance to oppression. While some communities had experienced slavery, others had not. Those communities brought to Mauritius as indentured labourers might not have been exposed to the full brunt of colonialism in rural India as they would be in the plantation camps of Mauritius.

In Mauritius both the slaves and the indentured labourers, under the impact of colonialism, had had their lives disrupted and dislocated, and had managed against all odds to stick to various fragments of their culture which had been repressed, suppressed but never altogether disappeared. It was these elements of culture that provided meaning and coherence to their lives and provided the links with the past in order to envision a future. After all, the masses have also a history and memory and after independence they could be expected to restore as much as they could what they had lost under colonialism.

A natural right to good life

What independence did was to formally give and restore the freedom for which they had fought for more than two and a half centuries. Remember that of the first group of slaves disembarked by the Dutch in Vieux Grand-Port, half of them fled to the forest. Immanent in this right to freedom is their conception of a natural right to good life. The right to diversity has been inscribed in the constitution and in state practice and together with the right to justice, has become their most valuable and cherished rights. This is why a worker would consider her right to wear a tikka one of her fundamental religious rights guaranteed by the constitution, and regard a ban as an infringement of her dignity, autonomy, equality as a citizen and her conception of a good life.

In spite of their unrelated pasts, different ethnic groups living in different localities over several generations have developed common ways of life regarding food, music, dress, tastes, languages and values of and respect for difference which has made a multicultural way of life come to exist in the habitus of the people. On the other hand, homogenizing the heterogeneity has proved a failure and ephemeral because multiculturalism is grounded in history and developed organically over a very long period of time. Any policy towards assimilation or homogenization provokes resistance. This is why, in his wisdom, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s advice to politicians not to touch language, religion and culture remains as valid today as in the past.

Today, whether our citizens pursue a western style of life, or a revived past, or invent new traditions, what they value most is the liberty to shape their lives and their future as they wish, whether to freeze their personality as they are or to be open-minded. The Rasta community is a living example of this autonomy.

Multiculturalism has always been the approach of the masses and elite policies have had to follow the wishes of the people. Their approach is pragmatic and eclectic, and there is no place for dogmas. Multiculturalism has served the country well and freed the energies of the nation to tackle the other pressing issues of development. It has been a crucial dimension in the nation’s success in other fields. Is it possible for the nation to come with a similar template that can reinforce inclusiveness in our political system so that we can further channel our energies to attain the economic and social targets we have set for the future?

 


* Published in print edition on 18 May 2018

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