Bowing to Satyagraha 

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Founded on such high ideals, why is India so corrupt? Indian writer Gurcharan Das asked in one of his essays. He gave the answer himself: «There is nothing wrong in our genes.» Wary of a possible contagion of the jasmine winter discontent wafting from the Arab world, PM Manmohan Singh showed a newfound zeal to combat corruption and appointed PJ Thomas to head CBI inquiry into the 2G scam. Under public pressure, the Indian PM immediately had to sack the nominee when it was revealed that PJ Thomas was himself deeply involved in corruption. For the past months, Manmohan Singh has come under sharp criticism for keeping silent over the propensity of ministers and government officials for being mixed up in cases of embezzlement, conflict of interest and rampant corruption. While a few officials fell into the claws of the judiciary following the scams in the Commonwealth Games, top guns are said to be spared any investigation. The government is increasingly seen as showing no sign of sincerity in combating corruption.

Why has the Lok Pal Bill, meant to root out corruption in high places, never been promulgated into law since 1968? In 2008, the bill was discussed and dismissed for the umpteenth time. The reason put forward by successive ruling parties has been that it is unconstitutional to include representatives from the public sphere to watch out for malpractices in the government. The other reason is that politicians do not want an independent check over them.

Now that the fast-unto-death protest started by Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar is drawing crowds from all over India, the movement has rattled the Congress. Its leader Sonia Gandhi and the PM are rushing forward with strong measures at the behest of the 73-year-old social activist. The first Group of Ministers set up to discuss the issue of corruption was flawed. Hazare and his supporters claimed a first scalp; the Minister of Agriculture, Sharad Pawar, one of the nominees appointed to oversee the anti-corruption bill was thrown out of the group for his involvement in the land scam and the rotting food grains in Maharashtra. Instead, they demanded a Jan Lok Pal which should include people chosen from public organisations.

Of Masters and Servants

Are Indians genetically corrupt? As writer Gurcharan Das said, the answer is no. There have been patriotic rulers and politicians who have devoted years to work for the general uplift of the people without indulging in opaque transactions for self-interest. Righteousness, truth, compassion, a sense of duty, detachment from the fruits of one’s actions are key values in their culture. LK Advani observed that the current media trend of encouraging disdain and mistrust over the whole political body is doing a great disservice to politics.

Acquisitiveness, greed, the competition to rank among the richest are not the only reasons. The pre-colonial era of kings, nawabs and emperors across Hindustan and the colonial era of the British Raj have left deep scars in the mentality of the ruling class. Despite the democratic institutions, they consider themselves as masters rather than servants of the people. And as masters, they feel entitled to be above the fray, to use their status to reap illegal financial benefits from their achievements in their respective ministries, and hence to ignore the ethics of governance and the principle of accountability to the electorate. As in the good old days of kings and princes, the police act as lackeys of politicians and the enforcers of their power and privilege. Hence the propensity to cow down under the pressure of their political masters and forget their own sense of justice and right action.

The second point is that the master mentality is internalised at every level of the administration in public and private sector. In fact, for decades after Independence, people have been considered not as full members and individuals doing a particular job but as units to be bossed around, ordered about and exploited by their superiors. VS Naipaul acutely made this observation in one of his books on India. Just see how servants are treated in middle-class Indian families, a myriad of them at the beck and call of the children and adult members. For lack of dowry, daughter-in-laws are murdered on a daily basis. Elsewhere, middle-classes embody progressive ideas but the Indian middle class has remained conservative in outlook for decades.

The third point is that nation building has made little progress. Too many concessions have been made to various regional, ethnic and religious identities instead of setting up solid bases for strengthening the concept of nationhood. Do government officials have a strong sense of nationhood? Most unlikely. Otherwise, they would take care to promote ethics in governance and management of public funds. Does the corporate world think of the nation when it siphons off billions of rupees in tax havens while millions of Indians are living under poverty level?

What is lacking is a firm stance on strengthening the concept of nationhood.

Vande Mataram

 Manmohan Singhji had a very positive image when he assumed office as Prime Minister, carrying with him the aura of the Finance Minister who set India on its modern course of development, away from the days of the Permit Raj. Even so he is now presiding over the most corrupt government since Independence, and he has been severely criticized for being ‘soft’ on key issues. Hence, the overwhelming public response to Anna Hazare’s call for the creation of a public platform to discuss the issue of corruption. Doctors, execs, clerks, housewives, workers and the young middle-class Indians spontaneously crowded at Jantar Mantar to support the movement in an atmosphere of rock music, bhajans, old Hindustani songs and sufi ghazals. The protest movement has been prepared for weeks, and Swami Ramdev has also contributed to its organisation. Vande Mataram, the national anthem chanted by the public in allegiance to the motherland showed that the movement claims no ideological commitment to sectarian politics.

Not only corruption but the retrograde mindset that keeps people in darkness have to be got rid of through deep self-criticism. Hopefully, 2011 will mark a turning point in the reinforcement of democratic principles in India, clean the filth that shames the country and make it deserve the name of ‘Shining India’ if it is to assume a more ambitious role in the new world order.

*  *  *

Language policy

Language is a serious matter and cannot be treated in an off-hand manner by the elected members of the people in Parliament. It has been reported in this paper that the Ministry of Energy and Public Utilities issued pamphlets in Creole to schoolchildren. Has the population been consulted before deciding that Creole is the language in which the authorities communicate with the younger generation? The question that arises is: how come the ministry concerned decides unilaterally to impose Creole in its written form to all the children of Mauiritius? Languages cannot be handled casually; the government should be clear about its language policy if it has any. And this cannot be done without allowing a profound and rational debate on the language issue.

Being a multi-cultural society, we know what implication any attempt to suggest the local languages to be learnt at a national level has had in the past, the outcry that was raised on these occasions, the hostile and emotional reaction of Mauritians who felt that their children should not be exposed to the written form of other languages. Very strange that the ministry takes it for granted that it can address all Mauritian children in written Creole. It is only in the minds of a few intellectuals obsessed with promoting it since the 70s that Creole is a language and not pidgin, a patois derived from French. Does the population at large subscribe to the idea of promoting Creole as a language?

Can the ministry explain what children are learning English for at school? Only for exams? The government should know that the interest of the population on core issues cannot be sacrificed for the political interest of a few people.

By the way, what language are MPs expected to use in Parliament? Should the public remind them that English is the official language and that no one expects them to use Creole, especially vulgar Creole to insult one another.

Promoting China Town

The polemic over allowing street vendors to occupy China Town draws our attention to how the Port Louis municipality is resorting to a perfunctory solution to get rid of the street vendor problem. A whole section of the Jardin de la Compagine has been disfigured by a plethora of vendors who have monopolized the place. The demagogy underlining the policy escaped nobody’s notice.

China Town is a vibrant part and dynamic area of the town; it is a key part of the capital’s heritage. And as such, it should not be allowed to become a nuisance to the traders there and an eyesore to the public in general. We should expect China Town to expand and not to shrink.

Do the mainstream traders have a long-term plan to develop China Town? Not necessarily modernizing it randomly but giving a brush-off to the crumbling old buildings and getting the Municipality to invest in the maintenance of the bridge and clean the mess and the stinking filth around. It would be a more interesting attraction to the public and tourists alike if the area is developed along a wider cultural line with more restaurants serving a variety of Chinese cuisine, shops selling high quality Chinese material, silk and the numerous treasures that one finds in China, clubs teaching arts and schools providing intensive language courses to cater for those who plan to study, acquire work experience to go on placement in China. It would be much livelier with more Chinese style entertainment and music, massage parlours where the public can enjoy the pleasure of Chinese art of massage. Shanghai offers such a variety of massage parlours. If Mauritius can afford a few, it would be great!

The Chinese casino had been a key attraction for years. Night life in most small islands apart from Singapore is almost non-existent. The casino should rise again from its ashes and rebuilt in a Chinese style.

For economic benefit and cultural enrichment, we will have a lot to gain from a new dynamic development of China Town not only in Port Louis but in other parts of the island as well.

* Published in print edition on 15 April 2011

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