Indian Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi’s visit to Mauritius as chief guest for the 47th celebration of Independence is a great honour for Mauritians. Here is a statesman who made his way up from humble origins to Parliament where he presides over the destiny of over 1.2 billion people. He is a self-made man blessed with a curious mind, determination and commitment to hard work who set himself on the road to success despite the lack of opportunities for a formal education in his youth.
Even when he was visiting America as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was said to be unrelentlessly inquisitive about development policies which he could apply back home. Lofty principles, perseverance, strong patriotism and deep love for his motherland guided his steps to the highest seat of power. This was a far cry from the mental enslavement, dynastic mindset the Congress in India, shared by political parties in Mauritius too.
Mauritius, which our ancestors called Marish Desh, is often perceived by Indian visitors as being a chotisi Bharat on account of its predominant Hindu and Muslim population of Indian origin. With the advent of Independence and a widely Hindu-led political class on the front stage, a huge chunk of the non-Indian population was erroneously goaded by their own kind to flee the country and settled in Australia, South Africa and Europe, for fear of being forcibly Indianized. Wearing the dhoti, saree and speaking Bhojpuri and other Indian languages was viewed by our pro-West compatriots as being uncivilized. Ironically, the opposite happened.
Indian languages receded more and more in the background, as an increasingly Western education alienated people from their own history and prevented a deep understanding of the legacy of a millennial culture. Dhotis are a rare sight in the streets while western outfit is conspicuous. Western TV channels specially in the French language flooded the screen before the previous government introduced several channels in Oriental languages, English and Mandarin and offered a wider choice to the public.
In the 1990s PM Sir Anerood Jugnauth’s attempt to enhance the status of Oriental languages across the country raised an uproar in the same anti-Independence section of the population as if the world was coming to an end. The press in the French island of Reunion vehemently opposed the idea, taking for granted that the Indian Ocean islands should be under the influence of the French language. A utilitarian and opportunistic approach to languages has been widely adopted ever since. Locals excel in jumping on the bandwagon of opportunism in every area.
The end result is that youngsters are hardly able to watch a film in English. To this day, you either give up or put up with American westerns in which Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood et al speak French! Even a rare Bhojpuri film such as ‘Bandit Queen’ was played in French and no one in this country raised their voice to protest! Neither did the public mind watching ‘Jane Eyre’ in French.
Such is the weight of colonialism that it engenders a public of followers who unconsciously internalize their former colonial masters’ prejudices against them.
In the early years after Independence, any attempt to change the French names of a few places by the erstwhile ministers was met with strong opposition in the widely French-language press and by some Indo-Mauritians. Everybody was happy with the colonial legacy, and the colonial masters’ language; even the awful accent, culture and ways were considered as a model to emulate.
And it gave rise to the most grotesque distortion of the language itself. For instance, to look modern and more western, children were taught to call their parents ‘mami’ and ‘papi’!, which is rather used to refer to grandparents in France; eating ‘un plat au pain’ whatever that means, was smart and so on. To top it all, some Indo-Mauritians and specially youngsters in the hotel industry have come to look down on Indian visitors as inferior! How they manage that feat of wearing the mantle of superiority blows the mind. Or may be not. We are aware of the whole process that leads to such absurd posturing.
Critical thinking – a rare commodity
Critical thinking was a rare commodity if ever there was any thinking at all! Identity, authenticity, arts, refinement and values were not considered worthy of attention. So much energy was invested in taking advantage of the new prosperity that poured into the country. The populace was left to babble in whatever wild mixture of languages that was taking shape just as the new prosperity spawned by wildcat capitalism boosted unprecedented greed and corruption to achieve self-enrichment by hook or by crook.
The ruling parties were busy attending to their own business in every sense of the word. The Sun trusted the rulers and looked set to shine on the country for ever. Currently, the series of scandals, allegations of illicit self-enrichment through bribery and commissions involving the former PM can be traced back to the legacy of the early 1990s. Fortunately for the public, the truth has to come out sooner or later regardless of who pays the price for it.
In post-colonial Mauritius, high-ranking officials are still craving for western imperial awards, MBE, OBE and Légion d’honneur. Being addressed as Sir is still a great honour for anyone with some qualification and strutting around in a suit and tie. Our politicians decided to share Air Mauritius with Air France. In whose interest? In 2003, Mauritius Telecom sold shares to France Telecom. In whose interest? In France, Orange gives unlimited free calls to local numbers and overseas territories as well several foreign countries even if you call mobile phones. No such generosity prevails in locally where we are fleeced permanently. Mauritians pay as much as the French for Canal Satellite. Advertisements in French flash incessantly on screens in MT, sorry, Orange offices. Mauritians pay as much as the French for Canal Satellite, and no one bothers to inquire into the gross injustice. Who reap behind-the-door benefits for all the handouts?
Currently, Indian ambition in Agalega is giving nightmares to some people, specially opinion-makers in the press who believe they represent the interests of the people. Just as Indian Oil or Indian doctors raised controversy in the columns of the French-language press, specially on Sundays. Media people usually have no issues with the expansionist zeal of France in the region.
In an increasingly complex geopolitical situation with major powers jostling for influence and military bases, India should be given a wider space to strike a balance for peaceful purposes. On the 47th year of Independence in Little France, we should know where our commercial interests lie and who our friends are without any illusion and sans état d’âme.
* Published in print edition on 13 March 2015