“‘Paradise Island’ is a myth”

Interview: Associate Prof Pavi Ramhota, Anthropologist

“Actually no society is free from crimes. The problem is that we do not have a system of our own to control or regulate our societal norms…”

“Research should be encouraged, with more funds made available. In Mauritius there is the problem that the politicians want to hear what they want to hear and therefore data is manipulated so as to project a good picture of our society…”

Violence has been endemic in human society from the beginning of times. We almost seem to be hardwired for it.


Despite the fact that some thinkers, such as Steven Pinker of Harvard University, espouse the view that there is much less violence in our current civilization than in all previous periods of history, it is a truism that its ugly forms stare us in the face on a daily basis in the media. Each historical era seems to have its preferred forms of expressions of violence, and many of the reasons may be both common and different from era to era.

Here in Mauritius in the past few days we have had particularly gruesome cases of murderous violence. To analyse the situation and provide some insights into this most disturbing social trend, we have invited Ravi Pamhota of the MGI to share his views. Mr Pamhota is doubly qualified as sociologist and anthropologist, and his perspectives on this major issue will no doubt help stakeholders and all concerned in society at large to ponder the problem and bring their valued contribution however small so as to create a saner society.

Mauritius Times: Yet another horrifying case of murder at the beginning of this week and which adds up to the long list of cases of violence and aggression within the home and on the streets – almost on a weekly basis. One 37-year old husband is suspected of having killed and cut the dead body of his wife to pieces (with the help of a grinder) for easier disposal… Even if we are used to watching violence-ridden movies on TV, it’s quite unlikely that most of us could have ever imagined that “Paradise Island” would have fallen so low. Have we hit bottom?

Dr Pavi Ramhota: When you read this story, it seems that you are watching a western movie. Today when you ask this question to a politician, he/she will tell you that Mauritius is doing far better in dealing with crimes compared to African, Western and Asian countries. Our method of killing is less horrible. But in fact when our youths read about such types of violence, they are not taken aback or show any signs of astonishment. These things happen in other countries, so what? They learn to do such types of horrible crimes through the media. You find kids playing games like call of duty laden with violent, pitiless killings and later these are put into practice. For me, ‘Paradise Island’ is a myth. Tourists are increasingly on their guard after what happened recently in and outside hotels and some may be choosing other destinations than Mauritius. Really we have hit the bottom…

* We may be tempted after taking cognisance of all the crime stories, almost a daily recurrence, in our society to jump to the conclusion that ours is a sick one and that it had never been so bad. As an anthropologist, would you say that this is indeed the case?

Actually no society is free from crimes. It will be unreasonable to conclude so bluntly that our society is sick and nothing can be done to improve our living conditions in Mauritius. We have set rolling such a system that we are entangled in it. The problem is that we do not have a system of our own to control or regulate our societal norms. Very often we call for foreign experts to help sort out our difficulties but in fact that these people try to impose a system that is not compatible with our culture. As a result the situation keeps on worsening.

As an anthropologist, I would suggest that there should be more academics, social scientists in the field to interact more directly with and feel the pulse of the people, and try to find the common denominators underlying our societal dysfunctions. A properly orientated education system could genuinely change the mental make-up of society at large, at both individual level and community levels. By going to the people and understanding their wants, I am confident we can find appropriate remedies for the ills that afflict our society.

* Do we have a body of research keeping track of the changes happening in our society and that could inform us – and the authorities – on the whys and wherefores of all that’s happening and what can be done about it?

Unfortunately, we do not have this type of body that conducts such research. We talk generally on broad topics, basing ourselves on research conducted by sociologists of different countries to analyse our own society. Let’s take an example. If students are given dissertations to write on topics about the social problems in Mauritius, they hardly go in the field and do qualitative research but only surf and look for information that has already been compiled by others. Such data do not really expose the real problem.

As far as the authorities are concerned, they just conduct surveys and publish the results. Recently the Ministry of Health commented on the changing demographic pattern in Mauritius, but what should be done and what have been the factors leading to these changes were not specified. I know that qualitative research is time consuming but it is high time that we should go in this direction. Research should be encouraged, with more funds made available. In Mauritius there is the problem that politicians want to hear what they want to hear and therefore data is manipulated so as to project a good picture of our society.

Compared to local academics, many foreign academics come to Mauritius, funded by their parent institutions to do fieldwork here. Only a few local NGOs carry out some research work, but that also superficially. I myself sent many research proposals which failed to get approval due to lack of funds, even at institutions like the University of Mauritius and the MGI. May I also add that there is a need for research among the outer islands too, and regional modules could be introduced at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels for this purpose. But for this to happen, a research culture is essential.

* It may be argued that we do not have expertise with respect to many issues. Textbook knowledge borrowed from foreign centres of learning and research institutes will probably not do to help us come to grips with

societal changes taking place in the Mauritian context. We should perhaps conduct empirical studies with inputs from different disciplines and supported by comprehensive local fieldwork and research. What do you think? Who should be initiating such studies and in which particular areas?

Unfortunately most academics work in isolation because there is no notion of interdisciplinary collaboration, whereas we should really be sharing our knowledge and have collaborative research between institutions. It is really amazing that we teach different subjects which perhaps will end up serving other countries, but which we fail to teach in our own society, such as Mauritian studies and others which are given less importance such as history and geography, and only very few students are encouraged to take these subjects.

It’s also correct to say that not many empirical studies are being conducted in the local field by our local people. It is sad that we are recycling our own research work which has been conducted years ago. Unless disciplines like anthropology, sociology and other social sciences are given priority, providing students and researchers with the required research tools to carry out empirical fieldwork, and policies framed based on the data collected, I am afraid we will not be able to adequately and promptly remedy the social problems that are making inroads in our country.

Now, do we lack the expertise to conduct the empirical studies I mentioned earlier? We have inherited a colonial system which sought to train us into becoming better clerks. Even today we are following the same trend, what with the one-graduate-per-family goal. What we need is a satisfactory pool of skilled, employable workers but we have not even been able to meet our demand in the local job market and we have to bring in foreign workers. At the tertiary level, students are spoon-fed; worse they hardly do any reading. The aim of the institutions is to have a maximum number of students – quantity, not quality. Is it any wonder that we should look for expertise from abroad in various domains?

* In a bid to put things in their right perspective, historians argue that there’s nothing new to the violence that we see today: there were specific periods in Mauritian history when violence was also rampant: honour crimes were taking place even in the 1870s and 1880s among the labouring class, and crime in the mid-40s was so high as to provoke public outcry in the press. Nothing new under the Mauritian sun?

We cannot compare the violence committed during those days with what’s happening now. The British had their own system of ruling the colonies. Their politics of repression and the structures inherent in empire-building were different. Actually the patterns of violence, which were embedded within other forms of colonialism and culture, created cultural, legal, social, or imperial ‘spaces’. The imperial experience and the types of violence were used to initially impose power, and then to maintain it over vast stretches of land. The relationship of violence was seen as a cultural norm, as part and parcel of imperial social and cultural life. We should also realise the ways in which empires were constructed through violence whether legal, political, cultural or religious. The western patterns of violence which attempted to create colonial empires were inextricably linked to the social violence. But today, the type of violence that is occurring is taking a different turn. Formerly, there was a fight between the rulers and the ruled but now violence is among the masses themselves.

* It is believed that today’s men have become increasingly insecure vis-à-vis the “liberated” womenfolk: the “modern” woman is working her way to greater freedom and independence from her “man”; she knows what she wants and is willing to pay the price to obtain a satisfactory level of material and physical comfort. That may explain the increasing conflicts within the home and the rising rates of divorce and separations. What’s your take on that?

Men’s and women’s understanding of difference and gender difference must be understood in the relational context in which these are created. They stem from the respective relations of boys and girls to their mother, who is their primary caretaker, love object and the object of identification, and who is a woman in a sexually and gender-organised world. This relational context contrasts profoundly for girls and boys in a way that makes difference and gender difference central for males — one of the earliest, most basic male developmental issues, which is not the case for females. It gives men a psychological investment in difference that women do not have.

When we talk about the insecurity of men vis-à-vis the emancipated women, it is more political. The problem is the word gender equality that is misunderstood by many men and women. The socialisation is not done properly. There is a power relation that is being built up by the State and a law that stands between the two. As you had mentioned in the opening question, the man has only one way to deal with such adultery or infidelity, and he equated this act of killing with his profession as a butcher. Technology also has created this widening gap between the couples, that is there is no dialogue between them and with the children. Extramarital relationships are on the rise and counselling is not carried out properly.

* But surely man cannot be the only culprit behind this state of affairs, isn’t it? Who and what else may be equally responsible for that? Our penal and judicial systems? The police?

Here we fail to appreciate that violence is often the outcome of an inability to control other people’s sexual behaviour, that is other people’s management of themselves as gendered individuals. This also explains violence not only between men and women but also between mothers and daughters and daughters-in-law and sisters, etc. What is more crucial is the way in which the behaviour of others threatens the self-representations and social evaluations of oneself.

I think that the courts communicate messages about violence that have different implications for men and women. Men are presented with the carceral side of law, and women experience it as supportive and they are encouraged to use it for help. Thus the court becomes a place for women to turn to for protection rather than a place that reinforces male alienation and disruption of their sense of social support for male authority. Courts are places where cultural images and meanings are formed.

* To come back to the couple unit: what kind of social support structures (marital counselling) could be considered for couples in difficulty? How does one go about creating them, and encouraging the couple either individually or jointly to resort to them before it is too late?

Without adequate training and careful supervision, many counsellors succumb to deep-seated societal norms about gender-based violence and apply them in their work with survivors. Especially in domestic violence case, the typical advice is for him to stop hitting his wife and for her to be more obedient. We need trained officers to deal with these issues rather than amateurs. There is no mutual understanding among young couples, who do not have the benefit of having elders to guide them as they are mostly living in a nuclear family system. The socio-religious organisations should be more proactive in counselling their members.

An effective prevention and response to GBV should depend on multi-sectoral, inter-organisational collaboration, integrated action and active community participation. But at times these objectives seem impossible to attain. There are divergences on gender issues which create an atmosphere of uncertainty in the population. I think that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and other stakeholders working for women carry out grassroots activities with different mindsets.

* Are there any working models you are aware of, that have proved their worth, both here and abroad?

First of all we have to frame our own working models, based on our culture. The problem we are having now concerning gender-based violence is that we have tried to put into practice other foreign models which take time to be absorbed by society and by the time we get adapted another model is in force.

* What about those who tend to be forgotten in all this – the children? How can society help them to cope?

Proper socialisation should be carried out. Our kids are being socialised by different types of technology. They are no more children, as they are playing the roles of adults. My suggestion is that retired headmasters could be inducted to look after the pre-primary students, who are better placed than inexperienced teachers for the socialisation of these young kids. Further, street children could be looked after by willing elders who are otherwise spending their time unproductively in their homes.

* Conventional wisdom would suggest that religion could be a very valuable tool in coping with the problems that men and women are facing in today’s society. That does not seem to be the case despite the fact that religiosity is very intense in Mauritian society. Why is that so?

In multicultural Mauritius, religion is vital. But the fact is that it is not resolving the social ills of each community. Some adepts are converting to other religions to attain solace, peace or material gain. Many religious structures are being erected; many crown lands are being converted into religious and spiritual parks. Various rites and ceremonies are being conducted throughout the island so as to have more adepts. But will these manifestations help address social problems, or make citizens become better citizens? Unfortunately, it does not work that way. It is a pity that huge sums of public money are invested in the erection of religious structures and in the ritualistic performances without instilling moral values to the younger generations. For instance, during the religious ceremonies we find politicians discoursing about politics; it’s as if we are politicising religion. I know one cannot divorce religion from politics but mixing the two is definitely wrong.


* Published in print edition on 30 January 2014

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