Paramanund Soobarah

Constitutional Reforms: Perilous Outlook for the Country

Paramanund Soobarah

If what the papers are saying about the pronouncements of the Prime Minister on his emergence from the ceremony marking the anniversary of the birth of the Father of the Nation, who also happens to be his own father, is true, this nation is in deep trouble. SSR and his political colleagues Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, Jules Koenig and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal (the Four Leaders or the Founding Fathers) found themselves in a situation where they had to lay the foundations of a future nation. They knew that all the various segments of the Mauritian community needed to be reassured that their religious, linguistic, cultural, educational, economic and political rights were guaranteed, and that none would come forward one day to deny them the right to live as they though fit. Already many were fleeing the country because of the propaganda whipped around the notion of “péril hindou.”

They had to do something then and there to make of Mauritius a country that would happily accommodate all its children. There was no time for deep analysis and thinking: it all had to be done within the timeframe of a weeklong constitutional conference in London. We are all thankful to them that they were able to surmount their mutual antagonisms and devise a system, the inappropriately-named Best Loser System (BLS), that, while being far from perfect, has enabled the major communities to coexist in peace to this day. Examples abound of countries around the world where communities are at each other’s throats because of perceived injustices suffered by one at the hands of another. Thanks to the efforts of the Founding Fathers, we have ourselves been largely immune from such troubles.

The constitutional weaknesses in the BLS, and in our Constitution generally, have been the subject of numerous expert studies and judicial pronouncements. I make no claim to any expertise in any field and write straight from my gut feeling: troubles arise in nations not because of what experts and intellectuals think inside closed doors but because what the man of the street feels in his guts. I don’t give a damn for theoreticians.

I know that some people are unhappy with about their rights under the present arrangements and my gut feeling tells me that something must be done to dissipate their unhappiness without undoing completely the work of the Founding Fathers.

To begin with, they accepted the received view at the time that the population consisted of four groups, namely Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians and the General Population. They did not have much time for deeper analysis, of which they were perfectly capable but which they must have known that dwelling on them might well drag on into months and years. There was no time and the work had to be finished, and it was.

The theoretical incongruities in the BLS are infinite, as is always the case if you divide any group along different criteria – in this case religion, ethnicity and arrogance. Even if the first two criteria are clear enough, that is no way to divide any group. This division was not the creation of the Founding Fathers; it came from the arrogance of some people in the early days of the country. …What community do you belong to? Look at my face and listen to me speak, you idiot! Are you Hindu, or Muslim? Do I look like one? Sorry, I thought you might be. You are obviously not a Chinese. You must therefore belong to the established population of the Island, the General Population, then. Of course, you idiot; do you think I am a newly landed subhuman?… Can we blame the Founding Fathers for believing that somebody not belonging to the Hindu, Muslim and Chinese communities would find no difficulty in calling himself a member of the General Population? But then times have changed. The census rules and the voting rules should allow somebody to declare that he belongs to some other community, or that he does not wish to belong to any community. But the sacrosanct principle of communal balance in electoral representation must be maintained. And the equally sancrosanct principle of basing appointments and promotions on merit in the Civil and Police Services must also be maintained.

The fundamental logical error of dividing the population along two criterias simultaneously (religion and ethnicity) must be addressed. The General Population group is largely Christian, and should be designated as such, alongside the Hindu and Muslim communities. But the right of Sino-Christians to consider themselves, if they so wish, as a distinct subgroup of the larger Christian community must also be recognised. Therefore for electoral purposed, the Christian Community should be defined as consisting of Christians other than Chinese Christians. Provision must also be made to accommodate people who are ethnically Chinese but who have not converted to other religions.

It should be noted that the arrogance criterion has prevented the development of an Indo-Christian community. To date Indian-origin families converting to Christianity disappear totally within the General Population. But if the law were provide a slot for them within the larger Christian community, things might change. The right of people to associate and form communities according to their family histories and “way of life” must be recognised, however much this might upset committees sitting in Geneva (they ought to take time off to study the Constitution of Switzerland which makes allowances for four languages, two religions, four parties and 26 Cantons, all equally represented in decision-making bodies).

Would the restyling of the General Population into Christians other than Sino-Christians solve all problems? The classsical division of the population before the arrival of the subhumans from Asia was Blancs, Mûlatres and Créoles. From the little that I know in having lived in the country for upwards of seventy-five years, these divisions persist. Numbers and proportions may have changed following the mass-migrations caused the perceptions of the “péril hindou”, but they are still there. In fairness to these subgroups, their existence and different “ways of life” must be recognised, preferably with a modernised terminology.

While this is not the main purpose of this article, I would like to refer briefly to the perceived ills of the first-past-the-post system. There was a definite sense of pain in Sir Gaetan Duval’s famous references to the 44% who did not get adequate representation in the Assembly. A symbolic step must be made towards those left behind by the system. If every elector continued voting for three candidates, and the 20 constituencies each returned four deputies instead of just three, it would go a long way towards assuaging the pain of those left at the post. But this by itself would not assure the communal balance in the representation at the national level; no system based on separate elections in different portions of the country, however judiciously one goes about cutting up the constituencies, is likely to achieve that result. Something like the BLS remains necessary. It should be restyled the Communal Balance Assurance Scheme, CBAS.

May God Almighty guide the deliberations of our political leaders so that we go on living in peace in this country.

Paramanund Soobarah

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