Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics 

By Professor J. Manrakhan

The current controversy involving the Truth and Justice Commission and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) on access to Indentured Labourers data, has far reaching implications warranting serious reflection.

Appointed directly by Parliament, the Commission in 2008 and the Institute in 1970, have both been submerged by a tsunami of ‘views and feelings’ to put it mildly, from ‘socio-cultural’ – read ‘politicking forces – all the stronger for the small size of former Dodoland. We revert to this matter subsequently.

To start with, there is the undoubted existence of a persistent streak of ‘expropriating the ex-proprietors’, which even a resurrected Dodo might deplore. It surfaced, for example, at the 1981-82 Commission of Enquiry on the Sugar Industry, when a ‘veritable mountain of evidence promised’ failed to materialize despite contrary assurances of some ‘in high places’. All the 1981-82 Commission could do with the few who genuinely believed they had claims, was to advise the latter to resort to legal redress – even if the grounds given appeared insufficient to convince a Court of Law. Presumably if those grounds had been strong enough, the Commission would have referred the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, after seeking legal advice – presumably from the State Law Office. (Yet, one might also wonder why ‘high places’ did not sort out the problem themselves in the first instance!).

At various times, the Agricultural Marketing Board in the 1970s, the University of Mauritius (and doubtless others) have carried statistical surveys (e.g. on food consumption habits) and collect data accordingly. These, often of a personal nature, remain confidential following international practice. The Sugar Insurance Fund Board (SIFB) collects sugar cane data from producers every year, essentially for insurance purposes: these too remain confidential, with personal data released to each planter only and no one else – unless the SIFB has to, as provided for by law or through a Court Order. It is relevant to note that, in 1980, the Central Statistical office (CSO) accepted to depersonalize enough national census data to enable food consumption research to be conducted by the University of Mauritius. In brief, all data of a personal nature should not be normally disclosed into the public domain, unless there are good grounds for doing so, usually within a legal framework.

The Truth and Justice Commission is inter alia, empowered (i) to conduct inquiries into slavery and indentured labour in Mauritius and may for that purpose gather information and receive evidence from any person, (ii) ‘determine’ appropriate measures to be extended to descendants of slaves and indentured labourers, (iii) enquire into complaints made by anyone concerning dispossession or prescription of any land, in which he or she claims an interest; and (iv) make a comprehensive report based on factual objective information and evidence it receives.

The Mahatma Gandhi Institute born from deeply felt aspirations to establish three major cultural centres of excellence on Indian Culture outside Indian frontiers, as well as the realities of secondary co-education in Mauritius, managed somehow to induce the University of Mauritius to landscape its greenery (self-admission by Dr K. Hazareesingh, the MGI’s first Director), inspire the School of African and Oreintal Studies, London, to advise on its own School of Mauritian, African and Asian Studies (and to which the indentured – labour data base is attached), angered ‘the only Man in the Indian Cabinet’, namely Indira-the-Great to upgrade it as Joint No.1 Irritation (the other being ‘Diego!’ – Kher Jagatsingh dixit), made many an expert on Art or Music and the latter’s management to register complaints at Réduit only to be courteously redirected to Moka, puzzled a highly learned top ICS Officer who, later, jointly administered l’Année de l’Inde en France, and stunned the rest of higher education not only in securing the most beautiful site of the Central Plateau and then, managed to expand across the length and breadth of Mauritius and in the process, became a kind of unique umbrella institution, with local and overseas links, destined to span from non-formal activities to performing arts, and doctoral studies.

Now, would the MGI be entitled to refuse access to the Indentured-Labour data held in its custody? The answer lies in the final three sentences of Autonomy and Freedom in Academe (EOI/University of Mauritius (1991 p.204):

The central lesson from history is easily stated: an institution must exist in society, which can examine the latter critically, and provide for its continued renewal. That is what that remarkable institution called the University is all about. That also involves, and justifies, academic freedom and institutional autonomy. That is also the future.

In short ‘Yes! The MGI is entitled to refuse that access. But, and it is a big ‘But!’ the MGI came into existence well after the Data came to be collected. The latter is to all intents and purposes the property of the State of Mauritius. And the final say is with the latter, irrespective of anything else – whether the data base should not have been lodged at the Archives (good-bye data, to start with! Only not today, thankfully) or whether the MGI cannot proceed on the procedures internationally accepted for archival work or whether the Archives and the MGI cannot hammer out an agreement: It is for the State to decide in the final analysis. (In parenthesis, it is worth mentioning the reverse – that the SIFB has donated its collection of locality surveyor- maps of cane fields to the State).

The following aspects should also be borne in mind.

  1. The Law now routinely transcends the whole country, including every campus site, Enquiry Commission, and all; immunity only exists as provided, or permitted, by the Law itself.
  2. The Commission of Enquiry of 1872 and its various appendices (C1115; HMSO, Lond, 1975) has brought into the public domain many a behavioural portrait of people from around 150 years ago, readily recognized in their descendants of today, while the ill-treatment of labourers and others, although callous, would scarcely enter into any Guinness Book of Records for the period concerned. Then and now, people are neither wholly angelic nor wholly devilish.
  3. The digitisation of the Archives (para 136 of Budget Speech 2011) should also help to disseminate rare documents (inclusive the ones at the MGI and elsewhere) and should help with “Publish-and-be-dammed”, and “Publish or Perish” approaches. Yet even the latter’s most ardent advocates should not altogether ignore the deep feelings of those who, traditionally, do not like certain matters to be committed to writing in, for example, ancient India.
  4. There is undoubted confusion in Mauritius concerning confidentiality of sensitive documents. The ‘culture of excessive secrecy’ is unhealthy and, in any case, is increasingly being breached. It is better to permit release periodically, e.g. after 15 or 25 years or whatever – but what should not be released, should be categorized (and legislated for).
  5. There are latent costs involved. The Central Statistical Office many years ago warned of the dangers of ‘data-mining’ fatigue, especially with the growing demand from commercial enterprises and political pollsters. Since then, that fatigue must have vastly increased with mass media initiatives. Willingness to provide information readily may soon be at a high premium (and cost, and eventually dry up). And if ‘confidential’ information is involved and is at increasing risk from ‘hacking’ and such like, we may be opening a new Pandora’s Box.

Time now to comment on the tsunami mentioned at the outset.

It is extremely difficult to find lean and hungry anarchists hell-bent on destroying major chunks of Mauritian society among the members and helpers of the Truth and Justice Commission: a Roland Lamusse, too kind to say “no” to more requests on his overfull research intray; a Benjamin Mootoo, often found slaving in the Mauritiana of the University Library at Réduit and then indenturing himself to thereby produce delightful historical anecdotes; Sushita Ramdin, ever busy with popularising children names and songs as well as the erudite writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Literature Laureate 1913; Palma Veerapen often lost in thought to discern more possibilities of translating Bayes’ Theorem to enliven the life of Mauritians; Vijaya Teelock, blowing the winds of change to sweep away the ugly and unacceptable face of plantation economics, and among many others a Rivière happy to end his exile and assist with his experience of distant variegated climes.

If by misfortune, they do not deliver, then one could attempt to pass judgement – but in an altogether constructive framework than threatening apocalypse, Mahabharatha-style, in Mauritius. To the latter, probably misguided, I wish to say ‘if you had cause to flee from India to Mauritius during the Mutiny (or First war of Independence) on a risky trip across the Kala Pani, would you on arrival disclose your real names, occupation, caste (or guild) etcetera? And does ‘kalapani’ (dark waters – or Ocean) not ring in your mind a warning bell, or two?

In all fairness and to avoid any misunderstanding I wish to disclose that my surname, possibly misrepresented, (by my ancestor(s), or the recording clerk(s), or both), has been interpreted by no less an authority than Moonis Raza, former Vice Chancellor of Delhi (on a visit to the Réduit Campus), as ‘keeper of the Heart’. Moonis Raza later served on a trouble-shooting committee concerning the Ayodhya Affair. So who am I to gainsay with such an illustrious intellectual?

Finally, I wish the Truth and Justice Commission every success in their noble endeavours.  

Now, let the music play – unequal, unsweet, or hopefully otherwise.

Professor J. Manrakhan 

End note: The title of this paper is borrowed from Lord Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1804 – 81)

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2011

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