Former Chief Justice, Supreme Court, Mauritius
By Professor J. Manrakhan
Family and friends are mourning the passing away, at 84, of Sir Cassam Moollan, LLB QC Kt, Chief Justice, 1982-88 during which time he was periodically Acting Governor General. Educated at the Royal College and the London School of Economics, he read for his LLB and was subsequently called to the Bar, at Lincoln’s Inn in 1951. He joined private legal practice in Mauritius, until 1958, when he joined the judicial service, climbing the various rungs from District Magistrate, through the State Law Office to the Judiciary.
There are various aspects of his distinctive personality that endeared him to many. His occupational aloofness, while obvious, and his great discretion, were insufficient to completely camouflage his talent of raconteur, from which a discerning observer would conclude that, for example, the march of Mauritius towards independence, and beyond, was less than straightforward, and that our recent history was more complex than often assumed.
For very many he had a gentle word or two, even in the most trying circumstances. A generous host, he arranged for a lunch at Le Réduit in honour of a distinguished Malagasy lawyer, who had been appointed on the International Court of Justice at the Hague – a function ever to live in the memory of those who attended, not least concerning the inter-island cooperation and support within the South West Indian Ocean.
As Chief Justice, he was at pains to keep enough of his judges at work for the purposes of the Supreme Court without depriving their services elsewhere in the national interest, thus at the Council of Legal Education and in various Commissions of Enquiry, Fact Finding Committees and such like.
His dry sense of humour and love for music pierced through his traditional sense of calm courtesy. And it remained a moot point, when he retired to Chambers, whether it was mainly for dipping again into law reports, or to enjoy bridge, and other, articles in various quality newspapers and reviews.
For family and friends, the Judiciary and the legal profession, and for Mauritius generally, Cassam Moollan will indeed be sorely missed.
* * *
Nalanda and Newman:
Fast-Forward for a New SOS Strategy?
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
— T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965
Among recent information items that should have attracted attention are: first, that dealing with the project to revive an ancient and celebrated centre of learning started at Nalanda near Patna in Bihar, India, more than 1500 years ago, (see The Economist, September 2010 pp 54); and second, that concerning the beatification ceremony of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) presided over by Pope Benedict XVI on 19 September 2010 at Birmingham, UK.
Both sets of events could conceivably have profound significance for the development of that most remarkable institution called the University, especially in terms of ideals and of interaction between faith and reason within society at large, with quality always at a premium, even if that institution, great prospects notwithstanding, is currently also plagued with diverse problems, as portrayed, for example, in The Economist of 5 August 7th 2011 p 12: ‘Hustling Spires’; September 11th pp 55-56: ‘School of Hard Knocks’; and above all, in that with the ‘mischievous’ question : ‘Could American Universities go the way of its car companies?’, (September 4; p 64), all the more tantalising as US universities fill 8 of the top 10 in the world table league of universities, – according to the Jiao Tong University, China – from Harvard (1st) thro Stanford, Berkeley to MIT (5th), CalTech (6th), Columbia, Princeton and Columbia (9th), with Cambridge (4th) and Oxford (10th) of the UK, being the only other two highfliers.
An early definition of a ‘University’ used to read: A community of ‘scholars’ and ‘students’. It is hardly used nowadays, not only because the scholars and the students now come wearing a bewildering variety of labels, but also because ‘student-run’ universities may yet emerge in force to emulate the future equivalents of ‘how to navigate an Earth grudgingly acknowledged to not to be flat, amid global credit crunches, shaking the present and the future, seemingly tied to financial and related matters, protracted and fuelled by ever-elastic pernicious ethics. We know what the University resembles today – more like the factory to produce passports (not necessarily with visas) for elusive jobs, let alone ‘whole persons’ to better serve a changing world, seemingly wanting a range of one-stop higher-education supermarkets, providing whole sets of made-to-measure courses, with semi-detached research and consultancy outfits, cocooned in confidential red tape, if not outright secrecy — far away from ‘learning and teaching’ in an atmosphere of ‘research and scholarship’. Yet what else?
Whether one thinks of knowledge as being a river flowing towards an oceanic whole, or a mountain to be arduously and continuously climbed, it is the systematic, and relentless, pursuit of knowledge that, in the final analysis, underlies and justifies the university institution, within an overall dynamic framework of social change with adequate provision for law and order. To enable the latter, society must consciously provide for special associations and places, in which restrictions upon the exploration of new ideas and the pursuit of new knowledge are reduced to a minimum; in turn, the latter associations and places must limit to a minimum their direct intervention in the affairs of society. Such associations and places need not necessarily be universities; yet therein lies the basic justification for the institution.
The University is never meant to be the mere reproduction of existing society, unlikely to be that needed for the future, changing ever faster. The University, essentially meant to be a guardian of society’s future, is committed to the search for a new society. As such, the University should critically examine conventional wisdom, and work out imaginative alternatives. It cannot be the instrument of those primarily concerned with the immediacy in the management of society’s affairs. Hence it ought not to be directly an arm of Government, an offshoot of Religion, or a servant of Industry. And yet, the University, state-funded or otherwise, must never forget that it is a creation of society, and has to act and interact with the latter.
The previous definitions mentioned however, suffice to highlight the teaching aspects of the institution, besides implying an organisational structure and an overall view of things, with procedures, traditions, ceremonials and all, gathered around certain functions and shared values, having to do with the preservation, discovery, acquisition, transmission and evaluation of knowledge. As such, the origins of the University can be traced far back in time, to the very dawn of civilisation, if not earlier – possibly to the ancient cave-dwellers and their drawings.
And so we move deep into the past
Archaeological evidence seems to warrant the conclusion that specialised education systems existed in the ancient civilisations of the great river valleys of Africa and Asia by the III Millennium Before Current Era (BCE), if not the IV; indeed, the fantastic drawings of wild animals by ancient cave dwellers might have served as near real-world education-and-training facilities, as for magical (religious?) purposes.
We should recall that not later than some two thousand years ago, the Chinese had already devised their famous competitive system of selection, training and promotion of state officials and had invented that scourge of student-life, labelled examinations.
Groves, Ponds, Spires
Higher education in Cathay, included history, law, mathematics, finance, military affairs, agriculture, etiquette and dancing, and was dominated by an absolute requirement of a thorough mastery of classical literature, especially the works of Confucius (551 -479). Indeed, in 125 BCE, a college of Doctors of Classics had started with 50 students and grew rapidly to around 30,000.
Scholars of Ancient India felt that history had best be left unrecorded and it is therefore rather difficult to trace exactly the course of higher education there in those times. Fortunately there were scholars sufficiently adventurous, mobile, and anxious to acquire their knowledge in different countries and their records are available.
Thus, Hsuan Tsang writing in the 7th century described a centre of advanced studies at Nalanda for those who successfully overcame its tough entrance examinations, taken usually at the age of 20. ‘Nalanda’ founded in 427, was, literally, the ‘Giver of Lotus’ with the flower, in turn representing ‘knowledge’. Around 8500-10000 students were taught by some 1500-2000 teachers, ranked by titles in a roughly similar manner to present-day university practice; there were no less than 100 lectures daily in an institution of higher learning, which began during the 5th century, under the Guptas.
In that ancient pan-Asian University, higher education stretched from astronomy, arts and crafts thro mathematics and medicine, to philosophy and religion (particularly Budhism, Hinduism and Vedism). There are accounts of Nalanda’s destruction at the turn into the 13th century, along with its monastries and related buildings. For The Economist (‘Ivory Pagodas, 4 September 2010) Nalanda with a ‘glorious’ poetic past and ‘rows of pagodas the spires of which touched the clouds among mango groves and lotus pools’, may yet reopen, on the initiative of a Mentor Group led by Amartya Sen, Economics Nobel Laureate, 1998, a former Master at Trinity Cambridge, England, now at Harvard, with the support and encouragement of the State of Bihar, the Government of India, and of numerous well-wishers and supporters, in various other Asian countries, notably China, Japan, Singapore and Thailand. A revived Nalanda costing some 1000 billion US dollars may yet become ‘a showpiece of regional diplomatic engagement’ for future regional and global betterment.
Light, Tower, Heart
* Published in print edition on 19 November 2010