Reflecting on Our Democracy

For democracy to survive we need the solidarity of all
our fellow citizens

Thinking back to the way we imagined our democracy in the 1960s, we had imagined that once the plant of democracy had been put to the soil, it could only grow stronger with the years. We then found that it had to face many setbacks in the 1970s and 80s, and that challenges to our democracy are ever present.

The recent controversy with respect to the Prosecution Commission Bill is a reminder that democracy is a fragile plant, which has to be continuously nurtured. The very fact of being reassured that there is no threat to our democracy is always a pointer to dangers lurking in the dark. In a great country like the United States, President Obama has told his fellow Americans in his farewell message that we cannot be complacent about democracy; democracy, he said, is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

Since 1959 we have had universal suffrage, that is the right to vote for every man and woman in our country, and in 1976 this right was extended to every 18-year-old Mauritian. We have had regular elections since 1886, except during the Second World War and the post-independence years. Since the1950s our colonial institutions have been democratized so that they reflect the aspirations of the people, and our Constitution enshrined many of the freedoms and liberties conquered over the years.

Our Constitution guarantees our fundamental rights, a parliamentary system and the rule of law. The Welfare State has been set up to create a fairer society and new institutions have been added to promote social justice and human rights. An aggrieved person can appeal against a decision of the Public Service Commission. We can have recourse to the National Human Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission or to the courts of law and eventually to the Privy Council for a redress of grievances. The press, trade unions, political parties and a number of professional and civil organisations serve as a countervailing power to the State.

As we build our democracy, we have also provided enormous powers to the State and its institutions. The State has vast powers, resources, and institutions for the benefit of society. State power can also use these very resources and institutions to turn men and women into conformists who undermine the democratic system. While government institutions, political parties, trade unions, the press or other organisations can respond to the democratic aspirations at the grassroots level, they can also easily be integrated in the State system and through patronage, grants, subsidies and other material resources be made to subvert democracy.

We are all aware of parliamentarians who vote laws without any understanding of what they are voting. Organisations offer their views on any subject without even consulting their members. Even the media can easily be turned into a propaganda machine for the State. In a country which has had 40 years of free schooling since 1976, we are made to believe that nine years of schooling will be introduced in Mauritius, as if for years now we have had only 6 years of schooling like many developing countries where a great number of children do not have access to primary education. With the development of technology, the techniques of surveillance have been refined by the State so much so even powerful countries like the US can become vulnerable to political propaganda from Russia in an election campaign.

If State power is so powerful, it is also because individuals in our various institutions and organisations too have abdicated their rights as democratic citizens in return for some material benefits. Individuals prefer the comfort of their homes, families and the material benefits provided by the State rather than cherish the freedom to live and work as free citizens. In our comfort we have little time for our fellow citizens for we believe that some issues do not concern us. Why fight for public schools when we have the means to go to a private school? Why should we care about our health institutions when we can afford private health care?

Living in a consumer society people will consume anything — even State propaganda. Today a few million rupees or facilities for a loan can be sufficient, it is alleged, to get an MLA to vote against his conscience. Fortunately the majority of our citizens remain committed to our democracy and can be relied upon to stand up for their rights. Even after attempts to undermine the independence of our civil service, many civil servants, from the highest level to the lowest rungs of the ladder have accepted punitive transfers or opted for a delayed promotion – but refused to collude in malpractices and become accomplices in crime.

Finally democracy can only survive in our country if people from all walks of life — men and women – who cherish our democratic ideals live up to them in their day-to-day lives.

To be a democrat means to resist the arbitrary powers of the State and the institutions that are under its tutelage.

To be a democrat means to strengthen all our institutions in order to render them autonomous and act as a countervailing force to the State, as well as a force for the good of the nation and for future generations and not for any individuals, families, groups or tribes.

For democracy to survive we need the solidarity of all our fellow citizens for we have learnt the hard way that when democracy is undermined, our economy has come to a halt and we are rendered dependent on our begging bowl being filled.

Sada Reddi

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