Commemoration of the 180th Anniversary of the Arrival of our Forefathers
One of the ways to undermine a people or diminish it in its own esteem, is to ridicule it, destroy its culture and stifle its voice by replacing its language with another one.
We have come a long way since those gory days of humiliation, suppression and injustice. Over almost 200 years, we have been able to give a pride of place to our languages. But is the battle over? Shouldn’t we remain vigilant all the time, , inquire, question and evaluate the situation? Because there are always two sides to a coin. The people of Indian origin in Mauritius have struggled hard through countless generations to fight and gain due recognition for their cultural heritage and their languages. They have managed to have their rites, rituals and customs respected and their identities maintained. Yet one should be constantly watchful. Celebration should be coupled with responsibility. This struggle has been a constant effort in the different former plantation colonies by all our brothers and sisters, who are today proud to be part of the Indian diaspora.
However, in some diasporic countries the loss of languages is a painful reality. No matter how much effort is being put into the teaching and maintenance of the ancestral languages, for example Hindi, the task appears to be Herculean. Recently, in a conference tour of the Caribbean countries, to my dismay, I made this traumatizing experience of the struggle of our people of the diaspora to try to come back from a situation where language has been almost lost. After generations of having been subjugated, the people of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana or Jamaica are trying very hard indeed, against the overpowering current of westernization, to retain their ancestral culture and linguistic heritage. They are very brave people indeed. Contre vents et marées, they are holding on to their Hindi schools and sabhas. They are sending strong SOS of help to those who are more fortunate and to India in particular.
In Mauritius, we may consider ourselves luckier: we had the visit of such intrepid persons as Mahatma Gandhi and Manilal Doctor at the turn of the 20th century who infused strength and fortitude in the people of Indian origin.
The formidable young French-knowing Gujarati barrister, Manilal Doctor, sent by Gandhiji following his visit here in 1901, took up the cudgel for us and challenged the White plantocracy. He set up the Hindustani newspaper, urged the Indian small planters to open a co-operative bank as the White-controlled bank would not advance them loans to diversify their meagre economy.
Another aspect that has been favourable to us is our geographical position in the Indian Ocean which gives us proximity to India, compared to the far flung countries of the Caribbean in the West. Coming to think of it, Reunion Island is in the Indian Ocean, yet Reunion suffered the despicable trauma of the Code Noire. The perception is that our system of colonization appeared to have been a little more lenient than elsewhere. Was it? The very gruelling system prevailing in Reunion, in distant Guadeloupe and Martinique trapped the people of Indian origin who almost lost their religion and cultural values. Their names were changed so as to gain access to education and social mobility, their languages including Tamil lost – yet they have not given up. This is an amazing feat. Today, there is a renewed vigorous move by younger generations of plantation diasporic people to continue the quest and struggle towards the maintenance or revival of their linguistic and cultural heritage and retrieve as far as possible what has been lost.
As I said earlier, in Mauritius, we have been able to face the likes of NMU and his numerous successive descendants in various forms and appearances, in successive decades, yet the battle has not stopped. The move towards the rehabilitation of our identities, our languages and cultural heritage is an ongoing process. ‘Stop not till the goal in reached,’ said Swami Vivekananda. Another reason for our being luckier than elsewhere is that from the beginning we have had well-structured socio-cultural and linguistic organizations, led by educated and aware strong personalities who were armed with conviction and courage. . We had our baithkas, pathshalas and madrassas. The Arya Sabha, the Hindi Pracharini Sabha, the Hindu Maha Sabha, the Seva Shivir youth movement, the Sewa Samiti have been crusading movements. Personalities like the Bhagat brothers of Long Mountain, the Bissoondoyal brothers, Pandit Ramnarain, stalwarts like JN Roy, Pandit Jugdutt, R. Neewoor, Beekrumsing Ramlallah, Pandit Geerjanand, Pandit Kashinath Kistoe, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam have been formidable role models.
When we are commemorating the 180th anniversary of the arrival of our forefathers to Mauritius, it is pertinent to look back and pay tribute to all those selfless people who carried an unflinching battle for the maintenance of our linguistic heritage, and sacrificed their own well-being for the larger cause.
The struggle to get Hindi and other Asian languages accepted in mainstream educational system has not been without tears. Yet, with the support of visionary political leaders, we have managed to achieve respect and dignity for our languages and cultural heritage.
It is in this context that the holding of two international conferences around Hindi and Bhojpuri to coincide with the commemoration of the advent of Indian Indentured Labour immigrants should be viewed as a happy and just coincidence.
The Teaching of Hindi: Reviewed and Modi’s Stand
The Celebration will be kickstarted with an international regional conference around the technicalities of reviewing the whole system of teaching methodologies of Hindi in the diasporic countries. Mauritius, with the seat of World Hindi Secretariat and well-established Institutions like the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, with a long experience in the preparation of language textbooks and curriculum materials in Hindi and other Asian languages, is therefore well-positioned to take the lead.
From 29th October to 1st November, pedagogues and linguistic experts from India and diasporic countries will put their heads and expertise together at IGCIC and MGI to chalk out a strategy for improving and reviewing the teaching of Hindi in their respective countries. This initiative has been taken by the Government of India through the High Commission of India here, the World Hindi Secretariat in collaboration with the Hindi Speaking Union and other Hindi bodies.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong advocacy and assertiveness of Hindi locally and internationally, during his recent visits to Japan and the USA, has given a bold message of respectability and Swabhimaan to the language. Likewise, his assertion during his campaigns in Benares that he would include Bhojpuri in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, once he becomes Prime Minister, should be taken seriously. Bhojpuri is the language of 200 million Bhojpurias in India and diasporic countries. This step will give a new respectability to Bhojpuri.
Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan
The other celebration worth mentioning is the Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw. Bhojpuri has been the stifled voice of the masses since their arrival here. Its rich 1000-year old intangible cultural heritage remained in the backwaters of mainstream Mauritian cultural life as a subculture for long. With the setting up of the NGO Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute in 1982 and the creation of an Academic Department of Bhojpuri, Folklore and Oral Traditions at the MGI in the same year, Bhojpuri made a significant thrust towards recognition. One should pay tribute to the countless folk singers at grassroots level who continued to sing, create and compose Bhojpuri songs with very little or timid support, unlike that provided to other creative artists.
Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw
With the scheme at the Ministry of Arts and Culture to help artists bring out their CDs, some ray of hope has appeared on the horizon for these Bhojpuri artists. However, it is the setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union by the government in May 2011 by an Act of Parliament which acted as a catalyst. The Bhojpuri Speaking Union operating under the Ministry of Arts and Culture has been a catalyst in the process of given Bhojpuri its lettre de noblesse.
Thus it is that the clustering of activities around the commemoration of the 180th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labour (2nd November) the Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw became one of the main planks of a series of activities to give Bhojpuri a national and international visibility with a Cabinet decision passed on 22nd August last. It is true that given the unforeseen political circumstances, the main glamour of the Mahotsaw, the Bhojpuri Cultural Extravaganza has had to be cancelled, like the Creole Festival. Yet other activities such as the Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan from 30th to 31st October organized by the Bhojpuri Speaking Union, the Ministry of Arts and Culture with the collaboration of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute have been retained.
The Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan
The Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute will have as main theme: ‘The rich oral and written literature of Bhojpuri.’ Some of the top-notch Bhojpuri litterateurs and scholars from India and Europe and diaspora countries have responded to the call for papers. The aim is to show other vivid literary colours of the rich Bhojpuri inheritance. Two sub themes of the Conference focus on Bhojpuri and the media including the film world and Bhojpuri and Youth.
For too long Bhojpuri has been stigmatized as a rural ’campagnard’ language (‘pe coze Langage’!) and spoken only by the elderly. This conference will prove this perception wrong and showcase the determined involvement of young scholars and students in Mauritius who are fluent in their use of Bhojpuri.
Other splendours include a Food Mela at the IGCIC on 1st November, regional shows in which will perform renowned artists from the Caribbean countries like Kries Ramkhelawon, Padma Shri Mrs Prasad and her troupe from Bihar, glamorous Malini Awasthi and Mauritian Bhojpuri artists as well as Bhojpuri plays such as Bhojpuri hamar Shaan and Pehchan by Nav Jyoti Arts.
Another interesting item is the Glories of Bihar Art Exhibition with the collaboration of the Rabindranath Tagore Institute on 3rd November at RTI, to be inaugurated by the President of the Republic. Some 15 renowned Mauritian artists will display their works and there will be 50 tableaux showcasing the glories of Bihar, past, medieval and present. For too long, people of Bihari origin have been apologetic about their roots and ancestry. This exhibition seeks to correct that perception.
The purpose of the Bhojpuri Mahotsaw is not only to celebrate and rejoice, but also to assume our responsibilities and our identities, take stock of our achievements and redress the weaknesses and arm ourselves with greater vigour to face the challenges of modernity and the future. Today’s generation should know that everything was not obtained on a golden platter. There is a price to be paid for everything, and we should be acutely aware of and do whatever is required so as not to lose all that has been achieved at great sacrifice by those who have gone before us.
* Published in print edition on 24 Ocotober 2014