Access to MGI Archives, Caste: Facts and Realities

By TP Saran

We must thank the various commentators of non-Hindu faith who have aired their views on the caste system and casteism. This is a free country where everybody is at liberty to express himself, including on the practices or religion of compatriots who do not belong to his faith, in so far as the comments have a bearing on living together, and as long as they are done in good faith, are not derogatory or meant to cause offence or hurt, and are not liable to lead to social unrest.

As Hindus, it is in our tradition to listen to what others have to say with attention, because we appreciate that an outsider view does sometimes offer fresh perspectives. However, without doubt those who have taken the trouble to make their observations will be the first ones to understand, since they possess superior intelligence, that their knowledge will by definition be limited, because they will not have any subjective, insider experience of how things actually are. This is why in Hinduism; the distinction is made between jnana, theoretical knowledge, and vigjnana, assimilated knowledge or experience, which is closer to the reality of the situation being examined.

We have therefore heard, read and considered. Having done so, we will make our own decision, and will not be told what we have to do as regards caste and casteism as it impacts our lives, as this is an internal matter to be resolved amongst ourselves. When we need outside help, we will surely know where to seek it.

There have been many voices speaking about caste and the MGI archives, which are the registers that were kept by the Britishers that contain details, including those of a personal nature, about individual immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. There are two sets of issues and questions that are involved.

The first is twofold:

  1. Access to archives: Do genuine researchers or official entities (such as the Truth and Justice Commission) have access to the MGI archives? The answer, confirmed by Mr R Dwarka, Chairman of MGI, is: yes, they do.

 For reasons that are not difficult to guess, the media has forced the perception in the public that MGI is refusing access to these records. This is patently not true.

  1. Access to information: Do the above have access to the information in the MGI archives? The answer is yes, but there are conditions stipulated in the MGI Act, as in the National Archives Act, and that are in line with international norms as regards national archives. These conditions do not allow the release of information of a personal nature, which is available only to the individual concerned, or may be released only upon the individual giving his informed and written consent thereto. In both Acts, the responsibility of releasing the type of information rests with the responsible officer concerned.
  2.   This practice of allowing access to restricted information under the protection of the law is a cardinal principle in several domains where national data are needed to guide policy makers when they make plans to: improve the living conditions of the people, build houses, roads, schools, health centres, baby care centres, old people’s homes, industrial estates and so on.

Two examples that may be cited are the census and public health.

  • If one looks at the leaflet issued by the Central Statistics Office in connection with the ongoing Population Census, one can read the following: ‘It is our obligation to keep your personal information confidential…rest assured that we will do so.’ Further, ‘…officers have taken oath of non-disclosure and will keep your answers secret. The law provides penalties, including imprisonment, regarding any breach of confidentiality.

This is as clear as it can be regarding personal information, which is sensitive. The fundamental objective is the protection of the individual.

  • In matters of public health, where there are correlations between health problems and race, ethnicity, religion amongst others, data are cleaned to make them anonymous before releasing to those involved in the analysis of such data. Here the Data Protection Act comes into play. No information of personal nature is ever shared with researchers. Apart from the concern about protecting the individual, there is also the need to avoid observer bias. In other words, there are also valid scientific reasons for restricting personal information.

Similarly, there may be valid social reasons which have to be accepted where social issues are concerned and hence the provisions in the law for protection.

The second set is now taken up:

  1. Location and security – the MGI archives as ‘ patrimoine’: It is well known that the registers of Indian immigrants were dumped in the Public Assistance Department at the Place Immigration (now Aapravasi Ghat) and were in a neglected condition. These registers were not considered as historical documents earlier, as recorded by Sada J Reddi in his book ‘Sir V Ringadoo – An Opportunity to Serve’:”Later, when he (Ringadoo) became Minister of Education (before 1968) and asked the chief archivist, Auguste Toussaint, why historical records of the arrival of Indian immigrants had not been transferred to the archives he was told that they were not ‘historical documents’.”

On the intervention of Shri B Ramlallah, founder of Mauritius Times, they were sent to the Sunray Hotel, even though the conditions there were not the best, and finally in 1976 by special arrangement with Dr K Hazareesingh, Director of the newly-built MGI, they found their safe place there.

Around these unique records of Indian immigration have been built the Indian Museum at the MGI, and together they constitute a patrimoine for the descendants of those immigrants. Why the sudden, almost morbid interest in these archives once considered of no historical value whasoever, except to certain forward-looking Indians?

Is it right to disrupt a patrimoine?

A patrimoine reflects the socio-historical memory of a people, which needs to be acknowledged and respected. From this angle, is there any compelling necessity to shift the archives? Any fool can see that the answer is too obvious, a resounding NO.

On the other hand, it is also hoped that there is not a turf war between the Aapravasi Ghat and the MGI in this matter.

  1. Social reality of caste and casteism in the Mauritian context: Hindus at large accept each other as they are and in their daily social interactions there is little if any influence of caste or casteism. The exceptions have no currency, and auto-isolate themselves. Unlike in India, where sharing the same table or meal between castes is still taboo in some regions, in Mauritius everyone will sit together and be served with equal respect whatever be the occasion.

The dalit phenomenon as it exists in India is totally unknown in Mauritius, and any extrapolation is ill-conceived. Even there, though, things are changing fast.

Caste considerations come into play for marriages, especially when they are arranged, but as this is on the wane, it is less of an issue as intercaste marriages are on the rise and widely accepted, in particular among the young generation who are more concerned with individual compatibilities and character. Again, there will be some exceptions, and those involved must assume their karmic responsibility. These are the cases where ignorance is definitely not bliss.

Other communities in Mauritius have their own ways of marriage selection, based on class considerations and the belonging to different sects, and to some extent skin colour also plays a part.

  1. Will public knowledge of caste information in the MGI archives advance national interest? Even politicians who exploit the caste system will answer in the negative. Only a fool will see anything good coming out of caste information that belongs to the past. If such information does not advance our cause, improve our lives and lead to greater harmony in our living together, what on earth do we need it for?
  2. Will this knowledge advance the individual’s interest, or the work of the Truth and Justice Commission? If it does, then the individual has every right to his/his family’s records. As far as the TJC is concerned, if it is investigating a case upon an individual’s request, then it may have access to the latter’s relevant records upon his written consent, and must be sworn to a clause of confidentiality, and be subject to legal penalties, exactly as in the case of the Population Census. The same legal principle must govern all data of a personal/sensitive nature.  

It is the government’s duty and responsibility, as is the case in many other spheres of public life, to ensure compliance with the law relating to the confidentiality of personal data. Thank you.

* Published in print edition on 8 July 2011

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