The Intercultural Gandhi and Mauritian Society

Mauritian society today nurtures its own segregation practices whether in the form of gated communities built on colour, religion, ethnicity and class

By Sada Reddi

Reading an article about Gandhi as an intercultural Indian in The Hindu of 2nd October 2020 by Prof Ramin Jahanbegloo, Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, one could identify three major factors which contributed towards the making of the intercultural Gandhi – his personality, his formative influences and his ethical standard. The article deals with various dimensions of his intercultural philosophy that influenced his action.

The list is long – such as promoting non-violence, inter-cultural dialogue, a pluralistic and an empathetic democracy, a policy of inclusiveness and a just society, embracing humanity and rejecting all sources of hatred, exclusion, violence, unjust laws, totalitarian government and fanaticism of all kinds. What interests me more were the formative influences of his personality. These elements are interesting in that they provide some kind of yardstick to throw light on the way on the intercultural development in the multicultural society of Mauritius and identify a few of the shortcomings towards this ideal.

In the making of the Mahatma, the professor identifies the context in which Gandhi’s open-mindedness exposed him to new ideas. He was influenced by Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism but also by the teachings of Jesus Christ, Socrates, Tolstoy, John Ruskin and Thomas Thoreau. He had also read Thomas Carlyle’s essay on the Prophet Muhammad. This did not make him become a stranger to his own culture; on the contrary he learnt from others to fulfill his ideal as ‘an intercultural Indian’.

Other writers too have highlighted the influence of his stay in Britain during his law studies but also how his stay in South Africa led him to discover other Indians from the subcontinent and other peoples and cultures. As a man of his time, he too imbibed some of the prevailing prejudices, but throughout his life he made a determined personal effort to develop a philosophy that embraced humanity. His autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ is a quest for this ideal of interculturalism.

When we transfer our insights of Gandhi’s experiment to our own Mauritian context, we may discover the extent to which we have travelled on the path of interculturalism and some of the shortcomings as well. If we take the context as one critical element in the development of the Mahatma, then the Mauritian context is also a crucial element in the making of the Mauritian.

In spite of the fact that all of us live in a small island, we do not have the same experience of knowing and learning about each other and other cultures. The reasons are many. Firstly, for most of us, our family environment, however mixed it may be, is grounded in one particular cultural mode. It is only outside the family, in the street, the neighborhood, the village or the town that we come across people of different cultures, more often in a superficial way, and this sometimes may develop into more intense social interactions and become part of our upbringing. The environments outside the home are varied ranging in various degrees from near the mono-cultural to the more multi-cultural.

A further and more deepening influence in the next stage of our life is the school environment from primary to secondary and even tertiary levels. Spending another 6 to 15 years will definitely have an impact on our outlook. Our teachers, friends, the curriculum – both formal and informal -, the type of schools, religious or state, single sex or mixed – all these will impact on us positively or negatively. Segregation practices based on religion, ethnicity, class, whether intentionally or not, will influence our character and our outlook on life, though one cannot and should not discount the role of agency and our personality in shaping our attitudes and personal values.

Though one may counteract what one considers as some of the negative influences of the school environment or assimilate what are viewed as positive, other influences come in our way in the course of our adolescent years where we may also acquire new approaches to life. Through studying, living and visiting or working in other countries with opportunities to explore and learn about other cultures either in the workplace or at home, we may come across new influences. Each of these different environments has its contribution to make to our life while continuing to retain in varying degrees the values of our own home cultures.

These few observations suggest that in our multi-cultural Mauritius, the cultural outlook and experience of our population will vary a lot from individual to individual. We should not be surprised that this is so for this is the reality of Mauritian nation. Even if the home culture is a mixed one and our perceived unrelated past is more related than we think, the identity of the home culture remains strong not because it is unalloyed but simply because it is also continuously being reinvented, readapted and re-envisioned and forged out of multicultural influences. Cultural rootedness, cultural revivalism, cultural transformation are all part of the dynamics of any society.

On the other hand, we have inherited from colonial and plantation societies certain historical forces that have shaped not only our environments but also our mentalities. Geographical segregation in its various ethnic and class forms, the great cultural divide which became so notorious in the early and mid-20th century with its contempt for the “other” has only superficially given place to a cultural dialogue on the basis of equality. These historical forces continue to survive and shape the present environment. Mauritian society today nurtures its own segregation practices whether in the form of gated communities built on colour, religion, ethnicity and class.

Having said this, one must also acknowledge and recognize that we have travelled some distance along the path of interculturalism. We have come to respect differences and most of us are comfortable with differences and reject cultural hegemony of any kind. The road however remains long.

What we must remember about Gandhi was that that the self has also a crucial role to play. Gandhi was disciplined, and determined to attain this ideal of embracing humanity, and this was his forte. His philosophy was informed by a strong rigorous ethical standard. This is where we may have failed.

We have failed in altering the structural factors in our environment which promote exclusion and segregationist practices whether in the environment, the school, the workplace, in trade, business and other infrastructures as well as in the economic and political institutions. Gandhi had shown that the idea of interculturalism was not a dream but can be realized in actual life. He was a man of action. In the words of one of his biographers Louis fisher, ‘Gandhi advanced to greatness by doing. The Gita, Hinduism’s Holy Scripture was Gandhi’s gospel for it glorifies action.’

Interculturalism is thus not a doctrine of words or a rationalization of our personal circumstances but a philosophy of action open to everybody – the search for a way of life that embraces humanity with all its differences beyond what we have inherited in our home environment.

* Published in print edition on 13 October 2020

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