To curtail the influence of religious, ethnic or cultural associations in politics is as welcome as reducing that of the capitalist lobby on government
Recently, the elections results of the Mauritius Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation (MSDTF), a Hindu religious organization, attracted a lot of media attention. For many observers, the results are viewed as a proxy for the electoral preference of an important segment of the electorate for the next general elections. Whatever be the significance of the MSDTF’s election for the future, it implicitly raises the question of the relevance of religious and ethnic affiliation as well as the role of Indian religious associations in Mauritian politics. Without going into the latter consideration, one may instead reflect on how Hindu religious associations operated in the past to better understand their links with politics.
At the outset, it must be underlined that Indian religious associations emerged in Mauritius among Indian indentured labour in the second half of the 19th century, though early associations can be traced right from the 18th century with the ‘Assemblée des Malabars’. The development of these associations in the 19th century occurred before the politicization of the Indian communities. In the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, the small number of Indian electors at the municipal elections in Port-Louis and later at general elections, was increasingly mobilized by the coloured and white oligarchy during electoral contests at a time when politics was dominated by class, race and colour. In 1901, a correspondent wrote in the local paper that Indians would have voted for the coloured had not the oligarchs ‘used threats and brought ‘Rampersad maraz from Vacoas to influence elections in favour of Sauzier’.
Later, Action Liberale fought the elections of 1911 by trying to unite the Creoles and the Indians against the whites. In 1908, writing on the campaign preceding the elections, Governor Boyle observed: ‘For the first time in my experience an attempt has been made to embroil the Indian population in the internal dispute of the Creole population… to appeal to an illiterate community, on the question under discussion to make a fresh departure in politics which if continued will produce unforeseen consequences.’ The involvement of Indians in politics reached its culminating point in 1921 when the white oligarchs mobilized the Indian vote to defeat the Retrocessionists who wanted Mauritius to be returned to France.
One may well ask what relationships existed between Indian religious associations and the politics of the time. In fact political mobilization among Indians was carried out by an elite which was made up of religious leaders, entrepreneurs, sirdars, job contrators, teachers, merchants, civil servants, small planters, big planters as well as cooperative members who were also members of Indian religious associations. Generally it was through these people that politicians had access to the Indian communities. During the small planters protest march in Flacq, Pandit Hurry was consulted and his advice sought.
Many of the small planters and labourers who protested in Flacq were members of religious organisations, particularly of the Arya Samaj. Pandit Sahadeo who translated the speeches of Dr Maurice Cure throughout the island was a staunch Arya Samajist. In Beau Vallon, Mahebourg, the raising of funds from workers for the Labour Party was done through Pandit Rashiawan, a tailor and an active member of the Arya Samaj. After the setting up of industrial associations in 1938, the most important associations in the north of the island were led by Pandit Jugdambi and Ramnarain. Indian labourers of Belle Vue Harel, who protested against low wages, met the trade unionists in the baitka of the locality before the shooting of labourers in 1943.
Kenneth Baker, the trade unionist adviser in the 1940s, was not too surprised at the development of industrial associations in the north of the island. This reminded him of the development of trade unions in Britain. He wrote: ‘Some leaders of Mauritian workers introduce in their speeches a certain amount of Hindu religious teachings, but it is doubtful whether this is the soil in which will flourish the same trade unionism that grew among the independent churches and chapels in English towns. A new kind of trade unionism may of course result.’
In fact the British Labour Party is rooted in the non-conformist chapels and Methodist organizations of the late 19th century and most of the trade union leaders of the time were active religious workers — lay preachers, church deacons, bible teachers and the superintendents of Sunday schools. Unlike socialist parties on the continent which developed anti-clerical tendencies, British trade unionism, the Labour Party, including the Fabians had close links with religious organisations.
In Mauritius, the close links between religious associations and politics was legitimised by the presence of the dignitaries of the State at religious celebrations. Colonial Governors regularly attended walking of fire ceremonies. They were also in attendance during the St Louis Procession in Port-Louis, with the Mayor of Port-Louis, irrespective of his religious identity, occupying a prominent place in the procession. Labour Day in the past, celebrated by the Labour Party, started with a mass at Marie Reine de la Paix. The legitimisation of the state of religious ceremonies organized by religious associations in turn added to the legitimacy of both the state and these associations, the more so as the state subsidized religious associations, religious schools and religious NGOs even though the latter bore secular names.
One should not be surprised that given the large number of religious associations in the island, their role in politics has increased and reinforced as all political parties and governments continue to play the same game. In 1956, Burton Benedict listed 48 Northern Hindu temples, 2 Marathi temples, 25 Telegu temples and 103 Tamil temples; in 1954 there were 416 baitkas in 236 settlements. It is well known that meetings during electoral campaigns, overtly or covertly, are carried out with the help of ethnic, religious and cultural organisations. It is in this particular context that one aspect of ‘clientelism’ has become entrenched as governments very often consult religious organisations for the appointment and promotion of people in various government organs and parastatal bodies. In the next elections, it would be interesting to see how many of our ‘secular’ candidates would refuse to stand as candidates to fit the sociological profile of our constituencies.
When all is said, one can well understand the aversion of genuine secular politicians for this type of ethno-religious politics which has been inscribed in the DNA of political life in Mauritius. However, most of our so-called secular politicians only pay lip service to secularism and are most happy to pursue the status quo to get elected. Mutating that particular gene in our DNA into something better will prove to be a long haul process. Politicians have only short-term interests in politics and anything for the distant future remains anathema to them. After all, religious, ethnic or cultural associations together with economic and other social organisations form part of the many voices in a plural and democratic society. To curtail their influence in politics is as welcome as reducing that of the capitalist lobby on government.
- Published in print edition on 15 September 2017