Interview: Nandini Bhautoo, Academic
* ‘Protesters have no power to budge regimes. If protests were effective we would see changes happening for the better in Hong Kong, France, the US’
* ‘We are in a society where deep malaise has existed for a long time, where little has been done to alleviate the condition of the working class and the lower middle class’
Nandini Bhautoo is an academician who has never shied away from speaking her mind and pointing out the crude realities that underlie the veneer of sophistication that is sported by those who do not hide their clear-cut agendas to demonise the ‘other’. In this interview she takes an analytical look at the contemporary scene, dissecting the undercurrents of protest movements. She uncovers the colonial strategy of ‘divide and rule’ that has never left some minds and also makes pertinent remarks about the shenanigans of leadership that are helping to perpetuate a negative image of the country and harming the people.
Mauritius Times: Judging from what the opposition parties have been drawing attention to these last few weeks and newspaper headlines in relation to the procurement of pharmaceutical and related products prior to and during the confinement period as well as to the St Louis affair, it looks like that the virus of favouritism and corruption has so infiltrated our polity that it appears as the “new normal” way of proceeding in running the affairs of the country. What are your thoughts on the governance issue in Mauritius today?
Nandini Bhautoo: Democracies have been created by selling a dream – the dream that all citizens have equal rights in the new state, equal rights to resources, employment, food, living space, information, education, entertainment, recognition of their complex position in the tapestry of modernity as they correlate multiple belongings. You will have noticed that as I go down this list the cynicism probably grows exponentially. Because equal rights is an ideal which has never been put into practice at all levels.
The newness of the concept of equality comes into conflict which the practical invisible reality of hierarchised inequality. This translates as historical nepotism, where the nephew of X is appointed CEO at 30 because he is related by blood, whereby trade contracts survive through personal networks which are often comprised of trans-border family conglomerates. As the new ideal of democracy comes into contact with these pre-existing networks of control, the new official representatives of the new paradigm become aware of the immensity of the pre-existing endogamous networks, and they decide they will reproduce the same. But they do so of course without the discretion and finesse of the historical networks, hence they are quickly identified and pinpointed as the new viruses. Whereas the virus of corruption and nepotism is old, very old, as old as the country has existed as a polity.
If we cast our glance beyond our frontiers, we will see that the same pattern exists in most countries, even the functioning democracies where the nepotism of family networks is overlaid with class considerations. Of course one can only feel helpless in front of this. But fighting against the visible virus makes us unaware and unconscious of the deep-seated networks of privilege, corruption and nepotism which pre-exist democracy.
In the US it is often referred to as the shadow government or the deep state, not to be confused with the shadow cabinet. The shadow government handpick who they want to be president, because the president has to act as a stooge to do the bidding of the conglomerates, the people with power, to further their agenda. In the present scenario the calculations seem to have gone wrong with Trump. But I have been wondering whether it was not an international strategy to place weak or unstable leaders as heads of states as they become easy to manipulate or to be bought with temporary gains through which they become pawns in a greater game.
* How do we unlock the system?
Once upon a time I used to be furious about all this and I still am, somewhere. But the more I study the international ramifications of nepotism, the more I come to see that we will need another strategy to deal with it. Those holding power (and not just political power) will continue playing this game because it is happening all over the place, both nationally and internationally. We of course have to denounce it. But we also need to work on another level by empowering citizens through other modes of diffusion of information, other modes of knowledge.
What I note for now is that many of the keyboard warriors who are so keen to denounce corruption are very much ensconced in their own networks of privilege, either through the family or through the cool code of the new liberals, who position themselves as the avant-garde thinkers of society. I feel deep unease when I see the connivance and smug self-satisfaction which exist within this group which does not realize that they are a mirror image of the nepotism they are so keen to denounce.
* It is said that the rot in the system seems to be getting worse. Do you share that view?
I don’t believe things will get better in government. Everyone knows it. The weak leader, any weak leader for that matter, with no political convictions is a great asset for the maintenance and reinforcement of existing privilege. His sidekicks are rushing to create new networks of privilege following the pattern they have discovered. This is what we have been witnessing. But it is not through politics and parliamentary democracy that this will change. The vacant centre is well aware of the disbanded civil society, where solidarity with the dispossessed only occasionally nudges the conscience of the many, who are happy to maintain their luxurious lifestyle and occasionally protest.
We are in a society where deep malaise has existed for a long time, where little has been done to alleviate the condition of the working class and the lower middle class. There is a lot to be done and the anger of the civil society should be redirected in more concrete directions.
For instance, in improving the state of public hospitals. Has it struck no one as ironical that those expensive clinics could not offer treatment during the pandemic, only one of them amassed enough assets to do it mid-way through the lockdown? Has the incongruousness of the situation not hit anyone yet? That the public health institutions which handled the bulk of workload are the least well-equipped because not much was done over 52 years to improve health services and the condition of workers in the health services?
This is one area where we should be agitating for better conditions but since many of those ‘thinkers and agitators’ out there know they will have better health facilities if they can pay for it, nobody moves a little finger to question this state of affairs.
There are other areas which also need improvement, if we do not improve infrastructure in education, health and social services, we are perpetuating through this the domination of those at the bottom of the social ladder by crushing them with their sense of worthlessness, that their well-being, their lives do not matter. So with this internalized sense of worthlessness they accept incompetence, the incompetence of local management in towns, villages, parliament. They do not question why their area is grimy with dust and dirt and crowded streets with potholes, while a few miles down the road the streets are clean and well-maintained, the green is pristine because it helps create the illusion of Eden for the visiting tourist, whether it is around the domaines or gated communities, hotels.
There are two worlds which exist. But the former never becomes visible unless it is quaintly picturesque, otherwise eyes and consciences glaze over and fail to see the reality of the conditions of the villages. So are we fighting for these people? If neither representative democracies nor official nominations and councils have not been able to help change over 52 years, why should they bother. Many of the young people from these areas prefer not to be involved because their lives will not change anyway. They will keep being ignored, slighted, forgotten.
* To come back to the rot in the system, an interesting post that we came across this morning on Facebook is the response of Jean-Claude Montocchio to Paul Lismore: “…, ever crossed your mind that the real and precise importance (or futility) that you grant to moral values and principles (i.e. including integrity) depends to an appreciable extent on which culture you belong to and how exposed you have been to other ones? Mauritius provides a rare example of the relative ranking that morals occupies in the eyes of different groups of locals…” What’s your take on that, and the practice of appointing political protégés in high office?
Of course many of the nominations are sickening in the grossly incompetent, even ignorant fools who have been put in positions of power. But the greater shame is that the repercussions of shoving such grossly incompetent people in the limelight unfortunately splashes the muck over everyone who shares cultural origins with such people, never mind that they do not agree or condone.
Since you mention Facebook, you only have to see the kind of comments awash there, where every commentator is pretending they are pure, coming from communities blancs comme neige, where corruption or nepotism does not exist, everyone busy hurtling accusations against all Hindus because of the recent nominations, using this as a springboard to revivify their generations old contempt for the descendents of coolies, whereas they of course exist under protected umbrellas of unchallenged perfection.
You only have to voice out your opinion to be accused of fundamentalism these days, no matter that others are socializing and defending priests or whatever. Of course they are entitled to do that. But if you quote from Aurobindo or Ramakrishna, you are tagged as fundamentalist.
Unfortunately, this is something which all young people are having to bear the burden of. The dirty game of the government has repercussions in reinforcing the disdain and contempt which has existed for decades against the average indo-Mauritian. Because of the weaknesses of the leaders and decision makers, we are again becoming the collective target of accusations which the ordinary citizen does not deserve. And we are helplessly witnessing the scenario being replayed again. We are becoming inaudible.
To borrow from a postcolonial critic: we are forced to occupy the space of the Manichaen Allegory, that is already known and unknown at the same time, in the sense that as soon as they see it is a Hindu, a series of negative associations are already heaped upon the interlocutor’s consciousness, which is already known. Once the views are expressed, people pretend shock, refuse to hear, practise unconscious erasure of the concerns being expressed. This notion of Manichaean Allegory was initially developed by Abdul Jan Mohammed to explain the status of the African in colonial fiction.
* We presume that J-C Montocchio’s reasoning might have been prompted by the recent affairs that have been in the news lately, but would that also explain the Madoffs and banksters of this world, here and abroad, who would have operated with much more sophistication and ‘culture’, if we may say so?
The key word here is sophistication. This is what our corrupt political perpetrators lack as opposed to the sleight of hand of both the national and international financial elite. As I mentioned earlier, societies have historically been based on hierarchy and domination, corruption and nepotism. The Long nineteenth century in the western world was the time when societies were stumbling to put in place a different social model while they were oppressing the rest of the world through colonization. If you think about it, most countries have had only half a century to sort out the mess colonialism left behind – but they are still being judged using tools and standards created for those sophisticated countries which had a head-start as they pillaged wealth, cultures, people.
* On the other hand, what’s your assessment of the protest march organised, last Saturday in the streets of Port Louis, by the ‘Kolektif Konversasyon Solider’ – an initiative of some of our trade unions. A breath of fresh air after these weeks of confinement – and the depressing news about procurements, power plant re-development at St Louis? Or do you fear it might turn out to be just a flash in the pan?
Of course, one can only welcome such efforts and more is definitely needed. But my feeling is that protesters have become inaudible. They have no power to budge regimes. They can act as a litmus test of public feeling certainly, but if protests were effective we would see changes happening for the better in Hong Kong, France, the US. Protests absolutely there must be, of course. Only when they get hijacked by ‘les bien pensants’ you tell yourself that there must be more than meets the eye behind all this.
Far from me to doubt the sincerity of the organisers themselves who have shown their commitment to the cause of social progress over the years. It is the participants’ sustained commitment that I doubt. And my, we do have a lot to protest about!
We just heard that Youtube and other streaming platforms will be taxed! Phew! This is the latest in a series of bizarre decisions through which the present government is trying to wean money from the public for the unnecessary expenditures of recent years. Normal taxes are not proving enough to redress the balance so they have to look elsewhere even as they choose incompetent puppets to manage key institutions, which if properly managed could help generate wealth of another kind.
Imagine the cultural tours which could have been included, if competent people had been in charge. Around forts, ruins, surviving nineteenth century buildings in the most improbable places, we could have cultural tours which could then trigger all forms of creativity, not only to revisit history, but also to find a way to give voice to the emotions of the past through creative endeavours – but you need to have people who understand what it means to make it happen.
* Also spotted during that protest march were those people with their placard, a picture of which has been posted, again on Facebook, with the message – ‘Nou pas oulé RSS Mercenaires lors territoire Mauritius’. Facebook is indeed a fascinating place to visit if you want to understand the diverse strands in our society, but what does that particular message inform you about the forces at work in Mauritius?
This issue is very sensitive and demands a complex elaboration. If you have the time for it, here we go: My preliminary observations are that everyone is happy to derail “Hindu fundamentalism”. They are less voluble when it comes to fundamentalist groups operating in other religions. In the very context of its development in India, the Hindus reacted to the conversion tactics of the others, with their strategies based on smooth words, by force or by treachery.
But the problem was already set into place by colonial powers which tried to make sense of the complexity of India by simplifying notions which they could not understand. For example, things like the equivalent of guild identities in the development of mediaeval western societies, which still existed in the form of occupational identities or jatis in nineteenth century India, which derived legitimacy from within the Varna system. This was a means of protection against the outside world at a time when state power did not exist and the only means of support was the group.
The distortion was wrought by Max Muller, the famous indologist who codified Hindu sacred texts which had pre-dated him by millennia and ‘gifted’ them to the Indians, in his attempt at simplifying and ‘rigidifying’ the concept of Varna. He was working from a document presented to the East India Company by a Jesuit missionary Abbe Dubois, who had himself pillaged the work of another priest – Pere Coeurdoux (re: Nicholas Dirks – ‘Castes of Mind’).
By the process of re-identification, the population, unaware of the politics of rewriting which was being practised behind its back, re-identified with the new version of their identity. This was disseminated by the new people in power, who had lost the memory of how identities used to work over the generations, and identities became rigid and codified and seemingly unchanging.
But because of the cultural devalorisation of Hindu culture by colonial powers – which some may deliberately view as an illusion despite the known facts of how colonialism worked — there developed an aggressive identification of Hindu identity which was codified by thinkers like Sarvarkar, who was reacting to conditions of extreme devalorisation in colonial India. This is something similar to what is happening nowadays. The rabid anti-hindu discourse in the public space is such that educated young people are dis-identifying themselves from any affiliation with Hinduism. They succumb to the negative connotations because they are internalizing the discourse of those who control the lever of discourse and communication, those who control which ideas are disseminated to the public.
From what I can surmise, it is acceptable to socialize with priests and show public affection for them but it is not acceptable to show any knowledge and understanding of Hindu culture. As one born and brought up within a Hindu family, we can have no knowledge of what it means to be a Hindu. This can only be explained to us by researchers who come to it from the outside, working from the distinguished position as ‘authorised voices’ reproducing the disdain and codified control of Hinduism through Western institutions. The native in short has no right to speak: s/he has to be explained her/his culture by the ‘more knowledgeable’ western outsider.
It is in this context that the discourse of RSS functions in the national sphere. It has become like a code for everyone to condemn and if you refuse to do so, and urge for an understanding of context, you are done for. I would like to see the same people so eager to condemn RSS publicly denounce the aggressive kreol identification of many catholic kreol priests in Mauritius and the fact that some prominent men who have important roles in the world of business can safely say they sympathize with their co-religionists across the world, but never be condemned for their affiliations, as they even post regular updates from problematic preachers.
I do not understand the disparity in treatment, almost as though it is a connivance taking place to alienate Hinduism in a long term colonial strategy which never disappeared. It just went underground.
And before anyone says anything, I will admit that there is a lot to reform in Hinduism and the same goes for other religions. But I never hear any of those so ready to criticize Hinduism bring a single iota of criticism to their own faiths, of reforms that are equally needed. So the RSS becomes the convenient by-word for a strategy of demonization.
Of course, it has to be stressed that there are some who use this to their advantage by using their networks to leverage contracts and advantages. You will note that these are far from being the more refined minds which exist and they would function the same way in any faith, where I am sure their equivalents exist. This I neither approve nor condone. But what I observe is that the behaviour of a few becomes the excuse for condemning the many walking the path of decency. If social malaise there is, it is with this – a malaise which remains unrecognized, unacknowledged but which is visible to those who want to see.
* Published in print edition on 17 July 2020