The effort of the journey can be transformative, provided one has first shed one’s innate prejudices
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Even as the world is caught in the grips of an unprecedented epidemic caused by the Covid-19 virus, all of a sudden it was hit by another tremor which originated in the US following the brutal killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by the police in Minneapolis. That incident led to the BLM or Black Lives Matter movement which was a spontaneous and justified protest against that and other killings of Blacks by the police that had occurred earlier. Soon street protests took place across the US followed by a global spread to some other countries in support of the US BLM. It is noteworthy that significant numbers of Whites too joined these protests, and currently in Portland, capital of the state of Oregon, it is mainly Whites who are sustaining a protest that is running into its seventh week.
‘The brutal killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by the police in Minneapolis led to the Black Lives Matter movement which was a spontaneous and justified protest against that and other killings of Blacks by the police that had occurred earlier…’ Photo – imagez.tmz.com
It is common knowledge that the term racism essentially refers to the discrimination by Whites against coloured people. In modern times this was exacerbated by the phenomenon of slavery, whereby slaves from Africa were transported to the US and other colonies, including Mauritius, and by the system of apartheid in South Africa. In the US there were segregation laws targeting the Blacks who were the descendants of African slaves. Despite the sacrifice of people like the iconic Martin Luther King, several prominent Americans including President Barack Obama have acknowledged the persistence of what has been termed institutionalized racism in the US, which pitches Whites against Blacks. Yet science has firmly established that biologically there is no such thing as race – which is more of a cultural construct. More recently the term White Supremacism has gained currency, and a paper titled ‘What is White Supremacy’ by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez surveys the phenomenon, which also extends to Latinos like her.
There is a counterpart: the feeling of ‘reverse discrimination’, whereby Whites feel discriminated against, for example, for places in universities – and one applicant even took the matter to court some years ago. This is different from the problem of class which affects the Whites in America, explored in the book ‘White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America’ by Nancy Isenberg. White trash is a slur used in American English to refer to poor white people, especially in the rural southern United States. The book is described as a ‘groundbreaking bestselling history of the class system in America’ which ‘takes on our comforting myths about equality, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present, always embarrassing — if occasionally entertaining — poor white trash’.
Following the formal abolition of slavery in the 1830s Indian indentured labour was imported to the colonies, and they too toiled under the same conditions as the African slaves, in what historian Hugh Tinker called A new system of slavery – which is also the title of his book on the subject. As the wave of decolonization swept across the world after the Second World War, each colony followed its own trajectory towards independence, which in many cases involved violence to varying degrees. Mauritius was not spared either, with communalism rearing its ugly head. For those of us of the 1940s and 1950s generations who lived through those times and were witnesses or victims, this is the last thing that we would wish that our children and grandchildren ever have to face or undergo again.
As has been increasingly realized, all forms of discrimination and exploitation – slavery and racism, communalism, sexism, paedophilia in or out of the church, sexual harassment à la Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, the glass ceiling for women — boil down to who is in command, that means wealth and power, especially political power. We don’t need to go into some of the sordid details of the pre-independence struggle for power in Mauritius, but suffice it to say that the political leaders realized we would swim or sink together – and we had better swim, especially in light of the pessimistic Titmuss-Meade report that foresaw the country as a basket case in the making. The alliances and coalitions that resulted were platforms that included all communities and political persuasions and ideologies, and faced the uphill task of establishing the institutions and infrastructures that would make of the country a vibrant democracy. And we rose to be cited as a model democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Every single Mauritian, indiscriminately, has equal rights to everything that makes up the welfare state model that we decided to follow, the main, fundamental ones being universal health care free at the point of delivery, the social security system that includes universal pensions and other benefits, free education to tertiary level, the system of law and justice. If there are any flaws in the system, this has got to do more with the bureaucratese that is not unique to the country, and to undercurrents of mistrust that may exist.
However, despite this democratic set-up which all citizens have consistently renewed in regularly held elections, certain groups periodically raise the issue of discrimination and transpose the problems of other countries or societies to the Mauritian situation which has a different developmental and cultural context altogether. Thus, disingenuous conflations are made such as trying to find similarities with the BLM, or by citing the caste system in India, or again by referring to the Dalits there. Or ranting against PM Modi and the Hindu community in general by another conflation: Hindu political leaders with the Hindu community. All communities have the same aspirations and hopes: healthy living conditions, a peaceful social atmosphere in which children will get educated and grow, decent and affordable housing, and equitable opportunities for meeting these goals.
The absurdity of trying to compare a country of 1.3 billion to a puny little island is indeed laughable, to say the least. To posit that there is institutionalized discrimination in Mauritius is to disavow the struggles led by social leaders and reformers, trade unionists and political leaders who drew inspiration from the western model of democracy that practically the whole world has tried to follow despite its imperfections – or it being the least bad of the systems of government as Winston Churchill is quoted as having said.
It is not by playing the blame game that we are going to solve any perceived discrimination, and definitely not by irrelevantly harping on the conflations which are not based on a solid and internalized understanding of the complexities of the societies and cultures alluded to. Specifically as regards India and the caste system, the understanding is even more superficial, based on academic analyses which may appear very profound but which are intended more for highlighting the negative aspects of the country and its culture than the ongoing struggles at all levels – as is the case in all countries as a matter of fact – to better the conditions of the people. It’s doing what American journalist Katherine Mayo did in the 1930s: when her book ‘Mother India’ was published, the comment of Mahatma Gandhi was that it was more like a drain inspector’s report than a serious and empathetic account of the country. If you set out to smell the sewers rather than appreciate the finer aspects of a millennial civilisation – well, there are sewers in all countries isn’t it?
What we really need is therefore to transcend the discourse of discrimination and victimhood, and to try and build cultural bridges instead of fostering divisions, after enjoying the faratas of a generous and unsuspecting nani, touching her feet and saying Namaste. Too much of analysis leads to a very narrowed down view of things, whereas what the world needs is a holistic, synthetic perspective that can bring peoples together.
This is what led Mathieu Ricard to go in search of the wisdom of fullness in the East, ending up as the ambassador of the Dalai Lama. In a conversation with his father, published as a book, the latter asked what made him change so radically while a rich career awaited him. He had completed his doctorate in fundamental biology under Nobel laureate Jacob Monod in Paris, and had gone visiting big centres in the US. He replied that he came to realise that the science that he was pursuing led to the ‘atomization of knowledge’, and that he preferred to have a more integrated perspective on the world and humanity.
And so, instead of conflating, he is now busy synthesizing by correlating the revealing insights of neuroscience with his Buddhahood, a spiritual adventure which is more likely to bring peace and harmony to the world than any rhetoric of limited intellectualism. That’s the kind of transcendence that will lead us to a brighter future. Unfortunately, it is only the select few that are capable of reaching such sublime heights. But even the effort of the journey can be transformative, provided one has first shed one’s innate prejudices.
* Published in print edition on 31 July 2020