Communalism: the larger context and perspective

We are mature enough so many years after independence to be good patriots, for our own sake and that of the future citizens of the country

Almost suddenly, in the wake of proposed amendments to the Constitution to forfeit declaration of one’s community belonging when standing for elections and the eventual doing away with the Best Loser System, the issue of communalism has come to the fore. It always seems to lie in the background, sometimes perniciously but most times innocuously. It was monstrous during the pre-Independence period. But most sensible Mauritians would agree that in spite of one or several hydra heads of this ogre rising up from time to time, it is rapidly contained and drowned in the open views that are expressed about it or the particular event that gave rise to it. Until the next time round, which undergoes a similar fate.

Take the most visible case that polarized opinion recently, the Yatin Varma-Jeannot incident. Mauritians from all segments and communities of our country were very vocal about it, in the immediate aftermath and in the past few weeks when the trial was taking place. Did all Hindus, to which community Yatin Varma belongs, give him their full-fledged support? No. Did all Creoles or Christians support Jeannot? No.

As a matter of fact, most Mauritians perceived this as power bearing down on an ordinary citizen – and this is what was salutary about that unfortunate incident. The communal angle receded in the background, because no citizen of whatever hue is prepared to tolerate any perceived arrogance of power, knowing full well that any of us at any time can be the victim of it.

But the country went one step further: when the judgement was eventually delivered, with the acquittal of Yatin Varma, hell didn’t break loose. Again, in a democratic manner, some citizens expressed their surprise, and dismay, just as others thought that justice had been done. Finally, though, the verdict of the Court was accepted. In other words, despite all the criticisms against the legal system and its presumed weaknesses, by and large people acknowledged that there had been a due process of law that had been adhered to, in other words the legal system was given its due credibility.

And that is how it should be: one of the strongest ways to tackle communalism is through strengthening our systems and institutions. And there is a patriotic reason for it. The reasoning for this starts with looking at the reality of communalism in a wider perspective.

All of us have the communal instinct or tendency hardwired in us, as a vestigial survival of our early human evolution when belonging to a tribe was vital for our living in terms of food and basic security mainly. Commonsense applied to the world situation today will show us that there is a widening circle of allegiance – which is what communalism is essentially about – that, starting with the family, is as follows: close relatives, close friends, one’s community (usually based on faith), the wider society and lastly the country. When it comes to beyond the country, both at individual and collective level it is more pragmatic considerations that matter, barring extremists or radicals who are influenced by their preferred ideology.

But what is the reality? Even within all the groups listed above, there are sometimes very divided opinions or sometimes even open antagonisms. However, whenever any of these allegiances, except to country (patriotism), overrides all other considerations in one’s handling of a given situation when playing one’s role in the country – private or lay situation, professional or officer in public service or private sector workplace -, this is where the danger of communalism may surface and is unacceptable.

Concrete examples include seeking employment or being due for promotion in one’s place of work, or interactions with the personnel in the public service or private organizations. Where communalism does harm is if someone is favoured over another simply because of one’s affinity with the opposite party on the basis of family, relative, friendship or religion.

The larger issue that is of the utmost importance here is: by favouring someone of ‘my own’ am I strengthening the system or the institution in my country? That should be the fundamental criterion, all other things (e.g. qualifications) being equal. And the rationale is simple: I live in this country, and it is definitely in my interest – as well as that of my family, relatives, friends and community – to have a well-running country of which I can be proud and whose systems I can count on to deliver. If say, teachers or doctors are appointed who are not the best suited for the positions, will I trust my child or my life to them, even if they are ‘my own’?

Everybody knows the answer: a BIG NO!

For that matter, even if I decide to emigrate, I can’t take everyone of ‘my own’ along! There will always be many left behind. Do I leave them to their ‘fate’, or do I contribute to leaving behind a country worth living in?

The antidote to communalism is not endless debates on the semantics: it is genuine patriotism. Whenever we are faced with having to take a decision in our dealings in the situations mentioned above, we have to ask ourselves a bona fide question: will my decision weaken or strengthen my institution, add to the quality of the work environment, be fair and just? If we adhere to these fundamentals, even the most hardened politician cannot play ball. Because politicians abhor systems and strong institutions that they simply cannot manipulate.

And that is the basis of patriotic strength that is the greatest weapon of the citizen. Its collaterals are fairness and equity. We are mature enough so many years after independence to be good patriots, for our own sake and that of the future citizens of the country most of whom, after all, will be our own progeny.

* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014

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