“We need to stop being an island and see what is going on elsewhere…”
Encounter: Dr Vijaya Teelock, Historian
‘We need to get our children to learn more about the world and appreciate other cultures’
* ‘Our leaders in the past were motivated by the desire to free themselves from colonial rule. What motivates our politicians today?’
* ‘The ‘ethno-religious’ competition that I observe running through so many individuals, so-called ‘intellectuals’ or self-proclaimed leaders must cease: it is disastrous for the frail young Mauritian nation’
On the occasion of the 188th anniversary of the arrival of our indentured forefathers, we asked Dr Vijaya Teelock, whose remarkable scientific career and interests spanned both slavery and the indentureship, to share her views on the current state of affairs regarding those issues so vital to our cultural, emotional and historical baggage. As Chairperson of The AGTF which took over the long battle of Beekrumsing Ramlallah for recognition and restoration of the Aapravasi Ghat and expanded it to new heights as a World Heritage site and Vice-Chair of the Truth and Justice Commission looking at emancipation from slavery, and a UoM academic, she was ideally placed to do so and venture onto the generational and political shifts since independence as we collectively face new horizons and different challenges.
Mauritius Times: Your association with the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund (AGTF) as chairperson and the Truth and Justice Commission (TJC) as Vice Chairperson in earlier years must have surely given you another perspective about the truth and the realities of the situation of slaves and indentured workers/immigrants. Tell us about it.
Vijaya Teelock: It was indeed a strange coincidence that I happened to be both Chairperson of the AGTF and Vice Chairperson of the TJC, but not to forget that my professional life was devoted to the study of the history of slavery in Mauritius. So, to have this as background, gave me a unique insight into the evolution of Mauritian society from its very beginnings with human (colonial) settlement of the island to studying the legacies of this settlement in contemporary Mauritius.
My past experience of research management in two institutions – the AGTF and University of Mauritius – allowed for a massive research project (with over 40 researchers) to be undertaken at the TJC with the aim of understanding the evolution of Mauritian society through the lens of establishing historical truth, achieving social and economic justice and a better quality of life for ALL Mauritians.
And I do stress on the ‘ALL’ as I do not subscribe to those individuals and organizations who cater for exclusive groups and participate in some competition for ‘victimhood’. The TJC experience showed that Mauritians from vulnerable groups span all ethno-religious backgrounds, poverty exists in all these groups though some are better at hiding it than others.
To answer your question more directly, although as historian I encouraged the idea of seeking historical truth about the many questions and issues in the history of slavery and indenture in Mauritius, I as many others at the TJc realized that Mauritians have many stereotypes and misconceptions of the history of the island and of their own origins.
We realized very early on that it was important not only to study the legacies of the past but to study the minds of Mauritians because it is these perceptions and myths they have about our history which guide and influence them in their daily life.
It was thus important to me as a historian, that the Commission establishes ‘historical truth’ as opposed to ‘memorial truth’ which seems very popular these days. We realized also that many Mauritians were not ready to hear these truths.
Ten years later (the Commission submitted its report in 2011) I am not sure if the situation has improved and another study might be necessary on the impact of the TJC and on the various memorialisations of different parts of our history that have come up.
* Is there interest among the younger generation of university students to undertake such research?
I am retired now from the University but when I was teaching, my students were very much interested in researching Mauritian history, archaeology, anthropology.
We are sorely in need of research centres focused on these disciplines as I have observed over the years that Mauritians love to learn about Mauritian history and heritage… they become really excited during archaeological work, for example, and it is a great way to bring in the local community in protecting their heritage and of those who lived there before them.
But currently there is no institution that promotes Mauritian history except those very ethno-culturally compartmentalised.
* As regards the celebration of Aapravasi Day, if we were to go beyond the annual ritual of that celebration and examine the road travelled, what would be your thoughts today on what we have achieved?
My immediate thought is that it has become a massive celebration, which is not bad in itself except that other activities must also be allowed to carry on.
At AGTF, professional and scientific research on indenture, for example, must continue as our archives are full of interesting histories that can be brought to the attention of the Mauritian public: books, pamphlets, films, etc., can be produced for the benefit of all Mauritians.
It is also high time the Indian Immigration Archives was freed from the stranglehold some people have on it. Have you ever wondered why we have as yet no professional historian of indenture in Mauritius, the country that has welcomed the most Indian indentured immigrants in the 19th century? How dare a few people continue to be allowed to block access to our ancestors’ history, to our history?
* It might be that it was the rehabilitation of the site which houses the Aapravasi Ghat today and the works undertaken there by the Trust locally that triggered scholarly interest across the world in ‘The Great Experiment’ and continues to this day. What remains to be researched in your view?
I believe that the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund took over the mantle of Beekrumsing Ramlallah and his efforts to make the Aapravasi Ghat known to Mauritians. But the AGTF extended the actions in making the Ghat be known to the world.
When I first joined as Chairperson, I was told by the authorities that I had only one task, and that was to make the Aapravasi Ghat a World Heritage Site (WHS). To tell you frankly, at that time, I had no idea what a WHS was and did not dare tell them that I knew nothing about this!!
Putting the Aapravasi Ghat on the world cultural map was a major achievement not only for the government at that time, but it put the history of half a million people and their descendants on the world map. That has been the impact of having a world heritage site and, as you say, this has triggered a huge interest in the site because of course in most of the ‘indentured’ diaspora, such sites no longer exist or the populations of ‘indentured’ origin do not have the chance to have their sites listed.
The Aapravasi Ghat has become a ‘beacon’ for people of indentured origins across the world and people look to the AGTF and to Mauritius to continue this work and extend activities in other countries.
So yes, there is plenty more work to do… not only in Mauritius but to share our knowledge with institutions and individuals working to promote research and protection of the ‘indentured history and heritage’.
* What does the profile of the Indian immigrant’s descendant today tell you about his attitude towards society, the country? Would you say he/she is progressive (in terms of his/her outlooks – socially, culturally, religiously, etc), confident, ‘animé des mêmes sentiments de solidarité’ much like his/her ancestors’?
We no longer live in the same world of our slave or indentured forbears. The world has changed forever. And ‘descendants’, if you want to continue using this term, are no longer only defined by their history. Most people, who were born after independence, have no memory of colonial rule. Their lives are not defined by it, many only have knowledge of it though parents’ conversations, school textbooks and media. We cannot therefore expect the same ‘sentiments de solidarité’ to exist.
Mauritius 2022 is no longer the Mauritius of 1968 although the impact of history still lingers on. But in the minds of those who lived that period.
Among the younger generation, my own children included, a more forward-looking mind exists and not one that is burdened by history. For our history has been an emotional burden for all Mauritians who know or endured it before independence.
It is the absence of the historical memory that is missing today. Because it is important to know and understand our history and because this knowledge, if imparted properly, can be a guide and inspiration for our young people, many of whom today are starving for this kind of inspiration.
They are part to the generation whose parents have had to struggle (1980s and 90s) and who did not have the time to spend with their children because they were struggling to make ends meet. The result has been disastrous for the young growing up.
I don’t understand what has quite happened since then but I think the low standards of education that I see today are frightening… It is unthinkable that so many young people can barely read or write a single sentence correctly in French or English. And therefore, have stopped reading. Knowledge is power.
* It was thought at one time that politics would, besides ensuring that the dignity and the rights of the people are respected, facilitate their empowerment at all levels and in different sectors. Would you say that politics served us — the people generally and the descendants of Indian immigrants in particular — well?
I think politics and politicians have a purpose, but this has changed over time the world has changed. As I stated earlier, we are living not in a post colonial period but in a post independence period. There are new challenges which we are facing in Mauritius and in the world which we have not yet been able to absorb. Our leaders in the past were motivated by the desire to free themselves from colonial rule. That rule ended some time ago. So, what motivates our politicians today? We must not engage in glorification of the past and vilification all what exists today, because greed, corruption and ambition also existed at that time (even if it is not mentioned in history books!).
But we have new challenges to fight and I think the new generation of politicians could benefit from a few history lessons to inspire them!
* Does it seem to you however that we are stuck, like in several countries elsewhere, in a hole and we have helped ourselves get into it? And that real change can only happen only if we change how we do politics?
We cannot compare Mauritius to other big countries.
We are a tiny island stuck in the middle of nowhere. We are entirely dependent on the outside world for almost everything.
But we must maximise what we have, our assets: the natural beauty of our island must be preserved, we must not try to imitate other countries where boring massive concrete structures have replaced natural scenic views. Beauty can inspire and make us happy.
The sale of land to build yet more residential homes for wealthy non-Mauritians is a short-term move which is not sustainable.
So yes, we need a new mindset among our politicians…
Once again, I think the new generation of politicians could benefit from a few classes to inspire and guide them.
* When you meet the common people or even the intellectuals, do you get the feeling they could not care less about the way politics is conducted here, nor about such concepts as “rupture”, national integration and solidarity, etc., so long as their personal needs are addressed?
I think common people or intellectuals are no different from the politicians… they are a reflection of each other and I think people vote for people with whom they feel some affinity. It could be gender, ethnicity, age, etc.
* It’s said that most young people are interested in politics but are alienated by politicians. And those young politicians who come on the stage to, as they say, do politics differently ultimately end up as just the same as the older generation. It isn’t surprising then that they are not taken as credible and their parties fail to pick up even a reasonable following?
Before independence, there was a common goal… that goal has been achieved.
Today we need our politicians, our intellectuals, our educators, our authorities to have one goal – to improve the quality of life of all Mauritians, to end all the discriminations that still exist and to instil more patriotism and sense of belonging to the Mauritian nation.
For this, the top-down method must stop, politicians and authorities need to actually listen to people and gauge people’s feelings and emotions.
No one likes communalism but most practise it because they think some are benefitting more than others. The ‘ethno-religious’ competition that I observe running through so many individuals, so-called ‘intellectuals’ or self-proclaimed leaders must cease: it is disastrous for the frail young Mauritian nation, and is certainly not good for the young people growing up.
How difficult can this be with 1.3 million people?
* You mentioned in a previous interview to this paper that this country needs no less that a moral revolution – especially among the political leadership – to reinvent itself. And second, to prepare the future leaders of Mauritius we need to overhaul the education system to teach critical thinking skills to the youth so that they can analyse issues more objectively so as to decide the direction in which they will take the country. Those comments seem to be still to be valid, isn’t it?
Our education system needs a massive overhaul. The top-down approach does not work. Implementing World Bank directives has been disastrous. Boxes have been ticked by administrators to satisfy it, but the end result on the ground has been disastrous. We have more and more functionally illiterate people than ever before and this when hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money are being spent. Lowering standards, simply to be able to show the same pass rate has not declined, has not helped the young Mauritian who needs to have a strong academic background to face the competition for jobs.
Many of our youth cannot think independently or engage in any discussion about world affairs. We need to get our children to learn more about the world and appreciate other cultures. We need, in a sense, to stop being an island and see what is going on elsewhere. Libraries need to be better stocked and teachers and children need to read more as books currently cost a fortune in bookshops.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 4 November 2022
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