Of fellow citizens and citizen politicians

As we prepare to go to the booth, let us all pledge that never again will we put at risk our coming generations by negating the legacy that our elders gave their all to leave to us

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I thank my cardiologist colleague and friend Dr Koomar Surrun for sharing with me a video clip from where the lines that follow are sourced. They are from a speech made by someone called Dr K. Kevichusa on ‘Naga Day’ though exactly when is not indicated. However, that is not so important because the words speak for themselves.

They are about the three-fold distinction made by ancient Greeks regarding the people that made up society. The ancient Greeks are credited with having bequeathed democracy to mankind, though whether the modern version corresponds to the original form I do not know. Still, their categorization of people in society is helpful to the extent that it resonates with what is happening in societies around the world, and has relevance for us too as we are in electoral mode and have to soon make our choices.

So the Greeks distinguished three kinds of people, as follows:

The idiots: It’s not that they were mentally deficient, but what idiot meant to the Greeks was that these people were totally private, totally self-centred and totally selfish. They were only after personal gain and interest, and had no public philosophy. Nor did they possess any skills, knowledge, character, or virtues that would have allowed them to contribute towards building a flourishing society and community. They only sought personal treasures and pleasures – which made of them mere upgraded barbarians.

The tribes: They were defined by their tribalistic mentality, that is, they were not able to think beyond their small groups and tribes. For them, their primary allegiance, their only and ultimate allegiance was to their tribes and their religion: tribalism. They were always afraid of different or alien people, being suspicious and fearful of them. The only way they dealt with people and situations was by force, intimidation, and violence.

Their ideal person was the warrior, so they were always warring, and destroying.

The citizens: The citizen was the ideal individual, imbued with the idea and ideal of citizenship. This meant possessing the skills and knowledge to live a public life of civility. He recognises that he is a member of a commonwealth and therefore strives for the common good. He knows his rights – but also his responsibilities to society. Therefore, when he fights for his rights and interests he also keeps in mind the rights and interests of others, of his neighbours.

It is citizens who make and make up a civilized society, for they know how to settle their differences with civility, thus truly living up to the true meaning of society: friendship and friendliness.

And so, concluded the speaker, he was appealing to his fellow citizens, based on these distinctions made by ancient Greeks, to make the right choice for their country and their society: neither as idiots, nor as tribes – but as citizens.

Without great effort we can broadly agree with this distinction, as a practical guide to what we actually confront when we see and hear different people from all walks of life, and it may perhaps make clearer what sort of representatives our country needs so that it can flourish in friendliness and friendship amidst our great diversity.

More lessons from the Panchantantra

By sheer coincidence I also happen to be reading anew the Panchantantra, in a translation by a Sanskrit scholar, Chandra Rajan. In her introduction, the author explains in detail how the Panchatantra, which was written in ancient India by a great teacher named Visnu Sharma, had been translated by a Persian scholar, Burzoe, and then found its way in adapted versions familiar in the Arabic and Western world, such as The Arabian Nights, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Les Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The latter, in fact, writes Chandra Rajan, ‘acknowledges his debt to our text when he expressly states in the preface to the second edition of The Fables (1678) that the greater part of the new material was “derived from the Indian sage Pilpay” ’ (Pilpay is the same as Visnu Sharma).

These tales about animals, as we all know from our childhood days, are allegories about human behaviour, containing powerful precepts and messages meant to guide us through life. Indeed, the Panchantantra is considered to be a ‘work on wise conduct (nitishastra)… an excellent means of awakening young minds’.

In Indian culture, niti refers to the guiding principles that the monarch and minister are expected to follow, and the book detailing them is known as Nitishastra, the supreme example of which is the Indian epic Mahabharata, which ‘poses questions and problems that arise daily in the lives of all, princes or peasant’.

Expanding further on the meaning of the concept of Niti, Chandra Rajan notes that it includes ‘carrying out of duties and obligations, familial and socio-political, and the exercise of practical wisdom in affairs private and public: the wisdom not of a saint or a sage but the wisdom that has to govern the thinking and conduct of persons who are of the world, and who are in the world’ and who need to bring to bear ‘a discriminating judgement’ on all ‘issues, problems and situations’.

Perhaps the key word here is ‘discriminating judgement’ or viveka which comes not from mere intellect – which is in any case limited – but from what can only be called ‘enlightened intellect’ or buddhi, a faculty that combines intellect, wisdom and compassion, and an encompassing deep understanding.

And so the Panchantantra purports to present ‘a pattern for a just ruler in the art of government and in the conduct of his private life and relationships. Because the private and public areas of living are parts of a whole, the two cannot be separated and compartmentalized. Niti applies at all levels, and ‘is meant for all men and women, and ‘ordinary people going about the normal business of living rightly or wrongly’.

The coincidence of my reading the Panchantantra and the video clip posted by the cardiologist friend – which must be circulating widely on social media – seems to indicate that a lot of us are thinking along the same lines regarding the future of the country. Let us pray therefore that the elevating messages contained in these sources will find not only an echo but act as positive guide both in our lives and when we have to make a choice about which way should our country be going.

Our legacy – and what we will do with it

Furthermore, it will not be out of place to remind ourselves that just a few days before the elections we will be commemorating the arrival of our forefathers at Aapravasi Ghat. As if in continuation of all the odds and obstacles that they faced in trying to eke out a living in the hostile environments into which they were shoved like cattle, establishing the location of the commemorative site and its date of 2nd November proved to be no less of a hurdle to cross – but factual historical evidence, determination, and perseverance finally won the day.

It is imbued with the same kind of spirit that the descendants of these valiant ancestors went on not only to self-educate so as to preserve and transmit their millennial cultural moorings, but also at the opportune moment to hitch onto the winds of change that were blowing in these parts – as ‘diagnosed’ by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during his African tour in the 1960s – and lift the island to political freedom.

This took place in the debilitating aftermath of the ravages of cyclones Alix and Carol, when eminent professors Titmuss and Meade had forecast doom for the island, a basket case en devenir. But this was not to be: taking up the challenge the pioneers of our independence, putting their differences behind, brought all Mauritians together to build the welfare state, in a spirit of inclusiveness that was pro-actively nurtured.  

The result of encouraging education of the masses, ensuring their health through universal health care, providing a measure of security through universal pension and other social benefits, making the leaps towards industrialisation and new segments of the services as they developed elsewhere and soon reached our shores – is that we became a relatively more prosperous country compared to other countries which had also gained their independence around the same time. And that has largely been because of the social mobility afforded by education (which was subsequently made free), but very much also by virtue of the open-mindedness and the model of pluralism that our diversity demanded, which our far-sighted leaders at the time of independence realized ought to be our trademark after the communal riots and other divisive scares that had marked the pre-independence years.

As we prepare to go to the booth, let us all pledge that never again will we put at risk our coming generations by negating the legacy that our elders gave their all to leave to us. This much we owe them – and to our children and grandchildren of future Mauritius.

* Published in print edition on 31 October 2019

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