That’s what we are really!

A blended intercultural being where dogmatism, fundamentalism, and totalitarianism of any hue and colour are regarded as alien to the Mauritian psyche

Independence and Nationhood

By Sada Reddi

As we wake up on the 12th of march, we will not stare at nor start with a blank slate. Instead, we’ll wake up deeply aware of our past that we leave behind as we wish our country a happy birthday, good health, and happiness. But these good wishes really depend on us as we continue to prepare ourselves for the future, notwithstanding the fact that we may not be able to imagine what it will be like for coming generations.

We are aware that our National Day has never been one of popular rejoicings that we would have liked to see on that day, partly because the political passions of the past (which by now have faded from the memory of older generations) have fortunately become largely irrelevant for the present and possibly for future generations as well. The lack of true national feeling at the birth of the nation may have contributed to a particular tradition which explains the absence of popular national festivities. Barring the official flag-raising ceremony, a state banquet or a composite musical show, there is little that expresses or generates our sense of belonging on that day.

It is true that students will gather at the traditional school flag-raising ceremony, sing the national anthem, followed by the distribution of cakes and refreshments similar to the celebrations of empire Day or Coronation Day of yore. There will be the traditional official speeches, and in almost all government and private institutions there will be the usual flag-raising ceremony accompanied by the national anthem; a few government institutions and private companies will fly the national flag. For most people, it is a public holiday like any other – good for a seaside picnic or business as usual. One should not deplore this state of affairs; this is also the case in all countries where there is no need to beat the patriotic drum in the face of a threatening state.

What makes a nation

However, one issue has always preoccupied the minds of members of the elite class – writers, poets, and other political and social observers: it is the quest for greater national unity since it is perceived that the country lacks certain features which make a nation.

The concept of the nation is a western one and is derived from eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe following the French revolutionary wars; its classical form has now become obsolete as European societies have become increasingly plural. Another strand in European thought is that of Marxism with its emphasis on secularism and the emergence of a classless society, and the elimination of ethnic and religious loyalties which are considered inimical to a classless society.

Those two strands of thought have had a great influence on the western-educated elites of the 1970s who were opposed to multiculturalism as a state doctrine. All those normative ideals were a historical aberration and of little relevance to the overwhelming majority of Mauritians who held the view that those strands overlook the cohesion, solidarity, harmony and day-to-day nationhood which have permeated Mauritian society for at least two centuries. Nevertheless, such theories have been useful for analysing and criticizing public policies by maintaining a critical distance from assumptions, interests, and the urgency of a number of public measures.

Those who want to invent a new society for Mauritius along new lines will normally point to the ethnic conflicts of the past and in recent years or to the mistrust which exists between communities. Admittedly our history has been marked by ethnic conflicts – whether in 1956,1965, 1968 or in some measure the 1999 riots. It is easy to conclude that those conflicts give a lie to the postcard image of a peaceful and harmonious society. But it is not only with hindsight that one comes to appreciate that those conflicts appear not to have undermined the harmony prevailing amongst our different communities; the majority of the population have distanced themselves from those conflicts despite the loss of lives in 1968 and the unexpected brutality witnessed during the racial conflicts.

Even in the heat of the conflict in Port Louis, there were numerous cases of solidarity and cooperation to give shelter to friends and neighbours across communities in places such as St Francois and Cite Vallijee. Unfortunately, those instances of solidarity have never been recorded. We must also underline that the conflicts were localized, they did not involve vast sections of the population and did not in any case last long. More importantly, they did not wreck for good the harmonious relationships of mutual respect, solidarity, cooperation which exist at all levels of Mauritian society.

My own personal recollections have convinced me that the trigger for those conflicts of 1965 and 1968 were political rather than ethnic personal experience suggests that they had their origins in the senseless action of one or two people against a background of political tensions which quickly morphed into ethnic conflicts. I personally knew the person (he passed away two years back and was a close friend of the family) who was at the origin of the riots at Trois Boutiques. He was a chief agent of the PMSD and was travelling in a car from Souillac to Mahebourg with two Hindu friends, and they were all in the fish trade.

Arriving at Trois Boutiques, he saw the chief agent of the Labour Party, stopped his car, assaulted him, and drove away very fast. In the political conditions of that time, that incident resulted in ethnic tensions in the south with serious consequences at Trois Boutiques. Even the small group of people who burst into the Odeon Cinema during the 1 p.m. film show on a Monday afternoon were there to frighten people with their long knives and sticks rather than harm them; the animosity one could have expected was patently absent. At that time the Inspector of Police was known to be in collusion with the PMSD agent, and one could not expect that fact to be recorded in intelligence reports of that time.

As for the 1968 riots, it really started in 1967 on election day. As a student living in Port-Louis, I went to Plaine Verte on that day at around two o’clock. Earlier a political agent had overturned a car belonging to the PMSD being driven by a lady; when it became apparent that the Independence Party was going to lose the elections in that constituency, a skirmish broke out between political agents of the two main parties. It was only when the wounded sought assistance from their relatives that the political conflict slowly changed into an ethnic one opposing drug and prostitution gangs aligned to the two parties.

An underclass protest

My personal recollections and assessments of those two major riots suggest that they were artificially provoked and contrived by political agents, but they were deplored by most Mauritians at that time. As for the 1999 riots, public resentment was primarily directed at police brutality though it might have had had a covert ethnic dimension. The open ethnic conflict only emerged towards the end of the riots which, in my view, was largely an underclass protest. All this is to suggest that ethnic riots had never really undermined the Mauritian way of life, its resilience and our sense of nationhood lived day-to-day and which has been growing steadily at least since the beginning of the twentieth century despite occasional setbacks.

A superficial view of past riots may distort our view of Mauritian society, but this does not mean that the picture is a rosy one. Mistrust between ethnic groups exists as well as a lot of prejudices and stereotypes which generally remain unspoken in the public sphere, but very often burst out in social media or in private circles in the form of jokes and other contemptuous and insulting remarks. Though we still have some work to do to change the mentalities which inform those remarks, equally important are the public policies which must be implemented to eliminate social ills such as poverty, discrimination of any kind, political bias and to ensure that our institutions treat everybody with respect, dignity and fairness in the spirit of our Constitution. In brief, we need to ensure that all the people must be certain that their self-realization in all spheres of life will not be prevented by government and its many institutions as well as by the old social and economic structures.

Drawing attention to the problems mentioned earlier and the need to find solutions should not deny our living existence as a nation. If not, how do we explain our major achievements in every field of life if there was not an underlying unity in the country? How to explain the cooperation, solidarity and mutual help across ethnicities that prevail in every street, neighborhood, village, and town and in the office or at worksites? we stand together not only in the face of calamities but in all kinds of family, religious and political events. Could the spontaneous outburst of solidarity and cooperation have been possible during the Wakashio disaster if we were not one people which can transcend all kinds of boundaries and barriers?

It is time we realize that we have achieved so much because we are a nation with certain core values such as respect for each other’s language, religion, culture and who express our unity and solidarity in our day-to-day lives. Political scientists and anthropologists have listed a number of structural factors which have helped us to transcend our ethnic differences, but underlying all these factors is our day-to-day nationhood. These values were not necessarily developed in post-Independent Mauritius. We have a long history of social harmony, intercultural interactions and solidarity which has made every Mauritian a bit of everything — as Yvan Martial once said: ‘Je suis à la foischrétien, hindou, tamoul, marathi, musulman, chinois, africain, européen, indien, métis, sang-mêlé de toutes les couleurs, de toutes les cultures.’

In brief, the Mauritian is a blendedintercultural beingin whomdogmatism, fundamentalism, and totalitarianism of any hue and colourare regarded as alien to the Mauritian psyche.

* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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