Rajiv Servansingh

In Search of the Elusive Mauritian

— Rajiv Servansingh

For so many months since the beginning of the year the national political agenda was almost exclusively dominated by the search for a solution to the allegedly divisive effects of the Best Loser System in our local polity. While there were admittedly some issues which needed to be resolved regarding, for example, the base year for calculation of representation of “communities”, the debate essentially turned around the professed harmful effects of the system on our national unity and harmony.

It was not rare to hear politicians waxing lyrical about the need for a change of the system “after forty five years of independence” as if there was something inevitable about it. It did not seem to matter that, during those same 45 years and contrary to what had been presumed by its most outspoken theoreticians, unfettered globalisation had created a huge “cultural” backlash.

One of its most pernicious effects was that it had given rise to ever more parochialism and accentuation of the issues related to ethnic appurtenance and religious sentiment in political discourses all over the world. The implosion of the Soviet empire had led to the proliferation of a bevy of nations, resulting in the revival of extreme nationalism and religious sentiment. The genocide perpetrated in Sarajevo or the 11th September attacks on the Twin Towers in the US were among the most visible symptoms of similar more or less protracted and pervasive violent struggles in many parts of the globe.

Closer to home in Nairobi recently, a group of religious fanatics attacked a shopping mall causing the loss of life of tens of visitors. That Mauritius remains a model of multi-ethnic and multicultural harmony in a global environment dominated by such turmoil, without its ripples ever managing to cause the least threat to our peaceful way of life must not be taken for granted. The institutions which have made this possible may be more than 45 years old but they remain as relevant today as they were when they were first put in place. It is surely not far-fetched to suggest that our electoral system, admittedly far from perfect, has been one of those fundamental institutions by providing the requisite level of comfort to all communities, especially the minorities composing the nation.

At the heart of the debate about national unity is this fundamental and still unresolved discussion about what constitutes the Mauritian identity almost 50 years after the independence of the country. Already in the seventies, only a few years after independence, late Kher Jagatsingh, otherwise considered as one of the most brilliant ministers to have sat in Cabinet, was ruthlessly taken to task for having asked in what was clearly a literal translation of the English expression “where is this animal called a Mauritian” (sa bebete qui appelle ene Mauricien).

A few commentators may have failed to grasp the metaphorical symbolism in what is a commonly used idiom and – granted that mastery of the English language was far from being the strength of the then chattering classes — taken genuine offence. Others were less naïve. The late Minister’s statement was twisted and turned to show that its author was some sort of “anti-national element.”

The sorry state of affairs is that almost half a century later the question remains largely unanswered. Hoping that there would in the meantime have been some progress as far as mastery of the English language is concerned, we therefore dare to suggest that the “animal” is still far from visible.

It was after the general elections of 1982, which witnessed the first 60-0 win by one contender, that for the first time a top-down approach was adopted by the State in an effort to define the contours of the Mauritian nation. The national radio and television services were systematically put to use to that effect and among other things the Creole language was aggressively promoted as a central vehicle of this putative national identity.

There were numerous reasons for the split in government which occurred in 1983, but it would be fair to assume that this flawed attempt to impose this elitist construct on the country was rejected by a vast majority of the population and contributed to the demise of the MMM-PSM alliance and eventual split of the MMM. It also constituted a major throwback for the progress which had been achieved in terms of national unity leading up to the 1982 elections.

According to popular belief the situation has been worsening ever since, probably reflecting in no small measure the global trends of the greater voice that ethnicity and religious sentiment is acquiring in political discourses. A persistent denial of this trend in countries such as the UK and France has resulted in very complicated situations such as the present rise of the extreme right in France’s mainstream politics.

As we get involved in the next electoral campaign, it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid observing the glaring contradiction between posturing and political realism. Extremely vocal and more or less organized ethnic and cast pressure groups will emerge and lay claim to their democratic right of representation of their separate interests. Politicians from all sides of the political spectrum, as happens during every general election, will have no choice but to play along with more or less sincerity of purpose. As happens during every political campaign, we shall again be invited to witness the triumph of “realpolitik” over more idealistic views.

The great paradox is that those who are constantly searching for the ideal-typical Mauritian nation are obsessed with the need to enunciate a definition which will be universally acclaimed. They meanwhile fail to see the obvious. In this connection we take the liberty to quote development economist Albert O Hirschman who almost forty years ago warned about “the dangers of compulsive and mindless theorizing that characterizes economics and the social sciences…” He suggested that much of this theorizing was “rooted in the hegemonic need of our culture to understand, explain, control and dominate a multifaceted, complex social and natural reality that will always be beyond total understanding and control.”

Over the past decade, the rise of chaos and complexity theory has only reinforced Hirschman’s prescient call for a new approach to social sciences. In sum, all that is being said is that the Mauritian nation is alive and kicking — people of diverse origins living under one state in a geographically defined territory and who have evolved a set of institutions which allow them to live in peace and harmony. The most that we can do is to rethink our identities and to create conditions which favour more emphasis on values rather than common heritage or ancestry.

 

Rajiv Servansingh

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