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"Main parties failed to Decommunalize Mauritian Politics" by Ahmed Khan


What follows is a transcription of Ahmed Khan’s talk at the “Eta de lye” on political parties organized by LALIT on 1 and 2 November, 2011 in Port Louis.

First of all, I would like to thank LALIT for inviting me to give this talk on Communalism. I am not going to give a long talk, going into the best loser system and how communalism is institutionalized in the Mauritian legal system. Rather I want to take it from a different angle, a more historical approach.

Lots of people when they analyze Mauritian history and the role that communalism has played in Mauritian politics tend to look at it as from 1983 when the MMM split up and when Aneerood Jugnauth and Harish Boodhoo left the MMM and broke the MMM-PSM alliance, respectively, and launched this very communal campaign against the MMM. Lots of people look at that point in time and think that it was a break. Before that it was all class politics. Then suddenly, after this, the electoral campaign for the 1983 snap elections suddenly switched over to communalism. I do not agree with this. And I will explain why.

1. Colonialism and Racism: Cultural and racial discourse
Initially to begin, I am going to tell you something that may shock some of you. When you look at Indian history, there are surprising facts. There is a book by a gentleman by the name of William Dalrymple. He wrote a book on Indian history known as White Mughals. In it, he says that before 1780, over the decades that the British had entered India primarily as merchants, as traders, as tax collectors, he says if you take a look at the records of the British East India Company, you find that as many as one in three British men are marrying Indians, they are taking up Indian mode of dress, they are wearing turbans and all. When their bosses from the British East India Company would come to India and see that they would get a shock. Some would get outraged. They even then invented that phrase "going native", in the sense that you had British people adopting Indian ways of life. After their deaths, they were leaving all their property to be passed on to Indian wives and Indian families. This began to change after 1780. When the British began to get big territorial ambitions in India, when they went from being humble traders into controlling territories, and when they suddenly decided to become rulers. At this specific point we had a change.

At this point, suddenly you have a great influx of missionaries coming to India. The official discourse began about “civilizing” “the other”. Suddenly you have people from the British government and missionaries coming in and saying that, “You know, our reasons for being here are not that we want to trade with you, or that we are building economic ties with you, it is to redeem your soul”, meaning to civilize them. Rudyard Kipling came up with his poem The White Man's Burden, in which the discourse runs that “It is up to us, as advanced Europeans, to show the rest of humanity the light”. After a few decades, that is to say by 1830, the rate of inter-marriage between Indians and British was zero. Not a single mixed marriage takes place. So from this example, we can see that racism very often is not a question of two different peoples getting together, and this racism being an inevitable product. Racism depends upon whether you have to get some legitimacy for your project. Traders did not need any racism, because they were equals in trade. But once the British had territorial aims, then they needed to legitimize this project, or attempt to. Very often the way that colonialism plays it is that it does not talk about economics at all. It does not talk about exploitation either. Instead it uses a very cultural discourse, a very “civilisation” discourse, that “You are barbarians, before us your society was way down there, culturally.” This is the way racism comes about. By avoiding the economic truths. By the powerful exploiter using pretexts for occupying land, for example, that is not theirs.

This was the case of Mauritius as well, particularly when the old colonial system of economy was under threat with the end of slavery.

There was an immense campaign within Mauritius as to how we should not liberate the slaves because inevitably they were here for this work and had to do it as slaves. The slaves, they claimed, were not going to survive otherwise. Slavery was supposedly a mutually beneficial arrangement between the sugar planters and the slaves. Everybody gains. Racism is born as an ideology when the slave-owners oppose the end of slavery.

When the issue came up as to whether to give everybody the right to vote, then again it gives rise to a debate. It sounds very ridiculous, now, of course, but the discourse begins, “You know, they are not culturally mature enough to vote. They would not be able to vote intelligently. They would not use the vote properly.” So it is a problem of “culture” primarily, that is why they should not get the right to vote. Again racism is fanned by the ideology to oppose universal suffrage.

Then when it came to Independence, a very racist campaign, which was called the "Hindu peril", got off the ground so as to oppose Independence, “If we make Mauritius independent then all of a sudden it will become little India,” a very ridiculous campaign launched in the bourgeois press and by the rich. Once again using cultural discourse in order to legitimize an undefendable political project.

II Reactionary anti-westernism as a colonial product and cultural/racial nationalism
The reason I bring this up -- because this is not to talk on racism – is that, in the same way, until today, you have this same cultural, this very “civilisation” discourse. Still, you can see it today. What happens is that there is a reaction to hearing this from the colonial masters – “everything that came before the white man came was essentially useless, essentially was wrong, was a useless civilisation.” (In brackets, and to be frank, there is an element of truth in this hideous colonial discourse in that because colonialism, of course, can only come about when the existing society was relatively stagnant and was in decay, but we haven’t time to go into that.) So, what is the reaction to this colonial discourse?

Amongst the subject population, amongst the most educated subjects of the population, what that colonial discourse gives rise to is a very reactionary, anti-western tendency. The counter-discourse goes, “If colonialism said we are bad, we say ‘no we are good'.” If they say that before the colonial master came, there was nothing, we say, “No actually, before they came, it was a paradise here. They came and ruined it all.” The educated subject population tends to give a very fundamentalist rewriting of history. It is not a revival. Lots of people say that communalism is a sort of revivalism. It is not revivalism, because they are not trying to bring the old system back, but they are trying to present a very sanitized memory of it, that it was a place where there was no exploitation, there was nothing bad at all, everything was perfect. Somebody brings the issue of caste, and they will counter-attack, saying there was no caste system at all. Or, even if it did exist, they will argue that it was not as bad as people say. It was a bit like Germanic romanticism. When capitalism began in Europe, you had this mass school of thought dedicated to trying to prove that actually feudalism was much better than capitalism. “Life”, they argued, “was much more simple then.” So the way they define its attributes is exactly the same way that colonialism does. Once again, it is all about “culture”, it is all about religion, it is a “civilization” discourse. Once gain, it has nothing to do with economics, nothing to do with politics. Within India this gave rise, of course, to communalism, Hindu communalism, organisations like the RSS, the BJP, that kind of ideology dedicated to recreating a sort of mythical golden age before colonialism, a golden age that never existed.

Within Mauritius too, this gave rise to this school of thought. This necessitates us taking a somewhat iconoclastic glance at some of our historical figures in Mauritius.

III Sookdeo Bissoondoyal
The gentleman by the name of Sookdeo Bissoondoyal. When Manilall Doctor, again an Indian nationalist figure, briefly stayed in Mauritius, he left behind a book on the history of the big 1857 revolt in India, a revolt against the British rule. He left behind his own books, including this one. Veer Savarkar is the founder of the RSS, that ideology dedicated to bringing back a 'lost paradise'. Sookdeo Bissoondoyal studies that, and this is what forms his nationalism, and this is his communalism. All nationalism is not necessarily communal, but everything is seen in terms of culture and religion, in direct (and reactionary) response to the colonialist discourse, that said it was all about culture and religion.

In the 1960s, just before Independence, when Sookdeo Bissoondoyal goes to India, one of his ardent wishes was to visit Veer Savarkar. Now at this time, of course, Veer Savarkar was a persona non grata in Indian politics, because his organisation was implicated in assassinating Gandhi. They assassinated Gandhi in 1948. But when Bissoondoyal goes to India in 1960, he knows who Savarkar is and what he stands for.

The other ideological influence is a gentleman by the name of Subhas Chandra Bose. Once again people also say that he is an Indian nationalist fighter, well and good. But who is this guy? Subhas Chandra Bose was the Indian Nationalist figure who between World War I and II, joined up with Hitler and the Axis Powers, the fascists. Again the logic was that the fascists will liberate us from British colonialism. They even work with the Japanese army against the British during World War II, even though by that time Japan has taken over China, Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar. It was already clear to everyone what Japanese army at the time stood for. Yet, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal named his organisation after Subhas Chandra Bose’s organisation, Independent Forward Block (IFB). SO, this is the truth about Sookdeo Sissoondayal.

But people do not make all that clear, when they talk about him.

Amongst one of his first political actions in Mauritius was to organise a protest in Port Louis over the death of another Indian figure by the name of Lala Rajpat Rai. Surprisingly, Veer Savarkar, Lala Rajpat Rai, Subhas Chandra Bose are three of the foremost figures in the RSS communal pantheology in India. But when you read analyses of this situation in Mauritius, this reality is somehow lost.

In terms of his politics, his key achievement in terms of Mauritian politics, is again based upon a religious, a cultural definition of nationalism. One of his achievements is that, when he started to look at the way religious institutions were funded in Mauritius, he found that, back then, it was only the Catholic Church which was state-funded. Now progressives raise the question, “Wwhy is the Catholic Church being funded by the colonial state apparatus? Why the funding? Why at all? The state has nothing to do with it.” But Bissoondayal’s idea was that “No, the Catholic Church gets state funding, so therefore so must all religious institutions -- the temples, the mosques and so forth.” Again, it is a question of competition, organised round religious, cultural grounds. In fact, he said, “We need spiritual protection.” This is one of his arguments.

Another one of his demands was that religious education should be kept outside the control of the State. What goes on in Madrassa, what goes on in religious institutions, the State has nothing to say on that. What they are learning, it is ok. They should have the full freedom to mould the child's brain.” You will notice that there is nothing in these demands to do with the economy. There is nothing to do with colonialism as such, and yet this is the way their politics was presented, as being anti-colonial, when it was not.
So you can see a very clear line where the most reactionary section of the Indian nationalist movement sort of transposes itself on Mauritian politics. You can see here this clear continuity going on. You can trace the line. The IFB did not have a very large membership, and it may not even have all that many votes, but the type of politics it pursued did enjoy, and still do enjoy, a very wide audience and wide sympathy. That sort of politics is not anti-imperialist at all, and is not all that much anti colonialist, because let us not forget, when there was the Constitutional Conference in 1965, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal said, “Yes we can have Independence but let the British stay here to guarantee our safety, let us keep the British Army”. So, not so much anti-colonialist either.

That is the heart of the problem: “anti Western” does not mean “anti imperialist”, and it does not even mean “anti colonialist”. And the same process applies to all kinds of similar reaction to imperialism. When I bring up this example, this is not to say that this is the only problem this reactionary politics raises. It is the same case with Islamic fundamentalism, it is exactly the same type of politics.

IV 1983
As I said, this type of politics enjoys a wide audience.

One of its protagonists, as we now fast-forward, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal is gone. Mauritius has become Independent, and let us fast forward to 1983.

You see two central figures in Mauritian politics. The first one is Harish Boodhoo who was the leader of the PSM and who was ally to Paul Berenger. He represented a section of the Labour Party which was not comfortable within the sort of Anglophile Labour Party, the British way of doing things, Parliamentary debate, Hansard and all that. Harish Boodhoo and this school of thoughts were never comfortable with that. They identified themselves more with Bissoondoyal ideology, not the Labour Party ideology. Secondly, they were also quite upset over the first coalition Government that was formed between the Labour Party and the PMSD, which they saw as a sell out to the Whites, to the the rich. These guys said that they have already burnt the bridges with the Labour
Party over these two main issues.

One of Harish Boodhoo’s first actions after the split with the MMM was offering the Governor Generalship to Bissoondoyal's brother, not to Sir Seewoosagur. SSR was a patchy compromise to get the Labour Party support. The first choice in Harish Boodhoo’s mind was Bissoondoyal. So you can already see the sort of continuity going on right up to 1983. Aneerood Jugnauth, of course, long time IFB supporter, formerly actually in the IFB and he went on to form a communal party called the Hindu Congress. You can see it is the same brand of thought. After he came to Government, the kind of politics he raises. We see the oriental language issue in 1995 and the communal way it was dealt with in the 1995 elections. It is during Aneerood Jugnauth’s time in Government that there was the socio-cultural organisations’ phenomenal rise. Before that, SSR’s relation with the socio-cultural organisations did not have the same closeness. And they did not enjoy the same legitimacy that they did after 1983.

In 1983, there was the Creole language issue, too, where the Director of the MBC decided to play the National Anthem in Creole. Aneerood Jugnauth said it is not the national language, again in a very communal way. If you use Creole, other languages like Bhojpuri etc will be left behind. Again cultural discourse. Again we see things reduced to being seen as a cultural competition. There are so many examples. There is the renaming of the coolie depot “the Apravashi Ghat”. Again a cultural resonse. So it is not a surprise that when in the 1983 elections, Aneerood Jugnauth comes out and paints Berenger in a very communal way as "Kuzin-kuzinn with gran blan" (cousins of the big whites). It is not surprising, it is not like suddenly a switch has gone wrong. This is my personal view, I could be wrong. I believe it is not that communal politics was invented that day by a switch that had suddenly gone wrong. It was an existing current that had beenthere, and in 1983, was when it gained maturity, it seized the occasion to come out into the forefront. So when people talk about 1983 as if there was a sudden switch from class to communal politics, I do not see it that way.

So ever since 1983 they have continued down the same road. As a reaction, other forms of fundamentalism have arisen. The Hizbullah, again not named after the Lebanese Hezbollah. It is named after one of the gangs in Port Louis who was responsible for the communal violence back in the 1960s. So that is the memory they tried to bring out and it has nothing to do with anti-Israeli resistance.

What we can see is that the MSM in its heyday was the representative of the most revanchist section of the state bourgeoisie. The state bourgeoisie was those people in the middle class who could not proceed any further up the economic ladder because racism was barring their way. By state bourgeoisie, I do not mean the civil servants. What I mean is those sections, those people who use their access to the state to make fortunes, to get contracts. You do not have to be a civil servant to do that! The MSM has played this role. And this was the ideological veneer under which the state bourgeoisie has made its fortune. We have never come out of that. Ever since this revanchist politics came to the fore, we have never got rid of them, and today we still have to continue to deal with this. But my point is that they did not begin in 1983.

VI Mainstream Parties
First of all, the MMM.

The MMM came with the assumption that the racial, cultural or religious nationalism can be progressive. This is why they went into an alliance with the PSM of Harish Boodhoo. Because Harish Boodhoo of course was a very communal type of character, he left the Labour Party, he is talking against racism so he must be a progressive. Lots of people make the same mistake when they talk of Islamic fundamentalism, that supposedly “It is against racism and against imperialism, so it is right”. The MMM never quite recovered from that error. Even today, if you take for example Gregoire. He is another form of religious nationalism trying to be painted as progressive. The MMM never learnt from that. “Once bitten twice shy” is not something that applies to the MMM. They keep making the same mistakes again and again, and they never learn. One of the reasons is at the democracy level. There is just one guy making the same decision, making the same mistake, over and over again. So this is why you may see another MMM-MSM alliance in the near future.

But the Labour Party, that is an interesting case.

I come across a lot of old people who come up to me and say, “You know the Labour Party today is not the same as Labour Party back in the times of SSR”. They do have a bit of a point. The Labour Party under SSR was very Anglophile and the Labour Party that came after this long stretch, under MSM rule, they actually patterned themselves on the MSM. They once again created a strong man, close to socio-cultural organisations The Human Service Trust leader once said that Aneerood Jugnauth is “a little lower than god”. This is also what the Labour Party is looking for today. This kind of “compliment”. They have also stranded themselves in the exact way of doing politics as the MSM -- a superman controlling the destiny of the nation. So the Labour Party kind of patterned itself when it was reconstructed in the 1990s. It patterned itself not after the Labour Party of the past, the one that existed before, but on the MSM, ironically enough. The re-formed Labour party based itself on the MSM’s way of doing politics and their way of doing things. So Navin Ramgoolam is a little more intelligent version of Aneerood Jugnauth.

Another example is intimidation. This means that these capitalist mainstream parties do not have the guts to go against this communal form of doing politics. They much rather compromise with it. Let us not forget this is the same State we are talking about which in 1970s was actually afraid to introduce Family Planning because it will ruffle a few conservative feathers. It was only afterwards, when NGOs and private individuals had start to campaign for it, that they jumped into the boat and it was a great success. The state has not gained much more confidence or courage since that.

But ultimately it is a question of intellectual authority. These bourgeois parties, they cannot come up with any alternatives. They are still stuck in the same old way of doing things. They cannot come up with an alternative ideology. So that is the result. When a communal challenge crops up, they do not even challenge it precisely because they cannot come up with an alternative explanation for it. They cannot look at the past for an explanation for it. They cannot come up with a progressive explanation for it. So at the end of the day, they tend to put up with it. They invite them into their offices.
Ultimately this is the reason why if you are serious about challenging communalism, number one you have to know your enemy to begin with.

It is not question of a few bad men.

Even those on our side of the fence, we often make this mistake, we do not trace how this trend of politics actually came into existence. We just assume that it is a moral issue. It is just a question of a few bad men. If they stop saying this, communalism will disappear. That is just not the case. So it is not a moral question, it is a political question. You have to trace this politics, know what it is and where it came from. So that is why right now, when we are talking about communalism in the Constitution and in the best loser system, the mainstream parties will never be able to put an end to these until unless there is an alternative form of politics that comes out and challenges communalism.

Based on speech by Ahmed Khan at LALIT two-day “état des lieux” on political parties, 1-2 November 2011.