In the run-up to this week’s Independence celebrations, the association Ledikasyon pu Travayer organized a Forum, which ended up reigniting the Mauritian tradition of public debates on politics. This tradition saw its hey-day in the 1970s, when people flocked to public debates on a weekly basis in halls all over the country. But by the 1990s, most of the mainstream political parties’ leaders had begun to shy away from political debates in public, as they moved to the right of the electorate that would be present for the debates. And then for the past 25 years, various NGOs have organized bland talks disguised as “debate” but actually negating proper debate.* As for LALIT, we have often found ourselves being the only political party to accept an invitation, and to hold the floor without opposition in some very interesting events – but that turned out, for lack of opposing ideas of any kind, not to be Forums.
At the LPT Forum of 5 March held at the Hall in Coromandel belonging to the Federation of Civil Service and Other unions, LALIT was represented on the podium by Alain Ah Vee, while Paul Bérenger spoke for the MMM, Cader Sayed-Hossen for the Labour Party and Patrice Armance for the PMSD. Senior journalist Rabin Bhujun was guest chair. The theme was Avek Konsansis Milti-Partit deza, kan e kuma pu introdir Kreol dan Lasanble Nasyonal, akote Angle Franse (With all-party consensus, when and how to introduce Kreol into the National Assembly alongside English and French).
Each speaker was given 12-15 minutes to outline their arguments, and then questions and comments from the floor literally burst out from the audience, and lively discussion followed. When time was up, there were still hands in the air for comments and questions. LPT members said they had expected some 70 people, and were surprised at having to get out more chairs as people continued to turn up.
All four speakers said their parties were in favour of the introduction of Kreol as one of the languages of Parliament. They placed blame for the absence of the national language in the National Assembly even after 52 years’ Independence firmly on to the Government parties, the MSM and ML. The Leader of the House, Pravind Jugnauth of the MSM had turned the invitation down, on the basis that he was not free. He decided not to delegate anyone else. His position and the position of Ivan Collendavelloo, his Vice Prime Minister and ML leader, are abundantly clear from their respective answers to Parliamentary Questions: they intend to stonewall and, given the popularity of the demand, to pretend to be in favour while resorting to blatant delaying tactics. As Paul Bérenger and Alain Ah Vee both pointed out, referring to replies to Parliamentary Questions one year apart in 2018 ek 2019, the MSM-ML made the same pretence that there were technical issues that had to be resolved while refusing to set up any mechanism to resolve them. This has been going on for decades now.
Alain Ah Vee had said one of the things that Opposition Parties can do in Parliament is to begin all their questions or speeches in Kreol, and only when the Speaker puts them out of order, to revert to the languages that are sanctioned by the Constitution. Alan Ganoo, now Minister, did this last year, following a demand from LALIT that MPs do this. This kind of very low-key passive resistance is one way to take on the vested interests in the colonial status quo of the post-colonial state. In 1922, Alain Ah Vee said, a Municipal Councillor Mamode Ellam did just this. He was so militant that the debate on the issue continued for 5 months until he withdrew. That is very nearly a hundred years ago now.
Paul Bérenger and Patrice Armance both said they would not challenge the status quo this way. Cader Sayed-Hossen of the Labour Party, however, at once saw the logic and said “Why not?” (Kifer pa?). From the floor, the speakers for the Labour Party, the MMM and the PMSD all suffered quite a shaking, and rightly so, about not having changed the Constitution when they were in power.
As if to prove it was indeed a public forum in the old tradition, there were two speakers from the floor who were tiresome. One blathered on against Kreol in Parliament with tendentious arguments, while another had a bee in his bonnet on a different aspect of the debate on written Kreol. This phenomenon is, and always will be, a healthy test of whether the chair and speakers, as well as the audience, can handle them. Those present passed the test.
The other dozen or so interventions from the floor were right on the topic of when and how to end the banning of the language we all speak from Parliament.
[Asterisc added 10 March) -- *Other debates have been organized in expensive hotels, where elite mainly men talk to elite audiences. Yet others, more academic, have a debate-smothering format where two "animateurs" of some kind interrupt and break all interventions up into 3 minute slots, preventing all depth in thinking or any concatination of logical argument.