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Language Rights Demonstration in front of National Assembly


LALIT members, artists and adult literacy students were amongst those at the demonstration held on Monday 11 May in front of the National Assembly, organized by Ledikasyon pu Travayer. With the economic crisis, LPT demands that the Budget speech and the Budget itself, due to be presented on 22 May, be broadcast in the mother tongue. For this to be done, LPT argues, there is time enough to amend the Constitution to do away with the laws that suppress the mother-tongues, Kreol and Bhojpuri. (See LPT letter below).

When Alain Ah-Vee, LPT President, and Ragini Kistnasamy, Executive Committee members went to leave the 70 letters with the Clerk of the Assembly, he refused to take delivery of the letters to the Members of the National Assembly. LPT has since written a letter of protest to the Speaker.

To make things worse, the police officers at the Gate then also refused to take letters, they who are usually so swift to take letters, rather than let anyone in through the door.

LALIT has pleasure in publishing the letter to the MP's in full:

Hon. Member of the National Assembly,
Port Louis.

Dear Madam/Sir,

Our Association writes to request you to assure your party Leader and Whip that you agree to vote to amend the Constitution, so as to allow the use of the mother tongues in the National Assembly, should such a Bill come before you. By expressing your political will this way, you can assure the Prime Minister, as Leader of the House, of the necessary majority. We have last week already written to him and to the Attorney General, so as to allow them time to prepare the Bill. We write urgently so that such a Constitutional Amend¬¬ment can be passed in time for the coming Budget Speech, which could then be delivered, for the first time in history, in Mauritian Kreol. We are in a period of economic crisis, both a local systemic crisis and an internation¬al financial and economic crisis, and people need to be able to understand what the Government they elected intends to do in the face of the crisis, what backbenchers are saying, and what the Opposition proposes.

Our Association, which promotes the mother tongues, only last week took delivery of a professionally conducted Survey commissioned last month. This Open Letter is a way of announcing the findings. The Survey shows that 67% of Mauritians are in favour of the use of Mauritian Kreol in the National Assembly. This means over two-thirds of the population will support you on this. Only 18% are strongly against, 9% somewhat against. 7% do not know what they think.

As you are aware, the Constitution today still bears the scars of a colonial past. Forcing MP's to speak only in colonial languages, is one of the vestiges of this colonial race prejudice, a prejudice which has no scientific foundation whatsoever. On the contrary, it is logical to assume that groups of people think faster, better, more creatively, more complex¬ly, more efficiently and more rationally in their own natural language.

In LPT we have been building up support for the change we are proposing for some 33 years, since the founding of our Association. And we are not the only ones. The political party, Lalit, has consistently stood for this demand, as have a number of Associations.

The first time the issue came to the notice of Parliament was by way of Private Member's Motion in 1977, when Hon Azize Asgarally raised it. There have, over the years, been PQ's by Sylvio Michel, and more recently one by Eric Guimbeau as well. The present Prime Minister, Hon. Navin Ramgoolam, and the present Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Paul Bérenger, have both spoken out in favour of considering the introduction of Kreol into the National Assembly.

"The official language of the Assembly shall be English, but any member may address the Chair in French," Section 49 of the Constitution reads. Our first demand is simple:

Section 49 should read as follows: "The official languages of the Assembly shall be English and Mauritian Kreol, but any member may address the Chair in French or Bhojpuri." As you are aware, Mauritian Kreol is spoken most of the time by 70% of the people, Bhojpuri by 12%, and both or one together with another language some 11%, which brings us to the figure of 93% for Kreol and Bhojpuri (see table).

Kreol - 826,152 or 70.0%
Bhojpuri - 142,387 or 12.0%
Bhojpuri & Kreol - 64,106 or 5.4%
Kreol or Bhojpuri plus another language - 66,658 or 5.7%
English, French, Other Oriental and other - 76,453 or 6.5%
Not stated- 3,093 or 0.3%
TOTAL Population of Republic of Mauritius- 1,178.848 or 100.0%

From: Central Statistics Office, Census of the Whole Population 2000

There is another language clause that needs simply to be revoked. As you know, demo¬cracy means everyone can not only vote but also stand for election. In the Constitu¬tion, there are only two sorts of qualification for membership of the National Assembly. The first does not concern us here, and is technical (citizenship and residence), while the second concerns us directly. It demands proficiency in speaking and reading a foreign language, a proficiency which can be challenged by a litigant in the Supreme Court. "A person … shall not be qualified unless, he – 33(d) is able to speak and, unless incapaci¬tated by blindness or other physical cause, to read the English language with a degree of pro¬¬ficien¬cy sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the Assembly."

The humiliation of having one's language ability questioned in public, of course, scares off half of the population from even contemplating running for office. As women are often less confident of their ability, women are more deeply affected. Many working class candidates are excluded from the democratic process by this clause.

So, Section 33 (d) should quite simply be revoked. If parties wish to field candidates, or people want to vote for people who cannot read and write English, or cannot read and write at all, they should be free to do so.

We call on you as elected Members of the National Assembly to make use of the important occasion of the Budget of 22 May to enable these amendments. This way the Budget, which is televized, will be able to be read in Mauritian Kreol, to mark the first day that the Constitutional amendment takes effect. The issue of orthography for Hansard has fortunately been resolved.

In conclusion, we believe that the amendments, if you bring them in as we propose, will give peoples' mother tongues the dignity all languages deserve.

Yours faithfully,

Alain Ah-Vee, President and Lindsey Collen, Secretary

11 May 2009
Ledikasyon pu Travayer
153 Main Road, Grand River North West,
Port Louis, Republic of Mauritius
208 2132