Dossier 14-15: Multi-Fundamentalism in Mauritius

Publication Author: 
Lindsey Collen
September 1996
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The attacks by Muslim fundamentalists against Mr. Namassiwayam Ramalingum and against L'Indépendant, the newspaper he is editor of, were accurately described and rightly denounced in Index 3/1995. But Mr. Ramalingum has not provided a clear enough picture of what was going on in general in Mauritius. This is a pity, because knowing about the context helps towards a more thorough condemnation of all the attacks on free speech in Mauritius.

Mauritius has seen vast changes over the past fifteen years. Since 1979, Mauritius has started becoming one of the IMF and World Bank's first "success stories", as they like to refer to it. They have to talk about it a lot because they've only got a few "success stories".

But, in truth, everything in Mauritius has become tense.

A road accident in May on the main motorway just outside the capital, Port Louis, for example led to six hours of rioting. Rioting which was directed against any form of authority in sight, and which the police had difficulty quelling, even when they opened fire on the people there. Rioting which, within hours, showed signs of producing communal dynamics.

After Cyclone Hollanda in February last year, when the electricity was down, there was an outburst of mass hysteria. It was about an imaginary being called "Naked at Midnight" or "Minnwi Tuni" in our language, Kreol. He was a modern werewolf, collectively imagined as shining black and silver, sometimes dog and sometimes naked man, who drove a four-wheel-drive and used a cellular telephone. Here and there, the odd Catholic priest and Hisbullah leader set themselves up as defenders of the people against the imaginary intruder, and bands of men armed with pangas started to roan the streets of Port Louis in search of "him". "He" was, inter alia, held responsible for making women feel shining light between their legs, then faint, and then fall pregnant. Women were "therefore" locked up at home.

The hysteria lasted some three weeks, and disappeared along with Minnwi Tuni after the electricity came back.

But in the meantime, the communal dangers inherent in this type of hysteria had become all too clear.

All this to say that the very country usually held up to all other countries as the IMF and World Bank's "Mauritian Miracle", and a living proof of the wonders of structural adjustment programmes, is in fact a society showing increasing signs of internal stress just under the surface and ready to break out in hysteria.

It is this background of hysteria which can give way to communal tensions, especially when it is cruelly made use of by communalists of all ilk.

The communalism in Mauritius, because of its overlap with religion, is increasingly taking on fundamentalist traits. In Mauritius, the particular form it's taking can be called multi-fundamentalism.

This multi-fundamentalism has been further exacerbated recently by a number of things.

First, the visit in June of the Leader of the Opposition in India who is also leader of the fundamentalist Bharatiya Party (BJP), Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His official tours of state institutions were interspersed with visits to a number of religious organizations, a fundamentalist combination previously unheard of for an official visitor from India. The Mauritian government was involved in planning this.

Second, after the growth of a fundamentalist party, the Hisbullah, in turn, Maulanas have grouped together to hold political meetings with political demands of a general nature, as well as to denounce the supposed attacks on the prophet by L'Indépendant and to threaten violence against the editor, as well as calling for the liberalization of meat imports, a rather more economic demand.

Third, there is the continued role of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of Mauritius, one of the few institutions in the world never to have taken a stand against apartheid even until today, and where the Bishop's lent message took a stand against the government tax on the sugar barons. The hierarchy has recently point-blank refused to accept anti-discrimination regulations for intake of students (the Government Notice 114) and for recruitment of teaching staff into the schools that they control but that public funds finance.

Underneath the hysteria, underneath the communalism and the multi-fundamentalism, lie rather more crude conflicts.

The ideological swing towards privatization, whether in Yugoslavia or Rwanda, whether in India, Mauritius or South Africa, mean public or collective ownership being converted into private ownership. And "private" means somebody gets, somebody doesn't get. And those in the line for "getting" are different sections of a ruthless bourgeoisie.

Whichever of the main parties you vote for, whatever programme they put up, you get the IMF and World Bank's politics of privatization. And privatization means conflict as to who will get the capital.

In Mauritius, like in many other countries, privatization means it is "old money" that "gets" the bulk of this shifting capital. Goods and services recently owned and controlled by the state are handed over to a few private families - usually the same ones that owned and controlled them "before", and "before" tends to mean "before Independence", "before universal suffrage".

Other aspiring "getters" can succeed only to the extent that communalism and fundamentalism can be stirred up. And that's the scramble. The "scramble" for the capital going private. It means an all-out fight. It means sudden enrichment of different fragments of the few.

For the many, privatization means being reduced to the level of an expendable productivity robot.

Then, what with all the propaganda about how Mauritius is a success, a "model" for Africa, the "tiger of the Indian Ocean", "paradise islands", etc., most Mauritians look around and wonder what's going on. All we can see around us is the spectre of increasingly insecure jobs, sweatshop conditions, compulsory overtime and low-paid workers in free zone factories ($100 a month), prices not controlled any more, sugar mills closing down, a housing shortage, threats of privatizing health, education, electricity and water - and all this is called "the Mauritian miracle"?

This clash between what Mauritius is supposed to be, and what it, in fact, it, is the material that hysteria is made of. It's hard to stay rational in the face of such insufferable lies being so generally swallowed.

Where does L'Indépendant fit in?

L'Indépendant is a newspaper that was supporting some small section of the bourgeoisie in the general scramble for newly "privatizing" capital, some clans who wanted a political say in who should be future Minister of Finance. According to the IMF and World Bank, the future Minister of Finance is king of the temporary realm called "privatization". It is not clear exactly which clans are behind L'Indépendant. But it is clear that whoever the people behind L'Indépendant are, they were prepared to use Hindu communalism and Tamil communalism, in their bid for the political power that would help them get access to economic stakes.

, while it was coming out, was a newspaper that combined scurrilous rumours with some genuine exposure of important financial scandals - both of which led to an increase in its circulation. From its first number it had a backdrop of communalist articles, openly defending what it called "Hindu power". It was generally felt that some of the victims of its character assassination campaigns were chosen because they were of Muslim faith. The newspaper, incidentally, carried scurrilous attacks against me and my novel, The Rape of Sita. When the threats got really bad, I gave a statement to the police.

But, of course, the nature of the newspaper is no reason for public burnings, public threats, or fire-bombing the printers. These reactions are a sign of how bad the times are. And curiously, no-one could give an explanation as to what was offensive in the particular articles that were used as an excuse for the violence.

Just one week after the disturbing spectacle of the public burning of L'Indépendant by Muslim fundamentalists, we saw the equally disturbing spectacle of orators defending L'Indépendant burning three other newspapers, L'Express, Le Mauricien and Le Mag for being "anti-Hindu"; the mainstream press is still effectively owned and controlled by a Euro-centred Catholic elite. This burning of newspapers took place at the celebration of a religious festival at a new building called "Hindu House" and in the presence of official advisers to the Prime Minister. Interestingly, one of the first organizations to be associated with this new Hindu House was a newly created one: the Hindu Business Council.

Other attacks against free expression have included the imprisonment of two journalists, Alain Gordon-Gentil and Harish Chundunsing of Le Mag news magazine, under the Official Secrets Act. The new Police Commissioner, Raj Dayal, a military man with fundamentalist tendencies, is responsible for this arrest.

Communalism and fundamentalism represent very clear economic interests for the few. At the same time, they represent the politics of despair for the many.

In direct opposition to the politics of despair, in March this year a new movement called "Movement Against Communalism" (MAC) was born.

It is potentially strong, including the whole of the trade union movement, consumers' groups, environmentalists, the women's movement, almost all musicians in the country, pre-school playgroup organizers, adult literacy groups, a health co-operative, an agricultural organization, and an organization of the blind - as well as a number of individuals. MAC is characterized by its emphasis on the rejection of all forms of classification or categorization of people along communal, ethnic, religious lines - whether by the state, by politicians, by academics or by anyone. It is also exposing institutionalized communalism - in laws, in organizational forms – and opposing all links between organized religions and politics, and between religions and the state. And defending freedom of expression.

One thing that is clear is that so long as political parties have programmes that only aim, to re-distribute inequality, then communalism, racism, religious strife will continue to constitute a constant danger; as long as there is privatization of public goods and services, then there are vested interests in communalism, racism and religious strife; and it is our experience her that these forces of obscurantism are, amongst other things, the enemies of free expression.

June 16, 1995

N.B.: An earlier version of this article appeared in Index on Censorship, Vol. 24, No. 4, July-August 1995

Index on Censorship
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