New Internationalist

Another side of paradise

Issue 422

Mauritian novelist Lindsey Collen looks back on her country’s recent past to see how class strife disguises itself as culture clash.

ILLUSTRATION: Dominic Bugatto / www.threeinabox.com
ILLUSTRATION: Dominic Bugatto / www.threeinabox.com

Almost everyone uses the cliché, from the World Bank to hotel bosses, from the Prime Minister to visiting academics, from journalists to primary school children – ‘Mauritius is a multicultural paradise where different communities live side by side in harmony’. When I try to situate the cliché in my mind, I think of three defining flashpoints in recent Mauritian history: the so-called ‘race wars’ at Independence in 1968, the general strike movement in 1979, and the uprising against the police in 1999.

‘Race wars’ – 1968

When in 1975 a colleague at Bhujoharry College in Port Louis was sacked – along with 30 other teachers, including myself – for setting up a union, she told me that her father wanted to talk with me. His right hand had been cut off in the ‘race wars’ around Independence in 1968, the worst time of all for communalism – and he still mourned it, I could tell. He told me, however, that it wasn’t someone of the ‘other’ community who had chopped it off. It was when monopoly control was being established over the meat market: he had a small meat stall and was punished for being too stubborn. I realized how vested interests hid behind this ‘conflict of cultures’.

In the 1970s, nine of us set up a radical bookshop. We had difficulty finding premises. Then, someone offered us an ideal spot for hardly any rent. Why? In 1968, when his family had not had time to flee, they had been sheltered secretly for a week by the family of one of us. The shop owner was waiting for this moment, he announced, when life would offer him an opportunity to do something in return. Even today the closeness of those two families is total. So, was it really ‘one community’ against ‘another’ in 1968?

I met an old woman in the homeless people’s movement in the 1990s who said: ‘I am scared to leave Plaine Verte [where she had illegally built a tin shack on state land] because I came here from Baie du Tombeau in the race wars.’ This is what affected her most: ‘They broke my fishbowl. I ran with my two little boys and a babe in arms, looking back at the goldfish gasping on the red cement floor.’ People who have to flee are left with vivid memories for decades.

The scar between two suburbs of the capital, Plaine Verte and Roche Bois, is still visible: pylons in a wasteland where a no-go area had appeared after the communities separated out.

There were no trials afterwards. The deaths, maimings and rapes lie buried in shallow memories, as if any attempt by the State to bring anyone to trial might put a spark to the inflammable materials that are us.

Independence went ahead in 1968, even if it came during a ‘State of Emergency’ and a curfew manned by British soldiers. This was already 21 years after the partition of India provoked a divide whereby the ‘Indo-Mauritian’ community became ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’. Two-thirds of Mauritians are descended from Indian peasants shipped here as indentured labourers in the hundred years up to 1920. Before that, for a hundred years, when Mauritius was French, slaves were shipped in from Africa and Madagascar to work in sugar, at the docks and around the commerce on the Royal Road in Port Louis.

The sugar oligarchs opposed Independence, instinctively fearing it and the nationalization they thought it would bring. They believed they stood to gain from a bit of communal strife. So they paid thugs of one community to attack neighbourhoods of another, and vice versa. This desperate plan interacted with ongoing disputes in the harbour area of the capital between gangs that ran drugs, prostitution and meat rackets around the market. People fled their homes while others looted in their wake. Port Louis separated out into predominantly Catholic Creole areas and areas where mostly Muslims lived. How could cultural richness be blamed for this?

General strike – 1979

New factories started up after Independence, producing for local needs. Tax and customs duty exempt textile mills opened. State-owned companies took on thousands of employees. The working class grew and organized – in unions, co-operatives, clubs and political parties. Mauritian society became ever more closely knit. Women’s associations, set up before Independence to get the right to vote, now grew strong. The ‘race wars’ were discussed in all the new unions and associations. The most popular slogan on the walls was Lalit de klas, pa lalit de ras! (Class struggle, not race conflict!).

Ten years after the race war curfew, a woman could walk home in any part of town late at night after attending a political meeting. This was Mauritius during the general strike movement of 1979, the best time of all. You never heard a single uselessly used communal term. Enquiries from foreign visitors about the many ‘mixed’ marriages grated on people’s nerves. Academics studying ‘pluralism’ sounded like philosophers arguing about how many angels danced on the tip of a needle, given the economic problems uniting working people. The cane labourers, port, transport workers and machinists, all united in action over three weeks – having patiently prepared for three years – to demand trade union recognition, job creation and an end to sugar mill closures. It was at one point almost an insurrection. That most cane labourers were Hindu, most port workers Creole and most transport workers Muslim was as irrelevant to their politics as the fact that some workers played in a band at night while others lifted weights. There was harmony at a time of sharp class war.

Twenty years passed.

Uprising against the police – 1999

Then came a narrow escape. In 1999, the beloved singer, Kaya, was found dead in a police cell. It was a time of rising unemployment and unrest. Machines had replaced workers. Unions had weakened. Government was trying to privatize health, education and pensions, cut food subsidies. So, when Kaya was found dead, young people’s anger was spontaneous. They erected barricades and set tyres alight. They attacked police stations; nine were demolished. Three were shot dead by police. The Grand River prison gates were opened from the outside and the prisoners freed. The police lost control.

And everywhere among the people there was peace: an uprising can be peaceful. There was no traffic, just women and men walking, talking, while passing bicycles threaded their way between barricades.

But then, as night fell, people seemed to realize that the stocks of commodities were no longer being policed and looting began. At first it was relatively innocent. Mainly old ladies and children taking from warehouses what they had always wanted. A stainless steel sink with a plug. Or a whole box of Deep Heat ointment for aching knees. Then a sinister form of large-scale looting started and danger began to stalk. Women and children hid. Professional looters carted off loads in lorries, then set fire to the ransacked warehouses. Tourists had by now been locked in their hotels for days.

Then came the communal part. Murky elements of the State, together with some shop-owners, organized bands of men to burn down all the houses in two hamlets, mainly Creole, within the predominantly Hindu areas of Triolet and Goodlands. The torching was meant to signify that the uprising had not been against the police for killing Kaya, but against Hindus for being the majority. It threatened to bring everyone into a vortex of intercultural violence.

So, everyone stopped the uprising. Because it had never been about cultural differences; it was against the State. But it had been a close shave.

Now

Today, ten years on, with impending economic chaos, there will be more provocation and more danger as people’s livelihoods become more precarious.

With the end of the protected market for sugar in 2009, the raison d’être of Mauritius disappears. With 10 per cent unemployment already, further massive job cuts loom. Panic emigration begins. Social problems abound.

The global crisis now hits Mauritius. The organized working class is shrinking. The union federations that bound them together are fragmenting. The balance of class forces is unstable once again. Different sections of the bourgeoisie compete desperately. Shady organizations grow more powerful: the Voice of Kreol is funded by the bourgeoisie, the Voice of Hindu nurtured by the State and business, and a Hizbullah party was, for a while, encouraged by some Muslim traders. The classification of election candidates as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sino-Mauritian’ or ‘General Population’ (mostly Creole and Catholic) has never been removed from the Independence Constitution, and kindles communalism.

Once again, economic interests are clashing as different crises converge. There is already more instigation to intercultural conflict than ever before.

How long can people resist? It probably depends on the degree of their political sophistication and organization. And the claims that ‘Mauritius is a multicultural paradise…’ inevitably ring hollow when chanted by those who have no commitment to freedom, equality or justice. The continued struggle for liberation is what history seems to show to have been the basis for peace, even in the face of extreme provocation.

Lindsey Collen’s novels include The Rape of Sita which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the African region in 1994, Mutiny (2002) and Boy (2005).

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