The Place of the Intellectual (1) In the land of almost sugarless prejudice

Avec le soutien de
Tim Taylor (Chairman of Scott & Co and Chairman of the National Committee on Corporate Governance), Roukaya Kasenally (scholar and democracy activist), Paula Atchia (pedagogue and author), Yvan Martial (journalist, historian and writer), Francois Ip (medical Doctor and man of ideas), Jean Claude de l’Estrac (Director of the Indian Ocean Commission), Jane Valls (Director of MIoD), Vidula Nababsing (sociologist and thought leader).

Tim Taylor (Former Chairman of Scott & Co and Chairman of the National Committee on Corporate Governance), Roukaya Kasenally (scholar and democracy activist), Paula Atchia (pedagogue and author), Yvan Martial (journalist, historian and writer), Francois Ip (medical Doctor and man of ideas), Jean Claude de l’Estrac (Secretary General of the Indian Ocean Commission), Jane Valls (Director of MIoD), Vidula Nababsing (sociologist and thought leader).

Sashi Tharoor, Indian Member of Parliament, being invited to deconstruct the basis of British colonialism at Oxford University (July 2015), makes a stark contrast with MBC debates, University of Mauritius debates, or rather lack of, let alone Parliamentary ones. Time to bounce off Dhiren Moonesamy’s poignant paper L’engagement politique des jeunes à Maurice : Crever l’abcès du vide idéologique (Le Mauricien, 17th August 2015).

With the view to probing questions relating to the place of our intellectuals, I interviewed separately a buoyant and eclectic group of engaged personalities with idiosyncratic voices: Francois Ip (medical Doctor and man of ideas), Vidula Nababsing (sociologist), Tim Taylor (Former Chairman of the National Committee on Corporate Governance), Dhiren Moonesamy (Director of Forum, Le Mauricien), Paula Atchia (pedagogue and author), Yvan Martial (journalist, historian and writer), Roukaya Kasenally (scholar and democracy activist), Jean Claude de l’Estrac (Secretary General of the Indian Ocean Commission), Jane Valls (Director of MIoD).

The global and the local void

Jane Valls points out that the question of ‘where the intellectuals are’ is a global one. The great ideological debates that animated the 1960s are no more and for Jean Claude de l’Estrac, the danger is that this void might be replaced by religious or other authority.

The Ostrich

Francois Ip is of the opinion that the lack of political engagement (with a small ‘p’) amongst the younger generation is to do with the dictate of a consumerist society. Jane Valls concurs that a majority of Mauritians live in a comfort zone from which they do not need to speak out about anything while those at the bottom of the ladder do not always have the tools to voice out. ‘‘People in general including intellectuals prefer to steer clear of controversial issues in order to avoid any trouble,’’ points out Vidula Nababsing. It is worrying that we bury our heads in the sand and wait for the storm to pass.

Size matters

Our participants concur that movements of solidarity against an injustice of some sort remain incoherent and conjectural. ‘‘We have isolated voices speaking out but not a coordinated and critical mass of people,’’ affirms Roukaya Kasenally. This coordination is, however, difficult to create and the smallness of the country and the dependency links that this generates are also a handicap. Everyone is dependent on or knows someone who might be affected by their voicing out in the first place.

Silencing mechanisms

For Jane Valls, the dearth of public debate is to do with ‘‘both an education system which represses critical thinking and the societal culture of Mauritius.’’ University is often an extension of school and the lack of research, development and a culture of innovation at local universities is a further mitigating factor. ‘‘We are taught to be non confrontational to the point of being passive.’’ We come together and face diversity in the workplace for a few hours but home is conservative and ghettoised against change and against the other from within Mauritius. Vidula Nababsing points out thatin the last few decades the role of the intellectuals elsewhere and in Mauritius has been considerably weakened. ‘‘The world is becoming increasingly market-driven so that there is less and less space for criticism of the status quo and for ‘alternative’ mind sets.’’ The main roadto development has been charteredwithout the intellectuals. Thisis how intellectuals have lost the dominant role they had in the past in the forging of a nation.‘‘Intellectuals are also silenced by economic threats,’’ points out Dhiren Moonesamy. Speaking out meets with the systematic mechanism of the state administration. By their contract, Civil Servants, that is more than 100, 000 adults, are not allowed to voice their political opinions. Those who dare speak out are often marginalised. People are scared of retaliation on themselves or their close ones. ‘‘Our democracy is threatened everyday, and a little more each time a voice is silent/silenced,’’ concludes Dhiren Moonesamy on this point. Paula Atchiah points out that ‘‘our education system does not inculcate important human values such as courage and daring into our children. Then of course our entire political system, hopelessly out of date!’’

Political claustrophobia

For Yvan Martial, the ideological void is situated in the disintegration and implosion of our political parties. The younger generations find little in the political arena to stimulate their reflection or dreams of a better and more fraternal Mauritius. ‘‘What does a political party have to offer to our youth?’’ asks Yvan Martial. A handful of tickets and ministerial posts is not much to galvanise a whole generation. The best places are already taken, sometimes from birth. From the outset, our youth know they will have to sit on the sidelines. ‘‘And then, there is the dynastic prerogative across all mainstream parties. How can this situation satisfy the political and ideological dreams of the young?’’ is the rhetorical question of Yvan Martial that concludes this section.

The intellectual v/s the politician

There have been great intellectuals who have turned politician, the first role bringing an enrichment to the second, points out Jean Claude de l’Estrac. But the context where political engagement in Mauritius has been reduced to ‘politicaille’ provides little incentive. The prohibition to do active politics for most careers in the public and private sectors also means that some of the most competent Mauritians do not / cannot pursue a political engagement. The result is that for our most competent professionals, an obsession around career prospects and an increasing level of material comfort replaces the battle of ideas.

The qualities identified above in intellectuals are often lacking in politicians. In fact, our political leaders will not tolerate any young politicians who might overshadow them. Those who are welcome on board are not intellectuals capable of challenging their authority.

Government and the Private Sector

Government is … well, many things, but not a joke that is making us laugh

A meritocratic framework within the public sector was seen as difficult to impose given the predominance of various chains of political protection and the conflicting ethnic andsub-ethnic lobbies. What hope is there then of improvement, of a healthy relationship between the world of Politics and the citizens if we know that a good ‘koler lafis’ can become Adviser to the Minister overnight? Or when republican decorations are dished out on the basis that they are? Those who deny the role of thinking people miss out on their huge potential contribution to the country. ‘‘It is our political leaders who have to take responsibility for the brain drain,’’ points out Jane Valls.

The private sector was seen as a partner in creating a healthy society which includes, ‘‘the nurturing of a country’s intellectualism and humanity.’’ Althoughgenerally the private sector has adirect interest in the productionof a high-level human capital, it will also often toe the line in relation to whom it appoints, in order to avoid a potential clash with the Government. At the end of the day, the old question of preserving one’s interests above all predominates.

Conclusion

Despite some of the bleak acknowledgments, there were elements of hope from my participants, residing in: those who maintain the capacity for dialogue with the other; those who maintain their right to speak and query fearlessly; the inclusion of the intellectual woman across all social strata including politics; political renewal; the privileging of a spirituality which acknowledges the common and equal humanity of each and everyone of us.  In The Place of the Intellectual 2, I include the voice of theyoung, present an analysis ofthe points raised and suggest ways forward.

Who/what is an intellectual and where is he/she?

The articulation of ideas in the public sphere was a key characteristic for all participants. For Jean-Claude de L’Estrac, an intellectual will take the risk of voicing out opinions on the basis of the values that they defend. For Jane Valls, intellectuals use their brains and independent thought to do, rather than fall back on tribal reactions. Dhiren Moonesamy refers to the ability to think outside the box, to keep surpassing oneself, the ability to question oneself and accept one’s mistakes. ‘Respecting other people’s ideas even when you don’t agree with them through dispassionate debates is part of an intellectual make-up.’

Francois Ip qualifies the intellectual as a truth seeker who walks the talk: ‘The intellectual abides by a set of behaviour that is aligned to their ethics.’ Roukaya Kasenally enlarges the debate by defending a Republic of Ideas whereby the whole nation should participate in conversations over matters of national importance. ‘The common citizen has the ability to think and should be drawn into debate through a participatory framework.’

But does ‘rocking the boat’ mean that intellectuals are anti-establishment? Dhiren Moonesamy decries this misconception. Deconstructing, that is, a questioning of the basis of certain practices and status quo, with a view to working towards an improved situation, is a very different stance from destruction. Intellectuals deconstruct so that systems and mentalities may evolve.

Along similar lines, Vidula Nababsing’s view is that ‘an intellectual is someone who can assess a situation in the context of a much bigger picture without the interference of petty interests of their own or those involved in this situation.’ It is someone who can isolate the interest of the common good and work towards the attainment of a better world with the highest level of integrity.

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