Firoz Ghanty: “I have won a battle. That of chasing away the prime minister”

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After being granted an award by the Ministry of Arts & Culture, artist Firoz Ghanty speaks to Weekly about why he accepted it ‘under protest’. Branded a communist by those in power, Ghanty talks about his political background, his “opposition” to all political parties and the bleak future of the party he was once a member of.

You are one of the few full-time artists in this country, aren’t you?
Indeed. I think there are few full-time artists apart from musicians. So I must be one of few full-time artists if not the only one.

You were recently awarded for fine arts by the Ministry of Arts and Culture, which you accepted under protest. Why under protest?
It has been years ever since independence that I started my first exhibition in 1970 and since 1970, I have been – I don’t like to use the word ‘victim’ as it suggest self-pity but – censured, boycotted, etc. at some point they took my name off the list of artists. And suddenly I am told the Ministry of Arts and Culture – which has not replied to my letters – is giving me recognition. It’s rather cavalier, almost insulting. So I thought that if I refused, I would set the wrong example for those who come after me. So I thought of accepting the award while denouncing the hypocrisy behind this recognition. No one can convince me today that the government is honest in this move. We all know that an election is coming and that this government is weak and ailing and they therefore need to win people over. So the best people to win over are those who have a big mouth. So they tried to appease artists who have been complaining for the last 40 years. I cannot be subsumed in this system.

By accepting the award, aren’t you accepting this same system you are criticising?
I like to be the Trojan Horse and the possibility to fight the system from within. By accepting, I have had the possibility to send a communiqué and speak in the press and denounce the system. In this context, I have one question: Why did the prime minister leave the ceremony so early?

What is your answer to that?
My answer is that I have a won a battle. That of chasing away the prime minister.

Because he knows my character and what I am capable of. They all thought I would react brutally. In fact, I am not always in favour of confrontation. When the situation does not allow one to do things calmly, I become a “terror risk”.

Were you able to do during the ceremony what you had intended to do?
I gave the communiqué to the ministers present and they committed to give it to the prime minister. All I want is for the government to settle the contention between me and  the National Art gallery. 

What contention?
Every two years, artists are entitled to a Rs30,000 grant for exhibitions. When I applied last year, after many years, they dragged their feet for so long and, one month before my planned exhibition, I was told that there was no money left in the coffers! There has always been a kind of ambiguity around me. They see me as a political opponent. They consider me as a nasty communist?

Are you a communist? Notice that I have dropped the word ‘nasty’!
(Laughs) I have stopped using those terms. These ideologies have lost their meaning. Today I qualify myself as an artist, an intellectual, a philosopher and a dialectician.

Why then is there such a persistence to deny you the right to a grant?
There are always all sorts of pretexts to justify their refusal to fork out the grant. But I know from very reliable sources that I am in the category of people who should be bullied. Besides, not being stupid, I also know that the communal aspect is also involved as I continue to be associated with the Muslim community, though I make no claim to any community or any religion. My spiritual convictions are my own and I never brandish them in public. But the perception that I belong to the Muslim community is an element which plays against me just as my former belonging to the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), of which I was a member between 1974 and 1976. Still, some parties consider me as a political opponent. I am a political opponent but of all the political parties.

As someone who has been in the MMM. What do you think of the situation in the MMM today?
When you look at the birth of the MMM, you find out that there was a pathology that existed in many left-wing parties, that of accommodating power, i.e. capitalism, bourgeoisie etc. while pretending to keep one’s values. So, very early, there was an intellectual cleansing in the MMM. All those who were capable of doing so many things were either expelled or they resigned and the leadership brought in some people who had no political, philosophical or ideological beliefs and who became yes-men. The MMM has become a centre-right-wing party, unable to bring any new ideas on the economic, cultural or intellectual fronts.

Now that communism has been decimated, what new ideology can a party bring?
My theory is that Man is fundamentally a creature of power and of violence and that societies are made to supervise and manage innate violence. Each time a political system collapses, Man returns to a wild beast which rapes, plunders and kills. So, today and for the coming years, I can’t see anywhere in the world the possibility for an egalitarian society to emerge. I can’t see hierarchies disappearing anywhere in the world. Everyone is in absolute survival mode, trying to protect his clan, family, sect, country, nation, and so on. What happened in the MMM was foreseeable since the beginning. It is sad as the party did well between 1969 and 1982 to bring a genuine revolution in the mind-set of people. But then the likes of Hervé Masson, Ram Seegobin, Jack Bizlall, others and I were evicted and replaced by this hotchpotch of members who have no political culture or ideology, and who are driven only by their interests.

Are you talking about Pradeep Jeeha, Steve Obeegadoo and Françoise Labelle?
For me, these people are insignificant. They participated in the destruction of the utopic project which was the MMM in what I call les années de cendres and that they call les années de braise. It’s very sad.

So what will be the effect of their leaving the MMM, if they do. Will the party be better or worse off?
My analysis is that the MMM is backward-looking. It’s finished. It may have some more humanity than the other parties, but there aren’t any fundamental differences, in terms of economic or social projects between the MMM, the Labour Party, the Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD) and the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM). This is the context in which something else will emerge: young people who have a different vision of the world, a different desire. I don’t know when though.

Will this happen once these people who are contesting the ideology of the MMM are gone?
For me, they’re not contesting the ideology; they’re contesting the fact that they can’t do what they want, i.e. engage in their own personal promotion. Today, within the MMM, there’s no one saying we should stop the MMM from going the route it’s going.

But isn’t this what Steve Obeegadoo seems to be saying?
I know Steve Obeegadoo. I don’t want to be nasty, but I don’t think Obeegadoo ever had the capacity to build a new tendency within the MMM which would take it back to its origins. The MMM has denied its origins and its struggle, has given in to communalism and become an institutionalised party. But this has created a political space for something to emerge.

With or without Paul Bérenger?
With or without Bérenger, the MMM or all these people who’ve been around for the past 50 years.

Do you think Obeegadoo and the people he has gathered around him are capable of building the kind of thing that you are talking about?
Definitely not. When we analyse history and look at all the people who left the MMM, where are they today? They disappeared on the way. The only group that left the MMM and is still alive was the one that eventually became the MSM and only because Anerood Jugnauth was in power. He had the political machinery of the state and he had the state’s instruments of repression. So he built power while in power and became a party of power. Can Obeegadoo bring any dynamic to any movement today? I don’t think so. 

One of the main points of contention of many MMM members is also the possible – some might say inevitable – alliance with the MSM. Do you think that will save the MMM or will it rather sound the death knell?
From a strictly political perspective, neither the MMM nor the MSM have a way out. They have no choice but to unite when facing the Labour Party for the next election. We know and we just need to look around to see that the MSM is losing ground and that the Labour Party is gaining more ground. So, the MMM is condemned to be associated with the MSM to try and stand in the way of the Labour Party. I don’t think they will be successful but if they go alone, it will be even worse because they will not be able to create a true force against the Labour Party. So for me, based on that, the chances of the Labour Party coming back are high. And if the Labour Party comes to power, it will be a tragedy. 

Are things better now with the MSM in power?
No. I think that the situation with the MSM in power right now is worse than it has ever been. I am a humanist. I can’t deal with human rights abuse. The brutality used against Navin Ramgoolam was unacceptable. You can’t drag people out of their homes and turn them into wanted criminals led to the police headquarters with their shirt open. I am not interested in the man. He is who he is, but in general, this abuse creates scars that are difficult to heal. My worry in all this is my country. 

Apart from the abuse of power you mentioned, what is your evaluation of the MSM performance so far?
I would make a small difference between Anerood Jugnauth’s MSM between 1983 and 1995. He was authoritarian but there was some sort of economic progress in the country; a small and medium bourgeoisie emerged, there was access to comfort. But this MSM that we’ve had since 2014 first of all never thought they would even win the election. When they won, they were surprised and didn’t know what to do. So since the party was made up of a hotchpotch of people taken from everywhere, the party became ungovernable. On top of that, Anerood Jugnauth became very old. He doesn’t have the authority that he used to have and Pravind Jugnauth is a man who has no charisma, no personality and no leadership. So we ended up with a weak government open to all excesses and blackmail. So law and order, the crime rate, the drug situation – no matter what they would like to make us believe – the state of the roads, the political interference in and manipulation of institutions, political immorality, the everyday life of the typical Mauritian, the total lack of prospects etc. have never been so bad. In fact, this government is the worst that we have ever known since independence. The worst at every level. So the life of the Mauritians at the lowest rank of the ladder is appalling and this country has never been as rich as it is today. 

So, what would happen if Bérenger tried to save the MSM through an alliance with them? Would he lose his credibility altogether or will people understand that he had no choice?
When the MMM is in power, the social climate is more serene. The MMM has kept its humanitarian heritage so we know that there will be more respect, less police brutality, fewer rights will be trampled upon, and there will be less corruption. So if this happens, indeed it will probably be a breath of fresh air, but a breath of fresh air to go where? Fundamentally, this will not change the economic and political social structures of the country so people won’t live better.  

Aren’t your views about the country rather pessimistic? 
I am not a pessimist but I have an absolutely lucid view of this country. I have lived with and been in politics for a long time and I’ve been on the field for quite some time. I am still in touch with people and that leads me to the conclusion that the country is in a dramatic situation and that there is an absolute need to find a way to build something else to get us out of this otherwise we will go to the wall!

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