By contributor Sean Carey
Around 20 years ago, I paid a visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) in Mauritius to consult the records of Indians who were brought from the subcontinent to work as indentured labourers in the sugar plantations after slavery was abolished in 1835.
Before examining any documents, I was invited to meet one of the island’s leading experts on Indo-Mauritian culture. During our conversation, I raised the subject of caste and its contemporary significance among different groups of Hindus in Mauritius. “It doesn’t exist any more,” the scholar said. “Even in the village where I come from caste is not important — people marry who they like.” The scholar paused before declaring: “The only people who use caste are the politicians at election time.”
I was doubly surprised at these remarks. First, because among my fellow academics there is an ethic of not hiding sensitive or embarrassing facts. Second, on the basis of having made several trips to the Indian Ocean island, I was convinced that caste among the Hindu population is an important principle of social and cultural organization. Indeed, the big questions from an anthropological perspective were: how important and what were the variations, say, between towns and villages?
Back to the conversation: I asked: “But if caste does not exist, how can the politicians use it?” There was no reply, just an embarrassed silence. I realized that I had overstepped the boundary of polite discourse, and so I did not pursue the subject any further. The conversation quickly moved on to other matters.
A bit later, one of the MGI archivists, a witness to what had just taken place, took me to another building in the complex to see the documents. I asked him what he thought of the contemporary significance of caste in Mauritius. “Oh, it definitely exists,” he said. “Only last week, we had a police inspector come down to trace his ancestors.”
As was the fashion, the policeman had brought a photographer along with him to take a picture of his forebears’ black-and-white photographs so that they could be reproduced and enlarged at a local lab. Typically, the portraits would be placed in a position of significance in the house such as a religious shrine. The archivist continued: “But he was shocked to find out that the caste he thought he belonged to – Vaish [a middle ranking caste] — was not the case at all. In fact, it turned out that he was very low caste. He was very upset and embarrassed and started to cry – he even sent the photographer away without him taking any pictures.”
I found myself empathizing with the police inspector, who had experienced such a sudden and brutal reconstruction of his and his family’s identity. So much for caste not existing in Mauritius.
Nevertheless, caste among Hindus in Mauritius is not an exact replica of that found in their ancestral villages in India. Instead it is a simplified version. It is also different to the more elaborate caste structures found amongst Hindu, Sikh and Jain groups in East Africa, including those so-called “twice migrants” who later settled in the U.K. and elsewhere. In Mauritius it is also complicated by the several waves of migration that have taken place. Indians from different parts of the subcontinent – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh – often live side-by-side, along with members of other ethnic groups such as Muslims of Indian heritage, Creoles, Chinese and French. They have complex social, cultural and economic interactions with one another.
The question of caste amongst Hindus in Mauritius came to the fore last week, reminding me of my conversations reported here. The current director of the MGI, Ravin Dwarka, told a local journalist that the examination of “sensitive details” of caste ancestry would remain restricted for the foreseeable future.
Why? The dissemination of caste information could lead to “riots” and “threaten national unity.” “Let the sleeping dog lie,” Dwarka recommended.
Predictably, these statements have caused an uproar. Paul Berenger, a former prime minister of French heritage and leader of the MMM, the country’s main opposition party, said at a press conference on June 25 that the refusal to make the records public was unacceptable, and “from another age.”
Dr. Vijaya Teelock, head of the History and Political Science Department at the University of Mauritius, has also waded into the argument. She is a member of The Commission of Truth and Justice (La Commision Justice et Verite). The Commission was established in 2009 by prime minister Dr. Navin Ramgoolam to look at the facts behind slavery and indentured labor when the Indian Ocean island and its dependencies was a British colony. She accused the MGI of blocking the Commission’s work, while allowing other academics like Edinburgh University’s Dr. Marina Carter access to the archives and the capability to “publish books that are sold around the world.”
Dr. Teelock cannot understand what all the fuss is about – “there are few people in Mauritius who are direct descendants of indentured labourers.” She has called for a “scientific survey on casteism.” Clearly, Dr. Teelock has never heard the story of the police inspector or one like it. At least she has correctly identified the source of the problem: some of those who claim that they belong to the upper castes actually have ancestors from lower castes.
There is nothing new in this social process of “up-casting.” Even though theoretically forbidden from a mainstream Hindu perspective, it is what Professor M.N. Srinivas, an expert on caste in the subcontinent called “Sanskritization.” Through this process, those from lower castes, especially middle-ranking groups, emulate the behavior and customs of the higher or dominant castes by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, for example, in order to move up the social hierarchy.
In rural India, this strategy might take several generations to accomplish. In Mauritius it was often performed much more quickly and might well have had greater scope: the opportunity for up-casting was often provided at the time of migration of different groups from India to Mauritius from the middle 19th century onwards. Social reinvention on arrival in a foreign land, where people could not question the veracity of an individual’s or a family’s standing obviously made sense when identity and power was based on ascribed caste status.
Since independence from the U.K. in 1968, Mauritius has made spectacular economic progress. It is now officially classified as a Middle Income Country, and is cleverly positioning itself as the “economic gateway” between Africa and Asia. Moreover, the shift from an economy largely based on sugar to new sectors like tourism, textiles, offshore banking and business outsourcing means that the country has become more meritocratic and socially mobile, which in turn has likely weakened caste solidarity, at least to some extent.
As the recent furore about caste clearly reveals, rapid economic progress and new patterns of employment do not mean that long-standing social identities among the majority Hindu population have disappeared entirely.