Blog: Distorted Debate
I wish I heard it wrong. A participant in a radio debate on religion and politics said that politicians should be barred from speaking from religious platforms.
In France, there has been a long struggle to separate the State from the all pervasive powers of the Church. Still France remains a Catholic country in essence. British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently asserted the Christianity of his country. Of course being democratic States, these countries respect human rights and freedom of expression.
In Mauritius, I feel that those who are proposing the separation of religion and politics are not aware of all the implications. There is a historical background to the present situation.
From the beginning, only the Christian Church used to receive State subsidy, both for the promotion of religion and education. With evolution and emancipation of the people leading to independence, this facility was extended to all religious and educational institutions on a prorata basis and on equal terms.
Should we not consider ourselves fortunate that all four great religions in the world – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity – are being freely practised in our country? This is part of the freedom of expression which also includes freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Do all those who are asking politicians to stop speaking from religious platforms also imply that religious leaders should be stopped from speaking on political matters? Can't politicians also claim their right of freedom of speech to speak on all matters at all times anywhere? I do not like to attribute motive or question any hidden agenda of anybody. I have always a feeling that everybody is a politician or a religious person in this country depending on circumstances. Do you know of a religious leader who does not speak of politics or a politician who does not speak of religion?
This question came to the forefront when discussions were recently engaged on electoral reforms, particularly on the issue of abolishing the Best Loser System (BLS). The BLS is based on the obligation of a candidate to declare his religious identity to qualify to stand as a candidate and benefit from the BLS system.
The Prime Minister, Navin Ramgoolam has taken a public stand that BLS should be abolished and be replaced by a dose of proportional representation giving an alternative better system to the minorities.
Muslims, religious leaders and politicians from all main parties, came together to oppose the abolition of the BLS. Nobody found any objection for religious and political leaders to come together, share the same platform, discuss the issue and express their views freely.
It was only when the Prime Minister, invited as the Chief Guest at the Yaum Un Nabi celebrations, raised the issue that a gentleman rose and objected to the PM speaking of politics. I do not know whether he was present at the meeting of Muslim and political leaders when the same issue was discussed.
It is a well-established tradition in our country to invite dignitaries both political and religious to attend the main religious celebration festivals. Perhaps the only country in the world where religious festivals of minorities are celebrated on a national scale and public holidays declared for the occasions. The idea being that everybody should understand the religious practice and culture of his neighbour. This helps to promote peace, harmony and stability.
I hate and oppose the idea of limiting the freedom of expression in any form of our people, be they politicians or religious leaders. We, the children of coolies and slaves have struggled and fought for this freedom. From time to time, there have been attempts by politicians to limit this freedom. Fortunately they were unsuccessfully. It is practically impossible to define a politician and a religious person in this country.
Now that some marginals are using the same freedom to limit the freedom of others, I find it totally unacceptable. I do not think that they can gauge properly the implications. SSR has rightly said that we should never touch religion, culture and language of the people. The gentleman who objected to the speech of the Prime Minister was exercising his right to speak without fear, that some people will collect him at night and his body be found somewhere next day.
This reminds me of the episode of a young man during the 1976 electoral campaign. He stood up and asked SSR what he had done for him. SSR had replied that he has given him the right to stand up before the Prime Minister of the country and asked the question without fear. I advised those who were raising the issue of limiting politicians to speak to be careful. Their own freedom of speech could be in danger.
A feature of our social fabric is that religion, culture, language are all mixed up and have different meanings. Sometimes it is difficult to face the truth. We are victims of our colonial policy of divide and rule. The majority Hindu community is divided into linguistic and provincial groups. The Muslims into Shia and Sunni with difficulty to identify themselves with a linguistic expression. They are confused with Hindustani, Urdu, Arabic and Bhojpuri.
The Christians are descendents of the slaves and the White masters and some converted Asians, Chinese and Indians. In Mauritius, Hindi-, Bhojpuri-, Tamil-, Telugu-, Marathi- and Gujrati-speaking could only be Hindus. So far from the truth. Millions of Muslims and Christians speak these languages, live in the same provinces and share the same culture.
Even among Hindus, certain festivals are expressions of the identity of the provinces from which their ancestors hail. Ganesh Chaturti for Marathis, Ugadi for Telugus, Cavadee for Tamils, Divali and Maha Shivratri for all. At last truth is prevailing and these festivals are being celebrated by all - as they should be.
The creation of cultural centers and linguistics unions, whatever be the motive behind their creation, I hope will help the flourishing of different flowers in our national garden.
All these institutions serve as an excellent platform for socio cultural, religious and political leaders to meet freely. There is a thin line of demarcation between purely religious, cultural and religious platform. Do we still remember the role Hindi, Bhojpuri, Creole had played in our struggle for independence and the use of all religious platforms to promote that struggle? And the negative role of French, the language of 'liberté, égalité et fraternité' ? Fortunately this is history now. We are a republic.
The majority in this country belong to the culture of Tilak and Gandhi. They were nationalist politicians who had used religion to fight the colonial powers. When political gatherings were banned in India, Tilak used Ganesh Chaturti celebrations to ask for freedom as his birthright. Gandhi asked for Ramrajya. Indian culture to which the majority of Mauritians belong cannot be dissociated from the values of the Ramayana and the Gita.
Reference is made to the tradition of the Church to invite politicians to their ceremonies, offer them reserved seats and offer them a cup of tea after the ceremony but are not invited to speak. Rightly so. They have their own established hierarchy both religious and political. The Bishop and the Pope express themselves freely on political issues. The Pope is received as a Head of State. He is one. The recent statement of the Bishop of Port Louis on the abolition of the BLS is one such statement.
I do not understand why I have the feeling that all this is targeted at the Prime Minister and his address this evening at Ganga Talao on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri festival. I still remember SSR leading on foot the Maha Shivaratri procession from Belle Village to St. Denis Street. In 1973, SSR led the Holi procession from Place d'Armes to Champs de Mars with Suryadev Bissessur, the present president of HST and Dhandev Bauhadoor singing holy songs all throughout. Basant Rai used to preside all the functions. Nobody found anything objectionable. Why this issue is being raised now?
I feel that suddenly some strategists of the opposition have realized the force of the network of socio cultural organisations in the country and their links to the politicians. It is a deliberate attempt to break the link for political gains. They should beware that such superficial approach should not disturb the wonderful equilibrium of peaceful coexistence we have created. We lead different layers of our life. A plural and diverse society. Our peaceful coexistence is referred to as a mi-racle. This distorted debate on religion and politics is an exercise in futility. Marginals cannot take over the main stream.
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