Demonstrations, go slow, marches, strikes or hunger strikes, these events very often hit the headlines and become a major social issue. For every issue, people now take to the streets with posters and slogans to express their disagreement. Is Mauritius becoming a nation of protesters?
A protest is an expression of bearing witness on behalf of an express cause by words or actions with regard to particular events, policies or situations. Protests can take many different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations. For the past week, for almost every issue arising or policy adopted or law passed, we have witnessed waves of disagreements which resulted in protests. Famous examples include the construction of a hotel at La Cambuse, introduction of Biometric cards, the Jin Fei project, Albion project on petroleum hub, City Power project, Heritage City and Metro Express, among others.
Why is Mauritius being dragged into this culture of protest? Christina Meetoo, Lecturer at the University of Mauritius, reveals that one of the most remembered protests in Mauritius was against neo-colonialism just after independence when Princess Alexandra was visiting Mauritius and it included many young people and was led by Paul Bérenger as well as the Club des Étudiants Mauriciens. “There have been many forms of protest on various issues since then, mostly of a political nature or related to workers' rights but lately, also geared towards ecological concerns. Some have been boosted by protests on the international scene such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, the Greenpeace protests, etc. Others have been more motivated by very self-contained local concerns, such as that of the motorcycle riders against regulations on safety wear. There are also various levels of mobilisation, some small and uniting specific ethnic or geographic communities, others larger. But none have been really huge protest movements in terms of physical crowd sizes, although more people seem to be mobilising due to the reach of social networks.”
Similarly, trade Unionist Suttyhudeo Tengur explains that if there had not been a culture of protest embedded in every human being, the world would not have evolved and monarchies and other dynasties would have reigned supreme and as dictators. Any person who is not happy with any situation would likely protest to get satisfaction. “Talking about protest in Mauritius, it goes as far back as the creation of the island with different periods of protests, be it political or fight for the emancipation of workers through trade unions. It even dates before any political party took birth; the slaves, mostly of African origin and the coolies imported from India found ways and means to fight for their rights despite the domination of the sugar oligarchy. In the thirties, a weekly was published to push for workers rights. It was followed by the foundation of the Labour Party by Emmanuel Anquetil, Pandit Sahadeo and Dr. Maurice Curé. Remember the shootings in the early forties in one sugar estate when one Anjalay Coopen was shot dead. From there on, the protest movements inflated and one of the main fights was for the independence of the country which we gained in 1968 after the cession of the Chagos Archipelago to the UK, today known as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).”
Why this culture?
As stated by Christina Meetoo, protest is a normal part of democratic countries. She recalls that there is a broad spectrum of forms of protest. “Protests do not only take the physical form of crowd gatherings, they are also present online through people who 'like' and 'share' critical posts and dare openly express their own discontent whether against a political figure or party or against private entities. At the other extreme are hunger strikes by people who feel that they have explored all other possible avenues.”
She says that, in Mauritius, protest movements rarely degenerate and there is little direct repression by the State. “The specificity of Mauritius is that if you assemble in front of the Parliament with not more than seven people, you can do so without having to ask for authorisation. So, you will often see up to seven individuals on Parliament day with big handwritten signs to attract the attention of the public and the press to their issues.”
It is undeniable that social media is now acting as an enabler by the sheer fact that information is more easily shared to wider audiences (sometimes in a targeted manner) about the motivations for protest, time, venue and instructions on how to protest, says the lady. “The mass media also help amplify (or downplay) the influence of protests by choosing to report (or not) on such mobilisations. Mauritius is, in fact, considered as a truly democratic country in most international evaluations. And this is true if we compare ourselves to many other countries including on the rest of the continent. Sometimes, we even seem to be doing better than some countries traditionally considered as more advanced.”
However, as observed by Christina Meetoo, most people in Mauritius still feel that there are significant flaws in our democratic setup. “The lack of timely, open, clear, complete and user-friendly information does not help dispel this negative feeling despite the efforts which may be made to communicate with the population about policies, strategies and decisions. Protests are thus more prone to happen. Even if a policy may be justified, people want to understand and transparency would greatly help. Of course, this is easier said than done. Most people, when pushed into a leadership position, find it easier to lead by imposition rather than by seeking to listen and make the effort to communicate properly as this takes time and energy. Even those who lead protest movements are often a little autocratic in their behaviour. This is human nature.”
There is no doubt that protests have both positive and negative impact on the society. The two observers, Suttyhudeo Tengur and Christina Meetoo, completely agree with this statement. Suttyhudeo Tengur highlights that there is a reaction to any action; protests have in fact brought to light the failures of a system, the inadequacies in life and also the rights of the downtrodden workers. In any circumstance, protests have made authorities react and contribute to the betterment of the mass.
Christina Meetoo argues that protests mean that people are engaged and interested in understanding and participating as citizens and stakeholders in the decision-making process and in the public sphere. “Protest also creates opportunities for the formation of collective communities beyond the usual boundaries and thus fosters a sense of belonging and purpose for the individual citizen.”
On the negative side, there's always the risk of manipulation and hidden agendas by protest leaders, she maintains. “There may be feelings of helplessness when protests fail or negotiations become dubious. Furthermore, constant protest may not be constructive when people protest without rational analysis. Finally, sometimes, there may be stark contradictions between protests in which one participates and other areas of one's life.”
A waste of time or necessary tool?
Often the question that arises is whether a protest is a necessary tool or a waste of time? For Suttyhudeo Tengur, any protest or strike is the last resort for those at the lowest rung of the ladder or workers whose rights are being flouted to fight back through protests marches or strikes. “Though this is not very fashionable today, yet there are other possibilities to vent their feelings. And believe me, in any protest, Government is deemed to act as moderator, solution provider or guarantor of the rights of workers. Therefore any protest has its own raison d’être to enhance people’s rights. Any protest should not be considered as wastage of time.”
Christina Meetoo says that protests are healthy for a democracy because they can spur decision-makers (whether from public or private sectors) to review their positions or some aspects of their decisions for the greater good and to become more cautious about future projects. “The bottom line should always be the public interest and what outcomes we want to create even if we have ultimately to compromise on certain aspects of our protests. On another note, protests do not always need to be in the public sphere. One can pragmatically protest by assuming one's responsibility at our own level, by voicing out and more importantly, by making concrete and constructive alternative suggestions backed by rational analysis and data.”
Economist Dr Bhavish Jugurnath elaborates on the economic impact of protest and its implications. He states that in general one will see few individuals who are generally involved with a disruptive protest action, as people do not want to suffer negative consequences from their more challenging political activities against policies or actors. “Yet, as confrontational protest may not be an option for most individuals in society, citizens in advanced democracies have increasingly embraced peaceful protest actions against their governments as a form of political involvement. This will generally have a negative reputational impact on the economy mainly vis-à-vis international companies.”
He says that the link between economic performance, productivity and protest activism is complicated as described by Gurr in his published work during the 1970s. “He presented his theory of unconventional political behavior that emphasized the individual level’s relevance to explain how relative economic deprivation is conducive to protest. The severity of the economic crisis and the length of the crisis contribute to influence citizens’ interpretations of their lower economic wellbeing. The gap between people’s expectations of economic standards and their actual economic situation is at the base of the deprivation leading to action and thereby decreasing productivity.”
The economist avers that frequent protests and marches do reflect on the economic costs of democratic protest. “The most common form of protest people frequently resort to in smaller towns are strikes which result in a complete shutdown of the city for the day (more frequently reduced to the first half of the day). If this result in bulk of production and service activity shut down, this is a deadweight economic loss, at least for the inhabitants of that town or city. Marches (whether long or short) and sit-ins are, however, a different proposition altogether. A sit-in or a march from one place to another need not, in principle, result in a deadweight loss to the economy. If the sit-in is confined to a designated place or the march is on a designated route, the only direct cost is that of lost labour time of those participating in the sit-in or March.”
Dr Bhavish Jugurnath contends that it is not hard to imagine that frequent protests affect the economic activity and image of Mauritius. “When people are protesting they are not working, and even those who are not involved in the disturbances are affected as they cannot get to work, shop or otherwise carry on with business as usual. Overall this makes a high business and economic risk for the economy which then have negative impacts on the economy to attract investors. These issues are also sometimes taken up in the international press.”
Sociological and psychological impact of protest - Dr Mahendrenath Motah : “Experiences of protest have never had the desired effects and have never ended in any reasonable change”
According to Dr Mahendrenath Motah, there is nothing like protest “culture” in Mauritius. “There seem to be some sort of protest where one can see and listen to the same people. A real protest culture is the one we witness in other countries when people join hands and gather with others over days and weeks – exhibiting reasons for their protest. A few people going on hunger strike or walking for a particular cause for a few hours cannot be termed protest culture. A protest should be seen as the result of deep reflexion based on solid arguments and concerted action. So far, the protest endeavours on the part of people are rarely taken seriously by the authorities and have ended up as some sort of game or joke!” he explains.
Why do people protest? Dr Motah states that protest is a defence mechanism in human beings. “Through protest, the human being moulds his personality, expresses his/her feelings, frustration, fear and dissatisfaction. He fulfils his/her needs and satisfies his/her wants within social parameters. The actualisation of his/her potentials and justifies his/her existence within a social world and uses his/her intelligence to create a world where the feel good factor is always present.”
Throughout the world’s history, protest has gained much importance when it came for people to voice out their grievances or injustices. So what is the importance of protest? “Theories in both sociology and psychology clarify the concept of “anomy’ and “cognitive dissonance” among populations who are affected by either lethargy or stunned by being subjected to constant hammering. Surrounded by people who pretend they are always right, the population is affected and very often feel helpless in the face of unwarranted decision taken by those who have been made to believe that they are demigods – the people get what they deserve when they make hasty decisions about their life and living. One of the means to preserve their rights and privileges is to express their opinion through some form – one of them is to protest against what they feel as unreasonable. Protesting make people feel that they have their say in matters that concern their life and their right to be listened and be part and parcel of their everyday living,” says Dr Motah.
He adds that the social factors that “force the population to protest are the inequalities created by poor decision making, flagrant favouritism, corruption, the widening of the gap between the haves and haves-not, social justice sometimes blatantly lacking, the absence of transparency, meritocracy, democratic principles, and promotion of various social ills under the cover of so called truth and sincerity, honesty has become an empty concept, and may be the absence of all societal values.” On the other hand, the psychological factors can, according to Dr Motah, “be summarized as the complete dehumanisation of society which is worst than “survival of the fittest” among the animals. Humans have intelligence and can think, feel and act, while animals have instinct and seem to be better than humans.”
At the end of the day, does protest have some sort of impact or has it brought any sort of change? The psychologist and ethnologist believes that “the experiences of protest have never had the desired effects and have never ended in any reasonable change.” He argues that “authorities feel so powerful and think they can do as they please – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely- our society is a concrete example of the statement – those in power feel that they can do anything and the population will abide, hence protest or no protest has no meaning!”
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