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Rép. dominicaine




Ste Lucia



Creole Island or Little India?

In Mauritius, Indian cultural traditions have certainly undergone pro­found transformations, and the image of a unified Hindu community is in conflict with numerous antagonisms based on regional, sectarian, and caste affiliations. Despite this, the imaginings of Indianness that lie behind concerns about ancestral culture emphasize cultural autonomy and separateness and the purity of ancestral traditions, while affirming the centrality of a thus conceived "Indianness" to a Mauritian nation.

Benoist (1989) implicitly recognizes the dilemma this poses for the Creole island model, which privileges the field of language as the final criterion for designating Mauritius a Creole island and part of a larger franco­phone "Creole zone" —that is, the diversity of Mauritian society can be encompassed by the concept of creolization because nearly everybody speaks a Creole language. Nevertheless, in the usage of Bonniol and Benoist, "creoleness" and "creolization" never lose their shifting quality as labels referring to both linguistic and cultural processes of mixing and fusion. At no point do these authors explain possible interrelationships between the linguistic label and other cultural processes otherwise described as evidence for creolization, even though they allude to such relationships in their descriptions of Creole islands and Creole zones. Moreover, the perspective they promote does not address a crucial prob­lem: that many Mauritians of Indian background tend to reject any iden­tity labeled as Creole and do not consider their daily use of Mauritian Creole very significant for processes of group identification.

Another ethno-linguistic perspective on Mauritian identity centered on the idea of Mauritius as a Creole country was formulated soon after inde­pendence in 1968. A nationalist movement in the 1970s and the early 1980,s sought to overcome the ethno-religious divides of Mauritian society by championing a new national identity centered on the notion that all Mauritians are speakers of Creole. Following the ideas of the linguist, writer, and politician Dev Virahsawmy, the then leftist party Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) sought recognition of Mauritian Creole as the national language of Mauritius. Emphasizing class struggle and post-colonial nationalism against ethno-religious communalism, which it saw as a nefarious colonial legacy, the goal of this movement was to turn Mauritius into a "real" modern nation. The Mauritian linguist Vinesh Hookoomsing described the significance of Mauritian Creole for an emerging Mauritian nationalism, or mauricianisme, in the following terms:

“However, following 1968 a new concept has appeared, mauricianisme. Mauricianisme is conceived as a synthesis and at the same time a super­seding of the cultures and traditions of the different ethnic groups constituting Mauritian society. Of all languages present, precisely the Creole lan­guage was in the best position to express the emerging mauricianisme, since it lacks any attachment to a particular class or ethnic group. Freed from the old myths and prejudices which are the legacy of colonialism, Creole becomes a weapon of combat and a factor of national unity. (Hookoomsing 198o, 118).”

While a main thrust of the MMM was to mobilize what it regarded as a class-specific experience common to the "masses," regardless of ethnic background, the other feature defining a Mauritian national identity from its perspective was the Creole language. The MMM, campaigning under the slogan en sel lepep en sel nasyon, intended by the party leader­ship to mean "one people, one nation,"53 won the 1982. elections, oust­ing the Labor Party of Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who had led the coun­try since independence in 1968. However, the party's plan to establish Mauritian Creole as the national language of Mauritius met with extra­ordinary resistance and failed the following year, in the context of which the government coalition also dissolved and the MMM lost power.

The collapse of the MMM-led government was triggered by the way it had handled the fifteenth anniversary of independence celebrations in March 1983. Determined to use the celebrations to demonstrate a new Mauritian nationalism, the leader of the MMM, Finance Minister and then acting Prime Minister Paul Berenger, decided to have the national anthem sung in Creole instead of English, the official language. During the coverage of the event by the government-controlled Mauritius Broad­casting Corporation (MBC), the song was announced as the "national anthem in the national language" (Houbert 1982/83, 2.55). A storm of protest arose, led by the head of the Hindu faction within the govern­ment, Harish Boodhoo. Boodhoo, a follower of Swami Krishnanand, was given the authority to fire the MMM-favored director of the MBC by Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth, which led to Berenger's decision to resign and to withdraw the MMM from the government. The MMM then lost the general elections later in the year. Its rhetoric of nationaliz­ing Mauritian postcolonial politics, and thus deemphasizing ethnic soli­darities and diasporic connections, was viewed with suspicion by many members of the recently constituted and expanding Hindu state bour­geoisie. Members of this ethnically defined professional group had dominated state institutions since independence in 1968, and they were concerned about the possible loss of power and state employment oppor­tunities to ethnic minorities, such as Creoles and Muslims. The issue of Creole as the national language, deliberately put on the political center stage during the 1983 independence celebrations, was presented by the MMM as emblematic of its policies of promoting a supra-ethnic Mauri­tian nationalism, thereby largely denying the significance of official dias­poric "ancestral cultures." Accordingly, it was interpreted by many Hindus as a threat to their positions in the state apparatus.

Even though Mauritian Creole is spoken by virtually all Mauritians and is emphatically portrayed by its supporters as not associated with a particular group, it is associated with Creoles as an ethnic group in a par­ticular way. African and Malagasy slaves and their descendants, the Creoles, are known as the creators of the Creole language, which was already established as the predominant vernacular in the eighteenth cen­tury, long before beginnings of the indenture system. A Mauritian Creole linguistic nationalism does in fact place in the center of the national imagination those Mauritians who are known to lack any attachment to ancestral traditions with origins elsewhere. Accordingly, the Creole community could have emerged as the unmarked, mainstream Mauritians in the new postcolonial Mauritian nation." If the maximal overlap between Creole ethnic traditions and a Mauritian nation con­ceived through the lens of Mauritian Creole linguistic nationalism were achieved, Indo-Mauritians would find themselves in a peripheral position of ethnic markedness and difference from a hegemonic national culture, not unlike the experience of Indo-Trinidadians.

Even though it was a political failure, and was rejected by most Mauritians in spite of the fact that Creole is used by nearby all of them, the nationalization of the Creole language offers an alternative vision of Mauritian national identity, one mediated through perceptions of the Creole language as the one cultural element uniting Mauritians. In con­trast to the francophone version of Mauritius as a Creole island, this Creole-centered version of "Mauritianism" focuses less on similarities of Mauritian society and history with other locations where French-lexifier Creole languages are predominant, or on shared legacies of French colo­nization. Indeed, the Creole militants of the 1970s and early 1980s saw themselves as combating what they considered French neocolonialism. A territorializing nationalist logic prevailed in their vision, asserting the ideological predominance of the shared vernacular Mauritian Creole over differences in religion, ethnicity, and origin. Nevertheless, despite its inclusivist pathos, Creole linguistic nationalism implies a reversal of the hegemonic order among ethnic groups in Mauritius, and was thus suc­cessfully checked as a political project by the Hindu state bourgeoisie.


The two principal ideologies of ethnolinguistic community discussed, the Creole island vision and the cultivation of Hindi as an ancestral lan­guage among Mauritian Hindus, represent conflicting projects in the temporal indexicalities they construct as they locate Mauritian Hindus in relation to India. While the promotion and practice of ancestral lan­guage downplays the spatio-temporal remove between Mauritian Hindus and the world of their Indian ancestors, the linguistic ideology of creolization highlights the break with the diasporic homeland and its people. Both in the guise of a complement to francophonie and as a Mauritian "anti-communalist" nationalism, Mauritian Creole linguistic ideologies insist on the particularities of Mauritius as a place and its irre­ducible difference from the Indian homeland, while valuing Mauritian Creole as an indigenous cultural practice. The focus on the local creation of new linguistic practices also emphasizes temporal difference, mani­fested as the profound cultural change among Indo-Mauritians that has occurred since the arrival of Indian immigrants.

These contrasting approaches to defining Mauritius as a diasporic location through images of linguistic differentiation relate to the question of the modularity of ethnolinguistic nationalism in quite distinct ways. Initially, it would seem that linguistic ideologies of creolization have little in common with European national ideologies, which highlight linguistic purity and homogeneity as part of a larger project of turning impurity and diversity into national purity (Brubaker 199z, Munasinghe zooz). However, the privileging of creolization in assigning ethnolinguistic iden­tity to Mauritians does bear close relationship to European models of the nationalization of language, especially in its assumptions about the rela­tionship between language and groupness. Conceiving of Mauritius as a Creole island and thinking of Mauritian Creole as the national language evoke accounts of the European experience, where political integration through modern forms of communication in a shared standardized ver­nacular is considered a key factor in producing a sense of nationhood (Anderson 1991, Deutsch 1953, Gelber 1983). This applies in particular to the mauricianisme built on Mauritian Creole, which nationalist intel­lectuals such as Virahsawmy, a linguist by training, sought to standardize and officialize. Further, presenting the predominant vernacular as the crucial and self-evident bond for a nation also recalls the assumptions of European romanticism, particularly those inspired by a Herderian under­standing of an intimate link between vernacular language and the cul­tural traditions or "spirit" of a people (Herder 1968 [1784-9). Func­tionalist and romanticist perspectives on language and ethnonationality converge in privileging the standardization of a widespread vernacular as a crucial hallmark of nationhood. Privileging Mauritian Creole in the conception of Mauritius as a Creole nation is to a large measure remi­niscent of these intellectual traditions of nationhood.

However, as the significance of ancestral language among Indo­Mauritians suggests, there is no inevitable link between languages of everyday interaction and ethnolinguistic belonging. Many Mauritians of Indian origin, even though they use Mauritian Creole in their daily lives, reject the necessity of such a connection. The fact that the dominant lan­guage of everyday affairs is Creole does not imply that their ethno­linguistic identity can be described as Creole. Instead, for many among them the cultivation of Indian ancestral languages presents an alternative way of ethnolinguistic belonging.
European colonialism in the non-Western world resulted in the spread of both modernist-functionalist and Herderian ideals of a close relation­ship between the dominant vernacular language and the "spirit" of a population. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier in this chapter, the forms of ethnolinguistic belonging that emerged from the colonial encounter in India did not always conform to European models (Washbrook 1991). The idea that the language of group identification should be pure and not polluted in everyday usage by common people is of great significance among Tamil speakers (Schiffman 1996). Many Tamils also imagine "pure" forms of the Tamil language as a female deity. This particular manifestation of what Western scholars have termed linguistic national­ism is based on gendered understandings of a "somatic" and inviolable bond between Tamil and its speakers, which is alternately imagined as a relationship between deity and devotee and a relationship between mother and child (Ramaswamy 1997). There is little in such conceptions of ethnolinguistic belonging to suggest that everyday vernacular usage necessarily privileges a language's adoption as an emblem of ethnicized identity. Similarly, in the case of Indian ancestral languages in Mauritius, it is precisely the relative distance of Hindi from the everyday practice of speaking Creole that points to the world of the immigrating ancestors, evoking cultural purity and authenticity, and providing a basis for ethnic group identification.

In this sense, Hindi as the ancestral language of Mauritian Hindus is language but also the designation of the largest non-Indian ethnic group in Mauritius. In contrast to Hindu or Muslim Indo-Mauritians, Creoles are Christians, and overwhelmingly Catholics. Most of them are the descendants of African and Malagasy slaves, but many Creoles also have European and Indian ancestors.56 Before the recent and still fledgling emergence of an Afro-Creole movement that followed the riots of February 1999, Creoles did not officially claim ancestral cultures and languages based on the memory of their origins outside of Mauritius. In Mauritius, as in many settings of the Caribbean, the label "Creole" is also associated with cultural "mixing" and hybridity. Certainly, given this local background, for many Indo-Mauritians the label "Creole" is loaded with unwelcome indexicality if used to characterize Mauritius in general. It draws a link between Mauritian identity and a minority non-Indian ethnic group that Mauritians of Indian descent often look down upon for its perceived lack of social and economic achievement. Further­more, as creolization also points to processes of cultural fusion and mix­ing, the idea of Mauritius as a Creole island stands in direct opposition to ideologies of ancestral cultural and ethnolinguistic purity.

To make matters even more delicate from an Indo-Mauritian perspec­tive, the ideology of creolization also evokes the social memory of attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity under colonial rule. Indo­Mauritian leaders early on regarded these endeavors an attack against Indian ancestral traditions. Consequently, for many Hindus creolization is considered an attempt to make them "like Creoles," that is, turn them into a Christian population presumably without an ancestral culture of their own. Creolization, then, is not only a corruption of Indian tradi­tions, whether cultural, religious, or linguistic, through processes of cul­tural interchange, but is read as a process of assimilation eventually lead­ing to the disappearance of Indo-Mauritians as a distinct ethnic group.

Indo-Mauritians, resisting notions of creolization as cultural erosion or "progressive acculturation" to an alien norm as described by Singaravelou (1976) with reference to Indians in the French Antilles, have thus for a long time been keenly aware of an issue that is of grow­ing concern in the study of processes of cultural creolization. Creoliz­ation is a conflictual, power-laden process in which actors struggle for cultural and political hegemony (Friedman 1994, zo8– to; Mintz and Price 199211976]; Price zool; Trouillot 1998). One way to elucidate this problem is by stressing that discourses of creolization in and about Mauritius are not just about determining and describing the dominant vernacular language. Such discourses, whether by Western or Mauritian Creole Island or Little India?

Academics or activists, constitute instances of language ideology (Silver­stein 1979, Woolard and Schieffelin 1994), connecting views about lin­guistic form and differentiation to several other social and political issues. The slipperiness and shifting quality of the labels "Creole" and "creolization" crucially enable linkages between, on the one hand, inter­pretations of the language situation in Mauritius and the role and distri­bution of Mauritian Creole and, on the other, ideas about ethnicity and the national character of Mauritius. Creole in Mauritius functions simul­taneously as the name of the dominant language of everyday interaction, as the name of a particular ethnic group, and creolization as a general metaphor for processes of linguistic change and fusion connected to analogous processes of cultural mixing.

The conflict between perspectives on creolization in Mauritius can be read as a struggle over which group is most entitled to represent Mauritianness, since creolization as a way of mapping language and lin­guistic difference onto social and ethnic differentiation also implies a particular vision of the Mauritius as a nation. The crucial issue here is that concepts of Mauritian identity based on creolization run counter to ideas of diasporic Indianness in Mauritius and the relations to a home­land they construct. Against the background of the politics of language and diaspora described in this chapter, the perceived incompatibility between creolization and Hindu collective self-imaging plays a key role in the struggle over the linguisyic culture of Mauritius and its implication for the relationship between indo Mauritians and the homeland of their ancestors.