Ethnicity, Religion, and Language
The forebears of the various ethnic groups composing Mauritian society arrived as settlers, slaves, indentured laborers, and immigrants. Although the country's past contains dark chapters of inequality and exploitation, modern Mauritian history has been remarkable for its relatively smooth and peaceful transition from colonial rule and the rule of large plantation owners to multiparty democracy.
"Harmonious separatism" is the way in which one writer characterizes communal relations in Mauritius. The term, however, does not preclude the existence of tensions. Ethnicity, religion, and language have been important factors in shaping the way Mauritians relate to each other in the political and social spheres. And despite the fact that sectarian factors are less of a determining factor in people's social and political behavior, they remain an important clue to the people's past and selfidentity .
The 1968 constitution recognized four population categories: Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians, and the general population. According to a 1989 estimate, of a total population of 1,080,000, Hindus constituted about 52 percent (559,440); the general population, about 29 percent (309,960); Muslims, about 16 percent (179,280); and Sino-Mauritians, about 3 percent (31,320).
The ancestors of the Hindu and Muslim populations came predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, and, from the censuses of 1846 to 1952, were classified as "Indo-Mauritians." The ancestral language of most Hindus is Hindi or Bhojpuri, with a minority of Tamil or Telegu speakers. Hindu immigrants brought with them the caste system. Upon arrival to the island, many members of lower castes upgraded their status to join the Vaish middle caste. Although the caste system was not supported by the occupational structure as in India, minority members of the high Brahmin and Khsatriya castes sometimes joined with the Vaish to exclude lower castes from top civil service and political jobs. For the most part, however, the caste system is not an important factor in social organization and, if anything, lingers mainly as a basis for choosing spouses. Most of the Hindu population adhere to the orthodox rituals of the Sanatanist branch of the religion. These Hindus observe their rituals in rural community centers called baitkas. The Arya Samajists adhere to a reform branch of Hinduism popular with the lower classes and instrumental in the Indo-Mauritian community's political and cultural development in the early years of the twentieth century.
The Muslim population is approximately 95 percent Sunni and Hindi-speaking. Other languages include Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Urdu, and Arabic. The principal place of worship is the Jummah Mosque in Port Louis, but there are many smaller mosques in the towns and villages. Among the Shia minority, some have their origins in different parts of India, others are adherents of the Agha Khan from East Africa, and still others are Ahmadist from the Punjab.
The earliest Chinese immigrants to the island came from the Canton region and spoke Cantonese, but most Sino-Mauritians descend from Mandarin-speaking settlers from Hunan. Some adhere to Buddhism and other Chinese religions, but many converted to Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century.
Unlike members of these specific population categories, those grouped under the general population rubric do not share close ethnic and cultural bonds. Members of the general population have in common only the fact that they do not belong to the other three groups. This category includes Franco-Mauritians, other European immigrants, and Creoles. The Creoles are ethnically diverse, some with black African ancestry, others of mixed descent, and still others from parts of Asia. They share a common language, which is a patois based on French, and the Roman Catholic religion.
In the past, a close association existed between certain occupations and ethnic groups. Although these patterns persist, they are changing. The Chinese, for example, predominate in commerce, as store owners and assistants, and in the restaurant and casino businesses. Hindus form the majority of agricultural workers, and members of the Muslim and Creole populations are artisans. African Creoles tend to be dockworkers, fishers, transportation workers, or service employees. Franco-Mauritians dominate the sugar industry and own most of the hotels, banks, and manufacturing industries. The civil service attracts educated members of all groups.
Mauritian society is noteworthy for its high degree of religious tolerance. Mauritians often share in the observances of religious groups other than their own. In part as a result of the multiplicity of religions, Mauritius has more than twenty national holidays. In addition, the government grants subsidies to all major religious groups according to their membership. According to the 1990 census, 49 percent of the population was Hindu, 27 percent Roman Catholic, 16 percent Muslim, and 0.5 percent Protestant; 7.5 percent belonged to other groups.
Language is perhaps the most complex and perplexing aspect of the Mauritian social mosaic. This intricacy derives from the number of languages spoken combined with the uses to which they are put and the sociopolitical connotations they bear. Philip Baker and Peter Stein, scholars studying language use in Mauritius, have found that English is associated with "knowledge," French with "culture," Creole with "egalitarianism," and other languages, "ancestral heritage." Consequently, although Creole is the most widely spoken language in the country, French predominates in the media, and English is the official language of government and school instruction.
The growing use of Creole by non-Creole Mauritians reflects a widespread movement away from ethnically based language use. Among Muslims and Sino-Mauritians, for example, Creole is the principal language. According to the 1983 census, the top five languages were: Creole, 54.1 percent; Bhojpuri, 20.4 percent; Hindi, 11.5 percent; French, 3.7 percent; and Tamil, 3.7 percent. These figures indicate the principal language used in the home. Most Mauritians, however, speak several languages.
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