Thursday, 20 July 2017

POLITICAL PARTIES AND THE RHETORIC OF PARTIAL TRUTHS



Much too often, the statements of political parties and the rhetoric that accompanies it hides more than it reveals. It obscures the issues faced by the people in the interest of maintaining one party’s legitimacy to continue to rule. Alternately, facts and truth are selectively used by the opposition to turn the heat on those who are in power.

In this context, let us consider some recent statements made by members of political parties. As reported in an English-language daily, Curtorim MLA, Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenço claimed that beef was not banned during the Congress regime in Goa. His reason for the claim was that, except for the meat of female cattle (or cow), other bovine meat was available to the Goan people for consumption. Lourenço was reacting to the recent statement made by BJP’s Amit Shah, who said that the beef-ban was in existence in Goa before prior to the BJP and added that “it was there when the Congress government was in power, but no one posed questions to the Congress”.

In the jostle between Messrs. Lourenço and Shah, or Congress and BJP, one thing appears to be sadly true: both are partially right. Lourenço is right in saying that the consumption of the meat of the female bovine was prohibited, just like Shah is in claiming that the ban on cow-slaughter pre-dated the BJP; it also predates the Congress, for it was the MGP government that brought in the legislation in the 1970s, making Goa one of the first states (then a Union Territory) to bring in a ban. However, when the Congress came to power, it introduced a law which, in addition to maintaining the prohibition on the slaughter of female bovines, also created a license raj around the sale and consumption of cattle meat.

Writing in O Heraldo some time back, Albertina Almeida made a critical observation, “But then came the Goa Animal Preservation Act, 1995, enacted during the Congress rule in Goa. This was in the aftermath of the Ayodhya dispute when Congress was looking to playing the B team of the BJP after being on the verge of losing its majority on account of the political traction BJP was being able to gain by playing the Hindutva card”. One can argue that this legislation played neatly into the hands of Hindu majoritarianism.

Surprisingly, one would expect that someone like Lourenço would recognize that a part of the blame lies in Congress policies. Especially since Lourenço has been one of the few politicians to be vocal against Hindutva in recent times. Is it simply a matter of safeguarding party interests from its rivals, or do the finer nuances of how fascist politics operates escape many politicians, not only Lourenço? It certainly seems so, given his assertion that the cow was sacred to Hindus and hence, out of respect, Goans refrained from slaughtering the female bovine (or the cow). Effectively, Lourenço suggests that the issue of cow-slaughter should be solely seen through the lens of upper-caste Hindu morality. How is this position any different from that of the BJP?

As has been time and again pointed out by many commentators, the issue of the beef-ban or cow-slaughter affects laboring caste and class persons more than it does those who only consume beef, or those who solely worship the cow. What happens to the finances of a farmer, already a member of an economically precarious group, who is saddled with the burden of maintaining a non-productive cow?

The Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar’s comments following the Central Government’s new rules to regulate cattle markets is another example of how members of political parties indulge in the rhetoric of partial truth. Goa, he said, did not have a cattle market and hence the rules did not apply. However, such an assertion masked the fact that the livelihoods of hundreds of Goans, not to mention the nourishment of thousands, were endangered. The inhuman laws that have been introduced by various governments have, in fact, created difficulties for the laboring poor. Who will own up to these mistakes?

One thing is very clear, spokespersons of political parties perpetually evade any blame for the problems caused by the ideology of their respective parties. In such an appalling political culture, where ‘blame game’ and ‘whataboutery’ dominate, one is reminded of the proverb: ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. Indeed, the issues pertaining to the lives, and livelihoods of people as well as the issues of environmental degradation remain unaddressed.

In recent times, Goans have witnessed a ‘blame game’ on various issues. If we know for sure that an environmental disaster is imminent, owing to the skewed developmental policies, is it really a question of conflicting ideologies of political parties? Will evading responsibility or blaming the other political party for the failure of governance help in preventing an environmental disaster? The same applies to preventing a growing humanitarian crisis, wherein lowered-caste and minoritized groups are routinely lynched and killed. Eventually, the bickering of political parties whitewashes the horrors that people have to face on a daily basis.

The rhetoric of partial truths simultaneously hides and reveals the truth (or truths). But what it hides is far more important – and has greater consequences – than what it reveals. It creates an aura in which issues seem to be debated and discussed, as in a democratic setup. The manner in which the rhetoric of partial truths hides certain facts, it also excludes certain people. The facts that are hidden by rhetoric indicate that real people are affected by state policies and ideological politics. It is precisely in the nature of the rhetoric of partial truths to create a discourse that marginalizes groups to the extent that they are disenfranchised.

(An edited version was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 July, 2017)

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

AMORAL ECONOMY: TRICKLE-DOWN POLITICS AND ELECTIONS



The dust kicked up during the recently held Panchayat elections in Goa has almost settled down. As in all elections, this Panchayat election also witnessed massive power struggles. While it is true that the way power operates would continue in ways that destroy Goa’s natural and human resources, yet in the meanwhile, we can still think why the system stays the way it does. One thing is very clear, a large number of people by participating in ‘grass-roots democracy’ are staking their claim for power – power that is otherwise concentrated  in the hands of a few. One of the commonest reasons given for such power struggles, and the fair and foul means employed to gain power, is greed of the people. But is there more to the story? Can there be another explanation for the way the masses behave as they do?

The British labor historian, E. P. Thompson wrote extensively about labor movements in Britain. Of his many celebrated works, his essay on ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ (1971) has some relevance when we talk about the nature of how power is brokered through an economy of gifts and favors. Thompson spoke about the public disturbances involving the working class and peasants, and argued that rather than viewing such violence as riots, they were in fact demands to safeguard customary and other rights that the state had failed to protect. Thus, the term ‘moral economy’ as understood by Thompson referred to the unwritten codes that bound the masses and the authorities in a system of recognizing the basic rights to food and fair prices.

As far as elections in Goa – as in many other parts of India – are concerned, one can suggest that there exists an ‘amoral economy’. While Thompson’s moral economy can be considered as political action against authoritarianism, an amoral economy can be considered to do the opposite. In an amoral economy dominant power cannot be easily subverted. Though flawed in its very structure, such an economy promotes a form of power that gets concentrated in the hands of the few. The masses that participate in this economy or are drawn in this economy are not necessarily the ones who control the reins of power. At the lowest level, say the Panchayat level, it is a person who, for various reasons, has a decent amount of ‘supporters’. This hierarchy progresses upwards to Zilla Parishad members, municipality councilors, MLAs, Ministers, and other community leaders who are present at each of these levels. At all levels, the position of leadership and influence depends on one’s caste and class location and in some cases, on the financial resources available to negotiate this hierarchical game of power.The person who wants to be at the top of this hierarchy has to ensure that he has the backing of persons at each level of political representation. This is basically trickle-down politics!

What happens once elections are announced is that the masses, hitherto left out from power and influence, suddenly acquire a value because they can cast their vote. The vote, therefore, becomes a tangible resource that can be exchanged for short term gains and alliances. How this economy works for a large part of the masses – those that fall outside the boundary of the political class – can be gleaned from Sujay Gupta’s article on how favors were exchanged in four localities of Goa prior to the recently-concluded Panchayat polls.

In this article we hear about a candidate who feasts his supporters or potential supporters at a village tavern, as is the case in several other elections in the past. The next day this candidate approaches a “middle level but influential politician” for a hefty sum of a couple of lakhs, which he receives as “a grant or a loan”. Similarly, other candidates either seeking a re-election or a fresh mandate were reported to have purchased a large number of electronic items, such as LCD TVs, phones, tablets, and refrigerators. One thing is very clear, gifts and favors need to be exchanged. However, it is not necessary that the person at the lower level (for instance) will have the required resources and as such this person has to approach someone (mostly a few levels higher than him) to ensure that the unwritten codes are followed. On the other hand the person(s) at the higher levels receive the support from those at the lower level, as the latter owes a favor to the former.

I do not want to offer a sanitized picture of a well-tuned economy in which political and social relations exist in harmony. However, one needs to ask how does one survive, and in fact negotiate one’s basic aspirations – jobs, clean water, electricity etc, if one is stuck in an economy of unequal power relations. If there are multiple levels through which power is negotiated and brokered then the individual is often held hostage to the multiple levels of power. So the way towards gaining power and fulfilling aspirations for those at the lower levels of this hierarchy is a tortuous and winding one.

There is, I think, an element of greed in the amoral economy. But the further one goes down the hierarchy it isn’t so much about greed but about survival, and ensuring that certain expectations and aspirations in life – such as accessing basic amenities – are fulfilled.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 July, 2017)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

LAW AND LIBERTIES IN TIMES OF EXECUTIVE FIATS



The Central Government has added a few more rules to the existing Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The Rules attempts to regulate the sale of cattle (and only cattle, as opposed to all animals) in markets, stipulating that cattle cannot be sold for slaughter but only for agricultural purposes. Many argued, and rightly so, that the Central Government’s attempts amounted to a backdoor restriction on the consumption of beef. And there are good reasons to believe that the motives of an openly Hindu nationalist government are indeed to stop the consumption of beef – one way or the other.

The Central Government rules were challenged in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court through a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by activists and lawyers S. Selvagomathy and B. Asik Ilagi Bava. Based on the PIL, the Madras High Court issued an interim stay for a period of four weeks. The period of the interim stay will expire by the time this article goes to press and we will have to await the Madras High Court’s further judgment on this issue. Nonetheless, it would be profitable to examine the logic through which the Madras High Court arrived at its decision to issue an interim stay.

Any basic civics textbook that children use in schools will tell you that constitutional democracy consists of three pillars of governance: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. There is a separation of power between these three branches so as to not allow one branch – let us say, the executive – with absolute powers. Further, in India there is the Central, State, and Concurrent lists which are areas of governance that are marked for the state and central government to formulate laws. The petitioners in the Madras High Court submitted that in addition to impinging on personal freedoms as regards consumption of food and trade is concerned, the Central Government’s rules amounted interference and usurpation of the powers of the state legislature. It should be noted that while ‘cruelty to animals’ is listed in the Concurrent list wherein the state and the centre can legislate, ‘slaughter of animals’ is listed in the State list.

While this may be the gray area through which the Central Government wanted to push for the new rules that would make the sale and purchase of cattle tougher, as indeed it argued that these rules were necessary precisely to prevent cruelty of animals and the protection of the agrarian economy. The Madras High Court was clear that the rules introduced by the Central Government were unconstitutional. The High Court stated that in addition to interfering in the legislative powers of the state, the Executive had transgressed its own constitutional powers – the new rules appended to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 also went against the framework, purpose and intent of the original or parent Act. The High Court recognized that personal liberties and choices with regard to food habits and trade were impinged upon by the new rules. However, it must be noted that while the Madras High Court recognized personal choice and freedom, the interim stay was granted only on technical grounds of the Central Government transgressing its constitutional powers, and the subject of the law being part of the State list.

Familiarizing ourselves with the logic of the interim stay order brings one fact clearly to the fore: it is actually the federal state which needs to legislate on the slaughter of animals. In Goa various laws that, while not providing a blanket ban of slaughter of cattle or the consumption of beef, have over the years nonetheless brought in many provisions that restrict the choice of food and trade in certain ways. Laws such as The Goa, Daman and Diu Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1978 enacted by the then MGP government prevented the slaughter of female cattle. The Goa Animal Preservation Act, 1995, enacted during the Congress regime and amended in 2003 and 2010 to give it more teeth, sought to regulate the slaughter of non-female cattle by making it mandatory to obtain certification that the bovine was fit for slaughter.

What we can observe from the laws enacted by the governments in Goa is that, even while keeping with certain constitutional provisions and rights, the legislative assembly of Goa has slowly eroded the rights of Goans to trade in and consume the meat of bovines. Which is why when, following the hate speech of Sadhavi Saraswati recently made in Ramnathi, Ponda, Vijai Sardesai assured Goans that their right to eat and trade in the foods they prefer would not be infringed upon, his statement appeared to be half-hearted and cosmetic at best. The reason is that well before such Sadhavis could make Ramnathi their preferred base to spew hatred on Goans of all religious persuasions, the Goa government was happily playing to the sentiments of Hindu (i.e. brahmanical) majoritarianism. However, despite the oppressive cow politics there is no talk of re-looking the existing laws, or changing/abolishing these laws. It is after all within the constitutional limits of the state legislature to legislate justly on the issue. Political parties and politicians come and go, but laws remain: case in point, the 1978 law that the MGP brought restricting cow slaughter.

Rather than wishy-washy statements, or assurances that the Goa Government will object to certain provisions in the Centre’s rules by writing to the Central Government in this regard, the State of Goa should exercise its constitutional powers in the interest of Goans and not just one community. Bringing a substantial change through the state legislature is what Goans need to demand now.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 June, 2017)

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

TEJAS EXPRESS: PUBLIC PROPERTY AND CIVIC DUTIES

The high-speed, high-tech Tejas Express, plying between Bombay and Goa, was launched a couple of weeks ago. The launch of this train was much hyped because it offered state-of-the-art facilities to the passengers. The Tejas Express boasts of automatic doors, infotainment screens, vacuum bio-toilets, touch-free taps in the toilets, and much more. While the train’s maiden voyage was expected to be a triumphant heralding of a new era in rail transportation, the news that filtered in afterwards suggested otherwise.

It was reported that even before the journey began in Bombay, a window pane was smashed. By the time the train reached Goa 12 headsets were reported to be missing or stolen; there was garbage littered all over the train, and the toilets were also reported to be filthy. Opinion-makers reacted stating that Indians do not deserve nice things and lack the civic sense to take care of public property. Given the manner in which urban Indian liberals are blind to the most fundamental problems of the society, it was not surprising to observe that absence of civic sense being discussed without reference to caste.


The Indian Railways is said to be the largest employer of manual scavengers in the country – under the guise of employing sweepers – as contract workers across the length of the rail network. Almost all of these people who dispose human waste with their bare hands come from the Dalit castes. Though manual scavenging has been outlawed by law since a long time ago, the Indian Railways only started addressing the issue – albeit incompletely – from 2016. In other words, if the railway platforms and tracks bear the slightest resemblance of ‘clean’ it is only because of the thankless and demeaning labour provided by thousands of workers from such castes. If guests on board the maiden journey of the Tejas Express had left behind garbage and dirty toilets and/or wash-basins it was only to be expected as that is how things are done – it is simply someone else’s problem.

The South Asian idea of cleanliness is that someone else is responsible for doing the cleaning. While it is true that the authorities are responsible for collecting and disposing of garbage, there is no justification for collecting wet waste in plastic bags and dumping them along the side of roads, for someone else to collect. There is blindness to the fact that the labour provided come from persons who are denied the basic right of human dignity, let alone benefits like health insurance and proper working conditions. This is a problem that concerns not only the government but everybody.

This behavior with regards to disposing garbage tells us something about the way in which Indians approach public spaces and public property. On the one hand, one doesn’t view public spaces and public property as deserving care and maintenance. On the other hand, the full burden of maintaining public spaces and property is dumped (pun intended) on the members of the most discriminated-against strata of society, who, not ironically, are excluded and pushed either to the margins or outside the boundaries of villages and cities. There is simply an absence of a ‘collective feeling’ or of a ‘community’ when the issue of public spaces emerges. The reason many argue, is the existence of the caste division. (In fact it was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who argued that it was impossible to build a common community in the form of a nation when thousands of castes or jatis were in existence in British India).

In a slightly different context, the theologian Philip Vinod Peacock in his essay ‘Hostility, Hypocrisy, Hospitality: Rethinking the Politics of Theology and Hospitality from a Dalit Perspective’ (2013), offers an interesting suggestion to understand the relationship that Indians share with public spaces. Peacock suggests that public spaces, containing hundreds or thousands of people unfamiliar to us, tend to be sites of repelling strangers: “Within the caste system all strangers are automatically considered to be lower in the caste hierarchy than oneself.” Public spaces therefore are sites where aggressive behavior is displayed or performed that goes against any form of civil behavior, in response to the underlying structures of casteism. Thus, he further suggests that “it is perhaps this logic or spirit [of the caste system] that is at work when Indians jump queues or push themselves before others, or basically choose not to follow the norms of what can be considered publicly acceptable behavior”.

Peacock’s suggestion can be used to argue that the physical location of public spaces – be they parks, roads, beaches, trains or anything else – are sites or spaces wherein the development of civic sense is constantly subverted because we are unable to relate to one another as persons outside of our narrow and individualistic identities. There is something that prevents us from being publicly-oriented citizens. Being in a public space leaves us supposedly vulnerable to physical overpowering, caste pollution, and even diseases. This is the reason why public property is often repeatedly vandalized or left to decay without any care. In many ways, it can be argued that a sense and concept of the ‘public’ is yet to evolve within Indian society. 

The unfortunate episode of the Tejas Express is not an aberration; in fact, one of the maintenance staff remarked that the amount of garbage left behind was just like any other train. As expected the educated, ‘middle class’ who can afford such expensive fares are the ones who are causing all the problems.  

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 June, 2017)