Tuesday, 5 December 2017

DELIVER US FROM NATIONALISM?



There is, I think, a delicious irony in the pastoral letter written by Thomas Macwan, Archbishop of Gandhinagar. Writing at the time when the Gujarat legislative assembly elections are around the corner, Archbishop Macwan in his pastoral letter of 21 November 2017 said, “Nationalist forces are on the verge of taking over the country”. Unmindful of the spirit in which the letter was written or the realities that affect the various communities in India due to violent politics, one witnessed the usual hue and cry in the media. Many commentators even questioned the right of the Archbishop to express his views.

At this point, one might ask who these ‘nationalist forces’ are. Aren’t those who consider themselves Indians ‘nationalists’, one way or the other? Are we to conclude, then, that India needs to be saved from its own people? Especially when a distinction is often made between right-wing and secular nationalists, what could the rather ironic remark by Archbishop Macwan indicate? The statement was made in the context of political power and the way it influences the people in contemporary times. Particularly, the statement hints at the use of nationalism to spread hate and trample upon the rights of people. In this sense one can argue that Archbishop Macwan was referring to those forces that use nationalism to create disorder in society.

Speaking of the increasing attacks on minoritized religious groups as well as the human rights violations against other marginalized groups, Archbishop Macwan’s statement reveals that all is not well within the nation. He observes, “We are aware that the secular fabric of our country is at stake. Human rights are being violated. The constitutional rights are being trampled. Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, church personnel, faithful or institutions. There is a growing sense of insecurity among the minorities, OBCs, BCs, poor etc”.

Archbishop Macwan’s reference to ‘nationalist forces’ sans distinction perhaps hints at some fundamental aspects of Indian nationalism and the manner in which the Indian identity was crafted, chiefly through the freedom struggle. As I have written in the past in this very column, Indian nationalism and identity is based on Hindu majoritarian ideals and works towards maintaining the power and privileges of savarna castes, mostly across religions. By not making a distinction between the secular and right-wing nationalists, or remaining non-committal on that distinction, Archbishop Macwan cut through the politicking hullabaloo and simply pointed out that violence and marginalization is routine for many in India.

But one can also think of the Archbishop’s caution against excessive nationalism as emerging from a nationalist understanding of India’s past and culture. In other words, reproducing the very problems that the letter tries to tackle. The idea that India was a well knit secular society is an old Nehruvian one. What this idea does not take into consideration is the presence of the caste structure in Indian society and the manner in which it obstructs the formation of an egalitarian, let alone secular, society.

The banal violence and marginalization stands starkly against the supposed ideological lines drawn between secular and right-wing nationalisms in India. The recognition of the banality of violence and marginalization in present times should also make us realize that there is a long history to marginalization, including the time when secular, liberal nationalism held sway in India. There cannot be a secular society if millions within that society are subjected to discrimination and violence. As such, Archbishop Macwan’s plea to safeguard the “secular fabric” of the country need to be understood as requiring the creation of a secular society in the first place.

The letter also confronts all those who consider themselves as proud nationalists. Rather than play the usual blame game where one type of nationalists (such as the secular liberal ones) blame the other (right-wing) for all the ills in present times, Archbishop Macwan’s letter demands introspection from all those who claim themselves to be nationalists. It demands that they scrutinize the source of their nationalism, identity, and pride.

The ironic remark in the Archbishop Macwan’s letter should also be an occasion for us to realize that if there is a growing insecurity amongst the ‘minority’ communities that prompts such statements, it is not necessarily because such minority communities are inward-looking and that they cannot look beyond their own selfish gains. It is rather prompted by a very real experience of facing daily marginalization or minoritization and observing how other communities too are subjected to similar discrimination. We in Goa have observed how legitimate issues raised in a church-run magazine were brushed aside by the whole political establishment. The discussion of the Archbishop’s pastoral letters seems to follow a similar script; the storm that is whipped up about the letter diverts us from the pressing problems.

At the end of the day, the issue is not whether nationalism works or not; it is rather the gap between the ideals of nationalism (no matter what shade) and the reality that it ends up hiding. The real challenge that confronts us is to bring the discussion back to the problems faced by the multitude of minoritized and poor communities in India. In this task one might profit much in heeding to the call for safeguarding the constitutional values.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 December, 2017)

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

THE ANATOMY OF RESISTANCE: SOCIETY AND PROTEST



India’s bid to be a superpower, or at least economically dominate the region of Asia has guided many policy decisions in the last decade or so. The Mopa airport is part of this scheme. Ever since the airport was proposed, circa 2000, India’s economic policy has consistently promoted airports and projected them as a way to allow small cities or towns, and rural areas to partake of the economic benefits of a surging economy, while also opening up these spaces for the investment of global capital and infrastructure development. The brunt of this ‘development’, as is all too familiar for Goans, has to be borne by the people on whom it is forced – especially the marginalized ones. The idea that smaller undeveloped areas can be included in the circuits of a surging economy – in turn benefiting the people of these regions – by massive injection of infrastructure investment simply does not hold water.

This neoliberal model of development has also met its opposition. In recent times we are familiar with the opposition to mega projects at Tiracol, Sancoale, Mopa, and Vasco as defining the political discourse in Goa. The massive, and hitherto unprecedented, public hearing in Vasco demonstrated that spirited public debate poses a challenge to governmental inefficiency and generally misguided policy making. The resistance that is shaping up in Vasco in comparison with other recent cases can help us identify the forces that are crucial in the success and failure of people’s resistance against development. Simply put, why did a public hearing this effective take place in Vasco and not in Mopa?

To begin with, one has to look at what is being opposed. Coal pollution is visible, its effects felt immediately through respiratory disorders, whereas clearing large chunks of forests changes the climate and ecology slowly, at times almost imperceptibly. This perhaps impacts the urgency with which people mobilize. The literacy rate and the access to higher education also have an impact on the protest and resistance for a particular place. Even if the literacy rate stands at 83.63% at Mopa, there is an absence of professionals such as lawyers, whose skills and clout come in handy in times of crises. Vasco on the other hand has a good number of such professionals – lawyers, teachers, doctors – who can contribute to the fight. Moreover, while Vasco contains a diverse population of people – diverse in terms of education and social background, Mopa’s villages largely have farming and pastoral communities, or communities belonging to the bahujan samaj. The 2011 Census reports that there are about 70 persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes communities. These communities are rather scattered from each other, while the area that is marked for the Greenfield airport is a lush green plateau that is largely forested.

If the fight for Goa’s identity and environment must go on and won in the favor of its people, it needs the active support of diverse sections of the society. In the same way, one can think of how certain pockets of Goa which contain small communities need the support from outside resources to make their voices heard. These ‘outside resources’ could be access to higher education or professional education to its members, access to centers of judicial and executive power, and access to media platforms so that grievances once articulated reach the widest possible people. Linked to the issue of internal collaboration is the ability to understand that local mobilizations are connected to other struggles elsewhere in the world. Thus, activists in Vasco were able to include the struggle of people in Carmichael, Australia as part of their own discourse of protest. The same, however, is not observed in Mopa despite the fact that there are global movements against aerotropolises, and many places in Poland, South Korea, Taiwan, and Nepal are fighting against the development of mega airports.

However, the most crucial factor that affects the success or failure of protest is the social background of the communities that are fighting to protect their rights and/or the environment. Many of these developmental projects are situated on lands that subaltern communities use for their sustenance. Further, marginalized communities are deliberately divided amongst themselves by selective offers of jobs, or some other largesse which is denied to other marginalized communities within the same area.

We can also think of the importance of literacy and education as being crucial in understanding the policies formulated by the government. Many of the families living in Mopa had received notices informing them of the government’s plan of acquiring the land. However, these notices were in English which resulted in most of the people having very little clue of what was happening. In this context, it was heartening to note that activists during the Vasco hearing demanding that all material pertaining to the project, including the minutes of the public hearing, be made available in other local languages – a procedure which the government machinery had failed to follow.

Thus, it would appear that the way a society is structured and the way this very society treats its subaltern members directly impacts its ability to resist power and annihilation. Moreover, if governmental policies and private capital is constantly able to move ahead despite the express wish of the people then it is an indication of how democratic processes have failed many communities within a particular society. And in the final analysis, how there isn’t equality amongst all Goans.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 November, 2017)

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

MORMUGAO TO MOPA: A CASE OF (OB)NOXIOUS DEVELOPMENT



There should by now be no doubt in our minds that any large infrastructure development in India happens only through the destruction of resources like land, water, and air. This economic system is largely the legacy of British colonialism and Nehruvian socialist policies that promoted large scale land acquisitions and mega projects such as massive dams and industries. The many protests and demonstrations that one witnesses against polluting industries and wholesale land acquisitions in India is a fallout of this process initiated by the British Raj and followed through – ostensibly due to national interest – by the independent nation-state of India.


The excellent reportage by Smita Nair (in a reputed national daily and also published in O Heraldo)  on the coal transportation corridor from Mormugao Port to Bellary clearly reveals that people – through whose houses and villages this new  corridor passes – have no say whatsoever in governmental policies even when they destroy their lives and livelihoods. Several studies that predict an ecological disaster and even a massive public hearing – unprecedented in the history of India – which provided enough testimonials on how the expansion of coal handling would affect (and is affecting) the people of Goa, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. In short, ‘development’ as it currently unfolds in Goa is a destruction of life-sustaining resources and a direct assault on the lives of the people.

The responses by those who are affected by the developments in Vasco and other areas, through which the coal is transported by road, rivers, and rail, is indicative of a shift in the debate. For this reason, it is important to dwell on these responses together and understand their implications for the future. I have selected these responses dealing only with the need for infrastructure such as roads, public transport, and hospitals. These responses indicate to us that we do have a way to prioritize the needs of the locals over and above everything else.

Lumina D’Costa Almeida is categorical in her understanding that the Goan way of life is antithetical to the development of the government-corporate combine: “You bring highways and a sense of hurriedness. You won’t appreciate susegad (a ‘quiet’ life) and its importance for a healthy living. Your definition of development is different from ours”. This development is often promoted without any proper information given to the public. As Dan Vaz says, “The highways are being made into four lanes, six lanes. No one is telling us what they are being widened for. When we say we do not want such unplanned infrastructure, we are told it is in the national interest”. Obviously, the locals see no improvement in their lives, as Meena Barretto asserts, “Without expanding public transport for locals, they are building highways for the trucks”. That the basic infrastructure needs of the locals are not satisfied is clearly visible in Zulema Barros Pereira’s plea to “[g]ive us a hospital first”.

If one puts together these various views, what is the picture that emerges? First, the state has grossly failed to provide basic infrastructure to the public. Despite this obvious and glaring shortcoming, the state is reluctant to recognize its fault. Rather, the state chooses to cover up its shortcomings by promoting mega projects that further deplete the quality of life of its citizens. Secondly, the state does not view the citizens as stakeholders in the economic and political future of the land. If indeed the citizens were seen as stakeholders, Goa would not have witnessed the government-corporate combine trying to bulldoze its way through villages and forests.

But why do we need all this development if its effects are disastrous? Stated in another way, how is such development justified in the first place? The simple answer to this – one that politicians often give – is the need to create jobs. The casino industry can be a good example: while it was promoted or justified as creating employment for locals, the recent migration of peoples from the ‘northeast’ regions of India to service this industry indicates that local Goans either don’t want to, can’t find or are not given employment in this sector. The same is true of the five star hotel industry. And now we are witness to the same ‘it-will-create-jobs’ rhetoric as far as Mopa airport is concerned. Some days back, some 15 persons, each belonging to 15 Dhangar families affected by the Greenfield airport, were given appointment letters – to what post exactly? – by the private firm that is developing the airport. Only 15 so far in an airport that projects to service millions of passengers. Obviously, many more people will be needed from outside the state to service the airport once it is ready.

But the point that needs to be stressed is how the pattern of development is similar in the cases discussed above: entailing the widespread destruction of natural resources. Environmental damage, whether caused in Vasco or Mopa, will impact other places. What good are jobs when people will not be able to breathe properly?

The notion of development needs to change within Goan and Indian politics. Thus, rather than a vague idea of development led by government and corporate, every election needs to see people demanding a collective future for Goa, one that is infused with the vocabularies of human rights, people’s participation, and the privileging of the local people – and not just one section of the populace over the other. Goa’s decades-long struggles for protecting its identity and environment have led us to collectively ask the right question today: whom is this development for? 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 8 November, 2017)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

CULTURE WARS: PORTUGUESE HERITAGE IN GOA



The Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA), based at New Delhi has been documenting and studying Indian culture since 1985. Recently, the IGNCA has embarked on an ambitious project of promoting the endangered culture and traditions of various tribes in India. As part of this initiative, the IGNCA has decided to establish three regional centers in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Pondicherry, and in Goa. Sachchidanand Joshi, Member Secretary of the IGNCA was quoted in the press explaining the general objectives of the project, “We do not have reliable database for various tribes including endangered tribes. These are changing and someone needs to document the change”.

Though the objective of this project seems to be oriented towards preserving marginalized groups and their endangered traditions, IGNCA’s view of Goan culture, tradition, and history seem to be lacking as far as Goans are concerned. In the first place, IGNCA understands Goan culture as one that is “dying”. An official from IGNCA was quoted in a prominent national daily, “…we have set up our regional centre in Goa and signed an MoU with Ravindra Bhawan to launch a massive hunt for the folklore artistes to take part in theatres, perform folk dance, sing folk songs and play various musical instruments which have nothing to do with Portuguese culture. The idea is to save the dying cultural heritage of Goa by reviving and recording them”. In other words, the IGNCA has already written the epitaph of a vibrant and living community and its culture.

Secondly, and perhaps more problematically, the IGNCA posits Goan culture, especially that of rural and Bahujan Goa, as being different from and untouched by Portuguese culture. To assume that rural cultures exist without any external influences is to essentialize them as cultures isolated from the rest. If they have been isolated from the rest it is largely because these traditions were limited to a particular caste or tribal group, and not part of the traditions of a wider and diverse community.

This is not the first time that cultural chauvinists – both from Goa and outside – have had a problem with Goa’s different culture; different, that is, from what is seen as “mainstream” Indian or Hindu culture. This Goan difference is not simply confined to the Christians of Goa. Indeed, the temple architecture until very recently borrowed elements from Renaissance architecture as well as from Islamicate art. That the IGNCA is today leading this movement of reform or purification is not surprising given that one of the aims of the Centre is to “evolve models of research programmes and arts administrations more portinent [pertinent] to the Indian ethos”.

India’s caste system ensures that tribal and Dalitbahujan communities remain backwards. Preserving cultural practices mired in casteist and discriminatory social relations could also mean that these people remain marginalized. Thus, the whole idea of preserving cultural practices – of creating essentially happy museumized cultures – necessarily must address the issue of how these very same practices allow for discrimination to persist.

And it is not like all kinds of Goan cultural traditions have not received the support and encouragement of state machinery – whether of the colonial or of the nation-state. And each of these states has promoted these cultural traditions for their own selfish ends. For instance, the late Portuguese colonial state, around the 1940s and 1950s, was responsible for the identification and promotion of several folk traditions from Goa – such as the ghodde-moddnni and dangar dances – as authentic Goan folk traditions. Ironically, this is the precise moment when many of folk traditions found in Goa come to be seen as Goan for the first time ever.

With Indian rule from 1961, the Indian and Goan government promoted many of these folkloric traditions for generating income from tourism from the 1970s. And now the present government with its narrow understanding of Indian and Goan culture seems to be promoting a ‘Goan culture’ or parts of Goan culture in order to purify the same from Portuguese influences.

So where does this leave Goan culture in contemporary times? Probably in a bad place because new efforts to define (or re-define) Goan culture possibly would rob it of its diversity and the various cultural influences in its history. For instance, if we say that we have to rid Goa of its Portuguese influences then an art form like the mando would have to disappear. Goa will be poorer because a classic mando like Adeus Korcho Vellu Pavlo, composed by Torquato de Figuereido in 1905, will no longer be part of its cultural heritage. One could even say that tiatr, owing its origins to western opera can also be termed as foreign or un-Indian. The list, perhaps, will be quite long if we hold on to this thinking of ‘cultural purity’.

Cultural purists in India and Goa miss a crucial point: the intervention of the Portuguese and the cultural practices that evolved in this long period are crucial in the creation of Goa or how Goa developed through time. There is no Goa outside of this history of myriad cultural influences converging to form its cultural characters, beginning from the time of the Estado da ├Źndia. In a similar way it is also important to remember that many traditions fundamental to Indian culture, such as in food, developed as a result of Portuguese commercial policies. Chilies and potatoes, for instance, reached the shores of the Indian subcontinent some five centuries ago. Stated in a different way, there is no pure Goan culture – whether Portuguese or Indian.

To not recognize this fact would only mean that we will be hastening the process of fabricating our own history and promoting a general amnesia regarding the same.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 25 October, 2017)