Tuesday, 30 September 2014

KONKANI, MoI, AND COLONIAL LEGACY



Around two months ago, at the launch of the Indo-Portuguese historian Teotonio de Souza’s latest book, Eduardo Faleiro, former Union Cabinet minister and former NRI Commissioner of the Goa government, argued for imparting primary education in the local language. Excerpts of his speech were recently published in The Goan Review (September-October, 2014), and therefore his key arguments are available for greater scrutiny. Speaking at the launch of Goa Outgrowing Postcolonialism, Faleiro sought to trace a linear and rather simplistic connection between the violence of colonialism, the destruction of native culture, and the (purported) contemporary need for education in the native language(s).

The core of Faleiro’s speech rested on the understanding that Portuguese colonialism resulted in the destruction of the Konkani language “almost completely”. Since “[l]anguage is central to culture”, Faleiro seems to argue that one can undo the damage and alleged humiliation of colonialism by regaining the pre-colonial glory of native culture. He therefore suggests that Konkani and Marathi need to be studied at primary level and that “[t]here is no justification for English as a medium of instruction at the primary level”. Also, “Konkani should be taught in the Devnagri script as it will provide access to Marathi and Hindi… [and] Children will learn the romi script when they learn English”.

While acknowledging the ills of colonialism, one should be careful not to take the idea of wholesale destruction under colonialism at face value. Also, how valid is the idea that the pre-colonial period was a glorious epoch and thus worthy of recovering? For the problems with such thinking clearly come to the fore when Nagri script is considered as a way out of the ills of colonialism. The underlying assumption is that the Nagri script is more ‘Indian’ and hence best suited for the task of recovering the lost cultural heritage.

Faleiro is not making any new suggestions as far as the linguistic and cultural realms of Goa go. By making the argument for the Nagri script, he joins a very long list of largely upper-caste Nagri protagonists who have thus far ensured the denial of Government recognition to the Roman script. One can understand why Faleiro is favouring the Nagri script, as in the worldview that he seems to be drawing upon, the culture-destroying Portuguese colonialism is where Konkani in the Roman script had its birth. However, such an understanding fails to take note of the very real possibility that through the Roman script, written texts (chiefly Christian literature) were made available to a large mass of people. This access was not possible prior to missionary intervention because until then it was largely the brahmin pundits and other upper-caste groups who had sole control over the production and access to knowledge. This is exactly the point that Jason Keith Fernandes made in his talk The Secret History of Konkani, arguing also that one needs to view the Catholic Church in Goa, through the intervention of missionaries, as a producer of a language through the Roman script. Thus, according to this argument, the Konkani language and knowledge was not destroyed completely but was made available to a greater number of people.
The colonial legacy of the Roman script itself is reason enough to reject it as a carrier of authentic Goan and Indian culture. Such thinking can stray in dangerous directions. For, within this argument, is the unsaid condemnation of Christianity and Islam, for the destruction of natives and native culture in the process of proselytizing these religions. As much of recent work by historians and anthropologists of Christianity and Islam in the Indian subcontinent has demonstrated, conversion did not necessarily result in a loss of native culture. Many historians have suggested that conversion could also be a way out of caste. A perusal of these works would convince many that the colonial past is a complex history and would need a deeper understanding than what is allowed by our contemporary political setup.

The argument that English cannot be the medium of instruction is again a bit suspect. Faleiro’s contention is that the “academic performance” is not affected if education is imparted in local languages. However, if one considers his understanding of colonialism and his espousal of the Nagri script for Konkani, it becomes evident that Faleiro’s arguments have very little to do with “academic performance”. Several Goan writers have stressed that the parents should be given the right to decide for their wards. Recently, a Supreme Court judgment too argued for upholding the choice of the parents in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India. The denial of English as medium of instruction is also a denial of the legitimacy of the aspiration of parents for their children. If thousands of parents/guardians feel that access to English language would provide their wards with greater opportunities in later life, then we need to consider their point of view much more seriously, and not brush it aside the way Faleiro does.

We need to start recognizing that the issues of the Roman script, medium of instruction, and Portuguese colonialism are not isolated, but are intertwined with each other. This is the reason why, one can suggest, Faleiro started his speech with a general reflection on the destruction and mayhem of colonialism and ended with a suggestion for the organization of “programmes to sensitise parents as to the need for their children to learn in the mother tongue”. Rather than privileging the diversity of Goan culture, only certain cultural traditions are privileged and recognized. In a society that is struggling to maintain its plural and peaceful character, such thinking will only add to our woes.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 1 October, 2014)

See also: 'Supreme Court, MoI, and 'Mother Tongue': Good News for Goa?', here.
'Medium of Instruction in Goan Schools: Mother Tongue or Multitlingualism?', here
'Battle of the Konkanis: Separating Wolves from the Lambs', here

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