Tuesday, 24 June 2014

NATION AND SALVATION: THE PAST AND PRESENT OF THE CHRISTIAN IN INDIA



The gruesome murder of Mohsin Shaikh, a Muslim techie from Pune has shocked many. One of them is Nidhin Shobhana, based at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule University, Pune. Reflecting on the horrific incident in an article published in Round Table India (www.roundtableindia.co.in) from a Christian subjective position, he tried to shift the focus beyond the obvious rhetoric found in mainstream press. He dwelt on the manner in which ‘minorities’ perceive and understand each other and suggested that while on the one hand the Christians of India feel safe because they believe that they are not like the Muslim other, on the other hand they have to deal with the threat of being a minority themselves in a clearly Hindu majoritarian order. One could suggest that this is a case of Christians trying to fit themselves in pre-given nationalist moulds. While this may certainly be true, the flip side of the issue is that the politics of nation and nationalism may also exert pressures on the Christians to be nationally-compliant. A Christian thus, is pressured to construct a self that is Christian while simultaneously imbibe Indian (read as Sanskritic) cultural values.

The Christian in India, according to Shobhana, has to manage a “juggling act to exist in a ‘caste-bitten’ society, [and to that extent] …Christians often dress up in uniforms approved by ‘Caste Hindus’. The almost saffron colour sarees of Catholic nuns is a worthwhile literal example”. Indian Christians create a difference for themselves by claiming – indeed demonstrating – their usefulness towards strengthening and enriching the Indian nation. The schools run by Christian missionaries across cities and villages in India patronized largely by the urban Indian elites, can be a case in point. But these claims to national usefulness encounter problems or “contradictions”.  I believe that these problems have something to do with the fraught relationship that the history of Christianity (and thereby Christians) have with the Indian nation.


I would like to take-off from Shobhana’s astute observation and argue that for the Christians, participation as full citizens is also dependent on their compliance to “adhere to the dominant ideology”.  The Christian has to jump through many hoops to negotiate his/her survival within the politics and understandings of the nation.

It must be pointed out that it is not just the present or contemporary usefulness that the Christian has to repeatedly assert, but he has to also account for the perceived violent past during Christianization, starting from the sixteenth-century. Indeed, the Christian of today has to apologize for it. To substantiate this claim, I would like to focus on a text titled The Christianisation of the Goa Islands, 1510-1567 (1965) that the Jesuit historian Anthony D’Costa wrote in response to A. K. Priolkar’s The Goa Inquisition (1961).  Marked by greater methodological rigor than Priolkar’s work, Fr. D’Costa drew on the voluminous Jesuit epistolary archive to argue for a history of conversion/Christianization that was not always marked with violence and mayhem. And yet, despite making bold assertions, Fr. D’Costa was still operating within the ‘nationally useful’ paradigm that we have acquainted ourselves with.


Fr. D’Costa had suggested that “as a requisite of social equality, national cohesion, and international fellowship” India had accepted many of the ideals that the missionaries propagated way back in the sixteenth-century. Yet, Fr. D’Costa could not escape the established understanding of widespread destruction during Christianization, arguing that although there may have been some misunderstandings between the missionaries and the natives, yet there were some “Hindus” who recognized the merits in the ideals that the missionaries stood for. Indeed, there was friendship between some Hindus and the missionaries, “which in the course of time characterised the relations between the Hindus and Christians”. Thus, the ‘usefulness’ (or in other words the success) of the missionary endeavours is judged by the yardstick of the contemporary nationalist understandings, ideals, and values. Similar “contradiction” also emerges when one is confronted with an understanding that stresses the absolute brutality of the Inquisition. Fr. D’Costa saw a way out: he sought refuge in the ancient brahmanical texts of Indian civilization. Concerning the executions by burning at the stake by the Holy Inquisition, he said, “And coming to death by fire, that, too, was admitted in the Dharmashastras…”

In other words, Fr. D’Costa made Christianization as a process intelligible within the understandings of Indian nationalism. Clever and innovative though the strategy may seem, Fr. D’Costa was not the first one to use it. Even during the course of the Indian national movement many Christian leaders tried to contextualize the contemporary missionary enterprises, such as providing good schools, healthcare, and women’s empowerment in the language of Indian nationalism.

Therefore, it is no easy task to be a nationally-useful and -compliant minority. While it is certainly true that the Christians – consciously or not – buy into nationalist understandings, one can also turn this formulation on its head to suggest that it is the pressures that are exerted by the dominant, nationalist ideology or ideologies that necessitate the production of a Christian identity that is essentially nationalist. These conflicting and contradictory pressures can be observed in Fr. D’Costa’s views discussed above. From a reading of The Christianisation of the Goa Islands, one can suggest that, on the one hand Fr. D’Costa wanted to be a part of the nation but on the other, he was unable as the history of Christianization (understood to be violent and destructive) was heavily bearing on him.

While I am in solidarity with Shobhana’s critical assessment of the Christians in India, the case needs a sensitive approach so that one can understand the various oppressive pressures that are placed on the minorities of India. The fraught relationship that the religious minorities – along with their history and culture – share with the nation may have a lot to do with many of the problems that face the Christians of India today.

Read Nidhin Shobhanas essay here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 25 June, 2014) 

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

READING REGINALD: MAGIC, LOVE, AND 'DIGNIDAD'


Reginald Fernandes was one of Konkani’s most proficient writers, having more than a hundred books to his credit, with his avid readers excitedly waiting for his next offering. Fernandes wrote romans, which can be translated as novels (or novelettes, if one is being pedantic). Although Fernandes, and the genre of Konkani writing to which he contributed immensely was and is very popular, the romans as well as Fernandes have not received the critical scholarly and literary appreciation, that they so rightfully deserve.
From Sat Somdir (1951)

This column would like to look at one of the earliest works of Fernandes, Sat Somdir published in 1951. The theme that I would like to particularly explore revolves around the author’s understanding of mog (love) and dignidad (loosely respect, status, and human dignity). The basis of many romanses and tiatrs, one can suggest, was formed through the enmeshing of these two ideas, against the backdrop of social inequality. Thus, in this work Anita, a girl who is born into a rich family and lives in a grand house, falls in love with Alfred, hailing from a poor family and whose mother had raised him by working as farm labour. Very early on in the novel we have Fernandes stating, “To ortouta pisso, zo sor corit dignidadic ani mogac,” (He errs badly who associates status [social standing] with love).

Needless to say, the love between Anita and Alfred is put to the test, not ostensibly because Alfred lacks nobility, but also due to the fact that Anita’s uncle wants to usurp her inheritance amounting to some four lakh rupees. Anita was an orphan, who had lost her mother when she was only three and her father when she was eleven. Yet, one need not be led into believing that the plot of Sat Somdir is solely revolving around pecuniary matters. Indeed, the basis of the novel is love between social un-equals and how the realization of this love leads to the restoration of human dignity and respect or dignidad.

Anita and Alfred decide to elope to Bombay, but Diogo – Anita’s uncle – gets wind of the plan. It is here that the tribulations that the young lovers have to face, begin. Within such an ordeal, Fernandes also takes his reader on an adventurous journey, full of possibilities. When Alfred is left for dead in the dense forest of Sattari, he meets a Sadhu who gives him shelter in the divull (temple) that he takes care of. Here Alfred comes across a richly adorned idol in the temple, which has a magical thic (diamond), called Sat Somdir. The magical power of this particular diamond is that it can show the whereabouts of any person, as if being projected on a screen.


It is not just the diamond that provides the ‘magical’ relief in the novel, but other kinds of medicinal herbs (ocot as Fernandes would refer to it) also come into the plot at crucial moments. So what we have here is that, at crucial moments when the reader thinks that the plot is going in an expected direction, Fernandes brings in twists and turns – and indeed there are many in this novel! Magic and fantasy is important for Fernandes in another way as well. I would like to suggest that twists brought about by magic at various parts of the novel, also acts as a device of deus ex machina. Such a device, it can be suggested, is necessary as in a rigidly hierarchical society as that of India and Goa, how are two people madly in love with each other, ever to find the realization of their love? In other words, escape from rigid hierarchies is facilitated by magic.

In keeping with the author’s thinking or conceptualization that love and dignidad can be accomplished, not only through breaking social boundaries but also having material riches, the novel ends with Anita and Alfred being joined in holy matrimony as well as recovering a lost treasure of gold bars. Before this, it so transpires that Alfred gets incarcerated in the dreaded prison of Aguada, and the Sadhu from the temple of the Sattari jungle through the use of some ocot, manages to get him out of the prison. The guards at the prison thinking that Alfred is dead bury him in the prison cemetery. Anita comes to know of this through the ghost of a man, who was the business partner of her father in Africa. This particular ghost had cheated Anita’s father of many lakhs of rupees and had purchased gold bars, which were buried near his house. It was this chicanery that was keeping the ghost bound to the earth. So in the end, Anita’s greedy and scheming uncle is punished for the crimes he has committed. Alfred, Anita, and Alfred’s mother live in Anita’s house having the guirestcai or riches, which now rightfully belonged to Anita.


To go back to an earlier point, in the world that Fernandes opens to his readers, suffering and poverty borne with humility and equanimity does not lead to more suffering and poverty, but to a genuinely happy life – full of love and riches! After all what good are riches without love and affection? So, if we are to understand the concept of dignidad and how this dignidad was reflected in novels such as those of Fernandes, then we would need to understand that, within this world, riches cannot be separated from love, and that social barriers can only be broken when both are present in copious quantities.

The act of Reading Reginald cannot just be confined to reading his romanses. Indeed, we have to decode the very thought and intellectual influences on novelists like Fernandes. What, for instance, did Fernandes read? Dignidad is perhaps, one of the several concepts and ways in which to understand this corpus of literature. It is time we start searching for them.

See also 'Konkani Fiction in your Pocket', here.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 11 June, 2014)

Monday, 9 June 2014

SUPREME COURT, MoI, AND ‘MOTHER TONGUE’: GOOD NEWS FOR GOA?



by Dale Luis Menezes, Albertina Almeida, R. Benedito Ferrão, Amita Kanekar, and Jason Keith Fernandes

The Supreme Court of India recently delivered a judgment on the decision taken by the government of the Karnataka to make Kannada and the ‘mother tongue’ compulsory languages of Instruction. In finding this measure unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has potentially offered a limited blessing for many parents in Goa who aspire to have their wards educated in English at the primary school level. As is well known, the Medium of Instruction (MoI) controversy has been raging in Goa for some time now. After a brief lull in 1989, the controversy reemerged and, since 2011, many crucial issues have been raised in its wake, and not just ones confined to education and pedagogy alone. Indeed, the issue of the Romi script, its place in the linguistic sphere of Goa, and the need to offer the instruction of Konkani in the Romi script were crucial issues that got sidetracked during the MoI controversy. The rights of parents and children in making their own choices regarding education, as well as the hegemonic hold of the Nagri script and the Antruzi dialect in the MoI sphere were also issues that had surfaced in the course of the controversy.
Though the Supreme Court ruling pertains to Karnataka, it has, as mentioned, some relevance to the issues raised by aggrieved parents in Goa. To briefly sum up, the Supreme Court has ordered that “mother tongue” cannot be imposed by the government, and that parents or guardians have a right to choose the MoI that they feel would best represent the interest of their children. This is a very important stand. The problem, however, is that the Supreme Court has in no way compelled the state to grant financial support to the MoI of the choice of the parents/guardians. This is a critical issue in Goa, where parents were theoretically ‘free’ to opt for English as a MoI for their child, but would still have to cough up the higher fees of unaided schools for this purpose. This effectively meant that those who can afford expensive school fees – so, mostly rich and dominant caste communities – could send their wards to government-recognized English medium schools while those who cannot afford such institutions would, perforce, be denied the right to decide the MoI for their wards and have to accept the so-called ‘mother tongue’. Why should the non-elites and people who cannot afford the high fees of private English medium schools bear the burden and onus of propagating this ‘mother tongue’?  The contention of agitated parents at the start of the MoI controversy in Goa was that the government should continue to provide grants to primary schools that would like to make a switch to English from Konkani or Marathi as MoI. A small victory was won by the parents demanding English as MoI when the current Manohar Parrikar-led government recognized that minority institutions (such as the 120-plus Diocesan schools) should continue to receive governmental aid, even if they switch to English as MoI. The issue is, nonetheless, yet to be laid to rest.

As we pointed out earlier, the limitation of the Supreme Court judgment is something that goes against the spirit of its own letter. We would like to suggest that it is this very scope of the spirit of the judgment that needs to be understood and explored in the future. But first, in order to better understand the judgment, it is necessary to dwell on the five points or questions on which the Supreme Court has deliberated.

The first question deals with the definition of the term “mother tongue”. Interpreting Article 350A of the Constitution, the Supreme Court argued that since it is the duty of every state to provide education in the “mother tongue” of every child belonging to linguistic minority groups at the primary level, the meaning of “‘mother tongue’” in Article 350A should be taken to include the language spoken by each linguistic minority in a given state. The Court further argued that “[m]other tongue in the context of the Constitution would, therefore, mean the language of the linguistic minority in a State and it is the parent or the guardian of the child who will decide what the mother tongue of [a] child is”. This relates directly to the Goan context wherein the demand for English as MoI came from many of the Catholic community which constitutes a minority in Goa, (although a sizeable segment of non-Catholics also did throw in their support for English as MoI), and can be viewed as an exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of parents even if they belong to a minority, to choose the MoI for their children.

This links up to the second question, in which it was asked whether a student or parent or a citizen has the right to “choose” a MoI at the primary level. In response, the Supreme Court said, “…a child, and on his behalf his parents or guardian, has the right to choose the medium of instruction at the primary school stage…” This particularly goes to delegitimize many of the claims that were made by the Bharati Bhasha Surakhsha Manch (BBSM) in Goa, a group formed to oppose English as MoI, that parents had no right, indeed that they were not informed and capable enough, to make a decision as to what would benefit their children. A further confirmation of the constitutionally guaranteed choice of students and parents is available when the Supreme Court asserts that the “…imposition of mother tongue affects fundamental rights under Articles 19, 29 and 30 of the Constitution” (emphasis added). This is, in fact, the third question that the Supreme Court answered, which dealt in ascertaining whether or not the imposition of “mother tongue” affected any fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the Goan context, the issue of which school is eligible for grants-in-aid is a crucial one. As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court has refused to ask the governments to financially support the MoI of a student’s choice, even if the child belongs to a linguistic minority. As the judgment says, “If…the State determines by law that in schools where free education is provided under Article 21A of the Constitution, the medium of instruction would be in the mother tongue or in any language, the child cannot claim as of right under Article 21 or Article 21A of the Constitution that he has a right to choose the medium of instruction in which the education should be imparted to him by the State”. One could argue that the spirit (and even letter) of the judgment runs contrary to this statement, for, if the state is constitutionally bound to protect the linguistic minority, the linguistic minority, in turn, can also demand financial support from the state. Certainly, the state’s failure to provide a minority the means to realize a right would be tantamount to denying the right. The Supreme Court judgment, while answering the fourth question, maintained that “[g]overnment recognized schools will not only include government aided schools but also unaided schools which have been granted recognition”.  Seen from this perspective, grants or financial support will have to be extended by the government in supporting English as the MoI in Goa.

In discussing the first question on which the Supreme Court had deliberated, we had suggested that English as MoI in the Goan context should be understood as a demand stemming from a linguistic minority, because English as MoI was largely (though not only) a Catholic demand.  This demand was articulated largely by parents demanding English as MoI because the Konkani that is taught in primary schools in Goa is in the Antruzi dialect with Nagri script, which is not the Konkani used by this community. Unable to accept this alien ‘mother tongue’, the aggrieved parents prefer an education in English instead. To further dwell on the point, we would like to suggest that this notion is buttressed by the last point on which the Supreme Court ruled, wherein it asserted that the “State has no power under Article 350A of the Constitution to compel the linguistic minorities to choose their mother tongue only as a medium of instruction in primary schools” (emphasis added). The Court has clarified that the linguistic minority could well opt for a language which is not its “mother tongue” but a language of its choice. Thus, such an understanding opens up a space to accommodate the demands and aspirations of the masses for acquiring skills in various languages, so as not to be restricted to education in their own ‘mother tongue’.

What, therefore, are the larger implications for those in Goa other than the obviously educational and pedagogical ones? First and foremost, it opens up the space to acknowledge and accommodate the multi-lingual reality of Goa. By using the Supreme Court’s understanding of the term “mother tongue”, governmental support for the Romi script can now legitimately be requested, as also its inclusion in primary and secondary school curricula. There is, in fact, a clear reference in the judgment to Article 350A of the Constitution, which provides that it shall be the endeavour of every state and of every local authority within the state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the “mother tongue” at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups. Therefore, the concept of aid by way of providing facilities, including financial support, to institutions seeking to impart education to a linguistic minority in a language and script of that linguistic minority’s choosing also comes into the picture. This would mean providing support for developing appropriate text books and educational material if these do not exist, as is the case in Goa, for those who desire instruction in Konkani in the Romi script.

 Although the concept of “mother tongue” used by the Supreme Court is a poor tool to understand linguistic reality, it must also be suggested that considering the judgment in its entirety, the conceptualization of the Supreme Court is broad enough in scope. Additionally, another judgment discussed by the Supreme Court in deliberating on the abovementioned five questions refers to “mother tongue” both in terms of language and script, and expresses concern on the imposition of a particular language and script on a community. By extension, this can also include dialects.

This, we hope, will convince the powers-that-be that wisdom now lies in broadening our vision for education in the state, a vision that leans towards recognizing multi-lingual practices rather than being confined to a narrow understanding of ‘mother tongue’, along with a more egalitarian approach to education. Such an approach to education would stress that wholesome education rests on teaching methods that embrace the various languages, dialects, and scripts used by students and their families, instead of fetishizing a single language, be it English, Konkani, or Marathi.

To read the full judgment, click here.

Read 'Open Letter to the Goan Government's Advisory Committee on Medium of Instruction', here.

Dale Luis Menezes has a masters in medieval history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Albertina Almeida is a lawyer and human rights activist and holds a doctorate in law; R. Benedito Ferrão is a postdoctoral researcher at La Trobe University, Australia; Amita Kanekar is an architectural historian and novelist; and Jason Keith Fernandes is currently a postdoctoral Fellow of the New India Foundation and is writing a book titled Language and Politics in Postcolonial Goa.

(First published in Goa Today, June 2014)