Wednesday, 23 December 2015

WHAT’S IN A NAME? EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING



Russell Peters, the Indo-Canadian stand-up comic, has a joke about Indians changing the names of their cities from British usages to more ‘Indian’ ones. Like most of his humor, the joke is rather a no-brainer. Indians, he says, waited for so long after the departure of the British only to be very sure that the Brits have indeed left and would never ever come back again. Since this is not a real reason, one could indeed ask what took the Vasco da Gama-Sambhaji Nagar controversy so long to erupt, given that it has been in circulation for more than 50 years since the Portuguese left?

Actually there were efforts to change the name of Goa’s only port-town right from the ’70s. One does not know the details of this attempt by the Dayanand Bandodkar regime, except that the change was vehemently opposed even then, including by tiatrists like the trio of Conception, Nelson, and Anthony.

Coming to the current Vasco da Gama-Sambhaji Nagar controversy, by and large, it has been represented in the media as a ploy to whip up communal sentiments, and polarize the electoral prior to the state assembly election in 2017. Given the BJP’s proven track record in using this strategy there is no denying this possibility. However, it appears that in the process commentators have missed the larger picture of obfuscating and erasing history. A focus on the longer time period is critical, because it helps us understand the process of how propagandists, demagogues, and ideologues would create a political controversy before transforming it into votes.

The names of places in India are often changed in order (or ostensibly) to move away from British colonial history. There is no doubt that an effort to change names (surreptitiously or otherwise) is easily achieved by groups who enjoy political representation and power. The marginalized groups within the nation, or those marginalized on the basis of caste and/or religion have to battle it out to inscribe their identity and icons onto the public sphere. Name-changes therefore is the display of triumphalism by dominant groups in power and one should be aware of the manner in which history is deployed through such a misuse.

The case of Goa, and the history and legacy bequeathed by the Portuguese, are in a sense different from the experience of British colonialism in the rest of India. This is the reason why Goan identity within the Indian nation itself is structured on foregrounding the influences of Portuguese culture and language on the Goans. A Goan self can be said to have slowly emerged from European and Catholic influences over four centuries. Though the upper caste Catholics assumed and appropriated for themselves the guardianship of this identity, this Europeanized-Catholic identity permeated almost all sections of Goans today, both Catholic and others. Therefore, for many of these diverse groups, taking away the element of Portuguese heritage would mean taking something fundamental out of their Goan identity or ‘Goan-ness’.

So, what does one do with a certain Vasco – glorified as well as reviled within the history of European colonialism? The Vasco-Sambhaji Nagar case illustrates the immaturity of the powers-to-be in Goa in handling such issues. It seems that one of the motives was to overwrite the history of the town of Vasco using icons that the Hindu right has appropriated. Whether Sambhaji was really a defender of Hindu dharma, as he is portrayed in some quarters, is not the question that I want to address in this column. What I would like to stress is that the Hindu right and the State today has neglected the complex geo-political maneuvering between the Portuguese, the Mughals, and the Marathas solely to appropriate Sambhaji as one who stood against a proselytizing Christian (and Muslim) power. In fact Sambhaji had allied with Prince Akbar, the son of Aurangzeb, against the Portuguese. Before that the Portuguese are believed to have provided refuge to Prince Akbar. Thus, the complex history of diplomacy, trade, and political strategies are completely forgotten in order to propagate a narrow Hindutva agenda.

We must also ask ourselves what exactly has the Maratha ruler to do with Goa or indeed the town of Vasco? Apart from the panic and terror that Sambhaji’s raids had caused amongst the residents of villages and towns of Bardez and the Portuguese administration, Sambhaji seems to have little connect with the history of Goa or the town of Vasco. Rather, Sambhaji seems to be a convenient figure to pit against that of Vasco da Gama in an easy binary scheme of ‘us’ (Hindus) against ‘them’ (colonizers/Portuguese/Christians).

This understanding of Portuguese colonialism and the overwriting of this history seems plausible as the Christians – the group that (despite internal divisions) is perceived to be the most Westernized and closest to the Portuguese – appears to be once again held suspect for steadfastly refusing to let go of their love for Portugal or the colonial hangover. In fact, this can be very clearly seen in the comment of Custodio D’Souza, a resident of Vasco: “This is an effort to change the very identity of our home town and our lives…Instead of giving us good governance, all this government is trying to do is needle the minority community with such tricks and upset Goa’s peace”.

If we think about the Vasco-Sambhaji Nagar controversy more deeply, we can place it in a series of events wherein Goa’s legitimate history, made by its people, is continuously undermined. One is reminded of the Jack de Sequeira incident, wherein his role in the Opinion Poll and the role of the Christian community  in leading the agitation for Goa’s statehood was sought to be undermined. Similarly, one can also ask why stadia in Goa are named after politicians like Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Nehru, when they have nothing to do with Goan sports? Thus, if we would like such kind of events not to repeat themselves we would not only be vigilant to the ways in which history is twisted and erased in contemporary debates over Goa’s past.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 December, 2015)

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

‘MINORITY-APPEASEMENT’ OR ‘MAJORITY CASTEISM’?

November 2015 would be an unfortunate month for Goa. Not simply because Fr. Bismarque Dias, a fire-brand activist, was found dead under mysterious circumstances, but also because the Goan government  behaved in an atrocious manner in handling the investigation as well as the law and order situation following the peaceful protest on 21 November, 2015. At a time of outpouring of grief and emotion from the people of Goa, and at a time when politics in Goa is in dire need of ‘Kindness’ (to borrow Fr. Bismarque’s word upon which rests his 2012 election manifesto) one would be quite surprised – or rather, shocked – to see vicious anti-minority statements made in public by members of the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch (BBSM). With the government increasingly growing unpopular in the eyes of the Goan people, it seems quite certain that members of the RSS-backed BBSM are making hay while the sun shines.

Simply put, the BBSM’s agenda is to block the grants-in-aid to English as a Medium of Instruction (MoI) in primary schools in Goa. In trying to safeguard ‘Indian culture’ (whatever that means), members of the BBSM think that it is the Christians in Goa who are responsible for the demand for English made by parents across the caste and religious divide. It has been quite clear for some time now that the BBSM is an openly rightwing group. Its hostility to minoritized groups is very evident. In the recently-held BBSM press conference, Arvind Bhatikar said to the ruling BJP party in Goa, “Your voter is Hindu. You are in power because of Hindus. Remember this and stop appeasing the minorities”.

This issue I think cannot be framed as one of increasing communalization, as one can see that the BBSM is always clever enough to keep token figures from the Hindu bahujan samaj and the Catholic community in their press conferences and photo-ops. Neither can the vicious hostility to Goa’s minoritized groups can be understood as an issue of increasing “intolerance”. If this was the case, persons like Naguesh Karmali and Pundalik Naik (staunch members of the BBSM and Nagri Konkani litterateurs) would not have aligned with the RSS-backed BBSM, while at the same time protesting the Sahitya Akademi’s silence on the recent murders of writers and rationalists.

So the question is, how do we then, understand the comments that are made by Arvind Bhatikar and the members of the BBSM? The most important way is to see how Brahmanism operates in maintaining its own power. It is no secret that both the RSS and the Nagri Konkani camp (from which most of the Konkani “stalwarts” are drawn) are tightly controlled by brahmins. The Nagri Konkani project itself is the project of the Saraswat caste hegemony. In this context, it would profit us quite a lot if we invoke the comments of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who observed, “Is it reasonable to expect the secular Brahmins to take part in a movement directed against the priestly Brahmins? In my judgment, it is useless to make a distinction between the secular Brahmins and priestly Brahmins. Both are kith and kin. They are two arms of the same body, and one is bound to fight for the existence of the other”. Clearly, the rightwing brahmins in the RSS and the secular brahmins (who, like Uday Bhembre and Arvind Bhatikar, have so far been projected as ostensibly ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’) have come together under the umbrella of BBSM – and one can only presume that the reason to do so is to maintain each others’ existence.

I am not the first one to see similarities between the methods employed by right-wing Hindu groups and those that are employed by cultural purists like the BBSM – a major chunk of whose leadership consists of the “stalwarts” of the Nagri Konkani camp. Kaustubh Naik argues that in Goa the Nagri Konkani camp functions as a “local culture police” much like Hindu right-wing groups. This local culture police want to “impose a singular identity by carefully erasing all cultural differences to ensure the hegemony of a dominant social group”, i.e. the “Hindu Saraswats” according to Naik (The Goan Everyday, dt: 29 September, 2015).

Where is the minority-appeasement in such a scenario? If repeated struggles by the Goan people, for greater equality in political life and for a greater recognition of their individual and community rights, are diligently scuttled by dominant caste groups (with of course tokens from the Christian community and the Hindu bahujan samaj), then, once again, where is the appeasement? In the context of ‘minority-appeasement’ one cannot help but draw parallels in the manner in which Christians in Goa are made into a scapegoat like Muslims in many parts of India. By making Christians of Goa a scapegoat for a demand that clearly is not confined to them alone, a bid for maintaining caste hegemony is cleverly disguised as a concern for Indian culture – and, most importantly, Indian languages.


As serious as the nature of the comments made by BBSM’s Arvind Bhatikar is, they are also very routine and banal. One must not be fooled into believing that such comments are an exception to the rule, or an aberration. For all parents who are concerned about the future of their children, the need of the hour is not simply to ensure full recognition for the grants to be given to English as MoI, but also to challenge a vicious ideology that would deny people the right to choose.


And all said and done, even if we call this ‘minority-appeasement’, it is only going to do Goa a lot of good.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 9 December, 2015) 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

READING ‘THE KINDNESS MANIFESTO’: POLITICS AND FR. BISMARQUE



When you wanted a cool atmosphere, instead of providing shade,
We cut trees and gave you air conditioners
I am sorry, extremely sorry. I believe the cry of the
Earth is also the cry of our beautiful Children
– The Kindness Manifesto

How does one read Fr. Bismarque Dias’ The Kindness Manifesto, which was used by him during campaigning for the Goa assembly elections in 2012? Eschewing grand rhetoric about development – or such other populist-phrases – the Manifesto sought to make environmental degradation as central to politics. To begin with, we have to contextualize the Manifesto with the contemporary political realities in Goa. Being a priest, Fr. Bismarque’s ethical understanding was also structured by theological and spiritual influences, and one needs to look at these too. Given that the Manifesto was primarily concerned with an ethical understanding of environmental degradation and its redressal through electoral politics, a lot can be learnt by reading the Manifesto. 

Perhaps like all good ideas, The Kindness Campaign was too ahead of its times. Back in 2012, when Fr. Bismarque convened his first press conference at Old Goa, under the shadow of the Gandhi statue, the reporters seemed to be befuddled with his Manifesto. Compared to the manifestos of other political parties, Fr. Bismarque’s Manifesto lacked a point-by-point developmental agenda. As Fr. Bismarque’s foray into politics was precisely an attempt to bridge the gap between spirituality/ethics and the ground realities in Goa, it was quite unfortunate that there was no deeper engagement in charting out a political vision.

Though many people in Goa could easily see the link between Fr. Bismarque’s Manifesto and the ground realities in Goa, and sympathized and admired his grit and determination, it did not translate into votes. Let us again go back to 3 March 2012. On this day of reckoning for the Manifesto, it is interesting to consider the testimony of a Catholic voter from Cumbharjua: Richard Gomes a Cumbharjua voter said in an interview to Outlook, “No Catholic candidate can win in Cumbharjua, so we have to look for alternatives,’ …[because] ‘Hindus are communal, and will never vote for a Catholic in this [Cumbharjua] seat. Since they are a majority, we all have to find a candidate who is somewhat okay with us and responsive to our concerns’”.

Whether the logic of Richard Gomes is a false equivalence or not, the issue here is about whether voters in Goa can make choices that can empower them. The immediacy to survive in the current political climate can render any attempts at better political visions ineffective. Thus, the question that the Manifesto did not engage with was why environmental degradation had to be fought first rather than battling for political representation.  This issue also needs as urgent attention as environmental degradation, precisely because skewed political representation enables anti-environmental policies and laws on the populace by giving power to those that have very little concern for the environment.

The nature of ideas that the Manifesto articulated are not very new within the Catholic Church, and have been around for at least a hundred years. Long before the current Pope issued his Encyclical Letter, ‘Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home’, in May 2015, trying to raise awareness about environmental degradation, faulty governmental policies the world over, and its impact on the poor of the world, Fr. Bismarque’s Kindness Campaign attempted to raise awareness about these very issues. Despite his conflicts with the Church hierarchy in Goa, Fr. Bismarque’s Manifesto and activism need not be seen in isolation, but constituting a part of this larger world of ideas and activism.

One needs to focus closely on the forgiveness the Manifesto sought to ask from the “children” for destroying the “Earth”. The idea of asking forgiveness, I would argue, draws its inspiration from conventional Catholic theology. Further on, Franciscan spirituality with its emphasis on celebrating nature as God’s creation and therefore lovingly preserving it, can be said to be the other influence. Interestingly, the Manifesto is structured in the form of a poem or a song, as opposed to the usual bullet-pointed claims that one finds in other political/electoral manifestos. The Manifesto, therefore, can be linked to ‘The Canticle of Brother Sun’ by St. Francis of Assisi (not surprisingly an inspiration for the ‘Laudato Si’’, given that Pope Francis takes his name from the author of the ‘Canticle’). Just like that document, the Manifesto argues for eschewing wealth and riches in favor of poverty and simple living. The Manifesto sought to fashion a Goan self that would relate compassionately to nature, as a political act. To vote for Fr. Bismarque was therefore a vote to change one’s relationship with nature.

A reading of the Manifesto with how electoral representation is structured in Goa reveals that Fr. Bismarque had to deal with many tough and complex issues. This is a predicament that many people face in Goa. Though the Manifesto emphasized the future of children, there was no attempt to address social and economic inequalities as they occur on the ground – while spiritual/theological understandings within the Christian Church clearly see environmental degradation impacting social and economic inequalities. How to bridge the gap between political vision and environmental degradation, political inaction, and rising religious fundamentalism in Goa is not just a question for Fr. Bismarque’s close associates and friends, but also for the people of Goa, and the Church hierarchy – with whom Fr. Bismarque had a tortuous relationship. This is needed if we do not want his ‘martyrdom’ to be worthless and in vain.

Illustration by Angela Ferrao

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 25 November, 2015) 

Monday, 16 November 2015

COMMUNAL GOENKARS? A RESPONSE TO VIKAS KAMAT

The following is a response by Vikas Kamat to my op-ed in O Heraldo, “Intolerance and the Minorotized Groups”, dt: 11 November, 2015:

All Goemkars Not Communal
By Vikas Kamat (12 Nov, 2015)

I read Dale Menezes’ article, “Intolerance and the minoritized groups”, in the Herald, dt. 11 Nov. 2015. I however, have to make a few observations regarding his opinion: As regards the Konkani language and the script issue, the Sahitya Akademi as well as the Government recognizes Konkani in Devanagari script as the official language of Goa. It would not have been possible for the Roman script to be accepted by the Sahitya Akademi and perhaps, Konkani would then never become its official language.

However, I agree that the Catholics in Goa find great difficulty studying in Devenagari. But today, we see many Konkani youth and author-poets who are Catholics, but find no difficulty with Devenagari script. Similarly, the Government of Goa has helped Roman Konkani by establishing the Dalgado Konkani Akademi (DKA).

However, except a few exceptions, the majority Hindus of Goa use Marathi for “official and formal” occasions since decades – right from their early morning newspaper to their wedding invitations.

Menezes has pointed out towards the representation of Goan Muslims in politics. I have also observed that the Goan Muslims have been underrepresented in politics, perhaps due to their miniscule population. One famous Muslim in Goan politics was Sheikh Hassan Haroon, some decades ago. But here, a difference has to be marked between Goan ‘niz Goemkar’ Muslims and non-Goan Muslims. Goa today has many Muslims, but a large chunk of them are the migrants from states like Karnataka – referred to as “ghaati” by Goans. But they meet the labour demands in Goa. These Muslims mostly hail from the Bijapur, Gadag and such parts of Karnataka.
In the recent Municipal polls, one gentleman called Qutubuddin has been elected by the voters.

He is a Muslim and is the people’s choice too, but he is not a Goan Muslim per se. Goans generally do not vote on religion lines. Right from the first Goa, Daman and Diu Legislative Assembly, this can be seen. Anthony D’Souza was elected in the first Assembly from a Hindu majority constituency in North Goa. Even today, Hindu voters vote for Christian candidates and vice versa. Based on a few isolated comments, Menezes should not paint the all Goemkar lot as communal.

MY RESPONSE:

I would like to thank Vikas Kamat for writing such a prompt response (12 November, 2015) to my op-ed, and also for agreeing on many points and arguments I made.

Apologies for being blunt, but it is ridiculous to say “[i]t would not have been possible for the Roman script to be accepted by the Sahitya Akademi and perhaps, Konkani would then never become its [Goa’s] official language”, without a touch of irony. What Kamat is trying to tell us, in essence, is that the Roman script and the people who use it are not legitimate carriers of Goan identity. Thus, a large section of Goans are excluded from Goan cultural life. The fact that the Goa government belatedly started giving out grants to Dalgado Konknni Akademi, does not take anything away from the fact that many Goans for a long time have been at the receiving end of “intolerance”.

Further, it is also important to call out the blatant display of xenophobia and islamophobia in relation to my argument about adequate representation for Muslims in Goa. I think, to make a distinction between Goan and non-Goan Muslims in response to claims for Muslim representation is another way to deny Muslims in Goa adequate representation, as on the ground Muslims are almost invisible-ized in politics. Although it is an oft-repeated anecdote in Goa that the Saraswat brahmins had migrated to Goa (is it a fact or fiction, is a story for another day), yet it is unthinkable today to think of the Saraswats as anything but Goan. One needs to ask why this distinction is made generally in the case of Muslims.

To end, it is not at all my aim to paint the whole of Goan lot as “communal”. In my mind, I am quite clear that those in Goa – be it the migrants, settlers, or natives – who have been at the receiving end of discrimination and intolerance can ever be “communal”. Fact is they can’t be. My only fault in this was to assume that this fact was obvious to all Goans.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

INTOLERANCE AND THE MINORITIZED GROUPS



Goa’s Chief Minister, Laxmikant Parsekar, has been receiving flak ever since he took charge from November 2014. Not simply due to the faulty policies that his government seems eager to force down the throats of the Goan people, but also due to controversial and sometimes silly comments in the media.

However, over the last several months we have been witness to a modicum of clarity and good sense displayed by the same Parsekar on the issue of consumption of beef in Goa. In March this year, Parsekar issued a statement saying that there cannot be a beef-ban in Goa, as beef is part of the diet of a lot of people in the state. Since the issue of whether Muslims, Dalits, Christians, and Adivasis living in India should or should not consume beef is being raked up with alarming frequency, Parsekar did not shy away from issuing another statement earlier this month. Modifying his views a bit due to the existing political climate in North India and the debates surrounding the ‘rise of intolerance’ in India, Parsekar said, “I don’t feel the people of a community eat or use beef to hurt sentiments of others. It is part of their cuisine or preparation and we also accept the fact…” What one can also add to Parsekar’s statement is that rather than offending anybody, many Catholics (for example) feel quite awkward and embarrassed to serve pork and beef dishes at their own functions, thanks to a desire to accommodate the sentiments of their Muslim and Hindu friends. One can see that Parsekar is quite consistent in his views on beef-eating vis-à-vis the minoritized communities and to state something as plainly as he did is frankly quite remarkable.

But Parsekar did not stop at asserting that there was no intent for hurting sentiments by the consumption of beef. The problems in Parsekar’s comments arise when he tried to link the current situation of intolerance in rest of India to the tolerant ethos of Goa, which many believe existed for centuries. He said, “This maybe a tiny state, but our speciality is that Hindus, Catholics and Muslims can live together in harmony and peace. We know the importance of respecting each others’ feelings. Therefore, such issues are never blown out of proportion as in other state”. Reading such a view one should be ideally left with a few wrinkles on one’s forehead.

The question is how valid is the idea that Goa was always tolerant? While raising this question, allow me to also stress that Goa seems to witness a relatively ‘peaceful’ atmosphere as the ‘othering’ of minoritized groups like Christians and Muslims operate through means that appear as not overtly violent.

If we consider the politics of the Konkani language organized around the legitimization of the Nagri script as the official and de facto script of the culture and language of Goa, this vision of Goa having a long tradition of tolerance immediately fractures. By now it is common knowledge that a sizable population of the Catholic community has been excluded from the Goan public sphere. What’s more is that the people who asserted the right of Roman-scripted Konkani as legitimate in the Goan cultural and political sphere were (and are) frequently at the receiving end of vicious hate speech. Though I have said that this is common knowledge, yet it does not seem to have seeped into the common-sensical understanding of many prominent intellectuals and politicians in Goa. For why else would many in Goa celebrate the fact that many Nagri writers threatened to return their Sahitya Akademi awards, despite the fact that these very same people have presided over a regime that continues to marginalize and impose savarna hegemony over bahujan Hindus and various Catholic groups?

To further focus on the harmonious existence of various religious communities in Goa, one can ask about the extent to which Muslims are represented in Goan politics. Although there are many Goan Muslims, there is hardly any representation of that community in Goan politics from 1961. In a sense, one can observe the invisibilization of the Muslim population in Goa, as, right from 1961, the leadership of the community is solely in the hands of others. I think this is very serious as there is hardly anyone who will represent the needs and interests of the community, as for example in the fields of education, employment, and food habits. And since we are on the topic of political representation, I am reminded of the Pratap Singh Rane cabinet of 1980, wherein a sizable number of key posts were given to Christian MLAs, and apparently the mood prevailing then in Goa was that the government had turned into a Christian-controlled one (Kristanvancho sorkar). That a significant number of Goans at that time (which is not that long ago) felt uncomfortable with so many Christian MLAs in the Legislative Assembly, should ideally make us realize that the narrative about Goa’s harmony is a wee bit farcical. One would find many more such incidents.

So while Parsekar is absolutely right in asserting that consumption of beef is not linked to any desire to offend, the rising tide of ‘intolerance’ should not be viewed as an aberration to the normally tolerant and harmonious ethos, whether in Goa or India. In fact, if we think hard enough one will be confronted with a longer history of small and big incidents by which minoritized communities have been consistently and systematically subjected to discrimination. To not recognize this history is to miss a chance at furthering a truly egalitarian society. 


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 11 November, 2015) 

Please also see a reaction to this article by Vikas Kamat and my rebuttal to it here.