Wednesday, 27 May 2015

CASE DISMISSED! LAWYERS AND GOAN HISTORY



It appears that the ‘acclamation’ by the Goan masses of Dr. Jack de Sequeira as ‘Father of the Opinion Poll’ has encountered opposition. This opposition comes from a few activists, chief amongst them the lawyer, Uday Bhembre. Bhembre has been furiously issuing statements and giving interviews for the last month or so in order to make his arguments clear on his opposition of this sobriquet.

Bhembre argues that Dr. de Sequeira was but one of the many leaders of the Opinion Poll and as such cannot be solely credited for achievements of the movement that culminated in the victory of the anti-mergerists. Needless to say, Bhembre’s assertion received media attention and also vociferous opposition. In one of these debates, Bhembre’s views were pitted against those of Radharao Gracias (see Herald Review, May 10, 2015), where much of Bhembre’s claims get exposed as shallow and naïve.

In the interview Bhembre boldly makes a foolish claim, “History is history whether one likes it or not”. It appears that he largely relies on the now discredited tenets of the positivist method of doing history. Briefly, within a positivist method and philosophy historical facts are believed to be able to speak for themselves, without the mediating agency of the historian. The critique of positivist history focused on the fallacy that the historian could never be biased for it was assumed that the historian dealt with objective facts. Bhembre’s preference for such frameworks that have been discredited in the discipline of history furthers his agenda in multiple ways.

I argue that Bhembre is attempting to appropriate a position of authority to speak exclusively on the history of the Opinion Poll. He does this in two ways. In the first, he completely tries to delegitimize the Catholics of Goa – especially the bahujan Catholics – who have been rallying around the icon and symbol of Dr. de Sequeira by claiming that such people are “ignorant” of the “real” history. According to Bhembre this results in a “distortion” of the history of the Opinion Poll. Bhembre is careful not to mention the Catholic community, but the target of his vitriol is obvious.

The other device that Bhembre employs is to claim for himself a first-hand witness position. He asserts not only that he has read the available literature on the history of the Opinion Poll, unlike those who acclaim Dr. de Sequeira, but has also witnessed it first-hand. As such, his logic is that he has a better sense of this history. Bhembre dismisses contemporary leaders who acclaim Dr. de Sequeira by suggesting that they were either too young or not born at all, when the Opinion Poll movement was gaining momentum and hence are not located appropriately to understand the history of the Opinion Poll. So as per Bhembre, anyone who was too young or not as yet born during the Opinion Poll has no right to talk about the history of the Opinion Poll, for they are naturally misinformed. This is a bizarre position, for if we are to take him seriously, it would spell the end of history writing entirely.

Bhembre’s position is fallacious because it completely disregards decades of debates that have taken place between historians and practitioners of other social sciences on the nature of history, on facts in historical knowledge, and on the interpretation of facts.  E. H. Carr’s What is History? is a basic text on the nature of history, and is compulsory reading for almost all under-graduate students of history. Carr’s reflection, considered seminal, suggests that facts do not exist as independent entities in history. Facts need interpretation. He argues, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate”. In other words, the job of a historian is to continuously cross-check facts and arguments, trying to take into consideration all sorts of evidence and voices. It would be quite misguided on our part to believe that participants in history have the most accurate version of history. They have a valid version of history, but because they were involved in the events do not necessarily have an unbiased opinion. One needs a critical distance, and intellectual honesty, to evaluate one’s own role as a participant and interpreter of history.

That Bhembre’s views did not constitute objective historical facts was itself evident in the manner in which Gracias countered Bhembre’s claims. Gracias quite rightly tries to suggest, that one should factor in the marginalization that the Catholics in Goa have faced in the post-Liberation era within the history of the Opinion Poll. Gracias suggests that it is largely in the realm of the political sphere that this marginalization is the most acute. He very perceptively links the issue of the hegemony of the nagri script to the ongoing controversy and the importance of the legacy of Dr. de Sequeira. Gracias’ contention is that the same cabal of people who opposed, and continue to oppose, the rightful recognition of the Roman script, are also the ones who are trying to undermine the legacy of Dr. de Sequeira. Such a suggestion opens up the interpretation of the history of the Opinion Poll in a different light. One can observe that Gracias is trying to shift the focus by including the marginalization experience of Catholics in Goa, whereas Bhembre’s “historical facts” and the arrogation of the authorial position for himself, tries to deny exactly this possibility. How different would this history appear if we view the Opinion Poll from the perspective of the marginalization of the Catholics in the Goan public sphere?

While it is not certain how and when the sobriquet was bestowed on Dr. de Sequeira, it is very obvious that the symbol and icon of Dr. de Sequeira has grown in importance to the bahujan Catholics of Goa. Whether Dr. de Sequeira was the undisputed leader of the masses, or whether he was the only one responsible for saving the Goan identity are valid questions. However, they cannot be settled solely by activists like Bhembre who are trying to further their class and caste interests. Doing so would only mean that a host of voices in Goan history would not find their rightful place. These questions need to be debated within a dispassionate historiography of the Opinion Poll and not through the help of arbitrarily defined and self-serving ‘historical facts’.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 27 May, 2015)

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