Wednesday, 28 October 2015

DADRI AND THE ‘IDEA OF INDIA’



The gruesome lynching of a 50-year old man, Muhammad Akhlaq by a frenzied mob has led many in India to question the direction in which the country is headed. Muhammad Akhlaq, as we know, was murdered on the mere suspicion of having stored beef in his house. This lynching and other instances of violence in the past was followed by many Indian writers returning their literary awards in protest against the rising intolerance in India. The debates surrounding the death of Muhammad Akhlaq, and other such incidents in the past, took an interesting though predictable turn.

The debate around the ‘idea of India’ and ‘secularism’ within the secular-liberal media was the most interesting and predictable. One could see many laments about the loss of the ‘idea of India’. At this point, it is important to ask what this ‘idea of India’ means. To put it simply, the ‘idea of India’ imagines the modern nation (and state) of India as an ancient and glorious civilization, having a history of more than 5000 years. This unbroken history was believed to have sustained a remarkable artistic and literary tradition (exemplified by Sanskrit texts) and a cultural efflorescence that was inclusive and tolerant, despite ‘minor’ irritants like the subjugation of millions of people under the caste system and the deplorable condition of women. Though Jawaharlal Nehru apparently envisioned a ‘modern’ India (though it was far from it), the ‘idea of India’ as an ancient and timeless civilization gained prominence from his time onwards, and one can observe many prominent public intellectuals and academics actually defending and indeed longing for this ‘idea of India’ which is Nehruvian to the core.

As an example of the reiteration of the Nehruvian ‘idea of India’ following the growing number of incidents like the death of Muhammad Akhlaq, one can read Shyam Saran’s article. Saran, a former Foreign Secretary and current chairman of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (an independent think-tank), opens his article by asking, “What is left now of the idea of India? The expansive cultural sensibility, the persistent sense of wonder and curiosity, the delight in open discourse and debate with no point of view discarded, and above all the embrace of humanity with all its quirks and eccentricities – these have been the hallmark of a civilisation which has mostly seen itself as a journey not a destination”.

Lofty poetic exhortations are but poor guides out of any problem. For despite acknowledging that for most of India’s post-colonial history has “been a relentless slide towards…a tragic parody” of the ideals enshrined at the moment of Independence, Saran closes his article by forcefully arguing that “[i]f we value the idea of India we must not only Make in India but defend the idea of India too”.

At this point it is imperative to ask if the ‘idea of India’ was really all-inclusive, as the Nehruvian secular-liberal intellectuals are inclined to believe. Given that rapes, murder, and lynching are routine for many Dalit communities in India, and that the rise of banal violence and rioting against minority communities is not a recent phenomenon, one wonders how the notion of plural and inclusive ethos of the ‘idea of India’ can be sustained. To understand why, despite having a seemingly inclusive and progressive vision, violence is regularly visited upon marginalized and minoritized communities in India, one need not look at India’s ancient history but the modern debates by which a ‘secular’ India was constructed.

To begin with, the ‘idea of India’ was not at all inclusive. Shabnum Tejani, studying the development of the idea of ‘secularism’ in India in her book Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950, argued that rather than creating conditions for a just and equal society, the powers-that-be who debated about the nature and essence of Indian secularism, broadly wanted to create a political structure based on Hindu majoritarianism. What the defenders of the ‘idea of India’ miss is that right from the 1950s, the equation of power has been firmly in the hands of the Hindu upper-castes and a more equitable distribution of power has not been achieved. For instance, it can be observed that many of the cow-protection laws in various states were first legislated under the aegis of the Congress party. Similarly, suspicion and targeting of Christian missionaries (foreign or otherwise) was routine from the 1950s.
 
There is also no reason to believe that ancient India was a tolerant space, as we can observe that Buddhism as a religious movement arose against the excesses of Brahmanism. Similarly, a literary tradition that saw the production of the Manusmriti cannot be, by any stretch of imagination, considered as tolerant. That access to the knowledge produced in Sanskrit was the exclusive privilege of brahmins and the glorification of the same exclusive knowledge today as “wisdom”, should be enough to dispel any myths of inclusivity and sagacity.

Considering the above mentioned facts it seems a bit silly that someone would, in the face of rising violence, argue for a defense of the ‘idea of India’ even though, like Saran, many observe that “churches [are] being burnt or Dalits being hacked to death”. If at all there is any seriousness in countering the rising trend of intolerance, it is not by defending this ‘idea’ which has no real basis in history or reality, but by rigorously questioning it.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 28 October, 2015)

Friday, 23 October 2015

THE HYPOCRISY OF GOA’S PROTESTING AWARDEES



By JASON KEITH FERNANDES, DALE LUIS MENEZES, AMITA KANEKAR, VISHVESH KANDOLKAR, and KAUSTUBH NAIK

In the context of a number of Sahitya Akademi awardees across India returning their respective awards in protest against the growing intolerance in India, in Goa around fourteen Sahitya Akademi awardees together with Padmashri awardees Maria Aurora Couto and Amitav Ghosh came together and issued a joint statement on 15 October, 2015. One would be struck by the hypocrisy contained in their press note released were it not for the fact that their politics of intolerance is so blatantly displayed all over the same note.

In their statement these local notables condemn “the rising trend of intolerance in the country which threatens freedom of expression…[and] the age-old liberal and all-encompassing philosophical traditions of this country.” One would take this concern seriously were it not for the fact many of these notables have been complicit not only in acts of intolerance themselves, but also physical violence.

For some years now there have been demands from many quarters that Konkani literature written in the Roman script also be given governmental recognition. But Sahitya Akademi awardees like Pundalik Naik and N. Shivdas, who have presided over the Goa Konkani Academy, have not felt it necessary to take up this cause and ensure that a Konkani tradition with a longer history than that in the Nagari script one is recognised. On the contrary, all of these protesting SahityaAkademi awardees and Padmashri Couto have watched silently while Roman-scriptKonkani has been officially ignored and excluded from all kind of state recognition, including awards and grants.

In addition, these persons have maintained a studious silence while their associates, such as Uday Bhembre and Nagesh Karmali, have engaged in the most vicious hate speech against the Catholic community in the course of the Medium of Instruction controversy (that has raged from 2011), when Goan parents demanded the right to determine the manner in which their children are educated. Where was their concern for the alleged liberal traditions, and traditional bonhomie, of Goa then?

To make matters worse, these same notables watched silently when in 2005 Naguesh Karmali, a member of this verygroup of protestors, led a violent mob in destroying public and private property on the grounds that such property was encouraging Portuguese (read as Catholic) culture in Goa.Given that Goa has had a long and historical relationship with Portugal, doesn’t the violent smashing of manifestations of this relationship amount to an act of the very same rabid communalism that these worthies profess to protest against?

In light of these inconsistencies, and the equally amusing announcement that they will hold on to their awards until the meeting of the executive committee of the Sahitya Akademi, it appears that these awardees seem more interested on jumping onto the bandwagon of political trendiness, than for any desire to stand against the growing intolerance in the country, and indeed, Goa itself.

We would like to stress that while it is true that the government of Mr. Modi has definitely presided over a rise in intolerance in the country, the roots of this intolerance lie deeper in the country’s history. As we have already pointed out, a number, if not all, of these Goan awardees are complicit in this intolerance. Their complicity is further evident in the manner in which they phrase their protest within the language of Hindutva. Why, for example, are the recent acts compared to ‘talibanism’, instead of calling them Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism? Talibanism is a phenomenon situated outside the country, when Hindutva is the problem actually at hand, given that Kalbargi, Pansare and Dabholkar lost their lives as a result of their opposition to this ideology. Indeed, Hindu nationalism has been a problem since before Indian independence. In referencing the Taliban, these awardees continue the refusal to recognize Hindu nationalism as the single greatest cause of concern in this country since 1947.

In conclusion, we would be more convinced of the genuine concerns of these state awardees from Goa if we heard them also protest the exclusion of Konkani in the Roman script from legislative recognition, also the violent condemnation of the Goans who are simply asking for English as a state-supported medium of instruction for their children, and also the lack of implementation of constitutional guarantees for education and jobs to historically discriminated-against Goan communities. Such protests would go further in establishing norms for the respect of fundamental rights, and the establishment of law and order in our state and country.

(First published in DNAIndia (Web) on 23 October, 2015)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

‘ESCAPING’ TO GOA



The urban Indians, especially those privileged by caste and class, are at it again. The Condé Nast Traveller India last month carried a two-part article by Revati Upadhya on “How to move to Goa”. While Upadhya’s article is ostensibly about how urban Indians, tired of the rat-race and the hamster-wheel of metropolitan India, can leave it all for the quiet and peaceful life in Goa, what is unmistakable is the trope of ‘escape’ in her article. She says, “Like us, a range of professionals from across India are escaping [emphasis mine] big city shackles only to discover that setting a life in Goa isn’t tough and finding livelihood isn’t much of a bother”.

Not so long ago, Vishvesh Kandolkar, a professor at the Goa College of Architecture, made an astute comment on the changing trends of the real estate market in Goa. He observed that “one should be aware that the large, elite, property sharks from the Indian metros, ably aided by the local real estate industry, are taking bigger bites of [Goa], and that too as a second, or a third, helping, in their insatiable lust for property ownership and leisure”. Obviously, large chunks of Goan land gobbled up by real estate sharks is a real crisis. However, it is not always a simple and clear-cut case. Also part of the problem is the manner in which Goa is viewed in metropolitan India. Thus, the key to the problem lies in identifying that the desire of elite Indians for a piece of Goan land, and lifestyle for their consumption, is an exercise of their privilege, as well as demonstrating how Goa is constructed as a veritable touristic paradise.

Upadhya must be talking of a different Goa from the one inhabited by most local Goans, for if finding livelihood in Goa is not much of a problem, then why are so many Goans migrating out? In the face of this confusion, one might ask why Goa is the most favored destination for privileged urban Indians like Upadhya. Part of the answer lies in the manner in which Goa was created and projected as a site of tourism and pleasure. A deeper understanding of the issue is provided in Paul Routledge’s essay ‘Consuming Goa: Tourist Site as Dispensable Space’ (2000). In this essay Routledge argues that as a site of tourism and pleasure Goa was created “to serve as one of world’s pleasure peripheries, a cultural space for the leisure consumption of tourists divorced from the needs and concerns of everyday life”. The trope of ‘escape’ or ‘going away’ was also important for Routledge as he quite rightly argued that tourists ‘went away’ from their own lives, their cultural and economic milieu to a “timeless, workless paradise” (p. 2652).

To be fair to Upadhya, the main thrust of her article is also about finding suitable working options from Goa, despite hiccups like bad internet connectivity. But the idea that she is ‘escaping’ from a metropolitan city into peace and serenity – to a “timeless, workless paradise” – is very much present. In her own words, “Much as I love my trips back home to Bengaluru [Bangalore], it is landing back in Goa that makes me feel at peace again. As I exit the airport and drive down the tree-lined highway back to Dona Paula, I feel my breathing slow down again. Yes, I’ve come back to slower [i]nternet speeds, nonexistent public transport and close to no home-delivery, but I’ve come home.  
By Angela Ferrao

The argument that needs to be made here is that older ideas of Goa being a pleasure-periphery are still in circulation and combine with the contemporary privileges of urban Indians. Note, for example, Udpadhya’s unconscious echoing of the hippy construction of Goa as a location of peace. If at all Upadhya and others find Goa as an amenable destination, it is because Goa is a pleasure-periphery for India and not in spite of it. What such ‘moving-to-Goa’ views hide is the fact that for most of urban Indians a move to Goa is a way up in one’s career, a move that signals that one has arrived in life – professionally and personally.

Secondly, as many commentators like Richa Narvekar, Vishvesh Kandolkar, Jason Keith Feranandes, and this writer have noted in the not so distant past, it is precisely such a desire of Indian and global elites for a piece of Goan lifestyle which is creating conditions that are making Goan real estate unaffordable for the average Goan. Let alone the fact that land as a resource is terribly scarce in Goa.

Lest this be solely seen as an argument for Goa for Goans, a response that is often used to shut down valid questions about the exercise of elite privileges, let me hasten to add that my intention is to suggest caution in the way we engage with Goa and Goans. My intention is to highlight how privilege works in multiple ways in compounding Goa’s problems. Like Vishvesh Kandolkar, I too would like to reiterate that the problem lies with the elite, both local and external, who use Goa for their leisure-consumption, even though they might tell you how difficult their life is, whether in their respective metros, or in Goa. The cost of such leisure-consumption has to be borne by the mass of Goans for whom living in Goa is becoming increasingly difficult. Moreover to sustain the leisure lifestyle of the elites there comes along many laboring-class ‘migrants’ competing with the poorer Goans to earn their livelihood. Thus, local Goans are hit with an economic double whammy, one from the ‘elite migrants’ and subsequently by their supporting laboring-class ‘migrants’. Idealizing Goa but for its bad internet and transportation is to do disservice to Goa and the migrant labour-class who deserve better.

Idealizing Goa will not help, talking about power and privilege operating in Goa will.

Many thanks to Angela Ferrao for permitting me to use her illustration.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 October, 2015)