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)