Wednesday, 16 March 2016

THE NATION AND THE MARGINS

The almost month-long ‘anti-national’ saga played out from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the newsrooms in Delhi has brought some problems within India’s national identity forcefully and violently to the fore. The public spectacle that was created out of the alleged seditious speech of some student leaders of JNU has damaged the thin veneer of secularism and liberalism that Indian nationalism claimed to represent and embody. Thus the questions of what does it mean to be ‘Indian’ and who can be rightfully Indian is now being debated furiously in the national press and the national centers of power and learning. Though these debates seem to be reinforcing the ideals enshrined in the Constitution of India, one can arguably see the superficiality of these if we think about the JNU incident from a politicized Goan Catholic perspective. After all, were not Goan Catholics suspected of being ‘anti-national’ decades before this event?

Let’s start from the beginning. Goa was not a part of the Indian state in 1947. Thus, Goa was not part of the founding moment of the Indian state and the debates surrounding the formation of the Constitution of India and the linguistic re-organization policy. Thus also, the Indian identity of Goa and Goans had to be fitted in almost 15 years after the establishment of the Indian state. This identity was largely negotiated through linguistic markers. Though tourism also played a part later on, I will not dwell on it in this article.

Let us consider how the Konkani language in the Nagri avatar was recognized in the ’70s and ’80s by the Indian government and its national body of letters – the Sahitya Akademi. Konkani as a language had to produce a classical and Sanskritic past in order to be recognized as a legitimate Indian language. This was a blessing for the proponents of the Nagri script as the superficial similarities with the script would easily allow them to latch onto a Sanskritic norm defined by Indian nationalism. So in effect, what we have here is a nation that would only accept the Konkani language as belonging to the illustrious lists of ‘national’ languages only if it had a justification in a Sanskritic culture and past, as Rochelle Pinto observed, while participating in a session on ‘Rewriting Goan History’ at the Goa Arts and Lit Fest, 2015. Thus there was a scramble to find and publish Sanskrit classical texts that were rendered in Konkani. The Konkani renderings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata were obtained from the Municipal library of Braga, Portugal, and published in Goa. And what is also interesting is that somehow the Konkani language could produce such a Sanskritic heritage only thanks to the Catholic missionaries, who had written down these renderings in the Roman script, in the sixteenth century!

This Sanskrit-privileging linguistic culture and policy in India was also very much disrespectful of the diversity and history of the Konkani language. We have over the years witnessed the scorn that is poured on Romi Konkani and the cultural artifacts that are produced in that script. Romi was (and is) considered ‘foreign’ (read as not Indian) and hence it is argued that it had no space in the cultural/literary life of India. Thus, the largely (but not entirely) Catholic users of the script were asked to give up Romi in favour of the more Indian, though artificial, Nagri variant. In the ’70s and ’80s, people like the Gandhian Konkani litterateur Ravindra Kelekar was quite blatantly making such arguments.

Unfortunately, the project to expand a Nagri and Sanskritic culture, like other national projects, was not an innocent one. It was marked by a considerable degree of cultural violence against the Catholics in Goa. Catholics in Goa – especially from Bahujan backgrounds – were subjected to casteist and communal abuse. Further, they were told that they were culturally inadequate, or carriers of a culture that was fundamentally flawed and impure. All for the purpose of making Goan Catholics better Indians.

Merely demanding that the Roman script and its cultural productions be recognized within the culture and constitutional rights of the Indian state earned Goan Catholics the ire of the Hindu upper-castes, and it also led to Catholics being branded as ‘anti-national’. In fact it is not just the Roman script, but Catholic food-habits, dressing, and life-styles which have come under tremendous attacks for being deviant to the established Indian norm.

So, the issue is not simply about who is a ‘patriot’ and who is an ‘anti-national’. When groups in Delhi that are aligned to the left and center-of-left political ideologies, in other words the traditional guardians of Indian secularism, claim that the Hindu-right has no business in issuing certificates of nationalism and patriotism because they are nationalist and patriotic enough, it seems that there is no regard and concern for the pernicious effects of Indian nationalism on several thousands of communities for over half a century. The marginalization that Indian nationalism creates needs to be confronted; and precisely at a time like this, when the confidence of the secular-liberal Indian elite is jolted. Goans have to think about the nation through their own experience rather than passively accepting a national discourse.


The fact that none of these ongoing debates would consider the Goan Catholic experience as important would tell us how blind they are to multiple experiences in different parts of India. Once again, what it means to be Indian and nationalist/patriot will be defined by those who are unaware of and uninterested in our experience. The question ultimately is, do we have a choice and a say in this national politics?

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 16 March, 2016)

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