Wednesday, 27 April 2016

CONVERSION AS POLITICAL PROTEST



The “institutional murder” of a Dalit PhD scholar, Rohith Vemula in January this year, saw the launch of a fiery protest across India. Rohith was driven to commit suicide due to the institutional harassment meted out to him because he was Dalit. While the investigation into the matter has not proceeded in any meaningful direction leading to justice, the protesting students at the Hyderabad Central University – the epicenter of the protests – have witnessed repeated and brutal attacks by the State to stifle the voice of those who demand strict action against the guilty and those complicit in the violence and discrimination. While the search for justice is on, this year’s 125th Ambedkar Jayanti saw the mother and brother of the deceased Rohith converting to Buddhism. Conversion is usually in the ‘national’ news nowadays only with ‘ghar wapasi’-like incidents in which minoritized communities are targeted, often violently; while violence against such communities continues unabated everyday. The conversion of the Vemulas is, therefore, a very different report and as such should be used as an occasion to reflect on the place of conversion in the social and political landscape of India.

Radhika and Raja Vemula’s actions should be understood as a form of political protest and an assertion of the essential dignity of the human being. The conversion to Buddhism of the Vemulas came after their repeated calls for justice, to the State and civil society, fell on deaf ears. Such a mode of protest is not new to the Dalit movement in India. One can refer to the first of such protests in 1956 when Dr. B. R. Ambedkar along with half-a-million followers embraced Buddhism, in order to walk out of the oppression of the Hindu caste system. Of course this conversion took years in preparation and theological reflection.

This sentiment of protest is precisely what Raja Vemula expressed in his press note before embracing Buddhism. He said that the conversion was due to a desire to change their lives, a life of “[t]he kind…that Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted us to lead. A life without blind belief. A life based on compassion and respect for fellow human beings. A life of dignity and self respect. A life outside the Hindu caste system”.

Though conversion-as-protest has more than half-a-century of history, yet conversions are generally perceived as ‘de-stabilizing’ by the ‘secular’ or left-wing and right-wing elites in India, thus necessitating suspicion. In this imagination, conversion is an act that violates the soul of India.

That conversion movements have been markers of protest against violence and oppression of marginalized communities is something that Indian nationalism has never properly acknowledged. Thus, the violence that has marked – and continues to mark – everyday realities of marginalized groups is conveniently not discussed. Which is precisely why the recent conversion of the Vemulas should remind us of the banal and non-banal violent conditions prevailing in India and that through conversion communities attempt to better their lives.

Following this line of thought, one should also re-think about how we feel and understand the history of Christianization in Goa. That today if we find a Goan landscape dotted by whitewashed churches it is not because of a violent process of proselytization but because Christianization had provided a way out of the violence that had marred the social and political landscape of Goa. Indeed, recent historical scholarship has strongly emphasized this point.

The fact that conversion to Christianity and Islam is seen as ‘de-stabilizing’ while that to Buddhism is not seen as such, exposes the cunning logic of Indian nationalism. The logic operates on two levels. The ‘foreign’ or Abrahamic religions are assumed to be fundamentally violent. Thus, Christianity is represented as responsible for forced conversions and Islam identified as having spread through the sword. However, conversion to Buddhism is understood differently. Buddhism cast as an Indic religion – or a religious tradition emerging from India – and in many ways appropriated as a sect of Hinduism could be used to deflect the radical, anti-caste edge of that re-articulated religious tradition. Mass conversion, whether to Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism, have always been a response to pre-existing violence and oppression of the society, and often also involves a spiritual preparation. These facts are always downplayed. The case of Ambedkar’s conversion in the textbooks is quite illustrative, for it is portrayed as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful Indian society.

Finally, detractors of the conversion of the Vemulas would predictably complain about the ‘ulterior’ political motives and how such conversions lack the necessary religiosity and spirituality fundamental to any religious practice. To them we could, perhaps, point out that religions such as Buddhism and Christianity emerged as political protests: the former against the excesses of the Brahmanical religion, and the latter against the oppression of the Roman Empire. To protest oppression is not to have ‘ulterior’ political motives, but to articulate a utopian and humane vision for the society. In the words of Raja Vemula, “From today, my mother and I will be truly free. Free from shame. Free from daily humiliation. Free from the guilt of praying to the same God in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries”.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 27 April, 2016)

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

SHAKY SEMANTICS? A THOUGHT ON GOAN HISTORY



Languages evolve, words are borrowed from one language to another, and as time passes by some words acquire new meanings while others are abandoned altogether. What words mean can tell us about the things that they represent. Thus, for instance, a word like ‘communidade’ can tell us not just that it represents a system of land tenure, but also indicate that this system was either created or modified through the intervention of the Portuguese. But this process of deploying semantics for understanding and explaining the larger processes of history is not easy, fraught as it is with inconsistencies that may lead us to errors.

The occasion to have these thoughts was recently provided when I came across an interesting documentary on the Goan music and dance form manddo, ‘Amchem Cantar Aum Mhuntam’, by Ruth Lobo, a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. This documentary is available online (it was released on 15 September, 2015). The purpose of this article is not to review the documentary. Rather, I would like to focus on two comments that the documentary provides on the history of the origins of the manddo, in a bid to reflect how Goan history is understood in the popular domain.

The first comment is by the cardiologist and manddo-enthusiast, Dr. Francisco Colaco (also a Herald columnist). On the origins of the manddo Dr. Colaco has this to say, taking stock of the socio-political conditions prevailing in the nineteenth century,  “The manddo came [into existence] because Goa was going through troubled times. There was a feudal society…these people who belonged to the elite – especially the Brahmin and the Chardos – they wanted to live in a world of their own. It was a fanciful world that would bring them…consolation. So composers started composing and dancers started dancing”. Dr. Colaco further states that the mandde were sung at weddings where the bride had to sing, surrounded by the guests in the ballroom, where marriages were generally celebrated. According to Dr. Colaco it was from the arrangement of people or “mandavoll” in Konkani, the word manddo came into existence.

What we can immediately understand from Dr. Colaco’s comment is the importance of the historically accurate context for the emergence of the manddo. Indeed, it were the Catholic elite in the nineteenth century, who, imagining themselves as having a Hindu ancestry, created a form of art with the amalgamation of eastern and western characteristics. Thus, the song Hanv saiba poltoddi vhoitam…”, though a dekhnni, sung by Catholics, which has a kalavant and a boatman as the main characters is a good illustration of the syncretic project and developed on similar lines as the manddo. Of course the fights amongst the Catholic Brahmin and Chardo factions, and also with the Portuguese government for power also provided the political context – the “troubled times” that Dr. Colaco alludes to – for the emergence of the manddo. For the manddo is an invention of the nineteenth century.

Immediately following the claim of Dr. Colaco, the documentary juxtaposes a counter-claim, by Prajal Sakhardande, who teaches history at the Dhempe College of Arts and Science, Panjim. “The word manddo comes from the word mandd”, he says. “Mandd is the village square – the sacred village square – where…shigmo and other performances took place. So it [manddo] has come from there. I do not believe it is mandavoll…”

One is a bit confused after listening to Sakhardande, because his interpretation seems to ignore all known historical facts pertaining to the origin of the manddo. One wonders what nineteenth century Catholic elites would have to do with the mandd, since the manddo even today is not sung on the mandd, neither has the manddo any ritual significance – unlike ceremonies performed on the mandd do. The manddo emerged in elite, landlord settings whether in urban centers like Margao, or in villages like Benaulim and Curtorim in Salcette. The mandd is especially used by bahujan and tribal communities for religious/ritual purposes. Of late Christian tribal communities – such as those in Quepem – have started working towards a cultural revival of the mandd, in order to assert a Christian-tribal identity. Thus, the mandd seems to be restricted to certain communities and ritual practices, and is related to historical processes that one can easily pin-point.

To be fair, both Dr. Colaco and Sakhardande use semantics to understand the history of the manddo. While the former grounds his understanding in known history, the latter seems to be giving merely an arbitrary opinion buttressed by a general desire to locate Goan authenticity in a pre-colonial Hindu past. Such a model of understanding history and culture was used from the nineteenth century by British orientalists and philologists, and civil servants. Following the popularity of Romanticism the assumption was that historical memory best survived in the grammar and semantics of languages, which can provide evidence for the history and culture of peoples.

The larger issue that we can broach here is that more often than not, Goan history is attempted to be pushed back in time, that is, to before the Portuguese rule. If such a popular narrative is existent, one needs to seek the possibility of its correspondence with known historical facts and reality. If such an exercise is not carried out what we have is a history that is overpowered by mythical narratives. A good example will be of how Goan history always begins with the myth of Parashuram. Rather, as we have seen in the case of the manddo, there is a way out of avoiding the mythification of history.

See also 'Dancing to the Same Old Tune', here.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 13 April, 2016)