Caste Atrocities in Goa: Give Us this Day… Our Land!

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Gayechi shepdi tumi doura,amkaam amchi zamin diya – such is the slogan (translated into Concani) of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladayi Samiti, formed in Gujarat after the recent atrocity where 4 Dalit men were tortured by Gau Rakshaks, for disposing of dead cattle. Atrocities on Dalits are of course not new for South Asia; indeed they are the way of life for the brahmanical societies here. But, even as India rang to this new slogan, and other inspiring news from Gujarat where a vow has been taken by Dalit communities to forswear this occupation that they have traditionally been forced to do, leading to the dumping of cattle carcasses in front of government offices, Goa has been mostly silent. There was a small protest on 15 August in support of the Gujarat struggle, but, apart from this, one would imagine that Goa has nothing to do with such atrocities.


But this is not true. Atrocities against Dalits (and others) are part of not just Goa’s history, but contemporary culture too. Just a few days earlier, the people of Shahu Nagar wado in Ibrampur village, Pernem, had invited lawyers and others to their village to discuss the serious caste discrimination rampant there. Ibrampur has seven wados with a total population of 1800, of which the Mahars comprise 166 persons. As is the case with most Goan villages, the wados are caste-based, with the Mahars living to this day in a separate wado, known to the village and the government as the Maharwado or Harijanwado, though the residents have decided to change the name to Shahu Nagar. And although they have lived here for generations, toiling on the land and growing many fruit trees and other crops there, the land is not in their name, except for their houses. The rest is in the control of the Communidade of the village. And this Communidade is dominated by members of the Gawas community, who consider themselves higher than the Mahars.


The recent grievance of the Mahars concerns the Prime Minister’s Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, under which Ibrampur is one of three villages selected to become a ‘model village’. Funds have been laid out for these villages to invest on various kinds of infrastructure. The Shahu Nagar residents had applied 2 years ago for a community hall and children’s park in their wado, individual (private) toilets and water connections, and a proper road to all houses in the wado. The Gram Panchayat apparently said that a No-Objection Certificate (NoC) was required from the Communidade, which the latter had refused to give. When the villagers approached the Communidade, they were told that the NoC would only be provided if the people of Shahu Nagar took up all their old occupations again. They had been permitted to stay on the land, the Communidade members are reported to have said, only in return for providing ‘seva’ to the village. In other words, the Mahars had to go back to beating drums at temple festivities, beating the dhol through the village at other times, clearing carcasses, delivering messages, etc, all of which they had given up years ago.


The people of Shahu Nagar protested that many of them were employed otherwise now. The Communidade however remained adamant. the Mahars had to do the work. Only then would the development of their wado be considered.


Meanwhile, the funds released under the scheme are being utilised in the other wados, where roads, gutters, taps, toilets, and wells are being built. In Shahu Nagar however, even a deep and dangerous hole which has developed in the main road remains unrepaired.


And this is not the only atrocity being faced by the Dalits here. They are not allowed to build new houses, extend their old ones, or even build new sheds or barns; one person was threatened when he tried. And they are, even today, not allowed to enter the village temple. There are some houses, including that of a teacher of the local school, where they are offered water in separate glasses. This school conducts a Satyanarayana puja every year (itself a questionable activity—why should a government school hold religious programme, and that of only some faiths?) in which Mahar students are not allowed to play a role. The villagers say that they have complained about all this to BJP MLA Rajendra Arlekar, who represents Pernem in the Assembly, but to no avail.


And Ibrampur’s story is not a unique one. Avinash Jadhav, an activist of Dalit Ekta Samiti, carried out a one-day hunger strike in Panjim on 15 August, in solidarity with the Gujarat movement and also to highlight atrocities in Goa, especially in Sattari. Jadhav described Dalits there as living ‘in custody’. They lived, he said, completely at the mercy of the bhatkars, i.e. the Rane family, with no title to the land on which they have lived and toiled for generations, without the freedom to harvest the produce from their own trees, sometimes even with barbed wire fencing put around their houses by the bhatkar’s men to prevent them ‘trespassing’ on the sprawling lands controlled by him.


In other words, our ‘progressive’ land of Goa is rife with caste-based atrocities, most of them directly connected to the practices and beliefs of Hinduism, as pointed out ages ago by Jyotiba Phule as well as Dr Ambedkar. And a critical element of this oppression is through control of land. Thus the slogan given by the Dalits in Gujarat, challenging the Hindu obsession with the cow and also focussing on land, is the slogan for Goa as well – Keep the cow’s tail for yourself, give us our land!


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 25 August, 2016)

Ashpak Bhengre: An Alert Against Manufacturing Consent

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Who killed Ashpak Bhengre while he was lodged in Colvale Jail? That is something the police are supposed to investigate and it is not the domain of this author to guess. It is said that a  fellow inmate assaulted him, but many have reasons to think that this fellow-inmate was actually the executer of a contract killing.


But what killed Ashpak Bhengre? A cold and calculating State, that is happy to manufacture consent for violation of human rights, by inveighing against someone with regard to whom there is popular middle class disapproval.  And an indifferent society. So Ashpak Bhengre is seen as dispensable. So we slip from no one should  be assaulted or killed even in custody, in fact certainly not while in custody, to some ‘bad’ people can be killed in custody, in a way that it no longer shocks the conscience of humanity.


It moves then to the argument that he can be killed by anybody, be it the State through its agents or a fellow citizen while the State glosses over the killing. So somebody decides that some people are dispensable, and the State is either actively complicit or turns a blind eye. This is the kind of attitude we are generally seeing vis-a-vis the death of Ashpak Bhengre in Colvale Jail.


Sometimes the State may violate human rights by commission and at other times by omission, that means by negligence, lack of due diligence, and sometimes both. In the case of Ashpak Bhengre, with murder in judicial custody, and the State almost looking the other way, the State can in fact find a way to legitimise torture because of the popular sentiment against him. This way, slowly, by justifying such a death, we provide the opening through which the State can justify all kinds of draconian and undemocratic acts, just as torture of some people begins to get justified.


The State then gets emboldened to commit acts that have the effect of asserting a fascist agenda of homogeneity, by repressing freedoms and even taking away life.  It is about giving legitimacy to systemic killings and torture, to justifying murders . We need to call out our prejudices against the person killed in custody that may cloud our thinking on the issue. The State also has to accept responsibility for gross failure of duty of care. We need to stress that torture is always wrong.


Today in the country we already have gau rakshaks portrayed as social worker vigilantes, wittingly or unwittingly sanctioned by the State, PM Modi’s recent statement notwithstanding. How much time before decisions about who is dispensable will be taken by these very people or the likes of them? Despite the fact that the basic principle of human rights is that everyone is equal before law, and no human being can be subjected to torture?

Voices need to be raised. Our silence about Ashpak Bhengre’s murder will end up being the proverbial foot in the door, through which the State will then justify the dispensability of political dissenters, those that it has profiled as terrorists, those convicts who are yet to have the opportunity of proving their innocence at an appellate stage.


A quick run down memory lane will remind us about Abdul Gaffar who was killed in custody in the mid 90’s. The Government has a long history of introducing draconian laws in the name of countervailing circumstances. Ben Zuratovich has rightly called it the ticking bomb theory. To use the his words in a paper ‘Torture is Always Wrong’, published by the University of Illinois Press in its Public Affairs Quarterly of April, 2008,  “In a ticking bomb scenario, a known terrorist has planted a bomb and the only way to discover its location is to torture the terrorist. Those who advocate torture in such extreme circumstances are apparently not dissuaded by the artificiality of the examples on which they base their moral judgements, or by arguments that the existence of a power to torture in extreme circumstances means that the power will be used in other circumstances.”


We cannot forget that torture has an uncanny knack of generating more torture or terrorism and counter-insurgency, if it is not addressed through due process of law. More importantly, we must remember that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came to be conceived and eventually adopted in 1948 in the face of Nazi fascist torture. India is a republic whose Constitution guarantees the rule of law, whose Constitution under Article 14 guarantees being equal in the eyes of law, equal protection of the law, justiciability for wrongs committed to anyone, and remedies or punitive measures against any person who commits a crime, after giving all parties concerned a fair hearing. By not standing up against custodial murders, we will only be paving the way for a disbanding of rule of law, and a justification of torture by whomsoever it may be, the individual or the State.


(First published on O Heraldo, dt:11 August, 2016)

Goa’s Civil Code Shows That Uniformity Does Not Always Mean Equality

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For probably the umpteenth time, there are whispers in the air that a uniform civil code (UCC) is in the offing. Occasionally, Goa’s UCC is brought up during these discussions.


But even as the UCC is being touted as the panacea for the violations of women’s rights, nobody asks what really is the UCC in Goa. What is meant when the civil code is said to be ‘uniform’? Why was it retained in Goa? And how is it working for different sections of women?


An examination of Goa’s tryst with the UCC reveals much. It shows, for example that ‘uniformity’ can take different shapes. It provides a stark reminder that uniformity is not per se a rights-loaded word. It can also mean uniformity in discrimination in that you can have discriminatory provisions applicable across all religions – uniformly. It calls attention to the fact that imposition of uniformity amongst unequals can create inequality, and that the existence of plural systems, both formal and non-formal, is actually ideal for the diverse constituents who need to strategise with the limited knowledge and within the limited power they have. Above all, it reveals nationalist agendas can shape the trajectory of UCC to the detriment of human rights.


Alert: Different shades of uniformity

Thus, it would be useful to see here how the so-called UCC pans out differently for different communities in Goa. We must not forget the procedures for registration of marriage are different for Catholics as compared to the procedures applicable to non-Catholics. Even if civil registration of marriage has been compulsory for Goans, what is actually considered marriage, customarily and socially across all religious communities, is the religious ceremony and reception. The paper registration before government authorities is seen as a formality to be complied with, for legal purposes.


For this to effectively happen, people, and particularly women, are not even familiar that two signatures with a minimum gap of fifteen days are generally entailed, one for declaration of intent which is applicable for everybody and the other for confirmation, which is signable before the Church for Catholics and the civil registrar for non-Catholics. The second signature can end up being not appended because of lack of knowledge about it. However, with the Catholics, the law allows the tie up of the state with the Church. This means that after the first signature is appended before the Registrar of Marriages, the very solemnisation of marriage in the Church and signing of the Church Marriage Registration Book there and sending of the extract of the Church register to the civil registrar, has come to be considered the second signature required for the confirmation of marriage. So the socially acceptable religious practice is accounted for in the law, when it comes to Catholics. That is the up side of the law recognising the popular relevance and significance of religious marriage.


In a situation where universality of marriage is seen as a norm and women are not cultured into acquainting themselves with the procedures of registration of marriage, and may be led into the same, they can be deceived into believing they are married, when they actually are not because they have not appended the second signature, and a marriage is not ordinarily recognised if there is no civil registration of marriage.


But on the other hand, the legal acknowledgement of socially accepted religious forms of marriage, if not qualified, has consequences by way of differing procedures and grounds for annulment of marriage, or for divorce. A marriage solemnised in the church has had the option of being annulled in the Church, for specific reasons, such as non-consummation of marriage. Once a marriage is annulled by the Tribunal of the Church, the said annulment is then confirmed by the high court mechanically, only at best ensuring that there was no bias in the decision making in respect of any of the parties to the case. On the other hand, if the matrimonial petition were to be filed in the civil court, non-consummation of marriage is not a ground for either annulment or separation or divorce, for any community.


The way the word ‘uniform civil code’ is bandied around, it presents a chimera of uniformity being equated with equality. Laws can be uniformly applicable to all in respecting women’s rights, and they can also be uniformly applicable to all communities in disregarding women’s rights. In other words, they can also be uniform in discrimination. That is also a lesson to draw from Goa’s Family Laws.


There are many uniformly applicable provisions, as, for instance, that the right to will for a married man or woman is limited to half of his/her share in the properties, and the will has to have the consent of both the spouses. Which means that at least on paper a couple cannot will away all their properties to their male offspring because of a preference for sons. This is a positive provision that is present in the uniformly applicable provisions (though it is quite another thing that there are ways of circumventing this provision).


Then there is the unique concept of matrimonial property rights, which is not found in the personal laws of the rest of India. In the rest of India, there is no formal concept of matrimonial property and hence the property ends up being in the names of males and therefore the property of the male only, which he can mortgage, or sell, as he pleases. In Goa, if nothing is spelt out at the time of marriage, the default system is the regime of communion of assets, which means that upon marriage, couples will hold whatever assets they have each or jointly acquired or inherited before or after marriage as co-owners of property. Couples do have an option of contracting themselves out of this default system of communion of assets at the time of marriage, by entering into a pre-nuptial contract where they decide whether the properties before marriage will be held separately and those after marriage will form the communion or if properties, whether acquired before or after the marriage, will all be held separately.


However, irrespective of which system of holding the matrimonial properties the couple opts for, the right to administration of the properties of the couple, without exclusion of the exclusive properties of the wife, is the prerogative of the husband. Thus the law makes the ‘control’ button available to the husband. This provision is uniformly applicable to all communities. Is this the uniformity to aspire for where one gender is privileged to control across all communities?


Also, uniformly applicable is the visualisation of the concept of property. The women that can avail of the matrimonial property provisions are those whose marital families have owned property. This means that for a woman whose husband does not have ownership rights in property, dividing matrimonial property at the time of divorce can mean she gets half of nothing. So, for instance, if a woman divorces and her husband is an agricultural tenant or is tenant in the marital house, she has no right to 50 per cent of the tenurial interests.


 It presents a chimera of nationalism guaranteeing equality. But the very nature of the nationalism is such that it seeks to retain privilege for the dominant sections – be it Indian nationalism or Goan nationalism. Hence a UCC driven by such nationalism, cannot guarantee equality. Therefore introduction of any provisions in the law which will challenge that badge of existing male and privileged identity will not be acceptable to these dominant sections either in India or in Goa.


Goan and Indian nationalism – two sides of the same coin

The manner in which voices have spoken post 1961, highlights the attempt to retain privilege for the dominant Goan communities, which includes dominant caste Goan males. Therefore maintaining the portions of the family law from the Portuguese Civil Code and resisting any efforts to change that law, arises from that perspective. There is consequently a hesitation to change any of its provisions, even if any of the existing uniform provisions be denying of equality to women, or to any section of society.


Goan nationalism as it has emerged and the Indian nationalism as it has been and continues to be, both seem to be the two sides of the same coin of Brahminism, characterised by the desire of the dominant sections of society to protect their privileges and not disturb the status quo.


 The UCC is thus seen as a badge of Goan identity as against the identity of ‘Indian’. The ‘Goans’ (meaning the dominant class/caste Goans) on the one hand have been wanting to distinguish themselves from the Portuguese, and from the mestiços (mixed race of Portuguese and Goan parents), and on the other hand also want to distinguish themselves from the rest of India, while maintaining all the distinctions that they have already made between themselves. It suited the Goan to distinguish himself from the non-Goan (the rich ‘Indian’) and the migrant by whom he felt overwhelmed either because of larger power potential or numbers. Be it in the field of law, music, song and dance, cuisine, games, language, art, architecture…..the story is the same. In and through all these fields of life, there is a desire to consolidate the existing power equations. This has been further strengthened by the economic driver of tourism, which has taken the form of neo-colonialism, and where it was essential to stereotype the image of an exotic Goan with a different image of a hybrid between Indian and Iberian culture.


Therefore, even if people would secretly admit that there are provisions which are crying for change and for an introduction of a rights perspective, they are wary of the law being touched, lest it dissipates in the bargain. An USP of Goa, that makes Goans a cut above the rest of India, such as the Family Laws of Goa cannot be lost. So nobody wants to let go of this badge of ‘honour’. Thus the predominant mood is that one should not try to change the law, even to the extent of changing the unjust equality-violating provisions. This can be a foreboder of how nationalist sentiments for ‘uniformity’, that is, retaining privilege, can trump rights of substantive equality, guaranteed by the Constitution of India.


(First published in, dt: 8 August, 2015)