From Sateri to Navdurga, and Worshippers to Sevekaris

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At the foot of the entrance stairway to the Navdurga temple of Marcaim, a banner waves in the wind. On it, in Nagri-scripted Konkani, is:


Amchi murti, amkam zai!
Mullchi murti amkam zai, hich amchi vhadlikai
Ganvkar saglle ek zavya, amchi murti ami rakhum-ya

(We want our idol!
We want the original idol, for it is our pride
Unite Gaonkars, we have to protect our idol!)


The temple has been in the news of late for the dispute between the GSB Mahajans and the bahujan villagers, which began over the temple idol. The Mahajans, who wanted a new idol, claim the temple is theirs and built when they migrated to Marcaim. The villagers say that the Mahajans are Mahajans only because they were able to use their privileged caste position to register under the 19th century Lei das Mazanias. The temple, they say, actually belongs to the village. The villagers also took over some rituals that were earlier the privilege of the Mahajans alone, like the palki procession in which the idol is carried through the village along a specific route. The Mahajans responded by declaring all rituals cancelled till further notice.


The dispute is before the courts. But a visit to Marcaim reveals a many-layered worship, which is at once deeply connected to the bahujan communities and non-brahmanical deities, but in a casteist fashion.


The temple itself is built in the syncretic style of many Goan shrines of the 17th-early 20th centuries and still retains some of this distinctive old ambience, including the basilican (i.e. church-like) plan, arched windows, and a Renaissance dome over the sanctum, along with pitched roofs elsewhere. Much of this has however been rebuilt in concrete and altered in the process, either subtly (like the roofs), or crudely (like the large ugly window-eaves), or even completely (like the new secondary buildings).


The syncretism in any case is limited to the temple’s architecture, for its functioning is as brahmanical as ever. All the functions and rituals of the temple need bahujan participation, the villagers say. But this participation is never equal or free but always based on caste. There are drums in the temple lobby, beaten only by the Gomantak Maratha Samaj caste. There are the gold- and silver-clad inner doorways, created by the Chari caste. The priests all belong to the Bhat caste. And only they and the GSB Mahajans enter the sanctum, even today. In fact, the bahujans who contribute to the temple’s functioning are called sevekaris (servants).


The temple’s influence extends through the village in many ways, but always hierarchically. E.g. rituals like the First Harvest, for which rice is specially cultivated near big tallem (pond) known as the Tallembandh, see the harvest offered first to the temple and the Mahajans, and only then other houses in the village.


Anthills, known as roin or Sateri, have long been considered sacred by the indigenous communities of Goa. There are two Sateris in Marcaim, in different vados. One is near the Tallyambandh, on a GSB-owned property. Nearby is a Sateri temple and another to Vetal, another non-brahmanical diety. This Sateri and its temple used to be frequented by villagers earlier but have now been walled around, making public access difficult. The second Sateri is located with its own little temple at Tallyamkhol, another tallem at the foot of a hill in Parampaivado. This Sateri remains accessible to all, for the land here belongs to a Christian bhatkar. This is where Navdurga’s palki procession ends, to return over the hill back to the temple.


There have been attempts to change things, as when a grand new gateway was recently built along the palki route in the village. Funded by bahujan devotees from one of the village vados, it carries a plaque naming the vado. There are similar new gateways at the temple proper which also prominently bear the names of funders—GSB ones—which have not caused comment. But here the palki route was apparently altered, to avoid passing through the bahujan-funded gate.


Curbs are now being put on older ways of participation, probably as a result of these challenges. E.g. the bahujans would put up decorations at the Tallembandh for the yearly Sangod ritual, but now a new metal fence prevents their entry.


All in all, it is clear that the Mahajans are fighting to maintain their privilege and power, in the face of a growing bahujan challenge. The real question is about the focus of this challenge. Marcaim’s worship of the goddess Navdurga appears to be an overlay on the bahujan Sateri and other non-brahmanical gods, co-opting these and their worshippers into the brahmanical world but as inferiors. The bahujan stand however seems to be that this brahmanical temple, with its ‘original’ idol, is native to the village and belongs to them; only the GSBs are outsiders. The problem with this stand is that it challenges the Brahmins but not brahmanism. For, can a brahmanical temple—which is casteist not just in practice but also theory, being backed by all the casteism of the Shashtras, Stutis, and Smritis—ever oppose brahmanism?


The real need is not to fight Brahmins, but to challenge Brahmanism in every form. Otherwise faces will change, but nothing else. This is going to be a long battle, but one small step in it could be to put up another banner outside the temple with the same slogan in, not the baman bhasha, but Romi Concanim, or Marathi, or English.


(With thanks to Ashwinkumar Naik)


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 September, 2016)

Bahujan Leaders, Not Bahujan Faces

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The student union elections at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi recently concluded with the Left Unity Panel, a political alliance between Student Federation of India and All India Student’s Association, winning all the four posts on the student panel. The student politics at the JNU campus has always been a closely watched affair and following the national attention that JNU had garnered after controversial slogans raising events in February this year. In this election, both left and right wing parties on the JNU campus jostled to capture the field after the highly acrimonious and divisive scenes following the state’s crackdown on JNU in response to the aforementioned events in February.


While these two factions battled for their dominance on the JNU campus, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA) emerged as the show stealer, despite not being able to win any of the central panel posts. BAPSA was the single largest party to be voted in the JNU student union polls. BAPSA gave a clarion call for the unity of the oppressed, ensuring that Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslim students came together to consolidate a formidable opposition not only to the Hindutva forces on the campus, but also to the leftist political outfits that otherwise claim to be in solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed.


BAPSA positioned itself as a political force of the minoritised sections of the students, with opposition to caste as a fundamental basis on which its politics was founded. The rise of BAPSA in JNU is in tune with the various caste based movements emerging from different parts of India, such as the resistance of the Dalit communities in Gujarat under the leadership of Jignesh Mewani, or the nationwide movement that was spurred after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. These political uprisings are indicative of a pattern wherein Dalit-Bahujan and minoritised communities are altering not only the narrative of the Indian politics, but its grammar too.


One manner in which BAPSA has been able to do this is to launch a vocal critique of the Indian leftist political outfits which, for decades, have been positioning themselves as the vanguards of secular and liberal politics in India. However, these left political outfits are very much plagued by the caste hierarchy with upper castes holding (onto) key political positions. Moreover, the anti-reservation stance of these leftist groups during the implementation of the Mandal commission report or even their unfounded critique of Ambedkar and Ambedkarism is also indicative of their outlook towards caste politics.The newer Dalit bahujan political outfits, such as the BAPSA, have been consistently highlighting the inherent casteism within the left parties, arguing that they are no different from their right wing counterparts.


In this context, the takeaways from BAPSA’s politics offer some interesting insights to rethink bahujan politics in Goa. The bahujan communities within Hindu and Catholic communities, have played a crucial role in shaping Goa’s political scenario. All parties field bahujan candidates to ensure maximum success. However, this representation of Bahujans within the political outfits in Goa has often, if not always, been reduced into mere tokenistic representation. A look at the recent political outfits that are gearing up for the upcoming assembly elections in Goa would tell you that though all these parties are promising assured representation of bahujan and minoritised communities, their supreme leaders are predominantly upper caste individuals. Most of the parties have their bahujan faces in cadre that does the groundwork but when it comes to assuming leadership positions, it has always been dominated by the upper caste leaders of these parties.


The implications of such usurping of positions of power by upper caste leaders are many. Firstly, while most of the parties will claim that they represent interests of all communities, the interests of the upper caste communities get preference by the virtue of them being led by the upper caste members themselves. Secondly, it renders the bahujan leadership within the party ineffective; the bahujan leaders lack the power to counter the assertion of upper caste interests because they understandably try not to rock the boat so as to maintain whatever position of influence they have within the party. Thus, the bahujan leaders are rendered as baits to garner bahujan support while the upper caste power structure does not allow them to safeguard political interests of the bahujan communities.


BAPSA’s act of distancing itself from the left parties on JNU campus is precisely to overcome such usurping of power. BAPSA has no qualms about clearly indicating whose interests they are representing and remain committed to foregrounding the struggles of the oppressed communities. Similarly, Goan bahujan politics needs to be reinvented to distance itself from the political outfits that operate not in the bahujan interest, but to serve upper caste interests disguised as those representing a cross section section of the Goan society.Instead, a bahujan alliance that brings together both, the Hindu and Catholic bahujan communities in agreement of sharing power can go long way in changing the fate of bahujan communities in Goa. Otherwise the upper caste leaders will continue to remain in positions of power, not only through the support of aforementioned bahujan faces but also at the cost of bahujan communities’ access to social and political upliftment.


(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 22 September, 2016)


As Goa Prepares to host BRICS…

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When any State summit takes place, and that too of an international dimension, it is important for the host location to be familiar with what is going to be deliberated on their soil. However there is no such visible effort by the State to acquaint or involve host Goa in the BRICS Summit deliberations, except for sprucing up roads.


So what is BRICS? BRIC was basically a formation of Brazil, Russia, India and China that has roots in 2006 with the meeting of its leaders while they were attending the UN General Assembly and noted the inequities of the economic system where some countries stood privileged over others in determining the shape of things all over the world to their advantage. South Africa was admitted to the BRIC formation in 2010 and then it became BRICS.


All the countries in BRICS had at one stage or the other challenged the charting out of a development that leaves out the voices of these countries. These were also, (and they continue to be), rising powers from the developing world that have been confronted by US superpower. The peoples of BRICS countries have experienced the consequences of a global politics that bypasses the voices of developing and underdeveloped countries in forging a world order. Consequently, the economies of these countries get tied to the apron strings of international financial institutions who set conditionalities for the loans that are advanced to the developing countries, while plunging the countries into deep debt, akin to today’s banking system, where an individual loanee gets swallowed, with the nature of the system including the interest structure and the pattern of investment by these banks.


The conditionalities, euphemistically called structural adjustment programmes, have included calling upon loanee countries to reversing fought-for robust processes of democratic governance. These conditionalities included adjusting the labour law machinery in a way that snatched away the rights it potentially guaranteed to the working class. These conditionalities also included setting up dispute resolution processes in international trade deals which tone down the obligations of the multinational companies while placing the poorer countries at risk of the acts of the companies, be it the consequences of pollution or of the irresponsible and extractive appropriation of profits, emanating from these deals.


Given the control that the US as a superpower had in world politics, it meant clipping and challenging this power, to pave way for rehauling the conditionalities and the determination or writing off of debt, by restructuring the global financial institutions. So BRICS was precisely the formation well poised to counter US control in world politics and bring to the table the framework of equality, solidarity, mutual development and cooperation, in realising a new world vision of development.


For this, it was and is necessary to look at development from the lens of the peoples of these countries who had the experience of development propagated by the superpowers which, for instance, marginalised their agricultural and industrial sector to bolster the multinational company-led agricultural and industrial sector. It was necessary after hearing out the voices of the excluded to envision a new architecture for the international financial institutions, that is appropriate to the needs, realities and aspirations of its people, repeat, its people, not its leadership and its elites.


Initially these countries did try to forge synergies in the areas of environmental and disaster management, in pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, biotechnology and tourism. But as these synergies were being forged, these countries were also rising as powers themselves, who were replicating the same styles of power that they set out to counter with the grouping as BRICS. However these are countries with a robust civil society. Will people push their countries to stick to the initial agenda of BRICS for a new equitable world order?


Pertinent questions are being asked such as: who will interconnectness assist?, how can we harness our existing legislation to address illegalities or criminality without imposing draconian legislation to stifle political dissent and create hype against the countries’ neigbours in the name of counter-terrorism? How can these countries cooperate in dealing with trafficking? How will the New Development Bank proposed by BRICS countries be different from the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, in a way that their loans can reach those countries and people who most need them and not breed big time bank defrauding violators who squeeze finances as they enjoy a flamboyant lifestyle and flee the country? How will energy be harnessed or industrialisation be effected so as to be inclusive? How will gender  bias, casteism and differences on the basis of class or ethnic origin not be reinforced in the new vision? Will they break bread with Palestine again, and be the staunch opponents of illegal occupation of Palestine that they once were?


So that they set up an ethic where peace is not forged by illegal occupation? So that cooperation, rather than destructive competition and war, are the planks of development that ensures basic needs of food clothing and shelter and affordable and accessible health services and education to the entire citizenry of the world in the new world order? So they do not do unto other underdeveloped or developing countries what they did not like developed countries doing to themselves, so that they do not do to the people on the margins within their own countries what they did not like the developed countries doing to them?


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 8 September, 2016)