How the Archbishop should have turned the other cheek

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by Jason Keith Fernandes

Not too long ago, the décor of a recently-opened pub caused a ruckus in the city of Bombay. Styled “Goregaon Social”, the interiors of the pub made plentiful references to the Gothic aesthetic that marked a significant phase of Western European Christianity, and the neo-Gothic which has an intimate history with the city of Bombay. They included stained glass panels with the figures of Catholic saints, Gothic-styled pews for clients to sit on, and a variety of other paraphernalia that clearly references Catholic worship.

Arguing that the establishment’s decor was blasphemous, a group of Catholics, calling themselves The Watchdog Foundation, filed a police complaint against the owner of the pub. Simultaneously, the Archdiocese of Bombay released a statement charging that the décor of the pub was blasphemous and a deliberate attempt to insult Christians. Therefore, they demanded the closure of the pub with immediate effect, and a cancellation of various permits and licenses until the décor was changed.

While the responses of both the lay Christians and the clerical hierarchy are problematic, I would like to focus on the response of the hierarchy because as leaders of the Catholic community they seem to have not only made a grievous error, but also lost a significant teaching moment.

At the very outset it needs to be stated that one can understand the reasons for the response. Along with other minoritised groups in the country, Christians too have increasingly experienced a shrinking of socio-political space along with simultaneous attacks on their places of worship and property. These attacks have particularly perplexed some Christians in India who play along with the whole rhetoric of Indian nationalism and cherish a deep-seated idea that they are an ideal minority.

On the other hand there has also been a parallel move to appropriate Christian lifestyles for the purposes of entertainment. The case of the interiors of Goregaon Social are but one example of a trend that is also evident in the way in which the settlements of Catholics, whether that of Bandra in Bombay, or villages in Goa, are being occupied while the residents who created these settlements and ensured its character are pushed out. Added to this is the simultaneous disparaging of these populations visible in the way Hindi films represent the Catholics of the west coast as a sexually promiscuous, alcohol-imbibing community given to song and dance.

In such a context of appropriation and attack, it is not surprising that Catholics should try to respond by asserting ownership over markers of a community lifestyle, nor that they should petition the state to redress their hurt religious sentiments. Unfortunately, rather than innovatively engage with Catholic tradition, these responses have played directly into the hands of the Hindu nationalists, as well as strengthened the growing tendencies towards authoritarianism.

The Archbishop’s argument of hurt religious sentiments merely follows political trends that have been crafted to favour the establishment of a Hindu rashtra. While it is true that the cries for the redress of hurt religious sentiments come not only from Hindu nationalist groups, but other minoritized groups as well, the fact is that the complaints of these groups are usually heeded only when they formulate their complaints along theocratic lines, not otherwise. But if one can ban images in a pub, or a film because it is blasphemous and offends Catholic sensibilities, it follows that one must also ban the slaughter of cattle because it offends brahmanical sensibilities. In other words, it is the upper caste Hindu nationalist groups that benefit once hurt religious sentiments are recognized as a legitimate basis to quash actions.

Phrasing appeals for state attention on the basis of religious sentiments also occludes the real issues at stake, the systemic inequality of power between the groups that comprise the country. To put it in the still relevant words of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, “The Indian Christians need two things. The first thing they want is the safeguarding of their civil liberties. The second thing they want is ways and means for their economic uplift.” This agenda is more crucial than the mistaken imitation of identitarian politics that the Archbishop seems to have lent support to.

The Archbishop’s statement opens up dangers beyond the possibly identitarian problem of living in a Hindu state; that of authoritarianism and populism. What is evident in the statement is that there is an appeal to a state that does not follow the due process of law. In the Goregaon Social case one has a situation where a group of citizens that claims to speak for all Catholics have determined that they are upset by an activity and demand summary redress by the state in the form of a ban. The group demanding the ban does not want the complaint to be evaluated by a dispassionate judicial system and the issue treated through appropriate channels. What we witness in this case is a complete violation of the very due process that ensures the equanimity of the law. One wonders if the church hierarchy contemplated that, given the balance of power in the country, this same strategy of demanding immediate action and dispensing with the due process of law could easily be used against Christians in India?

This situation reveals the manner in which Hindu nationalist authoritarianism does not spring merely from the actions of upper-caste Hindu nationalists. Rather, it is sustained through the authoritarian tendencies that lie within minoritized groups in India, and especially in fonts of authority in these groups. In this context the Catholic Church has much introspection to do. Despite the winds of change in terms of leadership style that Pope Francis has brought to the church, the Church has had a long history of clericalism and authoritarian leadership that is often confused with respect for a healthy system of hierarchy.

Considering the delicate nature of politics in India, and the bitter reality that one cannot rely on the neutrality of the state, the Archdiocese of Bombay ought to have considered a more nuanced response to the provocation that the décor of Goregaon Social allegedly represented. At a time when the law has been reduced to cynical interpretations of codes to secure the interests of the hegemonic, the Archbishop could have used this opportunity to deepen our ethical appreciation of the problem that the décor of Goregaon Social represented. In this way he would have also fulfilled the prophetic role that is the true calling of the Church.

Rather than insist on a parochial assertion of ownership, and a consequent banning of the imagery, a deeper exploration of the use of the symbols in Goregaon Social would have demonstrated a surprising possibility. In statements published on social media, the management of the pub indicated that they saw the space as “the church of anti-consumerism” or the “Cathedral of anti-consumerism”.  In other words, the owners of the pub were attempting to set up an alternative to consumerism and recognising that this alternative might be present in a Christian, if not Christianized, lifestyle. In many ways Christianity is fundamental to modernity not in an abstract and discursive way alone, but very materially; with a liberative lifestyle associated with Christians. Christians, and especially those one finds in Portuguese-influenced areas like Bombay, enjoy a lifestyle that is largely unmarked by brahmanical taboos. Catholics enjoy a material lifestyle that does not place taboos on the consumption of meat, approves of social drinking, and allows for a respectful approximation of the sexes; social features largely absent in brahmanical cultures of dominant castes but crucial for claiming modernity. Indeed, one could inquire if the name of this pub does not take inspiration from the ‘socials’ that are a feature of the convent schools. In these socials, in the presence of chaperones and other adults, youngsters could learn the skills of not only drinking in moderation, but also to woo members of the opposite sex, dance with them, developing in this process skills of respectful sociality.

In this context the Archbishop could pointed out to a basic fact that many in India do not seem to have sufficiently appreciated, that however attractive it may appear, the Christian lifestyle is empty without a real encounter with Christ and Christian values. The Archbishop could have pointed out that a substantial alternative to consumerism was available through deepening the encounter with the person of Christ mediated through the Catholic Church. Such a response would not only have countered the appropriation that the décor of the pub represented, but also the empty promises of the prophets of consumerism, not to mention the anti-Christian rhetoric of the Hindu nationalistic forces, especially the voices in favour of the forced conversions of gharwapasi.

In sum, by following the dominant logics of Indian politics rather than cleaving to its prophetic tradition, the Catholic hierarchy has done more damage than it can imagine, not only to the community it leads, but other minoritized groups as well.

(A version of this text was first published in The Wire on 18 Nov 2016)

Demonetisation, both Economic and Social

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It seems to be Achche Din for attacks on the citizen, economic as well as social, open as well as insidious. The open one is of course the demonetisation of currency. In 50 days there will be a new India, claims the Prime Minister; the ATMs will take 21 days to function normally, say the banks. Such is the gap between the hot air spouted by our leaders, and the situation that is actually killing people on the ground. Enough people—including even the BJP itself in its earlier avatar as opposition to the Congress government’s small demonetisation attempt—have pointed out that demonetisation never fulfils its purported aim of attacking the black economy; what it does do however is to attack the poor. The real aims of demonetisation are reported to be actually something else: to provide a shot of income to banks that were critically in the red, and also to upset the cash calculations of other parties for the oncoming elections.


The banks are in the red because of lakhs of crores of bad loans. Just 85 princely crooks owe Rs 87,000 crores, but the government does not want to even publish their names, let alone arrest them. No, the ones who have to pay the price are, as always, the poor. They are not being just ‘inconvenienced’ like you and me, but hammered. And so this newest manmade disaster unfolds, upturning the lives of the already-vulnerable, mostly people of SC, ST and OBC communities, those working in the informal sector, without bank accounts and ID proof, let alone plastic money. In Goa, there are reports of daily wage earners not being paid, pharmacies refusing to sell life-saving medicines, and small vendors losing all their daily customers. While the big moneybags laugh all the way to the Swiss Banks, or to their next 500-crore wedding.


The more things change, the saying goes, the more they remain the same. The very idea of a new India is a joke, given the entrenched social hierarchies we live in, which the establishment works hard to protect. This can be seen in another government intervention, this one in Goa, which took place quietly just a few days before the big announcement of demonetisation—an insidious, but no less audacious, intervention to ensure that the social hierarchy stays well in place.


In earlier columns, I have pointed to how bad things are in Goa with regard to the implementation of the constitutional provision of caste-based reservations in jobs and education. The rules regarding reservations have been brazenly flouted by most government bodies and educational institutions in the state, including Goa University, the Directorate of Higher Education, and so on. And this was the norm, so much so that the local press did not consider this wholesale flouting a newsworthy issue. But the number of complaints, challenges, and struggles against this scam are now growing, with the authorities having to respond, in the courts, or press, or other fora, to questions about their casteist practices.


The standard response is to plead ignorance. But this is a fake argument. The problem is a systemic one, for the misdemeanours happen repeatedly and only in one direction, i.e. to reduce the intake and promotion of reserved category candidates. And now there is incontrovertible proof that the government is just not interested in following the rules: a government directive to the Chairperson of the Goa Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, stating that the Commission has no jurisdiction in service matters.


But, according to The Goa Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 2010, one of the functions of the Commission is ‘to investigate and monitor all matters relating to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution of India’.  The Commission is supposed to be a safeguard for especially vulnerable groups who despite various laws intended for their protection and development, are still discriminated against. The Commission, according to the same Act mentioned above, has hence the authority of a Civil Court trying a suit. And even though its rulings are only recommendations and not enforceable, the government has to give a reasoned explanation if it does not accept any.


In keeping with the mandate of the Act, the Chairperson of the Commission took up a service matter where it appeared that the rules for reservations had not been followed. The directive he received in response is however an attempt to snatch away his powers and cut the Commission down to size.  And it is an attack on all those from the discriminated-against communities who are fighting for their rights as citizens.


It is interesting to see that, in the immediate aftermath of this directive, the Goa University has issued an advertisement for recruitment to various administrative posts, even though complaints regarding the violation of reservation rules in its earlier recruitments are pending before the Commission. The directive thus seems to be taken as a sign that such complaints can be ignored.


And, although the Commission says that it will challenge the directive, the situation now is that all service matters are to be kept on hold till the issue of the Commission’s scope is resolved. This will obviously be a blow to petitioners, all of whom come from socially and economically vulnerable circumstances.


But does that matter? A government that can blithely say ‘please bear the pain’ when people are actually dying in queues to get their own small savings, is unlikely to shed a tear. Whether 50 days from now, or 500, Achche Din can never be for all in a caste society.

On Goan Culture

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I’ve always liked Indian pudding.  This is a sweet cornmeal dessert often served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.  It does not hail from the subcontinent, but rather descends from Native American cuisine.  I also like bagels, originally from Eastern Europe, but am not a great fan of pizza, from Italy or of American Chinese food, though it has its moments.  “Soul food” is just another term for African-derived cooking, found throughout the South and often beyond.  American food encompasses a lot more, including tacos and burritos, clam chowder, apple pie, and of course hamburgers and hotdogs.  When people eat any of these items, do they think in some hyphenated way as in “Italian-American”, “Chinese-American” ?  No, I would argue, they don’t categorize their food very often, they just eat it.  If they think about it at all, they would think, “Yes, I’m American so I eat American food.  All those things are what we eat.”


To change from food to religion, Christians in various parts of the world call themselves “Christian” (OK, also “Catholic”, “Protestant”, “Orthodox” etc.).  They don’t think, “I belong to a syncretic religion, one in which many cultural practices and beliefs have come together to form a new whole.”   But nevertheless that is what all the major religions are: syncretic.  They have borrowed from earlier religions, they have absorbed beliefs and practices from surrounding cultures over the centuries.  When we think about them, though, we don’t call them syncretic.  We look at them as wholes.


Why am I writing this?  What has this got to do with Goa?  I think it has a lot to do with how Goa has been perceived in the past and is still being talked about.


I first have to say mea culpa.  When I began to study Goan society in the 1970s, there was a lot of literature written by Portuguese scholars, bureaucrats, and travellers that claimed that Goa was utterly different from India, that it was Portugal in fact.  Other people, Indian nationalists, said that Christianity was a foreign intrusion and did not belong in Mother India.  Goa should return to its previous cultural condition (which also included Islam by the way).  During the course of my research, I came to believe that both these claims were gross misunderstandings or deliberate “head in the sand” wishful thinking.  I studied Goa over many years and wrote about it as a syncretic culture, using the words “Catholic-Hindu” or “Hindu-Catholic”.  I wanted to point out that elements of both religions and types of society existed in Goa and they had combined to create a new “Goan” society.


I am writing this short notice to say that I think I erred somewhat.  Not that Goan culture is not a mixture of elements from different societies.  It is.  But, after all, nearly every society in the world is the same.  We don’t have to wait for globalization to appear in the 1400s-1500s era or for it to increase dramatically in our own time to see syncretism at work.  Solomon’s kingdom in Israel was heavily influenced by Egypt, the superpower of its day.  Rome was a hotbed of different religions and regional cultures that existed side by side for centuries and must have introduced many new ideas, goods, and practices.  Islam borrowed a great amount from Judaism and Christianity.  The practices of Arabian nomads are still enshrined in this international religion.  The Christmas celebrations of Europe and America are connected to pagan practices of Scandinavia as well as to the Roman-era cult of Mithra.  Japanese culture is deeply indebted to China and Korea.  I think we can add dozens more examples.  Do we call all these civilizations “syncretic”?  Not usually.  The use of the word “syncretic” increases when a culture is new, when a religion is new.  When people speak of the 20th century Rastafarian religion with origins in Jamaica, they like to use the word.  Why then did I refer to Goa as a “syncretic” culture?  It was only to point out that it was definitely not Portuguese or European alone.  I think it is time to stop using this word and stop employing terms like “Hindu-Catholic” and “Catholic-Hindu”.   Goan culture is, like most others, a mix.  We accept that mix, but we can call it “Goan culture” without using the modifier “syncretic” because that modifier is too common to be relevant.  Goa has its own culture, just as do Tamilnadu, Bengal, Punjab or Kashmir.


Let us acknowledge that fact without applying any other labels.

What Price Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership?

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The deals that Governments sign with foreign dealers or countries often receive little popular attention because a number of us assume that it does not have any impact on our lives. The reality, however, is that it is more than just a deal between two countries. These deals can, in fact, have a profound bearing on people’s lives.


Up to 2015, India had entered into 15 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). And yet, as per the database of the International Trade Centre Trade Map, between 2005 to 2013, India’s trade share with its existing and potential trade partners did not show any quantum leap vis-à-vis its trade in goods, as a result of these trade agreements. So the economy as such did not gain from the FTAs. On the contrary, lay people have been at the receiving end of the Agreements. Yet another FTA called Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is proposed between Governments of the ten South East Asian States and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.


Free trade by its very nature involves undercutting. For instance, multinational food manufacturing companies can and will compete with the small and medium enterprises of women. The former undercut the latter with their massive advertising budgets. We saw how multinational products were glamorised, made to appear more hygienic, and their prices reduced to capture the market. The small scale groups could not sustain themselves through this period.


To add to it, the Government do not reveal most of the details of these agreements to the public. They then surreptitiously sign away your fundamental rights through these agreements. The Power Purchase Agreement signed by the Government of Maharashtra and the Government of India with Dabhol Power Company, a subsidiary of Enron behind the backs of people, in 1993, is a case in point. Power tariffs were increased in keeping with that agreement. that implied increase in power tariffs for the common people. Then the Government claims helplessness saying that what they promised you, they cannot do because their hands are bound by these agreements.


According to leaked documents (such as those from wiki leaks), RCEP extends to intellectual property, patents, data exclusivity on medicine decreasing access to affordable medicine. It will regulate every aspect of services such as health, education, water, and banking.


Going by the leaked text, the RCEP will even sign off the minimum protection clause of employment of local labour, because there shall be no preference for local labour. So for example, in Goa, it will mean that when these investors are setting up base, any promises made by politicians that they will ensure that the trading unit will employ maximum Goans, cannot be honoured.


With bilateral agreements where community sovereignty over community resources was taken away by Governments  signing off community’s rights by protecting foreign and multinational investors from labour and environmental rights claims, there were investor dispute settlement clauses (ISDS) in the agreements that guaranteed immunities from people’s assertions.


Take the case of the Anglian Water Group Ltd, a foreign investor in Argentina before the ICSID arbitral tribunal (accepted as the arbiters in such agreements).  Argentina had responded to the concerns of citizens who had not been provided with clean water and faced huge price increases as a result of a new deal with investors, by regulating the prices of water and insisting on the delivery of potable water. It had to pay a price for thus responding to the citizens. The Tribunal held that the human right to water has to be ‘counterbalanced’ against ‘fair and equitable treatment’ to the investor, even if Argentina had agreed to the unfair agreement under pressure of an economic crisis.


Clearly these agreements have adverse implications for people’s survival and particularly for women who bear the double brunt of rise in prices of water, or cutting down of social sector budgets such as for health care.


Governments do not put out the RCEP negotiating text for public discussion because people will oppose such an economic partnership deal being signed on their behalf. It will mean that hidden agenda of subserving big corporates through signing this Agreement, so that the ruling politicos can enrich their coffers, will be defeated.


The fundamental rights of peoples cannot be bartered away at the high table of an RCEP, in which the people and specially its marginalised sections, including women, unorganised workers, depressed castes, tribes, of the concerned countries do not have a say. Activists affirm that people’s rights must prevail over investor’s “rights” and that there has to be equity, justice and fairness in the global trading system.


The memory of the turnaround by the ruling party in Goa with casinos, saying their hands are tied by the earlier Government’s amendment of the law and granting of licences is fresh in our minds. So one can well imagine what the candidates, who have already started coming to your doorstep as elections near, will say post-election, in the face of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that India will have signed by then. “Our hands are tied”! All their election promises will be gone with the wind. Unless we would have succeeded in getting India to retreat from the proposed RCEP, or we decide to hold the elected people responsible if they still sign such an RCEP, with a befitting retort at the hustings, to the ruling party whose Government signs such Agreements.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 November, 2016)