Five Striking Moments of 2016

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Popular Essays



2016 has seen many striking moments – moments that demand reflection and change.


Coming as a breath of fresh air is the UN resolution that all measures aimed at changing the demographic composition and status of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, including construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians are in violation of international humanitarian law, and Israel’s obligation as the occupying power according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and previous resolutions. No doubt as someone has well expressed, it is “too little, too late”. But on the other hand, something is better than nothing and can be the plank on which the ideal can be mounted. It is a reminder that despite the despair that looms over the future of Goa, with the nature of its demographics as well as the state of the people living on its margins, there is scope for hope and that persistence and politics pays, provided it is played with a measure of justice.


Lurking gloom and a possible blow beneath the belt has characterised the Brexit referendum.  Goa is surviving substantially on remittances. Brexit and India’s Citizenship rules put together threaten this source of survival and security as well. The Brexit referendum in a context where some 20,000 plus Goans are eking their livelihoods by entry into UK with a Portuguese passport, looms large over especially those who had migrated in the last five years. Without voting rights in Goa, which they will always consider home, the situation of these Portuguese Passport holders in UK is like that on the edge of a precipice The emergence of Trump with his anti-immigrant policies is another threat to global politics of which Goa is bound to face the consequences.


Even the wake up calls for handling crimes against women come when someone from the ranks of India’s occupying elite or tourists, faces sexual violence or is murdered. Check it out. Whether it was Scarlett before or Monica this year, one sees the worst of both worlds. A local patriarchal approach almost saying “these women” deserve it for the kind of lives they lead, and a page 3 crowd that bemoans these crimes as if everyone has to set everything else aside and pay attention to these specific crimes against the page 3 crowd. But it would be a looking ahead situation if we called for accountability of the State in the manner in which crimes against women (whoever they are) are addressed at police stations, including the Women Police Station, and also the State’s accountability for lack of due diligence in ensuring a crime free environment. That would mean leveraging the page 3 power for all women.


Representations of Goa and of its history have made for challenging moments that are opening up space for dialogue on what constitutes history and the factual aspects of history. The recent controversy at the Serendipity Arts Festival is the most recent of the cases in point. Every articulation of history at the end of the day is an articulation from a particular location and also has a political function. It is impossible to be comprehensive. In the attempt to be comprehensive, one only loses unique strands of fact and thought to the dustbin of history as the popular expression goes. For instance, one may deliberately place emphasis on particular aspects of how certain sections of people experienced political rule in the past, in order to ensure that it does not get obliterated. However, there has to be some rigour in putting together the details, and mere articulations by a Mr. X or Ms. Y or because his Majesty says so, cannot be history. That is fascism, to say the least. The ruling dispensation, in Goa and in India, is but a macrocosm of such approaches – no rigour, Hindutva in outlook, erasing other plausible versions of history, what-I-say-is-right-there can-be-no-other-version type of history.


The spectre of ‘Uniform Civil Code’, if one may call it that, in the current context, also raised its ugly head again this year. A Supreme Court Judgement, proved to be an opportunity to resurrect a monolithic agenda where there is no contextualisation and sculpting of rights, but an assertion that a particular religion is supreme and everyone else is to be fashioned in that religion’s likeness. There has been not any significant statement from Goa’s political heavyweight on this point. What happens if a new Uniform Civil Code is enacted for the whole of India? What does that mean for Goa’s family laws? One fails to understand what is so mesmerising about a uniform that is so uncomfortable to wear as against a dress or pair of shoes that fits and is comfortable, provided it stands up to certain yardsticks that specially hold up the interests of the people on the margins.


(A version of this article was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 29 December, 2016)


Is Camões Goan?

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Popular Essays, Uncategorized


camoensSome months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on Goan literature in Portuguese. Central to that discussion was the question of defining a canon of Goan literature in Portuguese. For example, where would the history of such a literature begin from? Who could be considered Goan for the purposes of constructing such a history? In the course of these discussions, a question was half-jocularly posed: could Camões be considered Goan?

Luis Vaz de Camões is considered the national poet of Portugal because he authored the famed epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). Camões’ narrative in this poem inserts the actions of the Portuguese and especially those involved in the ‘Discoveries’ into the form of classical Greek myths.

Despite the fact that Camões’ name was proposed half in jest, the suggestion was seized by a number of us with enthusiasm. Indeed Camões should be considered Goan! Not only was Camões a resident of the city of Goa for a long time, spending, according to Landeg White, a translator of Camões, about “fifteen years in Goa and beyond”,  but parts of the poem were certainly written while the author was resident in the city. Indeed, White argues that it was his time in Goa that forced Camões to turn from being a conventional poet of the times and experiment with different forms of expression. It was his time in Goa, therefore, that turned him into the towering literary figure that he is. Knowing that Camões initially came to Goa as a conscript into the army I have my own image of the man. The life of the common soldier in Goa was not a comfortable one. In fact, many of them lived in poverty, which was, no doubt, the reason for them to often desert the Portuguese army and find better options in the armies of the Sultanates around the Estado da India. In their state of poverty these soldiers took on lifestyles that were not very different from the locals. I’d like to think that like other soldiers Camões too abandoned heavy European clothing for hanging about in a caxtti and drinking water not from a cup but pouring it into his mouth from a jug.

But it is not just Camões life in Goa that it critical to the argument. There is also the fact of the afterlife of the Lusiadas. The poem was read by people in Goa, and, as O Vaticinio Do Swarga, the recent response to Camões by Prof. Ave Cleto Afonso, so clearly demonstrates, the text continues to have an audience in the territory. For these reasons, we argued, Camões is Goan.

We hardly expected a vigorous rebuttal to this idea, but there was one. “Camões is Goan?” cried a Portuguese national who was part of the discussion. “But that is insane! Camões is Portuguese! If Camões is Goan merely because he passed through, then surely Richard Burton [the English writer who while resident in India journeyed through Goa and penned a much reviled text on the territory] is Goan, and Rudyard Kipling Indian!” they asserted.

I have to confess that I was a little surprised by this response. To my mind the script was fairly simple. Racism was the defining feature of modern imperialism.  Human populations were marked off into different races, and some races seen as less capable than others. It was on the basis of this racial difference that some groups were seen as incapable of self governance. Because of this logic, postcolonial justice would rest on the rejection of racism, the welcoming of subjugated groups into governance, and the assertion of universal values. Of course, this has not been the trajectory of postcolonial justice and the post-colonial order has been marked by the sly assertion of racism. Thus, universalism is rejected as the decolonized states have been marked off as the national homes of different racialised groups. It is only such a logic that would ensure that both the former colonizers as well as the formerly colonized would deny the South Asian identities of Camões and Kipling.

This equation can be put another way by using a gustatory metaphor of anthropophagy that I have used once before. Colonialism is often critiqued on the basis that the colonizers consumed the natural resources of the colonies while impoverishing the colonized in the process. This consumption was not merely economic alone, however. There was also a cultural dimension. There can be no denying that both the British and the Portuguese were profoundly marked by the fact of their dominance of the colonies and imperial territories. Words like chintz, canja, pyjama, curry (caril in Portuguese), chutney, shampoo, and many others stand testimony to the fact that the British and the Portuguese were also profoundly marked by their consumption of the colonies. Thus, if colonialism was marked by the consumption of the imperial territories, postcolonial justice, or vengeance if you like, would lie in the reciprocal consumption of the Portuguese or the British. Thus, where the Portuguese insist that Camões is theirs alone, the Goan response should ideally be to assert that Camões was also Goan. It is when the former colonizer is denied the opportunity to be the sole signifier of symbols that postcolonial justice is truly achieved.

But my argument is not merely about vengeance. Rather it is about recognising the need for complex political moves if we are to assert universality of values and the equality of peoples. Take, for example, the case of Her Imperial Highness Victoria, former Empress of India who is remembered by the people of the Gangetic basin as Rani Toodiya. Rani Toodiya is not merely a foreign queen, but in fact used by unlettered North Indians as a marker of times when there was justice for the common man. This is not nostalgia for colonial times, but in fact a pronouncement on the moral corruption of our times. As in the case of Toodiya, so it should be for Camões.

Returning to the arguments of those who rejected Camões’ Goan identity by asking if Kipling could be considered Indian, my response would be that it is precisely the denial of our complex histories, such as Kipling’s Indian identity, that we in contemporary India are witness to the horrible politics of almost genocidal erasures of communities and their cultures. The weird and twisted politics of our times is not just the result of wicked Hindu nationalists, but in fact produced through the oftentimes innocent attempts by post-colonial scholars and subjects. These individuals seek to create a space for the native and the indigenous and in erasing the complexities of our history lay the basis for the politics of corporeal erasures that we are witness to today. A fine example of these naive politics are the recent changes of the names of cities in India away from their colonial era names. The fixing  of only one vernacular name for the city as the official title of the city  have effectively delegitimized the lives of those communities who were birthed in the colonial period and follow lifestyles associated with those times.

Given that politics must be marked by ideas and actions I would recommend that the claiming of Camões by Goans and the project of consuming the Portuguese and denying them a monopoly on signifying could begin with a simple act. Sometime in 1960 a humongous statue of Camões was erected in Old Goa. This statue was subsequently blown up by “freedom fighters” in 1980 when Portugal was celebrating the fourth centenary of Camões’ death.  We need to recognise that this act was a mistake and replace Camões back in the spot that originally held his statue. This is one act would allow us to reclaim Camões as ours and in doing so recognise that while the man is Portuguese, he is also undeniably Goan.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 27 Dec 2016)

Where’s the Nation?

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Popular Essays



The internal or real face of Indian nationalism is caste, said Prof G Aloysius, while delivering one of the Dr Ambedkar Memorial Lectures this year at the Goa Arts and Literature Fest, 2016, titled ‘Retrieving Ambedkar for our Times and Places’.


Prof Aloysius is well-known for his book ‘Nationalism without a Nation in India’ (OUP, 1998), and its central idea that Indian nationalism has failed to produce a nation in the real sense. A nation, he said, is a modern way for different people to live and develop together. No nation has been around for very long, none from time immemorial. They were needs of the hour, arising specifically around the modern aspirations for liberty, equality, and fraternity. But equality, said Aloysius, is a category that has no meaning in itself. It is inequality that has meaning, with all its history, examples, practises, language, and so on. Equality therefore means the concrete dismantling of unequality. For instance, he added, following the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the elite Samurai class had to give up their traditional privileges in order to forge a modern society.


Nationalism is actually a part of modernity, explained Aloysius; it is a resource for regions that are modernising. But as nationalism moved into South Asia from Europe, it became less political and more cultural. Both kinds of nationalisms were born during the British Raj: the cultural nationalism of the dominant castes who found their age-old privileges threatened by colonial rule, and the political nationalism of the bahujans, who wanted freedom from age-old injustice and discrimination.


In theory, political nationalism is based on fraternity, which implies conscious unity, an ‘anonymous camaraderie’, where one respects the other as a fellow-citizen of the nation. When I sit on a bus in a modern nation, said Aloysius, I sit on just one seat, leaving enough space for my fellow-traveller, even though I know nothing about him/her. But in India, this doesn’t happen—you see people asking people to move elsewhere, trying to hog both seats, keeping their luggage or their feet on the other seat, and so on. Because cultural nationalism is based on only subjective similarities – similar foods, similar festivals, similar clothes, and so on – not conscious unity.


In practise, the cultural nationalism of the savarnas glorified the culture of the subcontinent, which meant its caste culture, tradition and custom, and the supposed ‘good old days’ before British rule. Political nationalism in contrast was all for change, about political, social and economic rights, and the dismantling of inequality and discrimination. But cultural nationalism won, for the upper castes were both closer to the British and a pan-Indian community. Although the cause of political nationalism had many votaries, including staunch modernists like Dr Ambedkar, they were also local and apart, separated by distance, vernacular languages, and a lack of financial clout; thus they were easier to ignore.


Cultural nationalism won, and the result is stark. In Europe and Japan, many elite privileges were ended in the creation of the nation, but in India it has been the opposite. All privileges continue. Nationalism here is the celebration of ancient custom and tradition. Instead of modernity, argued Aloysius, what Indian nationalism has produced is simply varnashrama dharma.


The proof of this is all around us. A modern nation has universal and egalitarian education as one of its fundamental goals, said Aloysius. India however has developed a hierarchy of school boards and infrastructure: CBSC at the top, followed by ISCE and IB, and local or state boards at the bottom; prestigious central schools at the top, and ramshackle municipal, village, and tribal schools at the bottom; schools with horse-riding and swimming pools for some, and schools without toilets, classrooms or teachers for others! The same attitude prevails in the Medium of Instruction policies, with the much-desired English education only in private and central schools, while local and state schools—used by bahujan communities—run perforce in the local vernacular. Here Goa goes a step further, by denying bahujans their own vernacular, i.e. Romi Concanim, and instead inventing a sanskritised and useless Nagri Konkani to be enforced in state and aided schools.


Varnashrama dharma, in short, is anti-national in the real sense of the word. It is the reason why you can have invisibilised communities even in a place like Goa: communities which have never voted, which are yet to enter higher education, still forced to live in semi-bondage. Varnashrama dharma is the reason for normalised atrocities, like that of manual scavengers being killed on the job, when they do not even officially exist! The law may say what it likes but tradition persists. And tradition says that it is fine that there is one standard of life for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’.


Ambedkar was a true nationalist, said Aloysius, i.e. a complete modernist. But he was defeated by the cultural nationalist politics of the Congress party. Thus, instead of a modern nation based on citizens with equal rights and duties, India has become a centralised and powerful state system, backed by a Brahmanical, pre-modern, and exclusionist ideology.


It is no surprise that many find themselves at odds with this system, whether among non-savarna communities of former British India, or in places like Goa, with our different history and culture. Goans have to locate themselves in their own context and reality, concluded Aloysius, to continue the fight against cultural nationalism and anti-national varnashrama dharma today, and for a rationalist, socially inclusive, and egalitarian modernism.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 15 December, 2016)

When Malaysia Looks like India and Vice Versa

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Popular Essays



Malaysia’s Bersih movement was in the news recently. The Bersih movement is a movement for free and fair elections.  It has raised questions of how electoral rolls come to be drawn, and how constituencies come to be delimited in ways that ensure that the ruling party’s vote banks are appropriately configured within each constituency so as to give the ruling party a lead. This is so familiar to us in Goa where such constituency delimitation has been reorganised to facilitate the ruling party.


The similarities don’t stop there. The Bersih movement was said to be an urban movement, which could well have been the case, however Bersih activists have demystified the process of elections and governance in Malaysia to the extent that even ordinary people from the rural areas have participated in the annual Bersih rally. The Government had been playing the racial card of divide and rule throughout, which is so familiar to Goa. The Government asserted that the Malays are the original people and whoever else has migrated, no matter how long ago such as the Chinese and Indians, are the ones who are fuelling the Bersih movement.


This all too familiar strategy plays out on the basis of religion and caste in India. The people are sought to be polarised so that they cannot unite and organise. We know what happened during the Baina evictions. People were polarised as sex workers, Fakirs, migrant trawler workers, fisher people, local people from Vasco so that they may not organize against port privatisation and the multi lane highways to Verna meant to benefit a high level of trade from the Marmugao port to the Verna industrial estate.


Another familiar strategy was the raids conducted on the Bersih office on the eve of the rally of 19th November, ostensibly looking for incriminating material Bersih’s use of foreign funds to challenge the parliamentary sovereignty of Malaysia. As a matter of fact, the Bersih leader Mandeep Singh was arrested on charges of sedition, just the day before the rally. The offence of sedition forms a part of the same Penal Code that is a legacy of the British in India as well, except that Malaysia has moved to modify the Code to include more sub provisions within ‘sedition’.  This again was reminiscent of India, where human rights defenders are being harassed and the ‘foreign funding’ flag is being waved to mislead.


As if this was not bad enough, the Malaysian Police applied the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, 2012, (SOSMA) against Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah, and arrested her from the Bersih office on the eve of the Rally. The SOSMA law is something akin to India’s National Security Act and does not require the arresting authorities to produce the accused before the Court in 24 hours as is otherwise necessary under the law. This is similar to the draconian laws that are enacted in India in the name of curbing terrorism and ensuring security; while the same are invoked against marginalised sections of society who resist oppression, and human rights defenders. Abdullah upon being arrested was kept in solitary confinement with a plank for a bed, two light bulbs switched on the whole night and no immediate access to lawyers or even immediate information as to where she was finally whisked away to. It was said that, as is possible in SOSMA, she would be detained for 28 days without production before the Magistrate.


But this is where the plus side begins. With global solidarity, it was possible to apply the necessary pressure on the Malaysian Government which finally resulted in her release. As we brace up for elections in Goa, where there is intense dissatisfaction with a Government that rode to power on an anti-incumbency wave, there is every chance that political dissenters and activists exposing harsh realities will be tormented. It is important to be aware of possibilities of global, regional and national solidarity and human rights standards that countries are committed to by their Constitutions and by the International Treaties that they have signed and ratified.


The Malaysian Government reneged on its promises by enacting a law replacing the Internal Security Act, which it promised to repeal with a law called the Peaceful Assembly Act which has all the trappings of a law meant to curb political dissent.  For instance, the law does not allow street rallies, which are defined as rallies started from specified meeting places and then marching in support of a cause!  And then a couple of months ago, Malaysia enacted a National Security Act, which the Malaysian Government was also threatening to invoke against Bersih leaders as they were organising towards the rally. It is therefore important to watch out for possible legislation or policies that are getting enacted/adopted under some benign covers such as curbing black money.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 December, 2016)