Reflections on Republic Day

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Come Republic Day and an apparent prevailing disregard for the Constitution becomes an occasion to stock take and introspect.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court came down heavily on tendency of re-promulgation of ordinances. The apex court reasoned that this can amount to a fraud on the constitution, when an edifice of rights is built by subverting due legislative processes. It termed it as legislative overreach.

Leave alone re-promulgation of an ordinance, even an ordinance is required to be promulgated under exceptional circumstances, as it signifies a departure from the basic constitutional order. In this also, Goa did not lag behind. The Goa Regularization of Unauthorised Construction Ordinance, was promulgated on 24th June, 2016, without any coherent reason for not waiting for the matter to be discussed in the Assembly.

A disturbing development is the accentuation of how ‘difference’ is being treated or deployed. The Constitution of India considers that to treat individuals located differently on the social and economic spectrum, the same way, would be to treat them unequally. But the ruling dispensation does exactly this: it treats differently located people the same way resulting in inequality.

People in an unequal situation cannot be treated the same way. Writing in 1894, French novelist Anatole France had sarcastically remarked, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Fast forward to November 2016 and there is still a basis for articulating such sarcasm, despite a Constitution that upholds the principle of substantive equality. Prime Minister Modi announced, in the aftermath of demonetisation, that “this (meaning demonetisation) move has brought the rich and the poor on the same tangent”. He completely missed the point that the rich can negotiate tangents with their financial clout, while the poor cannot. For instance, the rich could swipe their cards at malls, while the poor were cashless, cardless and even shirtless. The small vendor has been struggling with her business, which is not something the rich businessman (such as a mall-owner) would have to endure.

Another disturbing aspect is how ‘difference’ is deployed to imply that Goa may not need the special provisions focussed on addressing the discrimination based on difference. Even recently, at a youth convention in Goa, former Chief Minister (and currently India’s Defence Minister) Manohar Parrikar blew hot and cold stating that “though the situation in Goa is different, the social condition of SC and ST people across the country is not good”. Again completely missing the point that the reservation policy mandated by the Constitution, is grossly violated by the State in Goa. And as if this was not bad enough, even the wings of Commissions statutorily set up to monitor the enforcement of rights of marginalised sections, are clipped by a mere executive order when they choose to act on their respective mandate. As has most recently been the case with the Goa State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which has been told in no uncertain terms that it has no jurisdiction to look into denial of constitutional protection in service matters, after some persons began to tap the potential of the Commission for redressing denial of reservations.

It seems that Goa’s difference has over the years been projected to its disadvantage. It was the basis, for the Parliament not extending the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, suggesting that Goa’s women are not afflicted by the problem of dowry because Goa has a uniform civil code, where sons and daughters have equal rights to parental property. As if the uniform civil code has a correlation with the incidence or lack of incidence of dowry demand and dowry related harassment. Thus they made having the uniform civil code a reasonable classification for denying Goa some of the laws enacted in the rest of India to address women’s issues. It took a lot of persuasion by the women’s movement in Goa to get the law finally extended over three decades later.

Same with the acknowledgement of the existence of child sexual abuse and other crimes. The State has always tried to shirk responsibility by denial or by making odious comparisons. Ditto with the existence of AIDS in Goa. In these cases, the myth of difference – of being peaceful and safe, was sought to be deployed to cover up the existence and consequently to deprive the local population of appropriate measures of redressal.

Why, after reneging on last time’s poll promise of special status, as reflected in its 2012 election manifesto, the BJP’s Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar now says that Goa cannot get special status as it tops on all fronts. The arguments of a different history and connected consequences for citizenship, including holding of agricultural property and voting rights, as the rationale for a special status, are quietly swept under the carpet, not even considered.

Thus we see that difference is either not recognised, or the discriminatory attitude to being differently located in or vis-à-vis power, works negatively, but positive discrimination has rarely been the privilege of those in Goa who deserve it most.

Or where the difference is recognised, Goa and its people are commodified, used and abused. Everyone in Goa, it seems, has to remain content with Goa being referred to as a mole that lends beauty to the nation. Amit Shah in his recent visit reflected the spirit in which dominant India, including the ruling establishment, looks at Goa. Different and commodified, for selfish motives of a select few.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 26 January, 2017)

आंतोनियो कॉश्तांच्या माफीचे राजकारण

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कौस्तुभ नाईक/KAUSTUBH NAIK

गोमंतकीय वंशाचे व पोर्तुगालचे सद्याचे पंतप्रधान आंतोनियो कॉश्ता हे गोवा भेटीवर असतानाचे निमित्त साधून साडेचारशे वर्षाच्या पोर्तुगीज राजवटीसाठी कॉश्ता ह्यांनी माफी मागावी अशी मागणी महाराष्ट्रवादी गोमंतक पक्षाचे नेते सुदिन ढवळीकर ह्यांनी केली आहे. ऐन निवडणुकीच्या तोंडावर आलेली ही मागणी आणि ढवळीकरांचे सनातनी हिंदुत्वप्रेम लक्षात घेतल्यास ह्या मागणीचा रोख नेमका कुठे आहे हे सुज्ञास सांगायची गरज नाही. पण अशा घोषणामागे गोव्याच्या वसाहतवादी इतिहासाचे एकसुरी चित्र रंगवून सामाजिक तेढ निर्माण करण्याचे प्रयत्न अधोरेखित केले पाहिजे.

पोर्तुगीजांनी गोव्यावर साडेचारशे वर्षे राज्य केले खरे पण आपण एक लक्षात घेतले पाहिजे कि साडेचारशे वर्षे हा खूप मोठा कालखंड आहे. ह्या कालखंडात पोर्तुगीज राजवटीत तसेच जागतिक वसाहतवादाच्या इतिहासात अनेक स्थित्यंतरे घडली. मुळात सद्याचा गोवा प्रदेश पोर्तुगीजांनी जुन्या व नव्या काबिजादी अश्या दोन टप्प्यात काबीज केला. ह्या दोन्ही काबिजादी पोर्तुगीजांच्या अंमलाखाली येण्यामध्येच सुमारे दोनशे वर्षांचे अंतर आहे. नव्या काबिजादी पोर्तुगीजांच्या राजवटीखाली येता येता पोर्तुगीज सत्ताकारणाचे धार्मिक पैलू बदलले होते त्यामुळे साडेचारशे वर्षे सतत इथल्या लोकांचा धार्मिक छळ वगैरे झाला हे एक मोठे थोतांड आहे. जुन्या काबिजादीत देखील जी धर्मांतरे झाली ती सगळीच काही तथाकथित जुलुमांतर्गत झाली नसून त्याकाळाच्या जातीय समीकरणांचा ही धर्मांतरे घडवून आणण्यात खूप मोठा हात होता ह्याचे अनेक तपशील विविध इतिहासकारांनी नोंदवलेले आहे. गोमंतकीय इतिहासाची मींमासा करताना आपण हेही लक्षात ठेवले पाहिजे कि गोमंतकीय समाज हा काही एकजिनसी स्वरूपाचा नसून जात, धर्म व वर्गवार वैविध्य व विषमता असलेला हा समाज आहे. गोमंतकीय समाजाच्या विविध घटकांचा पोर्तुगीज सत्तेशी विविध पातळीवर संबंध होता. इथल्या स्थानिक ब्राह्मणांचे वर्चस्व हे बहुतांशी त्यांच्या पोर्तुगीज राजवटीकडे असलेल्या जवळीकेमुळे आहे. गोमंतक मराठा समाजाला स्थानिक ब्राह्मणांच्या जोखडातून मुक्त करण्यात पोर्तुगीज राजवटीचा मोठा हात आहे हे राजाराम पैगीणकरांनी आपल्या आत्मचरित्रात नमूद केले आहे.त्यामुळे संपुर्ण गोमंतकीय जनतेचे पोर्तुगीजांकडे एकसुरी व शत्रुत्वाचे संबंध होते असे मानणेही इतिहासाला धरून नाही. नव्या काबिजादीत पोर्तुगीजांमार्फत सत्ता चालवणारे हे बहुतांशी हिंदू ब्राह्मण होते. विविध सरकारी आस्थापनात तसेच सत्तेच्या इतर व्यवहारात त्यांची वर्णी लागली होती. इथल्या बहुजन समाजाचे शोषण पोर्तुगीजांपेक्षा इथल्या ब्राह्मणांनी जास्त जवळून व जोमाने केले आहे. गोव्यात असलेली जमिनीची कोमुनिदाद व्यवस्था व देवळातील अधिकार व मालकीचे हक्क आखून देणारा महाजनी कायदा व ह्या दोहोत असलेले स्थानिक हिंदू ब्राह्मणांचे वर्चस्व हि खुद्द पोर्तुगीज सरकारने इथल्या ब्राह्मणांना दिलेली ‘सप्रेम भेट’ आहे.

हल्लीच मडकई येथील नवदुर्गा मंदिराच्या प्रकरणामुळे पोर्तुगीजकालीन महाजनी कायद्याच्या अंतर्गत असलेल्या अलोकशाही तरतुदींवर नव्याने चर्चा झाली. ढवळीकर हे खुद्द मडकई मतदारसंघाचे नेतृत्व करतात पण ह्या वादात त्यांनी कसलीच ठोस भूमिका घेतली नाही. पोर्तुगीजांनी केलेल्या अत्याचाराची जर एवढीच चीड त्यांना होती तर सेवेकरी ग्रामस्थांच्या हक्कासाठी त्यांनी निश्चितच आवाज उठवायला हवा होता आणि हा कायदा रद्द करावा अशी मागणी विधानसभेत करायाला पाहिजे होती. तसे काही झाल्याचे ऐकिवात नाही. मगो पक्ष हा एकेकाळी बहुजनावादाचा किल्ला गोव्यात लढवत होता. किंबहुना त्या बुनियादी तत्वांची जाण ठेवून पक्ष पातळीवर देखील मगो पक्षाने महाजनी कायद्याला विरोध दर्शविला नाही. इतिहासात मागे जाऊन माफीच मागायची झाली तर एक मोठी यादीच तयार करावी लागेल. पोर्तुगीजकालीन महाजनी कायदा बरखास्त करण्यासाठी विशेष प्रयत्न न केल्यामुळे मगो पक्षानेदेखील गोमंतकीय बहुजन समाजाची माफी मागण्यास काही हरकत नसावी.

Of Temples, Conversions, and Apologies

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The Portuguese Prime Minister should apologise, say the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), ‘as soon as he lands, for all the atrocities committed on the people of Goa, while the Portuguese ruled Goa.’

Let us leave aside the fact that these apology-seekers have long been part of the present ruling establishment, and thus should themselves apologise first for their failure on every single front—for the freely proliferating casinos, for the mining mess, for the numerous white elephant projects destroying the environment while driving the state into massive debt, for the communities being uprooted right and left, for the lack of decent employment and wages for Goans even as the government prepares to clean out the state coffers to provide the 7th Pay Commission bonanza—to itself.

But let us ignore the fact that this talk of apologies for the past is clearly an attempt to distract us from the issues of the present, and to make some nationalist mileage out of the visit of the Prime Minister of Portugal to Goa. Let us also ignore the fact that it is ridiculous to ask for apologies for past events whose participants are dead and gone. What I would like to look at instead is the history peddled by the MGP and GSM, which, as expected, is both one-sided and brahmanical to the core.

So what are these atrocities that they want an apology for? ‘There was maximum destruction done by the Portuguese by destroying temples and bridges, just as they left Goa in 1961,’ claims former PWD minister Sudin Dhavalikar. Plus there was the ‘oppression under the Portuguese rule, conversions and inhumane treatment’, adds GSM president Anand Shirodkar, not to mention the introduction of the ‘English language culture’.

Now this is the first time one has heard of temples destroyed in 1961, probably because it never happened. There are of course records of temple destruction by the Portuguese earlier. But it is really a question whether this calls for apologies. Because what exactly did these temples represent? Even today, many Hindu temples across India are strongly brahmanical institutions.  Dalits have been beaten, even killed, for stepping inside temples in India not centuries ago but in current times. In Goa, while overt violence might not be heard of, Dalits are still barred from Hindu temples in Pernem. Even elsewhere—as in Marcaim, represented by Dhavalikar in the Goa Assembly—full access is allowed only to certain castes, while every single job, ritual and celebration sees the enforcement of the caste system with its ideas of purity and pollution.

The bahujan struggle at Marcaim to democratise the control of the temple is, not surprisingly, yet to receive a word of support from Dhavalikar.

How would it have been centuries ago when the temples of the Velhas Conquistas were destroyed? These dominant-caste temples were not just the owners of wealth, including lands, gold, and all kinds of slaves, but also the heart and soul of caste society. As Xavier and Zupanov (Catholic Orientalism, 2015) point out, the temples were the ‘centre of local sociability, a memory archive of social distinctions, a collective treasury, and the seat of village authority’. This was a society that upheld sati (banned by Albuquerque) and treated bahujans literally like dirt; not even accepting them as animals, forget humans; not allowing them to eat or dress decently—because that was against religion, the religion upheld by the temples. It was a time when Dalits could be killed in religiously-sanctioned sacrifices for the construction of all grand projects, as the inscriptions in Vijayanagara (Hampi) describe.

The destruction of such institutions by the Portuguese would thus surely have been seen as a moment of liberation by many, even though it was probably done not for liberation but as a statement of power.

As for conversions, according to Ângela Barreto Xavier (2007), the untouchables (farazes) were willing converts to Christianity, for they saw it as a chance to escape caste oppression. It is another matter that, thanks to many dominant castes also converting in order to retain power and wealth, caste itself entered Goan Catholicism. Even so, Catholicism still offered the message of equality, at least theoretically. The combination of this theory with the jobs, education, and other opportunities offered by the Estado to Catholic bahujans, meant that they could leave their former humiliating conditions and seek new opportunities. As Raghuraman Trichur and Peter de Souza point out, this in turn provided an opportunity for oppressed castes in the regions outside the Estado. For the Velhas Conquistas now needed labour; bahujan outsiders could find work here and thus escape their old positions and identities.

Conversions to Catholicism were thus a boon for Goans, not just the Catholics but all Goans. And the destroyed temples were similarly hardly likely to have been mourned by anybody but the dominant castes whose position they upheld. As for the ‘English language culture’, only casteists would want to deny this culture to all, along with the social and economic benefits it entails.

So, apologies for what? Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Malabar is in fact considered by many Dalits as a milestone in the history of Dalit liberation (Aditya Nigam, 2006).

It is high time that Goans stop falling for the history narratives peddled by casteist myth-mongers. For them, the only problem in Goan (and Indian) history is the arrival of the Portuguese (and the British); before that, we supposedly lived in a Golden Age. But this was a Golden Age of only the dominant castes, and the sooner we recognise this, the earlier our real liberation.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 January, 2017)

Five Striking Moments of 2016

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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?

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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?

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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

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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)


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.