Tuesday, 16 January 2018

BHIMA KOREGAON AND LESSONS FOR GOAN HISTORY



The commemoration of the East India Company’s victory against the Peshwas at Bhima Koregaon, and the subsequent violence that was witnessed, provides some pointers to understand Goan history. In recent times, those lakhs of Dalits who congregate at Bhima Koregaon to pay their respects to the fallen warriors have been termed as “anti-nationals” by the Hindu right. The ostensible logic of the Hindu right is that commemorations such as those at Bhima Koregaon signify the celebration of ‘foreign’ victory over ‘Indian’ forces. We are thus presented with a history that appears to contain a clear divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The ‘us’ here is a unified political and cultural community called India, and the ‘them’ being the foreign rulers who did not have their origins in India.

But such logic is not just endemic within the thinking of the right. Even secular liberal nationalism has successfully attempted to project a clear us-and-them divide in the subcontinent’s past. New research in history is increasingly demonstrating that this is not the case. Indeed, the past witnessed myriad and complex forms of power struggles that do not fit into the simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary. The commonly known and freely circulating facts about Goan history are a good place to start understanding these complex power struggles.

It is well-known that Portuguese sovereignty, which started in 1510 could not have been successful without the help of native elites. While the campaign of Afonso de Albuquerque is etched in the collective memory of Goans due to the inclusion in school textbooks, the fact that native elites like the trader Mhall Pai Vernekar and the naval commander Timoja who helped Albuquerque with intelligence and forces is not interpreted as collaborating with a foreign power. The issue here is not whether a power is foreign or not, but the manner in which nationalist history writing chooses to interpret certain facts. Thus, when elites join forces with foreign powers it is not regarded as aiding colonial power or imposing foreign domination. But the same nationalist history holds it against the subaltern sections if they align with foreign powers.

The truth is that everybody, at some point or the other, aligned with foreign powers in a complex hierarchy of political power. In fact, ‘foreignness’ wasn’t defined according to modern notions of nationality. However, it was always the elites who were the first to make alliances, and this is true of both India and Goa. Because the history of European rule in South Asia is also linked to colonial rule, the acknowledgment of this history of native or local collaboration becomes all the more urgent if one is not to be misled by naïve readings of history. In this context, we can turn to the writings of the historian Ângela Barreto Xavier, based at the University of Lisbon who has roots in Goa and also holds the J. H. da Cunha Rivara Chair for Visiting Professors at the Goa University. Xavier in her essay, “David contra Golias na Goa Seiscentista e Setecentista. Escrita Identitária e Colonização Interna,” (Ler História, no. 49, 2005) argues that the contestation of local elites – the Brahmins and the Chardos – within the political system of the Portuguese empire created “internal colonizers”.

Within the imperial Portuguese hierarchies, Xavier argues that the local elites competed with each other for entry into such prestigious occupations such as priesthood and military services in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting bit about the local elites was that while they were subject to the Portuguese imperial hierarchy, their bid for power was also tempered by their internal caste differences, conversion to Christianity notwithstanding. The result was that both the Brahmins and Chardos constructed their identity in a particular way: on the one hand, arguing that they were best suited to govern the lands on behalf of the Portuguese Crown; and on the other, trying to defeat the caste interests of their rival group(s). Thus, Catholic Brahmins would write texts that would claim nobility for their lineage; in response, the Chardos wrote texts that countered this view of the Brahmins, making a case for their eligibility to rule the territory of Goa. Hindu Brahmins similarly took their sectarian differences to the Portuguese Crown, asking the king to restrict the power of the rival sects.

The power games of the elites and their successful bid for power in the Portuguese empire – whether through government and/or military employment, entry into the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or maintaining the control over temple management and property – created a group of people, already elites before the coming of the Portuguese, aiding the process of empire-building and colonization. Xavier suggests that such a political process resulted in the native elites increasingly claiming the place of the intermediary between the Portuguese Crown and officials and the subaltern peoples of Goa. 

Anjali Arondekar, another Goan scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, talks about how activists of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj in the nineteenth century mobilized themselves in order to liberate this beleaguered community from upper-caste oppression. One of the means that they used was to petition the Portuguese Governor to intervene and alleviate their plight.

Whether all these alliances by different sections of Goan society were successful or not is a story for another day. The commemoration/celebration today is largely linked to groups that are marginalized or oppressed in contemporary political setup. Hence, it is unwise to take a moral high ground in this regards, largely because it enables a misleading belief that there were stark differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the past. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 17 January, 2018)

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

SUSEGAD GOANS AND EMPLOYMENT

The Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments on employment on the floor of the assembly during the 2017 winter session highlighted the serious issue of unemployment prevailing in Goa. Mr. Parrikar said that reserving 80% of the jobs for locals was a pre-condition for granting permissions to set up shop in Goa for various companies and industries.

For some months now, the issue of Goans being gainfully employed within Goa itself has been raised not only with a view to tackle unemployment, but to also safeguard Goan identity. This issue has been articulated by spokespersons of political parties, and ministers within the current government, as best tackled by reserving jobs for Goan youth, particularly in the private sector. There is a sense that the government can no longer be the chief locus of employment for Goan youth and hence the need for employment in private sectors. This would also expose young Goans to the highly competitive world of private corporations, as opposed to government employment that seemingly does not require high performance. In all these statements from various quarters, one cannot help but observe a subtle assumption running through: that there is a problem of unemployment in Goa because Goans do not want to work hard, or are not good enough.

Even if all these statements are well intentioned and the subtle assumption that Goans are not hard-working an unconscious one, it drives us to focus on the issue of the various stages leading to employment: education, training, and finally the entry into the job market. One needs to take a step back and think about training or the acquisition of skills through education in a broader sense. Education, in this regard, should not only prepare a young person for the existing job market, but should also open up an individual’s horizons to a wide range of opportunities beyond the services demanded by a neo-liberal economy – where the market is believed to regulate economic relations and the profit is earned by the corporations leaving the risks and loses for the government – as is the case with our current economic setup in India.

Time and again, it has been emphasized by many writers and commentators in Goa that the basic structure of education has serious flaws in it. The Medium of Instruction issue, whereby the preferred choice of language for a child’s education was not actively supported by successive governments, indicated that quality education – but most importantly, equal education – is not available to all members of Goan society. Rather than allowing English education that would help the poorer sections in getting jobs, the government wanted to saddle these very groups with the burden of ‘mother tongue’. In terms of higher education and the proposed plans for expanding its scope, the government wanted to promote technical education, rather than a holistic approach that promotes the sciences and humanities. This we saw in the manner in which a new IIT was proposed in Canacona in 2016, and the various arguments that were put forth for the setting up of such an institution.

When there is talk of reserving jobs for Goans or positively discriminating in favor of Goans, one should also think about how existing reservations for discriminated-against communities, i.e. caste-based reservations, in educational institutions – both in terms of seats for students and jobs for teachers – are scuttled on a regular basis in Goa. In terms of education/training leading eventually to jobs, such discriminatory practices in the universities contribute to the unemployment of members of these communities. So, the system creates disadvantages for certain students right at the beginning, during their education, and those who somehow overcome these hurdles are denied the jobs reserved for them, despite having the necessary qualifications. Perhaps there is an irony here considering the current debate. Young students are disadvantaged as far as their education is concerned, while one expects them to somehow possess skills that would prepare them for the job market.

The view expressed in the assembly and the press suggesting that Goans should consider settling for lesser pay and difficult working conditions (even as a way of gaining experience and exposure) means that there is an acknowledgement that poor salaries are also a problem along with unemployment. Even if jobs are reserved, the government’s policy does not deal with the fact that Goan youth need to be shielded from poor salaries. If such a step is ensured through policy and law, it would be against the neo-liberal setup and thus discourage investment in Goa. Even if jobs are assured, good working conditions are not.

One thing should be clear from the foregoing: reserving jobs for Goans is not enough if Goan identity is to be fostered. It needs to be ensured whether the steps taken by the government, in fact, promote the interests of Goans, and improve the living conditions inside Goa. If unemployment is to be tackled then one needs to take into consideration related areas such as education, which eventually has a bearing on identity as well.

Contrary to popular belief in sections of the media and the political establishment, Goans are seeking work and not sloth, as can be seen with Goans migrating in droves. Thus, there is no dearth of persons who are determined to do the hard work. In order to tackle unemployment as well the problems with Goan identity, decent working conditions must prevail in Goa. If the internal situation – be it political, economic, social, and infrastructural – is poor, then out-migration will always remain a better option.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 3 January, 2018)

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

ENVIRONMENT AND CULTURE: TAKING STOCK OF 2017



Standing on the cusp of the New Year, it is useful to reflect on the year gone by. This we do with the hope that the inevitable new beginning will be better than what we experienced in the past, in terms of our personal and public existence. And in that spirit, I think, we should take every opportunity to evaluate our political, social, and cultural existence during the past year.

Environmental and cultural concerns can be argued to have dominated the political discourse in Goa in 2017. Indeed, the protests articulated in places like Mopa and Sonshi demonstrated how environment and culture influenced the present discourse on Goan identity. The year witnessed a massive public hearing on an environmental issue. Choking on coal dust, many gathered in Vasco to make their grievances heard. This unprecedented event signaled yet again the growing sense that Goa’s environment and ecological health is endangered, and, if not addressed urgently, will lead to an unmitigated disaster.

Similar to the urgency to address the issue of coal handling and pollution to stop Goa’s environment from deteriorating, the resistance to the development of mega infrastructure projects, such as the new greenfield airport at Mopa, in Pernem, was also in the news. We are also witnessing opposition to other projects, like the double-tracking of the Konkan railway route, the re-starting of mining and the effects there of. This time around, many activists have successfully tried to shift the discourse to demonstrate how aspects of Goan economy fit in a larger system of global capitalism. An increasing number of Goans can be said to have realized that they are being reduced to cogs in the larger system of capitalism. There is awareness that a remote Goan village is not isolated, on the contrary it is linked to distant industrial or commercial hubs. However, the awareness of how global capitalism is a continuum of feudal (or feudal like) system of land ownership and control prevalent in Goa is still lacking; one hopes that it will be a part of mainstream political discourse soon.

There are instances where the issues are old but the sites of protest and resistance have shifted to new villages or areas. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly clear to all that urban and rural Goa is categorically speaking out: Goa’s ecology and the quality of life of Goans are under threat.

Concerns with the environment were closely linked with those of preserving Goa’s culture. In fact, one’s identity cannot exist without the interplay of the environment and cultural productions. Identity, then, was a common thread that ran through the various protests and grievances articulated in the course of this year, as it has been over the last several years. The allusion to the intertwining of identity and environmental issues does not simply refer to the utterly cynical politicking over the coconut tree – being de-notified and re-notified on governmental whims – but rather upon instances wherein Goa’s identity and the belonging of Goans in a wider world was debated; indeed the discussion only deepened by acknowledging the complex history and culture of Goa.

António Costa, the Portuguese Prime Minister, who visited India in January, provided the occasion for re-thinking the cultural belonging of Goans; particularly their connections with Portugal and other Lusophone spaces. Costa, who has Goan ancestry, was celebrated in Goa as well as in India for possessing Indian roots. Minor details like Costa or his father, Orlando Costa, having no connection with the modern Indian nation-state did not deter the grandiose celebrations of homecoming. Even those most critical of Goa’s continued contacts with Portugal and Portuguese culture maintained a somewhat uneasy silence. Of course, it helped matters much that Costa came with the intention of fostering business ties with India and Portugal. But even while Costa’s Indian roots were celebrated, one thing became inevitable clear: Goa and Goans are still undeniably connected with Portugal through history, culture, and migration.

The major events within the spheres of environment and culture – the protests, debates, and discussions of future visions – occurred within a political system. This is the system that needs to hear our grievances and resolve them. We, the people, elect our representatives who are entrusted to run the system. Indian democracy that is built on periodic elections is based on the assumption that one person – or one citizen – has one vote, and this vote has one value. This means that everyone in the country, who has the right to vote, indeed exercises this franchise, are equal with other citizens of the country. This, however, is not the case in reality as caste and class differences obstruct the true realization of democracy in India.

In short, because of the existing social and economic conditions, the political system is unable to represent the interests of all – or at least most of us. Laws and policies are therefore made not to protect the interest of all constituents in the polity, but only to further the interests of a few. This is why one witnesses draconian laws enacted and executive fiats beings issued that impinge on the rights and livelihood of millions of people in the country. Of the many challenge in the New Year, and those that will follow in the years to come, the most important one is to make good of the promise that political representation would lead to the empowerment of all citizens.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 December, 2017)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

DELIVER US FROM NATIONALISM?



There is, I think, a delicious irony in the pastoral letter written by Thomas Macwan, Archbishop of Gandhinagar. Writing at the time when the Gujarat legislative assembly elections are around the corner, Archbishop Macwan in his pastoral letter of 21 November 2017 said, “Nationalist forces are on the verge of taking over the country”. Unmindful of the spirit in which the letter was written or the realities that affect the various communities in India due to violent politics, one witnessed the usual hue and cry in the media. Many commentators even questioned the right of the Archbishop to express his views.

At this point, one might ask who these ‘nationalist forces’ are. Aren’t those who consider themselves Indians ‘nationalists’, one way or the other? Are we to conclude, then, that India needs to be saved from its own people? Especially when a distinction is often made between right-wing and secular nationalists, what could the rather ironic remark by Archbishop Macwan indicate? The statement was made in the context of political power and the way it influences the people in contemporary times. Particularly, the statement hints at the use of nationalism to spread hate and trample upon the rights of people. In this sense one can argue that Archbishop Macwan was referring to those forces that use nationalism to create disorder in society.

Speaking of the increasing attacks on minoritized religious groups as well as the human rights violations against other marginalized groups, Archbishop Macwan’s statement reveals that all is not well within the nation. He observes, “We are aware that the secular fabric of our country is at stake. Human rights are being violated. The constitutional rights are being trampled. Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, church personnel, faithful or institutions. There is a growing sense of insecurity among the minorities, OBCs, BCs, poor etc”.

Archbishop Macwan’s reference to ‘nationalist forces’ sans distinction perhaps hints at some fundamental aspects of Indian nationalism and the manner in which the Indian identity was crafted, chiefly through the freedom struggle. As I have written in the past in this very column, Indian nationalism and identity is based on Hindu majoritarian ideals and works towards maintaining the power and privileges of savarna castes, mostly across religions. By not making a distinction between the secular and right-wing nationalists, or remaining non-committal on that distinction, Archbishop Macwan cut through the politicking hullabaloo and simply pointed out that violence and marginalization is routine for many in India.

But one can also think of the Archbishop’s caution against excessive nationalism as emerging from a nationalist understanding of India’s past and culture. In other words, reproducing the very problems that the letter tries to tackle. The idea that India was a well knit secular society is an old Nehruvian one. What this idea does not take into consideration is the presence of the caste structure in Indian society and the manner in which it obstructs the formation of an egalitarian, let alone secular, society.

The banal violence and marginalization stands starkly against the supposed ideological lines drawn between secular and right-wing nationalisms in India. The recognition of the banality of violence and marginalization in present times should also make us realize that there is a long history to marginalization, including the time when secular, liberal nationalism held sway in India. There cannot be a secular society if millions within that society are subjected to discrimination and violence. As such, Archbishop Macwan’s plea to safeguard the “secular fabric” of the country need to be understood as requiring the creation of a secular society in the first place.

The letter also confronts all those who consider themselves as proud nationalists. Rather than play the usual blame game where one type of nationalists (such as the secular liberal ones) blame the other (right-wing) for all the ills in present times, Archbishop Macwan’s letter demands introspection from all those who claim themselves to be nationalists. It demands that they scrutinize the source of their nationalism, identity, and pride.

The ironic remark in the Archbishop Macwan’s letter should also be an occasion for us to realize that if there is a growing insecurity amongst the ‘minority’ communities that prompts such statements, it is not necessarily because such minority communities are inward-looking and that they cannot look beyond their own selfish gains. It is rather prompted by a very real experience of facing daily marginalization or minoritization and observing how other communities too are subjected to similar discrimination. We in Goa have observed how legitimate issues raised in a church-run magazine were brushed aside by the whole political establishment. The discussion of the Archbishop’s pastoral letters seems to follow a similar script; the storm that is whipped up about the letter diverts us from the pressing problems.

At the end of the day, the issue is not whether nationalism works or not; it is rather the gap between the ideals of nationalism (no matter what shade) and the reality that it ends up hiding. The real challenge that confronts us is to bring the discussion back to the problems faced by the multitude of minoritized and poor communities in India. In this task one might profit much in heeding to the call for safeguarding the constitutional values.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 6 December, 2017)