Tuesday, 25 April 2017

COW POLITICS AND SLAVERY



The recent comments by members of the Sangh Parivar on the complete ban on the consumption of beef in Goa have ignited a controversy. The comments, casteist as they are, have shifted the attention of the Goan people away from pressing issues like the future of casinos, the Mopa airport, the crises in the mining sector, environmental pollution, and everyday governance. That such comments divert our attention elsewhere is unfortunate; but every time such comments are made we should remind ourselves what exactly lies at the heart of such hate politics.

The online Ambedkarite portal, Round Table India, has been publishing articles critically analyzing the economics and politics of ‘beef ban’, especially since the ban enforced by Maharashtra from 2015. It is with the help of these and some other news reports that I wish to make the case that, through ‘beef bans’ and cow politics, the poor and minoritized population is being pushed further into the depths of poverty and caste, eventually making them live in conditions akin to slavery.

Following the ban in Maharashtra by the Devendra Fadnavis-led government, Arvind Kumar argued that the move had all the makings of a “social conspiracy” against the dalit-bahujans in India, especially in Maharashtra. “I see the beginnings,” he says, “of a reversal of ‘social change’”. Kumar argues that if non-productive cattle – whether used for dairy products or as draught animals – are not slaughtered then they will have to be disposed by someone after they die. Who will do this dirty work? He says that it is those who come from the ‘untouchable’ castes who will either be forced or lured into occupations such as disposing and skinning dead cattle and further “get trapped in the evil practice of untouchability”.

Kumar seems to have rightly perceived the diabolic game plan behind the ban on cow slaughter in Maharastra as the NGO that worked to make the ban a reality has similar plans. In an interview to Scroll.in, Rajendra Joshi, a trustee of the Viniyog Parivar Trust, said, “Cattle will now die their natural deaths scattered across the state, and it will help revive the traditional vocations of chamars and mochis [tanners and cobblers] across the state”. In making such a statement, Joshi admits that people are moving away from occupations such as tanning and hence such occupations need to be “revive[d]”. Obviously, people would not volunteer to perform such demeaning traditional occupations, hence the coercion of the state is seen as so necessary.

This emphasis on bringing back the ‘traditional’ precisely confirms what Kumar had suspected all along: undo social mobility and reorder labor relations. The idea ultimately is to return to a casteist way of life and production relations that perpetuates practices of untouchability. Talking in terms of untouchability does not mean that the issue is solely about religion, rituals, or belief; it is also fundamentally an economic issue as those who provide labor in a caste society – including those who work in agriculture and clear/skin dead cattle – come from the lower strata of society.

Studies have shown that if non-productive cattle are not culled – that is livestock rearing is not done in a scientific and economically rational manner – then the population of cattle begins to shrink. In other words, slaughter is essential if the agricultural and dairy production is to be maintained at an economically viable level. Farmers, being unable to dispose of such cattle, have to bear the burden of sustaining non-productive animals. Selling non-productive cattle (whether cows or bulls) for slaughter (with the resultant production of food, leather, and other important goods) sustains an agrarian economy dependent on bovine animals. The butcher is an integral part of this economy. In fact we can observe that a ban on cow slaughter economically burdens farmers, dairy farmers, butchers, and meat traders. However, the only ones who are laughing all the way to the bank are the beef exporters – many of them upper caste Hindus – who seem to be increasing the quantum of exports despite this hate politics.

Seen from the perspective of the ill-effects that a ‘beef ban’ and anti-cow slaughter laws have on the society and the economy, it is imperative that secular forces and those keen to maintain Goan traditions call for nothing less than a complete revocation of these ‘cow protection’ laws, including the one that the MGP government brought into force in Goa in the 1970s. It is also a litmus test to the votaries of secularism and Goemkarponn if they will push for the revocation or change of laws antithetical to the lives and livelihoods of Goans.

In Goa too, one can observe that it has become increasingly difficult for people to maintain cattle. It is simply not economically viable, and over a period of time so many people have stopped rearing cattle. Add to this, one sees a large number of cows scavenging from dustbins and other areas. The oppressive ‘cow protection’ laws – circumscribed by a upper caste Hindu morality – has made it difficult for people to maintain cows and the bovine population to sustain itself.

Thus, the issue is not simply about people being unable to eat beef (that is, without being lynched or killed for it). While it is true that ‘beef bans’ pose a threat to a loosely defined ethos of ‘secularism’, the issue is much deeper in which the laboring poor are trapped within the oppressive structures of caste, poverty, and tradition. It is a form of slavery that is perpetuated by the law and a casteist morality which is undoing the social mobility achieved through the struggles of various groups. While forcing labor relations based on caste hierarchies, such ‘beef bans’ also deny ‘minorities’ like Christians and Muslims (of all castes and classes) the choice of food and cultural practices ostensibly because it offends upper caste Hindu sensibilities.

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

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

COAL AND A BIT OF COLONIALISM



The decision by the state and central governments to expand the coal handling capacity of the Mormugao port is cause for alarm. From very real and obvious dangers of environment and health to the equally real threat to the livelihoods of traditional fishermen, the government seems least bothered about the citizens. On the contrary they are making haste to promote the interests of the big corporations. Indeed, plans to build the National Highway 17-B and the dredging of the Mormugao port are geared to facilitate the transport of large volumes of coal to industries in neighboring Karnataka.

According to news reports, the plans to dredge the port and build a new highway will benefit Indian companies like Adani, JSW, and Vedanta. Nihar Gokhale, a journalist who reports on environmental and policy issues, wrote some time back that clearances for the Mormugao expansion flagrantly violated rules and due procedure. If the plans materialize as per the wishes of the corporations and the government, Mormugao’s coal handling will rise to 26 million tonnes per annum from the current five million tonnes; the port town of Vasco and surrounding areas, therefore, are poised to choke on coal dust.

That the government is riding roughshod over the lives and livelihoods of the people is not surprising. In Goa, we have the instance of the Investment Promotion Board that circumvents all checks and balances to bring in the ‘mega-project development’. Case in point was the sale of a village in Tiracol to construct a golf course for the rich, while the villagers engaged in traditional occupations were manhandled to vacate the land. Through the partnership of corporations and government we see a process of ‘colonization’ wherein local resources are senselessly extracted or destroyed while the local people either get peanuts in return or nothing at all.

Thinking of large-scale processes of development as ‘process of colonialism’ – wherein shifts in political power does not necessarily alter oppressive relations – allows us to see that the nation-state of today operates in similar ways as the colonial-state of the past. As many scholars have pointed out, the neo-liberal development shares a link with past colonialism and imperialism in places likes Asia and Africa in the manner in which it extracts resources and mounts wars against indigenous peoples.There is, however, a difference between the neo-liberal development of today and the colonial development of the past, chiefly in terms of the volume of resources extracted or exploited. Activists and lay citizens need to consider this history in order to mount strong resistance against the destructions of lives and livelihoods.

Mormugao port provides us an excellent opportunity to reflect on such processes and their long history. The port, in fact, can be considered to be at the centre of colonial and neo-liberal development. There is the curious case of British India investing in the construction of the West of India Portuguese Guaranteed Railway (WIP) that had linked Mormugao to the Southern Mahratta Railway (SMR) at Londa, via Castle Rock towards the end of the nineteenth century. Looking for a cheaper and convenient point for exporting the products from the hinterlands of British India, the British Raj entered into a treaty – the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1878 – with Portuguese India. The cost of building the railway line, in true colonial fashion, was borne by the Goan exchequer.

The Portuguese were looking for investments that would revitalize the weakened economic situation, create jobs, and boost the almost non-existent industry in Goa. The Portuguese government hoped that collaboration with the economically and politically powerful British empire would modernize Portuguese India. That it did not work was due to many factors and there is no space here to elaborate why these plans failed. However, what needs to be highlighted is that many in Goa at that time felt that the Portuguese had effectively given the control of the economy into British hands. The British too wanted political and economic control over Portuguese India. They did achieve this goal to a certain extent with the control of the port and railways, and taxes on the production of salt, amongst other things.

In a sense, the developmental politics around Mormugao port in contemporary times follows this old pattern; of massive investments coming with a promise of jobs and growth of the economy. It also necessitates the investment of public money without substantial returns to the same public. Whereas in the past the flow of goods was from the hinterlands of India to other places of the world, in the present times the government-corporate nexus wants to use Mormugao as a importing and exporting node for goods (like coal and iron ore) to feed the industries in various parts of the country and abroad. The case is curious not just because of the reverse flow of goods, but also because Indian companies are extracting natural resources like coal from distant Australia (and also in places like Mozambique in Africa) and transporting it in India. Many in Australia, including indigenous leaders, and cricketers like Ian and Greg Chappell, have supported campaigns against Indian companies like Adani to halt coal extraction. These Australian activists have argued that the  proposed mine in Carmichael, Australia – said to be the largest in the world which can produce 60 million tonnes of coal every year for the next 60 years – would threaten not just  the indigenous communities there but also the eco-sensitive Great Barrier Reef.

From facts available on the ground, this present neo-liberal expansion – following roughly patterns of past colonial interventions in the economy and politics – appears eventually to benefit only giant corporations. Colonial relations thrive amidst us, destroying the environment and the lives of people. And it is not just the white men who are propagating such exploitative business practices.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 12 April, 2017)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

ACTIVISM, IDEALISM, AND REALITIES ON THE GROUND



Irom Sharmila’s recent loss in the Manipur Assembly elections has sparked off a debate. Many commentators, largely on social media, were shocked to learn that Irom Sharmila only managed to get 90 votes. These commentators contrasted Irom Sharmila’s bad show at the elections with her 16 years of struggle against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA. Many felt that Irom Sharmila’s long and arduous activism should have resulted in her sailing through; or at least ensured a close fight against her opponent.

Like in Manipur, Goa also witnessed a few activists jumping into the electoral arena. Some contested as independent candidates, while others contested on the tickets offered by political parties. In most of these cases these activists performed very poorly. The focus of this article is the activist of a particular kind who contests elections after trying to reform the system from the outside. This activist is deeply connected with localized, environment-related, socially conscious movements and generally hails from the marginalized sections. As such an activist does his/her activism at a huge personal sacrifice. Their activism, by default, makes them anti-establishment.

I would like to briefly discuss the activism of Ravindra Velip, who unsuccessfully contested in Sanguem. The rampant destruction caused by the mining companies in cahoots with the Goa government forced Velip to oppose this destruction of his native village of Caurem. Leading several agitations, Velip and his fellow-activists were arrested in March 2016. Here he suffered a murderous assault. Velip and his fellow villagers in Caurem – a village largely populated by STs – were not necessarily opposed to mining per se but refused to put up with the illegalities of the mining companies and the government. They rather argued that the locals had a claim to the resources of the village, wherein most of the benefits will go to the people of the area rather than giant corporations. Contesting in the constituency of Sanguem, which contains many mines, Velip brought his experiences as an anti-mining activist to his campaign. Indeed, he used his experiences to articulate a politics of change. But the end result was dismal – Velip only received 658 votes.

If one follows Velip’s interventions in the public sphere, it will be clear that his politics is neither lacking in activism nor in idealism. So why did such activism and idealism not translate into a thumping victory? To this, we can suggest that there is a gap between idealism and how people vote. On the other side of the issue, there is also a gap between ideals and how power is brokered once representatives are elected. Recent events leading to the formation of the Manohar Parrikar-led government have shown that electoral verdicts can be turned upside down in a matter of few hours. What happens and what is said behind closed doors is not known to the general public. Removed from the public eye, these negotiations operate in an economy that subverts any politics of idealism.

Away from the corridors of power, it is believed that ‘the people’ form the keystone of the electoral process. If the poor performance of activists in this election is any indication, then it appears that other factors come into play that make people vote for the status quo. One can observe that votes are cast on the basis of the ‘cult of the personality’. This person generally emerges as a leader by making it big in business and/or facilitating the bureaucratic and legal difficulties of the people of his area. He/she is an activist of another type (in common parlance, a ‘social worker’), the quintessential person who gets your work done. This person due to being rich, or of dominant caste, or due to an extensive personal network that he creates habitually reaches out to people in times of need, even if he is conveniently not addressing the structural set up that has caused the problems for the people in the first place. Often this ‘cult of the personality’ neatly fits into the aspiration of various caste groups; sometimes people simply vote because the candidate belongs to their own caste.

What also takes precedence as well over idealism is the access to basic amenities in towns and villages.Voting is done on the basis of how effectively a candidate can deliver development, which in common parlance means water, electricity, roads, or at least claims to effectively deliver this development once elected. (Such a development is not the same as the other type of development which the government promotes through mega-projects). These issues, closest to the lived reality of the people, resonate more effectively than idealism that claims to overhaul the entire system.And, painful as it is, we have to accept that money and other such favors are also exchanged that do affect the outcomes of elections.

To be fair, many activists have actively worked against the exchange of money during elections, and to bring about transparency in the corridors of power, but the fact that it makes very little impact on elections, or on persons in the higher echelons of power suggests that issues of basic amenities, and local or caste-based loyalties take precedence over the current form of idealism.The activist and his/her idealism cannot tackle such well-entrenched power structures as easily as one might think.These ideals seem to not work if pitted against the ‘cult of the personality’ and the exchange of money for votes. Even the anti-incumbency wave doesn’t seem to have much of an impact.

Considering such realities that affect whom people choose to vote in elections,activists need to think more deeply how idealism needs to be compatible with the complex decisions that people make whilst voting. It will be quite tragic if politics in Goa does not get enriched by the huge sacrifices made by activists from marginalized communities, and if principles of liberty, equality, and justice are not deepened in Goan politics. Or else, we will only witness more power struggles detrimental to public interests.

(Illustrations by Angela Ferrao. First published in O Heraldo, dt: 29 March, 2017)

Friday, 10 March 2017

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF ONE VOTE?



Having gone to the polls on 4 February, Goa is awaiting the results of the assembly elections with bated breath. Known to be pro-active in terms of exercising its democratic franchise, Goa’s 83 percent voter turnout was praised by all. The month-long wait for the results, however, is witnessing controversies around such issues as those of irregularities in the voting process through postal ballots, and the enrollment of around 600 army men as voters in the Navelim constituency. These controversies have cast doubts on whether elections in Goa were conducted in a free and fair manner. In the months leading to the elections, Goa saw spirited media campaigns conducted not only by the political parties, but also the Chief Electoral Officer, Goa (CEO) who forms part of the Election Commission entrusted with ensuring free and fair elections. While a blitzkrieg of media outreach and advertising was expected of the various political parties, the CEO’s social media and other outreach campaigns were also interesting in the manner in which it tried to convince voters to participate in large numbers.

As part of the initiative, the CEO introduced pink polling stations (decorated with pink balloons and managed by women officers) to encourage women to vote, gave out pink teddy bears to first-time female voters, used different Goan personalities from various walks of life as ‘election icons’, organized selfie contests on Facebook, and used the live broadcast feature on Facebook during the press-conferences. The voter turnout of this elections as compared to the last assembly election in 2012 indicate that Goa’s participation has remained stable, prompting the local press to remark that a 80 percent turnout seems to be the “norm”. Goa recorded 83 percent voter turnout in this elections, as compared to the 82.2 per cent recorded in the 2012 assembly elections.


While the voter turnout is considered as a crucial marker to judge the success of a particular election as well as to ascertain the future of the democratic setup, we can talk about the implications of the CEO’s massive outreach campaign. The CEO made appeals for ethical voting to the Goan populace. At a time when successive governments in Goa have failed to deliver basic amenities to the people, and instead brought in massive developmental projects that destroy the fragile ecology of Goa what do calls for ethical voting mean and imply for the Goan people? Being a neutral body, the implications of the CEO’s outreach are not necessarily confined to the time when the model code of conduct is in force, but also extends long after the elections are over.

Consider one of the videos that were posted on the CEO’s Facebook page as part of the voter awareness program. The video shows a group of four young friends who plan to enjoy themselves rather than vote on election day. Each of these persons gets smacked in the head by a large object every time they suggest an activity other than voting. It turns out that this large object is in fact a book – the Constitution of India. Getting smacked in the head by a book – the Constitution no less! – is not a pleasant experience. The flipside of such aggressive media campaigning is rather unimaginable: no governmental body, least of all the Election Commission, would ever start a media campaign during elections which depicts a politician or bureaucrat being whacked on the head by the Constitution for failing to discharge their duties honestly and ethically. The imagery of violence is unfortunate given the fact that violence is routine for most of the marginalized communities in India.

It is very problematic to solely blame the ‘voter’ for the ills of the system. The similar voter turnout in the 2012 and 2017 assembly elections indicates that blaming voters is a superficial way of offering moot causes for the breakdown of governance. Voters are voting, yet we do not see change for the better. Calls for ethical voting, such as the ones we witnessed leading to the assembly elections in Goa, do not take into account the fact the once elections are over there is very little accountability that the citizens can demand of governmental machinery and the elected representatives.

In the Goan setting, campaigns for ethical voting by a governmental body exposes contradictions within governance itself. In the absence of a proper ‘social contract’ in which the government is entrusted with the welfare of the populace, calls for ethical voting mean very little. The simple fact is that successive governments have not been able to look after the welfare of the people of Goa. Asking the youth to come out in large numbers when the government messes up such crucial educational policies as the Medium of Instruction (MoI), or asking people to vote honestly when basic amenities like housing and drinking water are not accessible to all, is in itself a contradiction.

If we consider the MoI issue where a large number of Goan parents are demanding the right to choose the English language as a medium of instruction in primary schools (in addition to other regional languages), then it appears that successive elections have failed to resolve the issue despite repeated promises. Rather than resolving the issue, successive governments have communalized the demand for English as MoI as a Catholic versus Hindu issue, thereby pitting one community against the other.

Since we began this reflection on campaigns for ethical voting during the Goa 2017 assembly elections with reference to the Constitution of India, it would not be out of place to refer to an oft-quoted statement of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. On the eve of the Constitution coming into force, Dr. Ambedkar had said, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value”.

What Ambedkar meant by contradictions was the existence of caste-based and other inequalities antithetical to basic human dignity. This inequality, fundamental to the Indian social structure, was precisely what prevented the realization of the true potential of voting in a democratic setup. The existence of caste- and class-based inequalities does not allow all constituents in India’s democracy to participate as equals. Everyone either votes to maintain status quo of entrenched caste privileges or votes in a particular way to ensure one’s own survival from the dominance of powerful groups. The larger issues of accountability, efficient governance, and access to basic amenities take a back seat.

Giving freebies like pink teddy bears goes against the Constitutional idea of one-person-one-value as it deepens gender stereotypes and treats first time voters as juveniles happy to receive toys. If one is considered qualified to vote at 18 years of age and is considered to be capable of making informed choices regarding the future of the body politic, then it should be ideally done without expecting any gifts in return.

The implications of the social media outreach and the calls for ethical voting (by anyone) run far deeper than creating a large voter turnout. What we witnessed in the Goan case is an assumption of a moral position vis-à-vis voting. In itself, asking people to vote for a greater good falls within the scope of conducting fair and free elections. However, appeals for ethical voting need to consider how governance has failed most of the people who vote in every election. A moral position on voting cannot simply target those who do not vote ethically, or those who do not vote at all. It should recognize that the political class is responsible for the failure of democracy too.

The question still remains: what is the value of the one vote each of us casts every election? 

(Illustrations by Angela Ferrao. First published in raiot.in on 10 March, 2017)