Tuesday, 15 August 2017

COMMUNAL HARMONY AND THE DESECRATION OF CROSSES



While reading Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics (2005) edited by Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy, which aimed to problematize concepts like syncretism and communal harmony, I first encountered the metaphor, living together separately. Perhaps, it is an apt metaphor to think about Goa’s encounter with communalism.

The vandalism of Christian religious structures – especially crosses in cemeteries – in the last few weeks have shaken Goan society. Even before this began, Goans had become fearful that communal tensions would rip the fabric of its society – especially since the desecrations took place after the virulent hate-speech by Sadhavi Saraswati, who called for beef-eaters to be publicly executed. It did not help matters much that the law and order establishment in Goa, in the name of a fair investigation, staged a farce for public consumption. The response, by and large, from many Goan public figures was to assert Goa’s ‘age-old’ communal harmony; indicating how Hindus and Catholics have lived in perfect harmony despite all odds. In other words, they stressed Goemkarponn as a bulwark against the RSS/BJP-type of Hindutva.

Goa’s Hindu-Catholic model of communal harmony is similarly structured as the Hindu-Muslim unity propounded by Nehruvian Indian nationalism. In this sense, Goa’s model of communal harmony tends to reproduce many problems associated with Indian nationalism and secular liberalism. To assert Goa’s age-old communal harmony is to assume that there was a pre-existing religious harmony – in the sense of ‘unity in diversity’ rhetoric so common in India. This religious harmony is assumed to be centuries old and under growing threat due to the recent rise of Hindu fascism. In other words, the problem of communal disharmony appears to be recent one.

However, this assumption of Goa’s eternal communal harmony ignores many of the events in the past that have led (or are leading) to the present situation of uncertainty and fear. For instance, almost all would scoff at the suggestion that the rise of Hindutva in Goa predated the rise of the BJP. But if one looks at how Hindu nationalism was actively promoted by many Goans in the past, even under the Portuguese rule and ostensibly against the same Portuguese rule, one can see a longer process of communalization at work. The erstwhile weekly, O Bharat, published in Portuguese, Romi Konkani, and Marathi editions, contained many articles in its Marathi edition that encouraged cow-protection. Many of the articles published in O Bharat in the 1930s suggested that Goans should stop the consumption of beef, as Hindus considered cow to be sacred; additionally, the cow provided with food items like milk and hence it was too valuable to be simply consumed for its meat only. These facts should essentially make us question our beliefs about our own communal harmony.

Connected with the idea of Goa’s ancient communal harmony is the idea of religious syncretism. We have the very well-known instances of the zatra of the Goddess Shantadurga at Fatorpa and the feast of Milagres Saibinn at Mapusa where both Hindus and Catholics throng. However, this cross-religious devotionalism or syncretism is not something that affects the course of communal politics. It doesn’t affect politics in Goa precisely because, barring a few exceptions, communities divided by caste and religion tend to keep to themselves. If observed closely, one can see that this cross-religious devotion is largely led by bahujan communities within Roman Catholicism and Hinduism from which the elites within these two religions keep their distance.These are the groups that are, by and large, marginalized in politics as well; another reason why a bahujan-led cross-religious tolerance has very little effect to stop the increasing communalization in Goa.

Underlying this so-called religious syncretism are fractures of caste and class that manifest in various ways. For instance, the first election held in Goa after the end of Portuguese sovereignty is a good measure of how deep these caste and class fractures ran in Goan society. While the MGP’s stunning victory was due to the consolidation of various Hindu bahujan groups against Hindu upper-castes (and also against their bhatkarshahi), it did not mean that a political system was created which protected the interests of various marginalized groups. What followed this initial victory were not just internal schisms in the bahujan movement, but also the marginalization of the Catholic and Muslim voices as well as the many Hindu bahujan communities that had once propelled the Dayanand Bandodkar-led MGP to victory. Where was Goa’s communal harmony when the divisions between various communities were systematically being further encouraged?

Another problem with the idea of communal harmony is the visible exclusion of Muslims, leaving only a false Hindu-Catholic binary and subsuming several communities within the rubric of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Catholic’. Goa’s ‘age-old’ communal harmony can be said to foundationally exclude members ostensibly of the same political and cultural community. Why should we settle for an ideology that often misguides and offers very little in return? Why should we settle for less? The possible way out would be to reject these false equations that straightjacket Goan identity and culture.

There is no doubt that Goan history contains evidence of many progressive values, however, it is equally true that oppressive cultural practices and divisiveness also reside within Goa. This hasn’t been tackled adequately and a superficial reiteration of Goa’s communal harmony whenever dastardly acts like the desecration of crosses occur wouldn’t make the problems go away. It would profit us much to start from the fact that we live together, but separately.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 16 August, 2017)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

GROUNDED SHIPS IN GOA: A BRIEF HISTORY



While global warming is a threat to coastal areas across the world, Goa’s coastline also seems to be threatened by ships being stranded due to negligence on the part of the owners, and especially that of the Goa government. By focusing on the various ways through which the rules are flouted, not just by the private enterprises, but by the authorities who are supposed to be protecting the public good, one comes face-to-face with a clear break down of the rule of law as well as the administrative setup in Goa. Additionally, the inability to check and control the whims and fancies of private business and private individuals suggests that Goa’s ecology is seen as having no value, to be disposed off on the whims of the rich and powerful.

On 5 June, 2000, the MV River Princess ran aground on the Candolim-Sinquerim beach stretch. Due to bad weather the anchor snapped and the loaded oil tanker drifted to the beach. It took the Goa government 12 years, and a whopping 120 crores of taxpayer money, to finally move the ship. The environmental degradation due to this accident has been immense. An estimated 30,000 sq. mts. of public beach area is eroded, along with the livelihood opportunities of those Goans who live in this area. While the beach was slowly being eroded with each crashing wave, the government and the ship-owners dilly-dallied over how it was to be removed. The inability of the government to hold the owners of the ship, the Anil Salgaocar group, eventually meant that the people of Goa paid to clear the mess, and that too only after the beach was seriously degraded.


In 2016, four years after the River Princess was dismantled, another vessel – though not as large – washed ashore the Arossim-Cansaulim beach stretch. It turned out that a rich family from India had hired out a pontoon and a tug boat to host a wedding party. What followed this fiasco was a blame game on the part of the authorities. As the Cansaulim-Arossim-Cuelim panchayat and the Tourism Department had issued permissions to host the party, in the event of an accident how was no one held responsible, many asked. This time, thankfully, it did not take 12 years to remove the vessels, and in 71 days Arihant Ship Breakers (ASB), which has previously salvaged the MV River Princess, completed the job. However, no one was held responsible for the accident and the state, once again, displayed its inability to take strict action. Incidentally, the pontoon at Arossim was hired by the owner of ASB. The same company is also hired to salvage the MV Lucky Seven by its owners.

Now ‘another River Princess’ in the form of a floating casino hotel ran aground on the Miramar coast. The MV Lucky Seven is said to be owned by ex-Haryana home minister, Gopal Kanda, and the Golden Globe Hotels, and would have been the sixth off-shore casino to congest the already crowded Mandovi. The latest fiasco happened under the rule of the BJP which promised to remove all casinos more than a decade ago. There was also a clear indication that the MV Lucky Seven ignored all sorts of warnings pertaining to the danger of storms from the Captain of Ports and the Coast Guard.  Even worse, the MV Lucky Seven was not properly registered according to the laws of the land, and did not even have the necessary permissions to sail up the Mandovi. According to the Captain of Ports, the ship was allowed as a “refuge vessel” to drop anchor at sea. Around the same time, Golden Globe Hotels petitioned the High Court, which apparently ruled in their favor, to allow it entry into the Mandovi as the ship was said to be at risk while anchored. The High Court’s order therefore, needs to be viewed as not a ‘go-ahead’ for another casino – or all casinos in Goa – but as a permission to move to safety.

Armed with a High Court order, but ignoring all sorts of environmental warnings and procedures of the law of the land, the MV Lucky Seven tried to enter the Mandovi despite protests by the Goan people. While this incident once again underscores how the Goa government is unable to uphold the law against the whims of the rich and the mighty, it also brings to light how Goa is exploited as India’s ‘pleasure periphery’. Both the pontoon in Arossim-Cansaulim then and the casino in Miramar now are playthings for the enjoyment of the middle and rich classes from India’s metros. Goa’s coastline and natural beauty are at the service of these Indians, to be abused as they deem fit. If at all there are some problems, such as huge ships running aground and posing an environmental disaster, the people of Goa are expected to foot the bill and clean the mess. Clearly, such a mismanagement of the taxpayers’ money is a big reason why the state requires earnings from such problematic industries like the casinos in the first place.

This puts the people of Goa, especially its marginalized people, in an unequal and exploitative relationship with big business interests. The Goa government equally contributes to this unfortunate situation. Eventually, one needs a political establishment that changes policy decisions to be more people- and environment-friendly and enforces these new policy decisions through the rule of law.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 2 August, 2017)

Thursday, 20 July 2017

POLITICAL PARTIES AND THE RHETORIC OF PARTIAL TRUTHS



Much too often, the statements of political parties and the rhetoric that accompanies it hides more than it reveals. It obscures the issues faced by the people in the interest of maintaining one party’s legitimacy to continue to rule. Alternately, facts and truth are selectively used by the opposition to turn the heat on those who are in power.

In this context, let us consider some recent statements made by members of political parties. As reported in an English-language daily, Curtorim MLA, Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenço claimed that beef was not banned during the Congress regime in Goa. His reason for the claim was that, except for the meat of female cattle (or cow), other bovine meat was available to the Goan people for consumption. Lourenço was reacting to the recent statement made by BJP’s Amit Shah, who said that the beef-ban was in existence in Goa before prior to the BJP and added that “it was there when the Congress government was in power, but no one posed questions to the Congress”.

In the jostle between Messrs. Lourenço and Shah, or Congress and BJP, one thing appears to be sadly true: both are partially right. Lourenço is right in saying that the consumption of the meat of the female bovine was prohibited, just like Shah is in claiming that the ban on cow-slaughter pre-dated the BJP; it also predates the Congress, for it was the MGP government that brought in the legislation in the 1970s, making Goa one of the first states (then a Union Territory) to bring in a ban. However, when the Congress came to power, it introduced a law which, in addition to maintaining the prohibition on the slaughter of female bovines, also created a license raj around the sale and consumption of cattle meat.

Writing in O Heraldo some time back, Albertina Almeida made a critical observation, “But then came the Goa Animal Preservation Act, 1995, enacted during the Congress rule in Goa. This was in the aftermath of the Ayodhya dispute when Congress was looking to playing the B team of the BJP after being on the verge of losing its majority on account of the political traction BJP was being able to gain by playing the Hindutva card”. One can argue that this legislation played neatly into the hands of Hindu majoritarianism.

Surprisingly, one would expect that someone like Lourenço would recognize that a part of the blame lies in Congress policies. Especially since Lourenço has been one of the few politicians to be vocal against Hindutva in recent times. Is it simply a matter of safeguarding party interests from its rivals, or do the finer nuances of how fascist politics operates escape many politicians, not only Lourenço? It certainly seems so, given his assertion that the cow was sacred to Hindus and hence, out of respect, Goans refrained from slaughtering the female bovine (or the cow). Effectively, Lourenço suggests that the issue of cow-slaughter should be solely seen through the lens of upper-caste Hindu morality. How is this position any different from that of the BJP?

As has been time and again pointed out by many commentators, the issue of the beef-ban or cow-slaughter affects laboring caste and class persons more than it does those who only consume beef, or those who solely worship the cow. What happens to the finances of a farmer, already a member of an economically precarious group, who is saddled with the burden of maintaining a non-productive cow?

The Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar’s comments following the Central Government’s new rules to regulate cattle markets is another example of how members of political parties indulge in the rhetoric of partial truth. Goa, he said, did not have a cattle market and hence the rules did not apply. However, such an assertion masked the fact that the livelihoods of hundreds of Goans, not to mention the nourishment of thousands, were endangered. The inhuman laws that have been introduced by various governments have, in fact, created difficulties for the laboring poor. Who will own up to these mistakes?

One thing is very clear, spokespersons of political parties perpetually evade any blame for the problems caused by the ideology of their respective parties. In such an appalling political culture, where ‘blame game’ and ‘whataboutery’ dominate, one is reminded of the proverb: ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. Indeed, the issues pertaining to the lives, and livelihoods of people as well as the issues of environmental degradation remain unaddressed.

In recent times, Goans have witnessed a ‘blame game’ on various issues. If we know for sure that an environmental disaster is imminent, owing to the skewed developmental policies, is it really a question of conflicting ideologies of political parties? Will evading responsibility or blaming the other political party for the failure of governance help in preventing an environmental disaster? The same applies to preventing a growing humanitarian crisis, wherein lowered-caste and minoritized groups are routinely lynched and killed. Eventually, the bickering of political parties whitewashes the horrors that people have to face on a daily basis.

The rhetoric of partial truths simultaneously hides and reveals the truth (or truths). But what it hides is far more important – and has greater consequences – than what it reveals. It creates an aura in which issues seem to be debated and discussed, as in a democratic setup. The manner in which the rhetoric of partial truths hides certain facts, it also excludes certain people. The facts that are hidden by rhetoric indicate that real people are affected by state policies and ideological politics. It is precisely in the nature of the rhetoric of partial truths to create a discourse that marginalizes groups to the extent that they are disenfranchised.

(An edited version was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 July, 2017)

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

AMORAL ECONOMY: TRICKLE-DOWN POLITICS AND ELECTIONS



The dust kicked up during the recently held Panchayat elections in Goa has almost settled down. As in all elections, this Panchayat election also witnessed massive power struggles. While it is true that the way power operates would continue in ways that destroy Goa’s natural and human resources, yet in the meanwhile, we can still think why the system stays the way it does. One thing is very clear, a large number of people by participating in ‘grass-roots democracy’ are staking their claim for power – power that is otherwise concentrated  in the hands of a few. One of the commonest reasons given for such power struggles, and the fair and foul means employed to gain power, is greed of the people. But is there more to the story? Can there be another explanation for the way the masses behave as they do?

The British labor historian, E. P. Thompson wrote extensively about labor movements in Britain. Of his many celebrated works, his essay on ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ (1971) has some relevance when we talk about the nature of how power is brokered through an economy of gifts and favors. Thompson spoke about the public disturbances involving the working class and peasants, and argued that rather than viewing such violence as riots, they were in fact demands to safeguard customary and other rights that the state had failed to protect. Thus, the term ‘moral economy’ as understood by Thompson referred to the unwritten codes that bound the masses and the authorities in a system of recognizing the basic rights to food and fair prices.

As far as elections in Goa – as in many other parts of India – are concerned, one can suggest that there exists an ‘amoral economy’. While Thompson’s moral economy can be considered as political action against authoritarianism, an amoral economy can be considered to do the opposite. In an amoral economy dominant power cannot be easily subverted. Though flawed in its very structure, such an economy promotes a form of power that gets concentrated in the hands of the few. The masses that participate in this economy or are drawn in this economy are not necessarily the ones who control the reins of power. At the lowest level, say the Panchayat level, it is a person who, for various reasons, has a decent amount of ‘supporters’. This hierarchy progresses upwards to Zilla Parishad members, municipality councilors, MLAs, Ministers, and other community leaders who are present at each of these levels. At all levels, the position of leadership and influence depends on one’s caste and class location and in some cases, on the financial resources available to negotiate this hierarchical game of power.The person who wants to be at the top of this hierarchy has to ensure that he has the backing of persons at each level of political representation. This is basically trickle-down politics!

What happens once elections are announced is that the masses, hitherto left out from power and influence, suddenly acquire a value because they can cast their vote. The vote, therefore, becomes a tangible resource that can be exchanged for short term gains and alliances. How this economy works for a large part of the masses – those that fall outside the boundary of the political class – can be gleaned from Sujay Gupta’s article on how favors were exchanged in four localities of Goa prior to the recently-concluded Panchayat polls.

In this article we hear about a candidate who feasts his supporters or potential supporters at a village tavern, as is the case in several other elections in the past. The next day this candidate approaches a “middle level but influential politician” for a hefty sum of a couple of lakhs, which he receives as “a grant or a loan”. Similarly, other candidates either seeking a re-election or a fresh mandate were reported to have purchased a large number of electronic items, such as LCD TVs, phones, tablets, and refrigerators. One thing is very clear, gifts and favors need to be exchanged. However, it is not necessary that the person at the lower level (for instance) will have the required resources and as such this person has to approach someone (mostly a few levels higher than him) to ensure that the unwritten codes are followed. On the other hand the person(s) at the higher levels receive the support from those at the lower level, as the latter owes a favor to the former.

I do not want to offer a sanitized picture of a well-tuned economy in which political and social relations exist in harmony. However, one needs to ask how does one survive, and in fact negotiate one’s basic aspirations – jobs, clean water, electricity etc, if one is stuck in an economy of unequal power relations. If there are multiple levels through which power is negotiated and brokered then the individual is often held hostage to the multiple levels of power. So the way towards gaining power and fulfilling aspirations for those at the lower levels of this hierarchy is a tortuous and winding one.

There is, I think, an element of greed in the amoral economy. But the further one goes down the hierarchy it isn’t so much about greed but about survival, and ensuring that certain expectations and aspirations in life – such as accessing basic amenities – are fulfilled.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 July, 2017)