Tuesday, 9 June 2015


As in my previous column, this column too is a reference to the Uday Bhembre-Radharao Gracias debate that was carried in the pages of O Herald, about a month ago. While the previous column focused largely on the comments that Bhembre had made, this column would like to explore Gracias’ suggestion – that of the marginalization of Catholics in the public sphere of Goa. Gracias had suggested that this marginalization was acutely visible if one focused on the manner in which the nagri scripted Konkani held hegemony in Goa.

Focusing on the issue of the Roman-nagri script, one can also look at the role that an activist like Bhembre played in denying due recognition to the Roman script. Although, this column would focus on the views of Bhembre on Roman script, it must be noted that he is not the only person to hold such views. Indeed, such views are representative of a group of people holding power and hegemony in Goa. On a broad level, what is one of the most fundamental objections to the Roman script by the nagri lobby? It is this that the Roman script came in the wake of Portuguese colonialism; ergo it is a foreign script. As such it is not good enough to represent the ‘authentic’ culture of Goa. There were several other arguments that were made against the Roman script – that the literary productions in the Roman script lacked standard; that nagri script is better suited for Konkani as it is an Indian script; and also that the demand for the recognition of the Roman script is downright anti-national.

In all of this tamasha, over a number of years what was not said out loud was how in the denigration of the Roman script, the Catholics in Goa were denigrated as well. The people against whom this vitriol was directed were largely confined to the working-class, bahujan Catholic masses. This affects the bahujan Catholics more than anyone else for the reason that upper-caste Catholics can assert their brahmin privilege against the vitriolic attacks. The denial of the recognition of the Roman script therefore means the denial of recognition of the culture of the Catholic masses in Goa.

In recent years, an activist like Bhembre can be said to be the main protagonist arguing for the denial of the recognition of the Roman script. Reference can be made to a letter that Bhembre addressed to all Cabinet Ministers back in 2006. Through the text of this letter (archived on Goanet), we learn that the Cabinet was considering a change in the Official Language Act, 1987. In his capacity as the chairman of Vichar Vibhag, a think tank of the Congress in Goa, Bhembre was clear that the Official Language Act need not be changed to include the Roman script.

A year earlier, in October 2005, Bhembre was invited to speak at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research. He spoke on the topic ‘Road Map for the Standardisation and Development of the Konknni Language. The main argument he made was that all Konkani speakers should unite under the nagri script. In other words, one had to give up producing in the Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, and Perso-Arabic scripts solely in favor of the nagri script. One can see the connection between Bhembre’s call for a standardization of Konkani under the nagri script, and his initiative as chairman of the Vichar Vibhag to exclude the Roman script from the Official Language Act, 1987. What should be stated clearly is that such efforts and attempts by activists like Bhembre are designed to exclude communities from political power and influence. In this case this exclusion is not simply faced by the bahujan Catholics alone, but also by the Hindu bahujan samaj. Many activists of the Hindu bahujan samaj view the imposition of the nagri script – and the unity that is sought under the umbrella of Konkani – as an attempt by the dominant castes in Goa to assert control over the rest. Thus, they see Marathi as the language around which they should mobilize against brahmanical hegemony, while also recognizing the validity of Konkani in the Roman script.
Uday Bhembre seen with Pundalik Naik and Shashikala Kakodkar

As stated earlier, Bhembre’s views are representative of many people that occupy positions of power and privilege, and those who try their best to influence cultural, linguistic and educational policies in Goa. We can also use the example of the Medium of Instruction (MoI) controversy in recent years. The demand for English as a MoI was erroneously seen as a demand solely of the Catholics of Goa. The familiar accusations of being disloyal and anti-national were hurled at the Goan Catholics. Not surprisingly, the group that was vociferously opposing this demand were the same people who refused to grant parity to the Roman script with the nagri one. But during the time of the MoI controversy, the activists who came under the banner of the Bharati Bhaso Suraksha Manch, had a decent support from a section of the Hindu bahujan samaj and those who were espousing the cause of the Marathi language in Goa.

Irrespective of whether the Hindu bahujan groups align or not with upper-caste interests in Goa, Catholic assertion – particularly the bahujan Catholic assertion – in the public sphere is always met with vitriolic opposition. Be it the demand for the recognition of the Roman script when Catholics were represented as agents of the Portuguese; or when the demand for English as MoI was seen as a conspiracy hatched by disloyal Catholics against Indian culture; or the more recent suggestion that Catholics are responsible for the misrepresentation and distortion of historical facts regarding the Opinion Poll. Through this vitriolic opposition and violent labeling of the Catholic assertion, any legitimacy that Catholics can claim in the Goan public sphere gets taken away from them. Also important to note here is how the Catholics who were supporting anti-merger in the run up to the Opinion Poll in 1967 were considered to be breeding anti-national and fifth-columnist tendencies, chiefly by the then Defense Minister, Y. B. Chavan (see Rajan Narayan and Sharon D’Cruz, Triumph of Secularism: Battle of the Opinion Poll in Goa).

Thus, one can see that if we take seriously the claim that Catholics have been marginalized in the Goan public sphere, one can see that in the most recent history Catholics have experienced a series of denials of their legitimate place in the public sphere. Rather than worrying much about the Goan identity, one needs to first come to terms with the history of denials and think of ways to undo them.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 10 June, 2015)

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