Wednesday, March 14, 2018


That a politician was compelled to make a public appearance despite ill health tells us something about the political culture in India. Manohar Parrikar’s rather dramatic entry at the budget session of 2018 should make us not only enquire into the short-term machinations in contemporary politics, but also the culture in which the visibility of the ruling authority is of paramount importance. For one thing was crystal clear in the political spectacle surrounding Parrikar’s sudden appearance at the budget session: the importance of his visibility for colleagues, allies, and the masses.

It is interesting to note the role played by public visibility in politics (and not just in the abovementioned incident). As can be perceived from the appearances of politicians in inaugurating even the smallest public works, to be seen in public ensures that the ruling authority is recognized as such by the people. Recently, it was reported that some sarpanches in Priol were upset because their names did not feature in the inauguration plaque of new public infrastructure owing to a circular issues by the government prohibiting the same. These upset sarpanches argue that it is they who do most of the hard work to make a developmental work a reality, and hence should not be excluded. The enormous outpouring of congratulatory messages in the pages of newspapers (sometimes even occupying two full pages!) is another case in point.

Public visibility and validation is important in this sense as the legislator is not seen or does not operate as a public servant (in the true sense of the term) but is a dispenser of benevolence and favors; he is the patron par excellence in contemporary democratic politics in India. Hence, one can expect a conflict if a sarpanch gets more visibility than, say, a minister. The importance of public visibility and public validation for a ruling authority figure has a long history in South Asia. For instance, the Mughal Emperor Akbar can be considered to have properly invested and institutionalized the vocabulary and practice of the ruler making a public appearance. Like the Mughal emperor, the ruling authority continues as a dispenser of benevolence, favors, and justice down to the smallest level of Indian governance.

Based on Indic and Persian models of kingship, as well as the practice of worshipping the sun prevalent in ancient Persia as in South Asia, Akbar would present himself to his subjects from a window of his palace – the jharokha – first to worship the sun and later to hear the petitions and grievances of his subjects. This practice was continued by later Mughal emperors, reaching its zenith in the reign of Shahjahan, with the magnificent Diwan-i-Aam audience hall in the Red Fort. The practice was rooted to such an extent in Mughal imperial culture that even Aurangzeb, considered to be a purist, carried it forward for some years of his reign. By enacting such daily rituals, authority and legitimacy to rule was vested in the figure of the emperor – a necessary condition if a king or an emperor was to govern his empire and be recognized as such in the eyes of his subjects.

What this history indicates is that the visible presence of the ruling authority was a requirement not just during the celebration of festivals of the state or some religious occasions, but was necessary on an everyday basis. Political authority, therefore, is expressed as a daily ritual in which the figure of authority needs to be visible. This figure of authority needs to be seen as presiding over the governance of the land. Thus, the authority figure needs to be seen not only in the parliament/assembly but also at the ground level presiding over works of public infrastructure or overseeing the successful dissemination of governmental schemes.

That such a pattern of authority continues in our times – apparently a time of liberal and constitutional democracies – is also indicative of the fact that political authority is understood largely as a kingly-feudal authority. We understand our politicians as rulers and as benevolent patrons of yore, rather than as public servants more suited for constitutional and liberal democracies. Political figures are then given deference by the masses, often commanded by kings; but which seems over the top for public servants entrusted with the welfare of everyone. In this context, it is interesting to note that as early as in the first half of the twentieth century most of the Concanim newspapers referred to the Portuguese Governor General as “Goencho Raza” or “Amcho Raza”. Given that by this time the Governor Generals were appointed by elected representatives in the Portuguese parliament, by no stretch of imagination, could the person who headed the government in Goa during the last decades of Portuguese sovereignty qualify as a king – a rajah! Neither was he a public servant; however, it could be quite possible that the Governor Generals were seen as successors of the Viceroys – effectively the deputies of kings in Goa and therefore ‘kings’ in their own right.

In such a scenario, visibility of the political figure becomes one of the crucial ways in which authority is legitimized. The flip side of the issue is that political authority gets expressed in terms of feudal relations, thus hindering a transition to egalitarian forms of governance. Even basic governance is held back because the political figure is indisposed, and cannot lend his physical presence to the government. In the final analysis, rather than promoting an ethos of committed public service to all citizens, age-old hierarchies are maintained through the cult of the individual. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 March, 2018)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


From 2016, the Government of Goa – starting from the term of former Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar – has tried to tackle the menace of drunken tourists by legislating a ban on drinking in all public spaces which are notified as “No Alcohol Consumption Zones”. Of course the law has been implemented neither in letter nor spirit. About a month ago, it was reported that the Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar planned to introduce another law that would impose even more stringent fines than before, and also amend the Garbage Management Act to tackle the joint problem of drunken nuisance and littering.

The 2016 amendment made to the Goa Excise Duty Act, 1964 confirms that the ostensible motive for banning drinking in public spaces is the nuisance created by drunken tourists. When the proposed amendment was introduced in the assembly, the statement of Objects and Reasons set out that the “Government is receiving a number of complaints of consumption of liquor in open spaces, public places, beaches, State and National highways; mostly by visiting tourists. Upon consumption of liquor, the bottles and cans are strewn around causing environmental degradation and…harm to pedestrians accessing the area. Such persons after being in an inebriated state, cause nuisance to general public, disturb the peaceful order in the area and cause local tension, thereby posing a law and order situation on regular basis. The Bill, therefore, seeks to empower the Government to declare a space/place/area in the State of Goa as ‘No Alcohol Consumption Zone’”.

Though the logic of the amendment seems justifiable and the fact that the government will declare a particular place as ‘No Alcohol Consumption Zone’ through a gazette notification as eminently transparent, the situation is not that simple. For one, while the amendment has made drinking in public a punishable offense, it has not properly defined the parameters of which spaces can be notified as ‘No Alcohol Consumption Zones’. Even if we concede that the spirit of the amendment is directed towards regulating the public space of a beach, it still proves to be problematic as many local Goans picnic on the beach with friends and family. They take along with them alcohol and food. Is this activity, part of the lives of Goans for so many years, also to be criminalized and made punishable by law? After all, the law is applicable to all, even if it was made because, or to stop the nuisance, of unruly tourists. In this context, Parrikar’s comment in September 2017, gives us cause for concern. He reportedly said, “If someone wants to drink (liquor), they should drink inside and not in public places”.

At this point, one needs to ask if the solution to unruly and drunk tourists – a problem that concerns law and order – will be solved by banning it in notified public spaces. The activity of drinking – or rather, social drinking – in itself is not the problem. The fact that the government feels that the problem will be tackled by giving more teeth to the Goa Excise Duty Act, 1964, which regulates the production and sale of alcohol and has nothing to do with public disorder, is itself suggestive of the manner in which the government views liquor consumption as a problem, and not the fact that tourists feel entitled to do as they please in Goa. In any case, the law will provide ample space for future police harassment of those who consume alcohol because consumption of alcohol is criminalized and not public disorder.

The ideology that the current government and many members of various political parties subscribe to is well-known. Of late many politicians across party lines have made crass and ignorant comments that appear to fly right in the face of the liberal and susegad ethos of Goa. In this context, the history of temperance movements in India can give us valuable insights as how political activism and the legislation of the state can end up creating a smokescreen by which various cultural practices end up as collateral damage.

In his doctoral study, “A World Without Drink: Temperance in Modern India, 1880-1940” (2013), Robert Eric Colvard discusses how the earliest protests against policies regulating the sale of alcohol were lead by toddy tapping communities and other communities traditionally producing alcohol. These protests were against unjust taxes imposed by the British, particularly against the Bombay Abkari Act, 1878, and not about the consumption of alcohol per se. However, a combination of Christian temperance activists with their Victorian morality and Indian nationalists essentially believing in a brahmanical Hindu morality created the fiction that the people in India were teetotalers. This fiction served the basis of the several prohibition laws in India and also created the notion that the consumption of alcohol was an aberration to Indian culture. And the bans that the government, both central and state, bring in force or plan to bring in force also rest on this idea that the consumption of alcohol is foreign to Indian culture.

In the context of Goa, the government seems to be unwilling to let go of the revenue it earns from liquor sale while at the same time wants to alter the place alcohol consumption has in Goan society. Even though the Goan government actively promotes local spirits, such as feni for export, we frequently hear such expressions of irrational fears as girls drinking, amongst others. This might lead us to wonder whether misguided attempts to curb unruly tourists may, in fact, end up slowly eroding one’s right to consume alcohol without causing a nuisance in a public space. The government has to take steps to maintain public order without interfering in the cultural rights of Goans.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 28 February, 2018)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


The recent ban by the Supreme Court of India on mining activities in Goa for a second time reminds us of the plight faced by those dependent on the mining industry. But the court order also brings to mind other Goans stuck in a similar situation of facing economic uncertainty and the consequences of large-scale illegalities. For instance, it is, I think, useful to compare the mining industry and the tourism industry as both have been touted as the ‘backbone’ of Goan economy, and both these industries witness conflicts and illegalities in equal measure.

When the Supreme Court banned mining activities for the first time in 2012, it is estimated that there were about 25,000 trucks servicing that industry. The case of the mining truckers provides the best illustration of how harmful excessive ‘development’ can be to the people of Goa. When the mining boom happened a few years before the first ban, and countries like China were in desperate need for iron ore, the mining companies in Goa began to expand uncontrollably. However, they did this by shifting a good amount of the liability onto the people of Goa. Thus, the people in the mining areas were incentivized to invest in trucks and other mining equipment with the idea that the millions of dollars made in profits would trickle down to the truckers. This was how the mining industry “share[d] the spoils” of an ecologically-damaging and short-term, profit-driven industry.

Those familiar with the mining-affected areas would be able to confirm that the windfall of profits that trickled down to the persons who had invested in trucks and machinery created a profligacy of sorts. The sudden surge in income led to extravagant spending; suddenly SUVs were seen zooming on the roads of these areas along with the trucks. However, the sudden crash in the industry exposed how shaky this new prosperity was; loans could not be honored and the luxury products had to be sold at a price far lower than in normal circumstances. This was an artificial prosperity created by and for the benefit of private mining firms.

The crash also brought with it a human tragedy. At least in the Quepem-Sanvordem-Curchorem-Sanguem belt that I am personally familiar with, one witnessed families breaking up, deaths due to alcoholism, and suicides due to the mental pressure (which have not been reported properly). With the trucks sitting idle and no place to sell them off to, the mounting debt left the people vulnerable to exploitation. Some of the trucks were contracted for garbage collection to a Bangalore-based company. While the payments were diligently made for the first few months for the contracted trucks, it soon stopped, aggravating the situation further.

Cut to the taxistas, and one realizes that the issue – and perhaps, scale – is similar. In the aftermath of the strike by the taxistas in January, it was estimated that nearly 20,000 cabs had gone off the Goan roads. The demand for more taxis comes on the heel of successive governments increasing the tourist footfalls in Goa – beyond the carrying capacity of the resources available in Goa. Thus, one can argue that the reason so many taxis are required is because the tourism industry has grown at a rate that is not feasible for the economic betterment of the Goan people.

Just like in the mining sector, the people were encouraged to invest in cabs – the liabilities, of course, are those of the individual owners. While the ‘development’ of the mining sector was for the people in the hinterlands of Goa, that done through the tourism industry seems to be for the people on the coast. In both these cases, the population was, by and large, either traditionally from the working classes or engaged in agriculture. Many of the people who had invested in the trucks during the mining boom and others who are now servicing the tourism industry by operating taxis hail from mundkar/tenant backgrounds. Often times, the taxis were paid for by the land developer in return for forfeiting the tenancy rights. In other words, in the recent decades of Goa’s much touted ‘development’, these individuals and their families have had no access to decent employment. With artificially booming industries suddenly collapsing – as happens in a neoliberal economic setup – these individuals and groups are further marginalized with nowhere else to go. Like the mining truckers in the event of the crash, one has to suffer in silence should the economy crash.

In this sense, one can think of the resistance of the taxistas to the various policies of the tourism sector and the government as ways to ensure that the plight of the mining truckers does not become their own. To be honest, in their own flawed way, members of the tourist taxi associations have been demanding a fair system in response to allegations of fleecing, for some time now. They have also alleged that the hotels over-charge and claimed it not fair that only the taxistas be singled out as fleecers.

None of this is to argue that the taxistas don’t engage in reckless driving;  some do, and so do a greater number of GA-registered private cars along with two-wheelers and the non-Goa-registered private cars of tourists (AP, MH, KA and so on). In the current scenario, reckless and dangerous driving seems to be the only recognizable fault. The point is that like the mining truckers, the taxistas are also part of a system that is not only working against the interests of these groups, but against the interest of all the people of Goa.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 February, 2018)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Every few months the issue of identity emerges in Goa, and vociferous debates and discussions undoubtedly follow. One can observe a certain tendency wherein political issues are reduced to issues of Goan identity. This is done by emotionally appealing to the masses that their existence solely depends on protecting an abstract idea – the Goan identity. This abstract and loosely-defined idea assumes different forms around events, symbols, and objects as the political and ruling classes see fit. One way in which these emotional appeals are made is through the idea of ‘mother’.

In the last couple of months, one such issue where ‘mother’ was invoked was the diversion of the waters of river Mhadei. In these debates, one of the statements claimed that the river Mhadei is the “mother” of Goans. The logic, one presumes, is that the Mhadei river forms a crucial, life-giving link for Goans. Without the river feeding its waters to the Mandovi in Goa, it was argued, there would be no Goans, and Goa will turn into a parched desert. As such, Goans need to band together to halt the developmental plans of Karnataka. Although it is true that the river might undergo drastic changes – or even disappear – if the waters are diverted away in other parts of Karnataka, the logic of the opposition discourse elevates the physical existence of the river to an abstract idea. The point is that those who are trying to mobilize Goans against the proposed plans on the Mhadei are using an emotional appeal to drum up populist support, rather than ensuring that the legal, technical, and environmental arguments are strengthened and due process followed.

This is not the first time that politics in Goa has been defined through the metaphor of ‘motherhood’. The debates surrounding the Konkani language and Goan identity are the best examples of how political discourses in Goa are couched in terms of ‘motherhood’. From the ’60s one witnessed an emerging view that Konkani was Goa’s sole language. In these terms, the relationship of Goans to the Konkani language was projected to be one that a mother and child shared. To not protect (and therefore not be loyal to) one’s mother was a betrayal of Goan identity. At this point one needs to pause and ask: which communities have benefitted from this kind of politics? Has the politics of ‘identity through motherhood’ enriched the political discourse in Goa? Arguably, not. One can observe that no proper resolution of Goa’s identity issues has ever come about in the last 50-odd years. On the contrary, one witnesses ever more contestations regarding Goan identity.

The identity politics surrounding the ‘Konkani mai’ or ‘mai bhas’ – the Konkani mother – benefitted only a few. The votaries of Romi Concanim have been left out in the cold, as the Official Language Act of 1987 only recognized Konkani in the Nagri script as official. This is not to argue that the language politics has turned out what it is today only because Konkani was elevated to the status of a ‘mother’. However, it can be observed that casting Konkani in a singular notion of ‘mother’ to Goans led to the exclusion of the other languages of Goa.

And this probably is the problem with identity politics that has a narrow focus on one particular event, symbol, and object while excluding other similar objects, events, and symbols. It is through this kind of politics that one section of the Goan people is pitted against another. If some years back political parties and cultural institutions claimed that Konkani was the defining element of Goa’s identity, in more recent times the people of Goa are being rallied around such symbols like the coconut tree, the coconut, and now even a river.

A couple of years ago, Kaustubh Naik, a research scholar, called for an “unburdening” of Goa’s language politics from the notion of ‘motherhood’  precisely because of the current exclusive nature of the language politics in Goa. With the political discourse around the Mhadei issue being framed in terms of ‘motherhood’, one wonders if certain patterns of such politics will also repeat as they did in the Konkani movement. For one, we can think about how the masses will be emotionally rallied, while the rights of many communities that directly depend on the river for sustenance will be systematically compromised. One is not clear why the Mhadei issue is tethered to Goan identity. Why it isn’t simply an issue of the right to water of the people of Goa and Karnataka? Or an ecological issue wherein diverting the courses of rivers can have drastic impact on the environment and therefore on the present and future generations of people?

The pattern of identity politics in Goa’s recent history in fact indicates that the mobilization of the masses for the purpose of safeguarding identity – often by the political and dominant classes – does not transform into a concrete action for securing rights of non-dominant communities. In this conceptualization of the ‘mother’ the issues of life and livelihood are divorced from the political discourse.

What is worse is that in this manner the masses of Goa are lead from one identity crisis to another. The actual problems are not addressed and the social, economic, and cultural realities of many sections of the Goan population are erased or elided. We must, therefore, be on our guard against such tendencies of misusing identity politics.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 31 January, 2018)