Thursday, July 24, 2014


Over the last couple of weeks the Konkani film Gunaaji has been screening in some theaters in Goa and not wanting to miss it, I decided to watch it one evening. Two hours later, when I walked out of the theater I had an uneasy feeling about the movie. This column would like to reflect deeply on the feeling of unease that I experienced after viewing Gunaaji.

The film is based on a novella of the same name written by Pundalik Naik, recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award. Before it was published as a book in 1998, this novella had appeared in Konkani Bhasha Mandal’s annual magazine Konknni and was also serialized in the Sunday supplement of Rashtramat, both in 1998 itself. Thus one can conclude that this story has already enjoyed a fair share of circulation, even before it was made into a film. Knowing that generally films tend to depart from the plot of the book, I also decided to read Gunaaji before talking about my unease.

Gunaaji is a story about a cowherd living in a remote village of Goa, who gets selected to receive a national award for being the best raknno or cowherd in the country and about the journey he undertakes from his village to New Delhi to receive the award. The film is saturated with colour-rich images of a bucolic landscape, like the ones that gladden the hearts of any true-blooded Goan. The book as well as the movie has many funny and lovable moments, and in most places the film has remained faithful to the plot of the book.

But the places in which the plot of the movie departs from the book are very interesting to note. There are particularly two instances that need our attention. In the beginning of the book/film Gunaaji recounts an incident where he had stopped a cow from being taken for slaughter as it was not the right thing to do, and towards the end of the book, after receiving the award he makes a speech reiterating the same point. In both instances in the book there is nowhere a hint that a Catholic character is involved in the progression of the plot. However, in the film there are some obvious and not-so-obvious markers that allow one to understand that these point towards Catholic characters. In the first instance, the accent that is employed is enough to establish that it is a Catholic person who has purchased the cow for slaughter. In the second instance, after Gunaaji makes his point about stopping cow-slaughter, immediately the camera zooms-in on a “Shri. Melvin Pereira” who is seated on the dais of the awards ceremony in New Delhi and who seems visibly uneasy and embarrassed about what Gunaaji has just said.

Given the fact that Naik, the author of the book, was closely associated with the screenplay of the film, one has to ask the question why Catholic characters or markers of a Catholic person were incorporated in the film, whose original story had so little to do with any Catholic subjectivity? To go back to the book, there is only one place where the author consciously identifies a person as Catholic and that is when Gunaaji has to go through the airport security check, where the police officer is depicted as Catholic. But this instance is in no way related to the larger plot.

So why have I felt uneasy with the way the abovementioned two instances from the story by Naik are portrayed in the film? The reason lies in the manner in which cow-slaughter (thus beef-eating) and Catholics are juxtaposed in the film, whether wittingly or not. It is common knowledge that beef is consumed by Catholics and Muslims in Goa, and it is also common knowledge that of late the selling and consumption of beef in public have been encountering opposition. Against this background how do we understand a story that was published in 1998 and made into a film in 2014? What one can immediately suggest is that the politics of cow-slaughter, beef-eating, and hurt Hindu sensibilities is not a recent one for either Goa or India. It was a process that was set in motion much before right-wing groups started creating a fuss in Goa around beef-eating, western sanskriti, Portuguese colonialism, Catholic dietary, dress and other cultural practices.

This column is not suggesting that Naik is at the forefront of – or championing – anti-minority politics and rhetoric. But his uncritical conformity (knowingly or not) to certain given ideas and ideals within Indian national life that have become normalized, such as (for instance) not seriously considering the minority perspective, certainly allows us to question his Gunaaji. The film may seem innocent (and perhaps it is in many places) but the subtle and not-so-subtle codes that are found in the movie reminds the Catholic (and other minority groups) that their cultures and being is not always allowed to co-exist with the dominant, majoritarian cultures. Indeed, it has to remain subservient to it. Naik may have not created the monster, but he has certainly fed it. 

So is Gunaaji a good movie? This column would not like to sit on judgment on this issue. Neither was this the intent of my column. The point I would rather like to forward is that the book and the film are not isolated incidents. There is something that operates on a deeper and insidious level that can escape the best of us. The trend to de-legitimize non-Hindu cultures in India has a long history of more than a hundred years. If we are not aware of this history then we shall only further a brand of politics that distances minority groups from mainstream discourses and politics.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 24 July, 2014)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


With Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Rama Sene threatening to set-up his base in Goa, the last two weeks have seen spirited debates about the place of ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’ in the public sphere of Goa. To add to the conundrum, Goans have been at the receiving end for their own elected representatives making sexist and anti-women remarks, with very little done to curb the Hindu right. This is not the first time that such remarks have been made that have blatantly abused the dignity of the minorities and women living in Goa. As such, asking the same questions or reacting in the same manner as done in the past does little good. While it is certainly true that such tendencies should be vehemently protested and opposed, this column would like to suggest that a rather critical look at the history and politics of Indian secularism would provide fresh perspective into the problem.

Since the Indian nation-state was founded on secular ideals, it is important for us to know how this came about. The present understanding of ‘secularism’ is an ahistorical and timeless one. In other words, a term like ‘secularism’ is believed to have a universal and unchanging meaning across time and political realities. It is this very fact that Shabnum Tejani in her book Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950 points out. If today the binary opposition of ‘secular’ with ‘communal’ is well established and entrenched in our minds, Tejani demonstrates that in a longer historical context this was not the case. She notes that between the years from 1928 and 1931, a broad range of political opinion considered Indian nationalism as a “unity of the (Hindu) majority” with any challenge to this understanding by marginalized non-Hindu and Dalit communities being branded as communal.

Shifting the focus from a concern of religion to a concern of caste, the abovementioned study has shown that the creation of a liberal democracy in India was shaped by an imperative to create a “definition of a democratic majority as broadly Hindu”. Tejani also states that the reason why ‘secularism’ became important in Indian nationalist thought was due to the fact that “the architects of the new nation-state – overwhelmingly middle-class, upper-caste Hindu men – saw it as providing a counterpoint to challenges posed from the margins by Muslim and Dalit communities”.

Immediately, what we can recognize is that ‘secularism’ as an ideology was used as a bulwark against sharing power and privilege with the minority and disempowered groups. The problem of ‘communalism’ and the apparent challenge it poses to ‘secular’ ideals is not just confined to hard-line right-wing persons like Pramod Muthalik. Part of the problem also lies with secular-liberal Hindus in the context of how they understand ‘secularism’ and its place in the Indian identity and how these two ideas are uncritically conflated. For many secular Hindus (as well as Christians) the ideal of ‘secularism’ is only threatened when right-wing groups create a ruckus. The inadequacy of ‘secularism’ as an ideal as well as an analytical category is seen when anti-women and anti-minority remarks are made by persons who are not perceived to be of the extreme right.

Take the recent comments of Sudin Dhavalikar, the PWD minister in Manohar Parrikar’s cabinet. His comments about pubs, drinking, and short skirts not being compatible with Indian culture, were largely seen as sexist and anti-women. The point I am trying to make is that such comments are not just anti-women, they are also anti-minority. How? In Goa, Catholic women wear skirts and consumption of alcohol (along with meat such as beef and pork) is a necessary component in celebration in all Catholic households, indeed their everyday diet as well. Why hasn’t this being perceived as going against the tenets of Indian secularism?

Dhavalikar’s case and the reaction to it is a recent one. One can also excavate the case of the Romi script and hold it up to the assertions of ‘secularism’. When the demand for the Romi script was made, Goan Catholics were seen as anti-national, their demand was considered as “emotional” and hence irrational, and the demand was viewed as a very threat to the ‘secular’ fabric and unity of Goa. The Goa government is yet to recognize Konkani in the Romi script as an official language, despite the fact that Goan Catholics are not the only users of the Romi script in Goa. Why isn’t the denial of the Romi script to the people of Goa a problem for ‘secularism’? Why don’t we beat our chests and cry hoarse about the loss of ‘secular’ ideals? It must be noted that whether it is Muthalik, or Dhavalikar, or the Romi issue, or even the Medium of Instruction fiasco, what is threatened is either Indian culture or the unity of Goa/India or both.

If the ideology of ‘secularism’ worked as a tool to obstruct the sharing of power with Muslim and Dalit groups in the context of the Indian nationalist movement, I would suggest that a similar situation occurs in Goa as well, wherein power is not adequately shared with groups such as Catholics and Muslims in Goa. That Hindus are a majority in Goa and control most positions and institutions of power is a fact that gets erased when ‘secularism’ is debated in the Goan public sphere. If we are really serious about maintaining peace in Goan society, power needs to be shared with minority groups, and greater representation needs to be granted to marginalized groups across religion, caste, and class in Goan society and politics (and not just confined to electoral representation). It is not just enough to throw out Muthalik and his ilk. What do we do about Hindu majoritarianism that has been a part of Indian ‘secularism’ for such a long time?

See also 'Not Skirts or Bikinis, but the very Idea of Goa is at Stake' by Rochelle Pinto here

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 9 July, 2014)