Wednesday, May 27, 2015


It appears that the ‘acclamation’ by the Goan masses of Dr. Jack de Sequeira as ‘Father of the Opinion Poll’ has encountered opposition. This opposition comes from a few activists, chief amongst them the lawyer, Uday Bhembre. Bhembre has been furiously issuing statements and giving interviews for the last month or so in order to make his arguments clear on his opposition of this sobriquet.

Bhembre argues that Dr. de Sequeira was but one of the many leaders of the Opinion Poll and as such cannot be solely credited for achievements of the movement that culminated in the victory of the anti-mergerists. Needless to say, Bhembre’s assertion received media attention and also vociferous opposition. In one of these debates, Bhembre’s views were pitted against those of Radharao Gracias (see Herald Review, May 10, 2015), where much of Bhembre’s claims get exposed as shallow and naïve.

In the interview Bhembre boldly makes a foolish claim, “History is history whether one likes it or not”. It appears that he largely relies on the now discredited tenets of the positivist method of doing history. Briefly, within a positivist method and philosophy historical facts are believed to be able to speak for themselves, without the mediating agency of the historian. The critique of positivist history focused on the fallacy that the historian could never be biased for it was assumed that the historian dealt with objective facts. Bhembre’s preference for such frameworks that have been discredited in the discipline of history furthers his agenda in multiple ways.

I argue that Bhembre is attempting to appropriate a position of authority to speak exclusively on the history of the Opinion Poll. He does this in two ways. In the first, he completely tries to delegitimize the Catholics of Goa – especially the bahujan Catholics – who have been rallying around the icon and symbol of Dr. de Sequeira by claiming that such people are “ignorant” of the “real” history. According to Bhembre this results in a “distortion” of the history of the Opinion Poll. Bhembre is careful not to mention the Catholic community, but the target of his vitriol is obvious.

The other device that Bhembre employs is to claim for himself a first-hand witness position. He asserts not only that he has read the available literature on the history of the Opinion Poll, unlike those who acclaim Dr. de Sequeira, but has also witnessed it first-hand. As such, his logic is that he has a better sense of this history. Bhembre dismisses contemporary leaders who acclaim Dr. de Sequeira by suggesting that they were either too young or not born at all, when the Opinion Poll movement was gaining momentum and hence are not located appropriately to understand the history of the Opinion Poll. So as per Bhembre, anyone who was too young or not as yet born during the Opinion Poll has no right to talk about the history of the Opinion Poll, for they are naturally misinformed. This is a bizarre position, for if we are to take him seriously, it would spell the end of history writing entirely.

Bhembre’s position is fallacious because it completely disregards decades of debates that have taken place between historians and practitioners of other social sciences on the nature of history, on facts in historical knowledge, and on the interpretation of facts.  E. H. Carr’s What is History? is a basic text on the nature of history, and is compulsory reading for almost all under-graduate students of history. Carr’s reflection, considered seminal, suggests that facts do not exist as independent entities in history. Facts need interpretation. He argues, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which is very hard to eradicate”. In other words, the job of a historian is to continuously cross-check facts and arguments, trying to take into consideration all sorts of evidence and voices. It would be quite misguided on our part to believe that participants in history have the most accurate version of history. They have a valid version of history, but because they were involved in the events do not necessarily have an unbiased opinion. One needs a critical distance, and intellectual honesty, to evaluate one’s own role as a participant and interpreter of history.

That Bhembre’s views did not constitute objective historical facts was itself evident in the manner in which Gracias countered Bhembre’s claims. Gracias quite rightly tries to suggest, that one should factor in the marginalization that the Catholics in Goa have faced in the post-Liberation era within the history of the Opinion Poll. Gracias suggests that it is largely in the realm of the political sphere that this marginalization is the most acute. He very perceptively links the issue of the hegemony of the nagri script to the ongoing controversy and the importance of the legacy of Dr. de Sequeira. Gracias’ contention is that the same cabal of people who opposed, and continue to oppose, the rightful recognition of the Roman script, are also the ones who are trying to undermine the legacy of Dr. de Sequeira. Such a suggestion opens up the interpretation of the history of the Opinion Poll in a different light. One can observe that Gracias is trying to shift the focus by including the marginalization experience of Catholics in Goa, whereas Bhembre’s “historical facts” and the arrogation of the authorial position for himself, tries to deny exactly this possibility. How different would this history appear if we view the Opinion Poll from the perspective of the marginalization of the Catholics in the Goan public sphere?

While it is not certain how and when the sobriquet was bestowed on Dr. de Sequeira, it is very obvious that the symbol and icon of Dr. de Sequeira has grown in importance to the bahujan Catholics of Goa. Whether Dr. de Sequeira was the undisputed leader of the masses, or whether he was the only one responsible for saving the Goan identity are valid questions. However, they cannot be settled solely by activists like Bhembre who are trying to further their class and caste interests. Doing so would only mean that a host of voices in Goan history would not find their rightful place. These questions need to be debated within a dispassionate historiography of the Opinion Poll and not through the help of arbitrarily defined and self-serving ‘historical facts’.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 27 May, 2015)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


A month ago, news broke in the national press that Lata Dhavalikar, the wife of Dipak Dhavalikar, State Factories and Boilers Minister, had exhorted all Hindus in the name of Indian culture to not send their wards to convent schools. As many would remember, boycotting Christian educational institutions was part of a longer list that Mrs. Dhavalikar urged Hindus to adopt, including sporting tilaks and bindis, and greeting each other with ‘namaskar’. Mrs. Dhavalikar’s comments, or rather hate speech, only seemed to fuel the already existing suspicion about Christian educational institutions as promoting Western culture and even of forcible conversion amongst a large number of Indians, not necessarily confined to those who support the Hindu Right. However, by mid-April, a video also started circulating of Piyush Goyal, Minster for State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal, and New and Renewable Energy. This was a video of a keynote address delivered on 6 November, 2014 on the occasion of the 3rd National Education Conference of Don Bosco Schools, at his alma mater, Don Bosco’s, Matunga, Bombay.

The said keynote address has been available for viewing on YouTube since 7 November, 2014. In brief, Goyal’s keynote address can be seen as a testimony of the good intentions of Christian mission schools, and hence it can be suggested that the video was circulated from April 2015 as a counter to the wild allegations that were rampant on social media against Christian educational institutions.

What is interesting about this keynote address by Goyal is that it was largely a recollection of his school days some forty years ago. He seemed to be transported back in time to the days when he was a school boy and, as such, was giddy with excitement. In a sense it was like homecoming for him. While Goyal’s keynote address raises many issues that are problematic, it is also closest to a testimony by a person in the current government in favor of Christian schools, asserting that they did not have an agenda limited to forcibly converting Hindus and imposing Western culture on them.

Goyal first credited the immense role that his teachers and the Salesian priests played in shaping his personality. He stressed the values of forgiveness and patience that his teachers practiced. Narrating an incident of indiscipline he was involved in, Goyal said that he should have been rightly suspended or rusticated for a misdemeanor during a school picnic. However, the principal of the school, Fr. Bonnie, did no such thing. Rather, Fr. Bonnie told him where he went wrong, and “held his hand”. Goyal, not being able to hold back his emotions, suggested that if he was not given an opportunity to reform and was not counseled, then his life could have gone down a different path altogether.

Another important point that Goyal made in his keynote address is the values of secularism that are nourished in an institution like Don Bosco’s. Goyal recollected that never in all the years that he spent at Don Bosco’s was he or any other non-Christian student made to “compulsorily” attend church. In fact, Goyal emphatically said that he had attended church several times, but always “voluntarily”. It is this experience that forms the basis of Goyal’s assertion that he learned true secularism in the course of his schooling at Don Bosco’s from the Salesian priests.

The problem with Goyal’s assertion is that although he may have experienced secularism in flesh and blood in his school, the party that he belongs to has consistently made sure that the rights of the minoritized groups in India are denied. The problem lies not so much in the fact that a person who learnt secular ideals is part of a government that came to power on the basis of Hindu majoritarianism, but that secularism in India has always meant that the wishes and whims of the majority become the ‘national’ norm that everybody must follow. Isn’t it rather disturbing to note that those non-Christians who have been educated through Christian institutions never openly protest when Christians or their property – religious and other – are attacked? November-December 2014 was also about the time when the attacks on churches and the threats of ‘ghar wapasi’ had intensified, and any condemnation of such acts from those within the present government came after a lot of delay. Such are the limits of Goyal’s Don Bosco-created secularism. What this anecdote thus actually indicates is not how Christian schools have boosted Indian secularism, but how they have actually compromised with dominant norms of Indian nationalism that produces the hegemony of the majority.

This is so because if one looks at some of the top Christian schools and colleges in India, one realizes that these institutions have been supremely elitist spaces, dedicated to nurturing the children of the rich and the mighty. Though it is also true that a large number of children from the marginalized sections have been served by Christian educational institutions, such educational institutions have not managed to change the oppressive power relations in India. Which is why when Goyal talks about his school upholding “merit”, “fairness”, and “equal opportunity for all”, one wonders if the ideal of charity and service or caritas embodied by Christian educational institutions is really responding to the social reality in India.

Goyal said that if Don Bosco’s took education to the poorest of the poor, it was because it came from the heart and was not out of “compulsion”. What he meant by it was that one could not be coerced into reaching out to the poor and marginalized in the society. But the truth is that in India, resources like education need to be compulsorily made available to the marginalized and the oppressed, whether one likes it or not; whether it comes from the heart or not.

This is an area, I think, where Christian educational institutions need to give out of “compulsion”. In other words Christian educational institutions have to specifically reach out to groups that are oppressed due to caste, gender, and religion. I admit that this is happening in many parts of India, but one does not see a systematic policy and its implementation emerging from the Church leadership in India. Of late Christian institutions have been needlessly demonized. If at all they need to be criticized, it is because they have failed in their Christian duty to reach out to the poorest of the poor. Christian institutions have not always worked against oppressive structures, but oftentimes have compromised with them.

So while Goyal’s testimony and his heartfelt recollection of his schooling days need to be welcomed, it also should make us ask what role Christian educational institutions played in past and what role they should play in the future.

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 13 May, 2015)