Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Notes from after the Rally

The response at the rally held at the Azad Maidan last week, to protest the communal violence toward Christian minorities, was overwhelming. Yet, one can’t help feeling (to use a phrase from chemistry) that the equation was somewhat unbalanced. The incompleteness of that demonstrative moment we could attribute to matters both said and unsaid.

Of what was said at the rally, perhaps the most disturbing was the statement that we are members of the nation first and then members of our religious communities. Fact is, it is this insistence on the primacy of the nation is exactly the reason why we are in the mess we are contemplating today. The Indian nation was constructed on a curious mix of the Anglicized culture of the upper castes of India and technology. For those who had the necessary social capital, namely possession of the English language (and the associated culture), an upper caste history or identity, and an ability to engage in the technological ministrations of the nation-state, this national identity worked very well indeed. For those who did not posses these markers, and whose social capital rested either on a lower caste identity, or a religious or other identity, or indeed participation in a different economic and technological world, the nation-state’s primacy meant only slow and certain death. The rise of lower caste groups and religious communities protesting this upper caste control of the state was a natural outcome of this insistence on the nation-state before other identities. The demand of these groups was simple, do not ask us to be something that we are not. Accept us the way we are and let us be. The response of the nation-state in its turn was the saffron terror that is increasingly being unleashed to retain the hold of those upper castes in control of the state.

The argument being forwarded here is not to insist that we should necessarily place our religious identities prior to the State. On the contrary, the question being asked is; what happens to those people for whom this national culture – itself cast in the cultural language of certain (predominantly Hindu upper caste) groups – does not make sense at all? Thus as a Muslim, or indeed as a Goan who prefers my Konkani in the Roman script and the lilting phrases of Sashti Konkani, this primacy of a nation, that does not recognize my needs or mocks my existence does not make sense at all. Clearly the way out of the conundrum we are in lies in getting out of the nationalist rhetoric, and recognizing that we are individuals and communities that have a right to continuing our way of life, without having the nation-state or its extra-legal demon armies breathing down our backs.

Moving on, they say that you can always fight a known enemy. It is when the enemy is unknown that you have no clue as to what strategy to employ. And indeed, it was the issues left unsaid at the rally, that are the most troubling and disturbing. The rally was called by Catholics, to protest violence against Christians in various parts of the country and spoke of the need to end the madness. Through this framing of the issue, the Catholics came out looking like lambs bathed in wool, perpetual victims at the altar of communal frenzy. This may be the partial truth in other parts of the country, but it definitely does not hold good for Goa. In Goa, it is the Catholic who is part perpetrator and part silent accomplice to the systematic campaign of hatred against the Muslim. It is because of the knowledge of large-scale Catholic participation in this Muslim persecution, that it was possible for that Saffron activist to make a public call to Catholics and Hindus to unite and send them packing out of Goa. The laudable ethical position to take at the rally- one drawing from the laudable Christian tradition of confession - would have been to openly speak about this persecution that the Goan Catholic is actively engaged in. Unfortunately, no one spoke about the real issue, preferring to bury these real issues, under the outdated, sickly sweet talk of Indian secularism, where are all bhai-bhai. In the end problems are resolved only by speaking about them, not by ignoring their existence.

In this sense the rally was a total failure, because we failed to make use of a literally God-given opportunity to preach to the flock who had gathered entirely unconscious of their own bloody hand in the carnage that goes on around us.

The large presence of Catholics at the meeting however, was problematic at another level.

The manner in which we use our religious identity can be distinguished between two forms; religion as ideology, and religion as faith. In the first a religious identity is mobilized to create a universal identity that is primarily political in nature. This process erases internal differences to create an artificial and monolithic community. Like in an army, one responds to the call of the bugle, and does not, or cannot question why one is being summoned, or the cause one is being asked to lend one’s support for. On the other hand, one has religion as faith, where one contributes to a cause prompted by one’s belief in the ethics preached by religion. On what basis did the many participants attend the rally at Azad Maidan? Did they attend as members of a political identity responding to a call, or as members of a faith community protesting the perpetration of violence? To mobilize Christians primarily on the basis of ideology would leave us open to perpetuating the very violence we seek to protest. It is precisely religion as ideology that is relied on by both Islamic fundamentalists and the Hindu right wing to draw members to its causes. As Christians in India are drawn into this fire-storm, it would be useful to keep in mind, that there is a way out of the trap. This way (for the Indian and Goan Christian) would draw from Christian ethics, and protest violence regardless of the identity of the oppressed. When necessary it would be fully conscious and cognizant of our own contributions to persecution and violence. To be fair to the Catholic Church in Goa, it has since the time Archbishop Rev Filipe Neri Ferrao has taken over, initiated a variety of steps to bridge the gap between the Catholic and those of other faiths, including the Muslims. It is unfortunate though, that these necessary overtures by the Archbishop have not been welcomed by some within the body of the Church.

Despite this raising of the dilemmas arising from the rally held on the 16th of this month, the fact that the rally was held was in itself useful. It should be seen as a necessary first step towards combating the rightist take over of the Indian state. What we should keep in mind however is that the solution is not going to come through heightened nationalism, but heightened respect for the differences of other groups. And secondly that if the Goan Catholic is truly desirous of peace in Goa, it must first make the overture of peace toward the Muslim community it has by and large been sinning against.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 24 September 2008 as "Azad Maidan Rally: Combating the rightist takeover)

[The Council for Social Justice and Peace, a forum of the Archdiocese of Goa, and the Inter-Religious Dialogue for Life, organised together a rally to protest the atrocities against Christian minorities in Orissa. Subsequent to the announcement to hold the rally, violence against the Christian groups in Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka broke out, allowing the rally to doubly express the concern of concerned groups, not just Christian. Helping out at the rally to collect signatures, I collected a small amount of Muslim signatures as well. The overwhelming presence of people attending was Catholic however. This rally was one of the larger rallies that Goa had seen, with the central square in Panjim literally engulfed by a sea of humanity.]

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