Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Taking Caste Seriously II - Why Brahmin bashing will not further the Goan Revolution

It is something of an article of faith in some circles to place the ills for much that is happening in Goa at the feet of the Saraswats[1]. These circles indicate that the Saraswats have always been a dominant force in Goan society and especially so after Liberation. They control the mining industry, through this they control educational institutions until very recently almost all of the newspapers in Goa, with the development of technology they also control the local audio-visual media. Further it is pointed out, that from A – Z, all government departments are headed by Saraswats who ensure that on retirement, their position is taken over by another Saraswat. It is through this presence in all key posts and institutions these activists argue, that the Saraswat is able to control the fate and politics of Goa, manipulating every situation to come out the winner. What we should know these circles argue, is that there is no such thing as a Congress agenda or a BJP agenda in this State; there is only a Saraswat agenda, and they will sleep with whoever promises to deliver it.

The above argument may be true; especially if the first half of these arguments can be established. Control over institutions and resources presents groups with not just economic capital, but social and cultural resources that allow for dominance in society. One can be recognized as dominant not purely through physical domination and economic might, but by also being recognized as providing ‘high culture’. And this is where I would like to introduce a spoke into this pleasant idea that we can blame the Saraswats for every ill in Goa. Dominance in a society is not possibly entirely through physical domination, especially by a group that forms a small percentage of the total population. Such domination is possible only through the active participation of other groups in this domination.

The emphasis on Brahmins as the object of attack for creating a caste-violence free society obfuscates the issues rather than contributes to addressing the matter. Being anti-brahmin is not enough. On the contrary, it is not what is required in the first place. What is required is a hostility to the entire edifice of Brahmanism that is propped up by brahmanised groups that are not always Brahmin. For example, the Chardo[2] landlord who hates the Brahmin is not being anti-caste, but merely fighting a caste battle for dominance. When he wins this battle, it does not translate into any form of liberation for the dalit[3] below him. A friend succinctly captured the sentiment when he remarked “For the Chardo being anti-brahmin, is being anti-caste”.

In early 20th century Maharashtra, moving toward kshatriya status was seen as one route toward social mobility and challenging caste violence. Gail Omvedt, a Dalit scholar, identifies Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur as the harbinger of this process. While being staunchly against untouchability and instituting policies of positive affirmation (reservation) he did much to challenge caste violence. However “the desire to be considered a kshatriya meant accepting many brahmanic norms; it meant accepting sanskritic rituals, and it gave sanction to all the similar efforts going on throughout the Marathi-speaking areas whereby ‘Maratha’ and those of similar caste were encouraged to consider themselves kshatriyas…use the Gayatri mantra, use vedokta rituals and so forth”. The result of this move was to weaken the critique of Brahmanism and shift the focus of the battle toward the brahmans. It was this strategic mistake that caused Dr. Ambedkar to clarify to young Marathas that “you are against brahmans but not brahmanism; we are against brahmanism”. Indeed, from the plethora of Maratha samaj in Goa we can see that this trend has had some influence in our State among the dalit groups here.

An anti-brahmanical ideology twines the two factors of class and caste to move away from the casteist strategy of blindly identifying a single or couple of caste groups as the enemy. Employing such an ideology we realise that among the Goan Catholic the all-encompassing terms of bamon[4] and chardo don’t capture sociological reality. They are merely umbrellas that club dominant bamons and chardos with the dalit bamons and chardos in the same group. By erasing the difference between the so-called ‘first class’ and ‘second-class’ bamon and chardo we erase also the clarity that the interests of these two groups are not the same. The ‘first-class’ group has more in common with each other and with the Saraswats and the Dessais[5], than with their ‘second-class’ compatriots. However, by placing them in one group, we create the illusion that they have common interests. One has only to take up this analytical lens and use it to explore the dynamics of the Goan upheaval (fitna) to realise how things clearly fall in place after one has done so. The cobwebs are swept clean and the logics for associations (i.e. GBA) are as clear as day.

When asked to define who was a ‘Dalit’, a Dalit scholar remarked that a Dalit is one who practices equality. Sanskritisation is a process that stands at counter to the realization of a Dalit identity. Among the Hindu, the process encourages one to mimic sanskritic ritual and identify with it. What this implies is a lack of respect for one’s own position and an acceptance of the hierarchies that Brahmanism sets up. In the current political context, it also encourages dalit groups to see themselves as opposed to those who are not Sanskritised. Thus, rather than fighting for radical equality that destroys caste and class hierarchies, these dalit groups become the foot-soldiers for Hindutva, a logic that privileges upper-caste norms. Like foot-soldiers, it is these who die on the battle-field allowing the generals to gather the spoils. Among the Catholic too, Sanskritisation plays a role, as the ‘first-class’ among them accept Sanskritic virtues as defining both the qualities of Indian-ness, as well as the marker of ‘high culture’. This acceptance of Sanskritic virtues can coexist with their ‘Western’ ethos, since Brahmanisation exists in a symbiotic relationship with Western imperialism. For the ‘second-class’ among the upper-caste groups, and the dalit Catholic, mimicry of their Sanskritised co-religionists ensures that they expend money in conspicuous consumption, as they try to become the bhatcars[6] of old.

It is possible that the Saraswat may control most of the significant institutions in our State and define what high culture is. But this is possible only because of the active support of other caste groups, and the unquestioning attitude of the dalit. The Dalit route would be not to attack the Saraswat (and thereby become casteist) but to attack the inequalities within the system. The Dalit route would set up parallel goals, the achievement of which will signify social mobility and achievement. In other words, the Dalit agenda in Goa would involve lending support to the ongoing fitna and demand transparent and accountable governance and public institutions. It would set up an alternate cultural framework that does not celebrate what is given to us as high culture. Above all, it will be based on respect. Those who come in its way, we will have to deal with.

(Published in the Gomantak Time, 25 March 2009)

[1] Saraswat or Gawd Saraswat Brahman is the dominant Brahmin caste in Goa.

[2] Chardo is a Catholic dominant caste that sees itself as Kshatriyas.

[3] I distinguish here between dalit (a person who is oppressed) and Dalit (a person who possesses Dalit consciousness).

[4] Bamon is the Konkani version for Brahmin, in particular I am making reference here to the Catholic Brahmin.

[5] Dessais are another dominant caste group in Goa, seen as Kshatriya.

[6] Bhatcar is the Konkani term for land-lord.

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