Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Taking Caste Seriously: Why the Goan Fitna needs a rigorous caste-based analysis

Subsequent to the conclusion of the public meeting held on the 13th of March at the Clube National against the Ordinance amending the Land Acquisition Act, a little group gathered to catch up with each other and throw around a few ideas. In the midst of this camaraderie, one of the colleagues, no doubt charged with emotion after the meeting, proposed a route to mobilizing against the Ordinance. “Why don’t we mobilize on the basis of caste” she said. “The situation on hand is clearly about caste” she continued. “The Ordinance benefits hotels (Marriot and Cidade) owned by the Saraswats, while on the other hand the fisherfolk loosing their homes to the CRZ, the village groups to mining are all clearly from ‘lower’ caste backgrounds.” If there was any levity in the group it all melted away with that statement. They looked at her in shocked silence for a while, and then threw up their hands! “Oh no! We don’t believe in caste! We can’t do that!”

Now I don’t as yet want to explore the possibilities as to whether there is in fact a Saraswat versus the rest divide in our society that is at the root of the troubles that Goa is facing. What I would like to take up however is the response of the group to this suggestion. “We don’t believe in caste” and therefore we cannot mobilize on the basis of caste. One very often runs into this sort of response, especially when it is so clearly evident that the battles that are being fought are in fact being fought by ‘lower caste’ groups struggling for recognition, livelihood or access to justice. The very simple question that I would like to ask these touch-me-nots therefore is the following. Does the acknowledgement of racial discrimination make us racist?

It shouldn’t be difficult for Indians to answer this question. Most Indians who have gone abroad, and more recently almost any Indian, after such fiascos as Harbhajan’s “Teri maa ki/ you monkey’ escapade, will vociferously claim that they are racially discriminated against by white people. If they then recognize that they are being racially discriminated against, does this now mean that all of us Indians are racist? Clearly not! If therefore we can admit the fact that the mere recognition of discrimination on the basis of race does not make us racist; then similarly the recognition of discrimination on the basis of caste does not make us casteist. To what then can we attribute our hesitation to discuss caste based discrimination?

In 1932 in the course of the Second Round Table, Dr. Ambedkar raised the issue of separate electorates for the Untouchables. The concept of separate electorates had already been extended to other minority groups, including the Sikhs and the Muslims. Gandhi however would have none of this. Arguing that this would result in the disintegration of the Hindu community, he took to his favourite method of protest, the fast. As his health worsened, Ambedkar was forced to give up his demand for separate electorates and settled for reservations, while the Untouchables were included, against their will, into a combined Hindu electorate.

I raise this fact of history to argue that the suppression of caste questions has been a fundamental feature of Indian political mobilization, especially that of the national struggle. The issue of caste-based discrimination was just not seen to be as important as that of the larger objectives of independence. Since the questions of upper-caste dominance were not effectively addressed prior to Independence, the departure of the British resulted in the upper-caste dominance of the country that we are witness to today.

It is my belief, that no issue of justice in this country can be effectively addressed, unless we also seriously address the issue of caste-based discrimination. Our failure to do so is ultimately based on our own membership within dominant caste groups that benefit from the status-quo that result from not addressing caste-based inequalities. Our discomfort with discussing the inequalities born of caste is not because we don’t believe in caste. On the contrary, it is because we know that once we open that Pandora’s box, the benefits that have accrued to us, and not to others will become so blatantly obvious.

We may not believe in caste, and yet we practice it on a daily basis, through the minor inflections of our speech, by how seriously we take people, by what we consider beautiful and what ugly. We practice caste-based discrimination when we recognize that some people have fallen on bad times, and other people are just poor, when we recognize some people as coming from ‘old families’ and others as having ‘no culture’.

Taking caste seriously would allow us to rupture the communal divides of Catholic, Muslim and Hindu along which we tend to break society down into. Inquire into caste, and you will see how groups mobilize not necessarily across religious lines, but definitely along caste lines. When they do mobilize along religious lines, it would be interesting to see whose interests are being served by this mobilization. Is it merely that of the upper-caste groups within the religious fold, or is it the interests of all of the caste-groups? Surprisingly, it is an emphasis on caste in such states as Bihar that has curbed the growth of both Hindutva, as well as Muslim fundamentalism. It is in light of these arguments that I am personally convinced that an emphasis on caste would in fact help the ongoing Goan upheaval (fitna) take up the essential justice questions that must be addressed if the so-called ‘Goan negativity’ has to end.

Having said so, there is a need for us to subsequently articulate the learning from caste-based analysis sensitively. Our caste locations provide us with a predilection for certain positions. These positions may not be shared by all persons, based on their own caste locations. It is true that not everyone within a dominant caste will give up their unequal privileges without a fight. However there will be those from such a caste, who will see the point, and lend support to the fight for equality. To argue that one’s mere location in a caste makes one anti-egalitarian is to fall right back into the casteist trap. Thus what one will eventually fight are the monsters of Brahmanism, rather than Brahmins themselves. Having said this however, alliances need to necessarily be forged among the Dalit groups in the Goa. There is really no alternative before us. Such an alliance will help us curb the evils that Brahmanism has bred in our State and country; that of Hindutva, the accompanying ills of minority (Muslim, Sikh, Christian) fundamentalisms in the country, as well as the orgy of consumerism that is pushing many in this country and also in Goa, into the arms of a slow, shameful and miserable death.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 17 March 2009)


Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,

Congratulations for a thought provoking article on Goa’s caste dynamics. You have understood it correctly. It is not that others, who try to avoid the issue by saying “we don’t believe in caste” , don’t realize it. There could be only two reasons for them to do it – either they are beneficiaries of saraswat dominance being the member of this community (whether they are Christian saraswats, progressive saraswats, communist, atheist, BJP, Congress or members of any other party) or they belong to the other non privileged camp of non saraswats who dare not to antagonize saraswats for the fear of getting targeted by the powerful saraswat lobby. And for the same reason I am writing this letter to you in private and don’t want to be made public. The fear is so real that this community control Goa in every aspect and they have a capacity to finish any one who comes in their way.

I don’t believe in caste. But I believe in only two castes in Goa – Saraswats and rest of the masses or bahujan samaj. It is more of the economic divide fuelled by social discrimination. Saraswats are eating the cream in Goa by plundering our natural resources as well as public exchequers money and the most unfortunate part is that others are just oblivious of this loot going on. Ordinance is just a small favour made by a saraswat for the saraswats. I will prove to you that most of the major decisions taken in the governments today are to directly or indirectly benefit saraswats. A large chunk of their population is becoming richer and richer due to their policies of helping fellow saraswats. You will not believe, many major decisions are taken not in secretariat but in Partagal Mutt, which is the epicenter of saraswats. Even the younger crop of saraswats are so proud of their caste because of economic benefits associated with it. Have you heard any progressive saraswats making any statement against all this. They won’t because they have been using their surnames to get coveted posts of editors in the organizations run by saraswats who are the pillars of saraswat community.

One more point I will highlight here. Goa’s communal movements is basically led by saraswats. They are the real threat to the communal fabric of Goa because they fear of losing social supremacy if society becomes more secular. I will prove this with example.

I am closely observing the saraswat discrimination and exploitation in Goa for last several decades. I can give you details of how saraswats dominate every institution – government, private, corporate – in Goa for their advantage. They got a big boost when Parrikar and now Digamber Kamat occupied the highest chair that eluded them for all these years. some of the biggest mining corporate houses have been sanctuaries for saraswats and to rehabilitate their best minds.

We can discuss on this issue at length some time. This has been going on only because people dread to talk about it in public. Unless there is a movement to expose how this community is milking this state and the people, their ambitions will only become bigger and bigger.

I am sure this will give you a new dimension to saraswat atrocities in Goa.


XXXXX (name withheld on request)

Niz Goenkar said...

Dear Jason,

Please provide proof that the anonymous response has not been written by you.

Also, ( in your opinion ) , what proportion ( approximately ) of Goan Saraswats are " casteist " ?

warm regards,

Dr Anand Virgincar

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Mr. Dr. Virgincar,

How indeed could I provide you with proof? I dont know. All I can say is, that if I had to bitch about the Saraswats, I would do so in public, without giving a damn. I dont need to put in an anonymous comment in my own blog.

also, I dont know, but do the writings styles match? I would like to think i have a definitive writing style, and wonder if I can pull out of it...

But feel free to believe what you wish.

About your percentage about casteist Saraswats, I dont know, I dont care. I'm not a quantitative scholar, more qualitative! and the idea is really to move beyond the Saraswats as a evil group concept...

P.S. I wish i could send this to you personally, but I dont see how, since you have'nt provided an email id.



Niz Goenkar said...

Dear Jason-bab,
1) I did enter my email ID when I left my comment. Anyways , please do feel free to email me on anandvirgincar@hotmail.com whenever.

2) I can see from your " writing style " that you are more than a trite fret up about my query regarding the anonymous response.
Please note :
a) I made an entirely benign enquiry.
b)I have ABSOLUTELY no doubts about the genuineness of the anonymous response.
c) However, the process of using manufactured anonymous responses is standard practice amongst communal and political agents generating blogging sites ( to enhance the credibility of their blogs )
d)It is for your own good that you should avoid posting anonymous responses on your site. After all , like you , these anonymous characters should have the courage to say such things openly.

3) With regards to your comment that you are a qualitative and not a quantitative academic , do I read that you are prepared to blame an entire community for the misdeeds of a handful within the community ?

4) Just to let you know , I am an extremely vocal critic of the Saraswat Hindu lobby in Goa. And an extremely vocal critic of Hindu fanaticsm in Goa and India.
Please see Goanet and Goenchim Xapotam Yahoo groups archives...you shall discover frank and harsh criticism of both these entities...the type of which NO Goan Saraswat Brahmin would dare to say in public.

5) I am also a harsh critic of hypocrites who turn a blissful Nelsons eye to the ills within their own caste , religious , political or religious groups....while spewing venom on those from other communities.

6) It is technically and logistically difficult for me to continue writing on this blog of yours. Hence I shall continue this discussion on my home forum :

It would be a pleasure and honour to continue discussing matters with an " academic " like you on GX....though I must admit I have no claims towards being an academic.

warm regards,

Anand Virgincar
Oxford , UK

Anonymous said...

Jason, let me predict which direction this discussion will take. First, you a will be pushed to corner. Then, you will be asked to defend statements you didn't make. Finally, it will end up with a comment on how bigoted you are!

I think the debate is to look at wider aspects of communalism, rather than getting caught up in the nitty-gritties and numbers. Of course, people don't defend the indefensible. They just muddy up the waters!

About the equation between Saraswats and communalism, it's more complex than what has been discussed.

Pre-1961, the Saraswats (as with the Catholic "upper" crust) were big-time beneficiaries of the system. After 1961, the MGP politics meant that the Saraswats were isolated, and needed allies badly. The Saraswat-Catholic alliance (crafted by 'upper' caste Catholics, with most of the others perhaps in the dark) was a reality. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, till it collapsed following the UGP splits, the joining of the rump UGP into the Congress and the Janata Party, etc.

For reasons of caste rivarly, the saffronites were long considered dominated by Chitpavan and other Brahmins, rivals of the Saraswats. It was only with the ascendence (and hegemony) of a Parrikar in the BJP in Goa (circa 1994) that the dominant Saraswat mindset took to supporting saffron. I don't think it would take much time to switch gears if there was opportunity elsewhere.