Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Revolution and Counter-revolution: Racist imaginations, citizenship and Colonialisms

The 3rd of April 2009, saw a commemoration of Aquino de Bragança at The International Centre, Goa. Aquino de Bragança was born in Goa, and in the heady days of the anti-colonial struggles was drawn into the cause of African liberation, and came to be advisor to Samora Machel, the first President of Mozambique.

While Aquino de Bragança is a figure who must be explored in his own right, I would like to reflect on the words of Fitz De Souza who spoke at the event. Fitz De Souza, also of Goan origin, has been lawyer and politician. Former deputy Speaker of the Kenyan parliament, he was one of those involved in the efforts to draw up a constitutional framework for Kenyan independence. Prior to Kenyan independence, in the course of the anti-colonial resistance in Kenya, he was also provided legal defense to those accused by the colonial administration of participation in the Mau Mau rebellion. Fitz De Souza, then is no ordinary man, and like Aquino de Bragança, played a crucial role in the unfolding of the post-colonial world that we now inhabit.

Rather than play the usual game of mumbling pleasantries, Fitz decided to stick his neck out and castigate the Goan community worldwide, pointing out how they did not play as significant a role in the anti-colonial struggle as they could have. This is true, people of Goan origin, very much like the rest of their ilk in the subcontinent, saw themselves as occupying a definite rung in the racist hierarchy of the 19th - 20th century. Not quite white, they nevertheless bought into the propaganda of the ‘Mission Civilisatrice’, believing that since they were Aryan, they would eventually get white status. They believed in any case that they were more than a few rungs higher than the ‘animal-like’ Africans.

It was in his subsequent statement though that I differed with Fitz. He went on to suggest that the British in their ‘complete racism’ planted the idea in the head of the Goans that ‘the Goans were not Indians, but Portuguese, that they were not crooks and thieves (like the Indian Bania) but honest and reliable souls’, on whose clerical shoulders, the Empire was in fact built.

My disagreement stems from the counter-suggestion Fitz offers; that the Goan is in fact ‘Indian’ and that this whole image of their being Portuguese is a racist fantasy that we ought not to buy. I would like to suggest that unfortunately, it is Fitz who in denying the Portuguese-ness of the Goan is buying into a racist imagination. This imagination is racist because it presumes that people occupying a definite territorial area are necessarily one people; and that because they come from the sub-continent of brown people, they cannot really be European. This imagination suggests that merely because the Goan shares the same colour as the people across the political boundary of the former Portuguese-India, they are the same people.

It is a testament to the power of racist imaginations that even a lawyer like Fitz could fall into its easy embrace. The Goan was Portuguese not because the English drummed this charming fantasy into their heads, but because by the LAW of Portugal they were Portuguese citizens. They were citizens who could also vote for their representatives to the Portuguese Parliament. That there may have been a practical failure to wholly realize this legal vision is not denied. However the mere fact of articulation in law is fact significant enough to trigger the imaginations of people. The British-Indian (which for all practical purposes Fitz is) will find it difficult to understand this position, because the British-Indian was always a subject of their Empire. It was their frustration at not being recognized as (white) Citizen of the Empire that eventually led to the Indian freedom struggle.

In a world filled with various ideas, ideologies and desires, it is Law that by and large performs the crucial role of determining what constitutes reality and what fantasy. The Portuguese Indian had been living for centuries within the embrace of a legal regime that gave them significant rights to participate in the Empire. It was by Law then, that they were Portuguese. It was the reality of this legality therefore, that allowed any subsequent suggestion by the British, or indeed, Salazar’s Estado Novo, to be that much more believable. Like Portuguese-ness, Indian-ness too, is an imaginary construction, made ‘real’ primarily through Law. The tenativity of this identity made obvious by that fact that the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi who until recently were ‘Indian’ are today viciously not considered so.

The Portuguese practice, where the Goan was Portuguese, has in fact the potential of upsetting the racist notions that continue to govern our world. Thanks to the operation of law, I can without batting an eyelid, unproblematically indicate that I am Portuguese. I don’t have to be white-skinned, nor do I need to have a drop of continental blood in my veins. By my being Portuguese my mere physical existence upsets racial categories. When like Aquino de Bragança, we can then also include the black-skinned African into this legal category; that is when we exploit the anti-racist potential of this legality to the maximum.

This week, Portugal will celebrate the 35th Anniversary of its revolt against the Estado Novo inaugurated by Salazar. One of the paradoxes of history, is that at the overturning of a

‘fascist’ dictatorship in fact resulted in the overturning of a liberative discourse vis-à-vis citizenship. The standard line of any 'politically’ Portuguese today is that ‘the past is the past, let us move forward to building new relationships’. Thus anything associated with the Estado Novo is seen as necessarily regressive. Look closely and you will see

them wince when the Goan expresses oneness with Portugal. This is a past that they would like to forget. However, this discomfort is not merely a discomfort with the Estado Novo. The discarding of colonial discourse today allows the Portuguese, once regarded as imperfectly European and not quite white, to now became actively European, and wholly white. The abandoning of Tio António Oliveira’s legal regime of citizenship – admittedly reinforced to support the dream and persistence of Empire – has carried the Portuguese into the racist regimes of continental Europe, where whiteness and distinction from the formerly colonized is at the heart of political and cultural identity. The Revolution it turns out may also well have been a counter-revolution!

The claim for a Portuguese identity should not necessarily embarrass us, since we must claim it as a deliberate act of overturning the racist stereotypes that we surreptitiously nurse at our breasts. If however we claim it, as did (and continue to do) the Goan elite, merely to mark cultural superciliousness, then and only then are we guilty of buying into a racist realm of imagination. On the anniversary of the Revolution, that we in Goa unfortunately missed, it would perhaps be worthwhile to contemplate the mixed bag that Portuguese colonialism has given us, and use these contradictions of this colonialism to make the world a better place.

(Published in the Gomantak Times April 22nd 2009)

(This essay has been profoundly influenced by the works of Dr.Boaventura de Sousa Santos. For these works and the inspiration, many thanks.)


Abhik Majumdar said...

Jason, I really, really liked this. Shows how we non-Goans complacently understand colonialism solely in terms of what the Brits did to us. I guess there is a lot of scope for historical research on other forms of colonialism in India (the French, the Portuguese, even the Dutch).

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

I found the quotation excerpted below from a narrative on goanet...

What I find interesting is how the cultural link, rather than the legal is being stressed...either out of ignorance, or because of the sheer dominance of the cultural tendency that British colonialism promotes...

"According to Joe Fernandes, the Goan proprietor of Caltex
Wampewo, the colonial government classified Europeans first,
followed by Goans, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in that order.

"Europeans held the top jobs like permanent secretaries.
Goans were at the next level, holding jobs immediately under
the permanent secretaries," Fernandes says.

"The main difference though stems from the fact that Goa was
colonised by Portugal as far back as 600 years ago. For 451
years up to 1962, Goa absorbed Portuguese influence, from the
Catholic religion to the language and social culture. In all
these centuries, much of the native culture fused with the

(Message: 2
Date: Thu, 23 Apr 2009 01:14:47 +0530
From: Goanet Reader (goanetreader@gmail.com)
Subject: [Goanet] The Goan legacy... living on in Uganda
(Esther Namugoji, in New Vision)

Alcipe said...

Very serious and provocative essay. Only one objection : you cannot equalize, even from a strict legal point of view, the situation of the Goans in the Portuguese Empire with the situation of the Black Africans under the same rule. And one point : there were many true and brave fighters against Salazar's dictatorship in the Goan diaspora in Portugal - most of them, that's true, remained Portuguese! Let me remind Orlando da Costa, a great writer, Xencora Camotim, an important lawyer and Human Rights defender, the poet Adeodato Barreto, whose son Kalidas Barreto was one of the first trade union leaders in Portugal after the Revolution, and my friends and colleagues Francisco Bruto da Costa, Edgar Valles and so many others...

They all fought for freedom and paid the prize!

Is freedom and democracy just a local value? I think it's an universal one...


João said...

I was under the impression that most people in Goa spoke Konkani or Marathi throughout the 450 years of Portuguese colonisation. Only the elite had Portuguese as a mother tongue, and that is why Portugal, which has a national identity firmly built on its language, would never see every Goan as inherently Portuguese.

Ultimately, I'd wager that Goans were more likely to be turned into Marathis than into Portuguese, had Goa been incorporated into Maharashtra, and Konkani merely been acknowledged as a dialect of Marathi.

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Dear João,

This collapsing of Portuguese nationality into the ability to speak Portuguese, perhaps we should identify as the narrow and parochialism of Portuguese nationalism, distinct from the legal fact (and right) of citizenship. All of this while acknowledging that by and large, knowledge of the language was the route into participation in the national community. But surely citizenship is more than the ability to participate in the 'national' identity!

To your question on the languages spoken in Goa, it is affirmed that by and large Portuguese was spoken by the elite segments of Goan society. I will not deny this, though I will also say that toward the end of the colonial period, as more and more people went to school, the common knowledge of the language was also growing. However, I would also like to question the purpose that this assertion of elite 'ownership' of the language serves. The point I believe is obvious.

Konkani in Goa was (and is) full of Portuguese words, Portuguese grammar etc etc. Of late, since integration, there has been an attempt to Sanskritise it. In this context, how are we to say, that the people of Goa did not know Portuguese? On what basis are we determining knowledge of Portuguese? Those who speak it as first language, or those who adopt it to their local (non-continental) use? Please remember that the point of my intervention is that we cannot persist in looking at this whole issue from the Continental Portuguese point of view, and erase the subjectivity of the Overseas Portuguese.

While still on the point of language usage, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that in older times, Portuguese was the lingua franca of commerce along the coast...

The last para of your comment I fail to understand, but will say this much, identities are not fixed and permanent, and yes ofcourse they change. SO just as the Goans could have also become Marathi (in addition to other identities that they may nurse) the Portuguese have also become European with their integration into the European Union.

Just a quick response, thank you for your comment.

Didi Fonseca said...

A brilliant piece.


What to do about legal fictions once their sheer past-ness - the fact that they are no longer enforced as law - fictionalizes them even more? I guess you can only fictionalize them even more, in columns like this one - which is fine and that's what utopias are all about.
But forget about law and think of practice for one moment: indeed, how many Goans actually played out this legal fiction? How many Goans did celebrate the Portuguese Republican revolution? How many Goans outside the GSB/Upper-Catholic circle did engage with the "nation" besides the obvious exercises of subordination and daily struggles with colonial authorities? How are we to think of this fiction if indeed the fiction is, as I believe, unknown to most of the people it tries to fictionalize?

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Dear Didi,

Thank you for the compliment, but even more for engaging with my ideas...

To address your counters;

You make a good point about what to do with legal fictions once they are past their 'use-by-date' that is to say once they are fictionalised anymore.

I think you have provided a wonderful way to think about this dilemma, which is to point out that they provide to us possible utopias (fantasies once more, but real-isable!)

My point (taking after the suggestion that Santos has made on many occasions) is that this Portuguese colonial practice, if dragged into the postcolonial period, could in fact provide us a realisable legal framework for a new world order. It is for this reason that I try to resurrect this fast-fading dream, to point out that Portugal's true relevance in the global arena, may be the colonial past it is overlooking.

You then ask kme how many of these Goans actually played out this legal fiction? How many of them engaged with the 'nation'?

I think these are two different orders here. The first is how many actually played out this fiction. I can't provide you numbers (I abhor numbers!!) but there was a flood of out-migration from Goa soon after the Anglo-Portuguese treaty was signed, I am not sure if this migration took place even before this treaty. Even today, Goans present in the virtual Goan world recount to us the fact that they had Portuguese passports. Goans in Bombay after Indian Independence and before 'Liberation' were Portuguese citizens. This was not an insignificant number. They may not have realised the significance of citizenship, can we say that even we today do? The fact nevertheless is that their movement was possible because of their citizenship, and my 'further fictionalising'is possible only because of that citizenship.

About engaging with the 'nation', this is a 'nationalist' position, and I am not interested in any nationalist position (I am not suggesting that you are a nationalist). In fact it is possible that the Goan (like many other 'Portuguese' and other creole) were capable of engaging with different nations simultaneously and without compromising the other. Thus, it was possible for Luis Francisco de Menezes (I hope I've got the name right) to acclaim that he came from the land that gave the world the Mahabharata, be Goan and yet be Portuguese!

Ofcourse this is not to answer your question. I will agree, perhaps not too many outside the charmed Brahmin and upper caste Catholic circles engaged with this 'notion/nation', but then, today, a good number of Goans are reaping the benefit of this citizenship, and who knows how they will interact with the idea of Portuguese nationality and nationhood?

I also want to address your question where you ask "How many Goans outside the GSB/Upper-Catholic circle did engage with the "nation" besides the obvious exercises of subordination and daily struggles with colonial authorities?"

Why should this 'obvious exercise of subordination and daily struggle' be less than a celebratory engagement with the 'nation'? As an Indian, I feel terribly oppressed by the notion of Indian nationhood, I reject it entirely (well ok not entirely, but almost wholly). Does that make me any less of an Indian, or more so? Are these subaltern struggles of the 'colonised' radically different from the grumbling Portuguese or French with regard to the corruption of the State or the idiocy of bureaucracy that they feel oppressed by? I think not.

You end by asking me "How are we to think of this fiction if indeed the fiction is, as I believe, unknown to most of the people it tries to fictionalize?"

To reiterate my point, a good number of Goans today are queuing up to reclaim their Portuguese citizenship. It is possible that most of them do not know that it is their right, that they are not applying for Portuguese citizenship. However when is the average person truly, totally and wholly conversant with the law?

Also, the tragedy of this particular fiction, is that it has predominantly been suffocated by the 'culture discourse' of the British Empire, talking about it (the Portuguese legal regime), is important, even if the people subjected to its rule, were not wholly clued in, so that they can now be, and see the possible utopia.

I hope these late night ramblings make sense...would love to carry on the conversation, but via email (we could include, involve others as well?)

jason dot k dot fernandes at gmail dot com being my email id

thank you once again for the opportunity..

Sergio Mascarenhas said...

Hello Jason, long time not speak, but I've been following some of your writtings. Needless to say, I agree with most of what you write but there's a couple of things worth mentioning:

First, Aquino Bragança was not the average Mozambican Goan. His option (to side with Frelimo before independence and to remain in Mozambique and wholy embrace the new regime after it) was very minoritary. I'm stating this as a fact, whatever interpretation I leave for the reader.

Second, you state that by turning to Europe Portugal adopted European racism. It's a lot more complex than that. The attitudes and mindsets on racism in the Europe of the 60s and afterwards are evolving and are very different from those of the colonial past. So, by adopting an European mindset in the 80s we were not going back to the XIX century, far from that.
Furthermore, what we face today in Europe is less a narrow issue of racism and a broader and harder to locate and define issue of discriminations (the change from singular to plural is intentional, of course).

What's more, yes, Portugal accepted within its fold the Goans at a time when no other European nation was doing it. But today most European countries include within their citizenship people from all around the world. In fact, there are countries like France, Germany or the UK with much larger sets of citizens with a non-European ancestry than Portugal.

What I mean is that what you suggest does not hold true. By becoming European we did not turn our backs on a more inclusive past of our own creation, for a less inclusive present based on European traditions. We became an active part in a larger whole where the issues of inclusiveness versus descrimination have been facing intense discussion and evolution.
I think that was very good for Portugal. I firmly believe that Europe is at the forefront of these issues. The only thing I think needs to be regreted is the fact that we Portuguese seldom tap into our past experiences and almost never work from them our participation in the European debates, but that's another matter.


PS I also have a lot of consideration for Boaventura work, even if I don't share a lot of his perceptions or conclusions. There's more to be said about the way my country dealt with these issues than what Boaventura proposes.