Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Recovering the Republic - I : Recovering Power from a cynical use of the Law

The column a couple of weeks ago asserting that the centenary of the declaration of the Portuguese Republic was also a Goan event, received a few responses that convinced me of the need to follow that argument with an explanation of some sort. These responses were shocked by the connection made between Dalit and Bahujan consciousness in Goa and the declaration of the Portuguese Republic. The Portuguese Republic, they were at pains to explain, was not an angelic affair committed to equality throughout the Portuguese empire. It had dictatorial tendencies, was entirely concerned with issues in the metropole (that is continental Portugal) and in fact laid the foundations for the persecutions of the Estado Novo under Salazar.

To be fair to these responses, I must admit that they were rightly triggered by my use of the word ‘celebration’ in the context of the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic. Celebration suggests an uncritical appreciation of an event. Commemoration would be a more appropriate term, given that it requires solemn stock-taking of an event, weighing both pros and cons.

Having acknowledged the error in choice of words, I believe that I have gone some distance toward assuaging the outrage of my interlocutors. However, I would now like to address the question that they put to me, whether one can be justified in laying claim to an event that did not have the liberation of the Goan Bahujan in mind. Surely, one critic suggested, this Bahujan activist was mistaken?

The original column that sparked off this response, indicated rather clearly the two edged, cynical use of ideas of liberty and equality that marked the inauguration of the European republics. The bourgeois classes that spearheaded these revolutions made a cynical use of these ideas, largely to ensure a larger support base as they attacked the feudal regime. However, having done so, they were now hostage to the idea that was then implemented by the masses in the slow progress of democracy. Suhas Palshikar, in his essay in the must-read book titled ‘Humiliation: Claims and Context’, edited by Gopal Guru sums it up rather aptly. ‘Democracy’ he says, ‘even only a very formal democracy - cannot be stopped from infusing some amount of democratization’. The moment the bourgeoisie introduced the rather novel idea of ‘power to the people’ they were inviting a group, hitherto outside of the frame of power politics, into its very heart. Once invoked and legitimized in the course of the French Revolution, the roll of democracy was unstoppable, as formerly disenfranchised masses seized the opportunity to rid themselves of inequality.

To understand the complex and cynical politics of Republicanism, have a look at the history of Haiti. The French Revolution was marked by the slogan of equality for all, a slogan taken seriously by the black slaves in Haiti, who declared their freedom and independence. This was, to be sure, hardly the intention of forces dominating the Revolution. The resistance of the French to this declaration led to the Haitian Revolution that eventually saw the declaration of independence of this territory. Equality in republican Europe, was not intended for people of colour, nor for the colonies. Not in France, nor in Portugal. But this should not blind us to the fact that the mere declaration did in fact result in a legal change that allowed people to assert claims that could never be legitimately made until then.

Palshikar extends this logic to nationalist struggles in colonial settings as well. He points out, no doubt referring to the nationalist history of British-India, that ‘similarly, the moment the nationalists in colonial societies departed from exclusively conspiratorial and secret methods and waged ‘people’s struggles’, they were running the risk of their nations being claimed by ordinary people’. Large portions of the Indian elite were not comfortable with the idea of the unwashed masses gaining a say in the governance of the country. This discomfort continues today in such assertions as made by the ‘Friends of the BJP’ when they stress that we as educated know better than the rest of the ‘illiterate’ population.

Clearly then, once the democratic idea is invoked, it fundamentally changes the rules of the game. People who formerly could not even imagine themselves as equal, now begin to hear the powerful voice of the law tell them that they are equal. This powerful voice may be cynical, not meaning what it says, but having uttered these magical words, is now powerless against the influence of its own logic.

A legal history of the territory of Goa would have to necessarily recognize that the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic, that extended equality to all citizens, as a significant moment in this history. To argue that the Portuguese never intended Goans to be equal, is to raise silly nationalist arguments that seek to begin a history of this territory post-1961, or prior to the start of the colonial period. Its purpose is precisely to obscure the fact that this declaration had profound impacts on a far away territory, and was a significant moment in its legal history. A legal history is built on recognition of legal pronouncements, and the job of a legal historian is to probe the impacts that this law has had on different segments of the subject population. In such a history, while we highlight the intention of the law, we also inquire into its consequences intended or otherwise. When we commemorate the events marked out in such a legal history, it is necessary for us to dwell on all facets of this moment.

In the companion piece to this column, I would like to argue, why it is not nostalgia of the Portuguese that motivates the commemoration of the declaration of the Portuguese Republic, but in fact a more domestic agenda of Dalit empowerment. This agenda is least concerned with the predilections of other segments of Goan society. These segments wish to either brand the colonial period as one long, dark, nightmare, without any redeeming feature; or on the other hand, as a glorious dazzling history that sadly ended in 1961. This agenda is interested in unshackling Goa’s colonial history from the shackles that these two groups have placed on it and open up new and democratic ways in which we can imagine and empower ourselves.

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times 3 March 2010)

1 comment:

S said...

again, you presume significant "impacts that this law has had on different segments of the subject population", then jump to "Dalit empowerment" without even trying to offer us one single example of the connection between these. great job, dr, fernandes!