Thursday, March 4, 2010

Recovering the Republic – II: A Dalit epistemology

It is only recently that I have managed to understand the term ‘epistemology’. Simply but not particularly helpfully put, epistemology is the knowledge or science (logos) of knowledge (episteme). In my own befuddled way therefore, allow me to suggest that epistemology is concerned with interrogating the ways in which we construct our knowledge of the world. What are the bases, the places from which we derive our knowledge? Marginalized groups across the world will assert that the fonts of knowledge are invariably the experiences of dominant groups, not the experiences of the marginalized. Indeed, a popular phrase pertinent to our discussion is that ‘History is always written by the victors’. In fact, it is because the victors define knowledge based from their experiences that they invariably continue to remain dominant and victorious. A part of the project of any marginalized group therefore, is to ensure that fields of study, and knowledge itself, incorporate subaltern experiences giving them validity as the basis of scientific inquiry and knowledge systems.

This column is the second of a two-part response to the critiques of my earlier column that called for a commemoration of the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic. The column was built on the assertion of a Goan Bahujan activist, who claimed that he first received freedom with the declaration of the Portuguese republic in 1910. Citing historical fact, that the Portuguese republic did not intend to reform feudal Goan society, or that the Portuguese republic paved the way for harsh colonial regimes, a friend suggested that perhaps this Bahujan activist was mistaken.

This suggestion is a precise and wonderful example of how the experiences and assertions of the marginalized are held to be incapable of being the basis for any serious intellectual thought. In the south-Asian continent, we have our own peculiar way of ensuring marginalization through the caste system. Interestingly and not unsurprisingly, in the course of the session where our Bahujan activist made this link between his freedom experience and the Portuguese Republic, a prominent Goan freedom-fighter, stood up, livid with rage and shouted in that public assembly ‘Arrey makdan, thum amkam ved shikoitai?’ (You damn monkey, are you trying to teach us the Vedas?) It is not coincidental that this activist was referred to as a monkey. An animal, the monkey is commonly understood to be able to only imitate humans, but is incapable of knowing why he does so. Even if it does, it is unable take the intellectual impulse further. That it was a freedom-fighter, a nationalist who shouted out this slur is also a pertinent fact. Bahujan and Dalit assertions invariably stand against nationalist assertions, particularly in the Indian context, where Indian national values are formulated on the basis of upper-caste (whether Hindu or otherwise) experiences and interests.

Indian nationalist constructions of Goan socio-cultural and legal history seek a pre-Portuguese past, and then a post-61 total liberation. The colonial period is presented as one long dark nightmare, particularly harsh for the Hindus of this realm. Our Bahujan activist in hailing the declaration of the Portuguese republic was casting a spanner into this carefully constructed history. Like other Dalit activists, for him, colonialism is not an unmitigated evil. On the contrary, colonialism allowed the Dalit to find liberation from upper-caste oppression through the introduction of modern values, such as a legal regime based on equality. For these internally oppressed, colonialism was not experienced as the humiliation that the upper-caste felt colonialism to be. There is no need for them to reject blindly the entire colonial experience, for they can see it brought hope along with trial.

What this Bahujan activist was doing was to open our eyes to places where our caste and nationalist influenced sight would not go. He was not mistaken, he was not misinformed; his assertion was a conscious and deliberate claim. It is a claim that those of us who claim sympathy for the Bahujan-Dalit cause must take up. This claim stands between two strands of popular Goan historiography. One that sees the colonial period as a dark interlude, and the other that sees it as a lost period we must now lament. Unconcerned with these two largely upper-caste positions, he takes from this period what is necessary for the egalitarian project and moves on. For those who charged me with nostalgia for the colonial era, know that this activist’s position is where my sympathies lie. They lie neither with nationalist Portugal, nor with nationalist India, neither for pre-61 nor post-61. They lie in picking up from our history those threads that will allow us to highlight the struggles towards greater equality. If this means having to smash large portions of the nationalist history of Goa, then so be it.

To buttress the claims of both myself and this Bahujan activist whose claims I seek to amplify, I would like to extract from an essay written by our very own Peter Ronald deSouza. The essay, that follows the conflict around a crematorium a few years ago, is published in the same set of essays on humiliation edited by Gopal Guru that I referred to in part-I of this two-part response. In the course of the essay deSouza observes that ‘the Dalits of the village are relatively new residents, having come to this Old Conquest area during the late colonial period about seventy to eighty years ago, from areas in the New Conquests....These Old Conquests, unlike the New Conquests that came under colonialism during a later phase, suffered the Inquisition, faced the brutalities of the early phase of colonialism, and had to endure and adapt to the Portuguese policies of making Goa a cultural place in the image of Portugal. These dark episodes of history however have a positive underside. It gave the Dalits a chance to escape from the pernicious laws of Manu...which operated in the Konkan socio-cultural landscape, since they now became equal subjects of a European king who did not recognize caste distinctions as valid legal distinctions, and also since it gave them a chance, through migration between the two conquest areas, to reinvent themselves’.

Colonial intervention, for all the problems associated with its, has also enabled, as deSouza points out, the possibility of liberation of the Goan Dalit from caste and feudal oppression. It is only when Dalit experience informs our knowledge, that this fact becomes crystal clear. Incorporating the Dalit experience, allows us to develop a more balanced approach to pre-colonial and colonial Goa, and allows us also, to rescue the Portuguese republic, for all its faults, from the nationalism that suffocates its larger significance.

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times 4 March 2010)


S said...

it is ovious that you don't know a single thing about Goan history, either before or after 1910. You have no idea about Portuguese ideas and practices about caste.
To acknowledge that would be not much of an epistemological effort, but it would be a huge step forward for your ever-so-pretentious column. And do take some time to consider the way you are trying to make a bourgeois living out of "dalit" and "bahujan" "epistemologies".

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Dear S,

From the possibly nameless critic of my first column on the Republic, to 'S', you have come a long way.

Thank you once again, for your time and comment.

Tis true, there is much I DO NOT know, about Portuguese ideas and practices about caste. I am restricted as yet, by my sole command over English, some reading of literature in that language and some personal experiences.

It would be helpful however, if you took the trouble, to illuminate me and my audience, about what I, and we, do not know. I say this without any sarcasm and absolute sincerity.Send me a response, and I will ensure that it is published in the same newspaper, not as a letter to the editor, but as a column.

Until such time however, I am forced to bumble along and make mistakes and then correct them if I can, or when aided to do so.

Until then, your nasty comments, serve absolutely no purpose, since you fail to make a counter, fail to take responsibility for your statements.


Jason Keith Fernandes said...

S...since you are clearly checking for comments...please send your further comments in again please....i absent-mindedly rejected them

S said...

these are not nasty comments. and I don't feel the need to counter a column which ultimately says and knows nothing. but if you admit there's much you don't know,how dare you say that the republic brought this or that to your cherished bahujans? you may want us to believe you are a smart fellow but it seems to me that all you do is use your pseudo-intellectual babble and cheap agitation tactics in order to create a smoke screen in which to hide your profound ignorance about Goan society today and yesterday. so please accept my apologies for declining your patronizing challenge to publish a counter in GT as your column contains nothing worthy of being countered.

Jason Keith Fernandes said...

Dear S,

I was genuinely distraught after your initial comments, wondering if I did in fact represent falsely. However subsequent to you latest string of messages, littered across the three blog entries, I can rest easy.

You continue to reveal yourself as an anonymous coward, unwilling to stand up and be evaluated on 'merit'. However in the course of your rants, I think I have been able to elicit a few pointers on who you might be, socially, if not personally.

You are possibly Hindu, but definitely upper caste. You are definitely well-educated, but clearly are lacking in the basic courtesy that should come with education. And you are possibly based abroad, or have the capacity to travel abroad.

You accuse me of communalist nostalgia, but fail to see that I have debunked the upper-class Goan idea of the colonial period as a Golden Age. But you are so entrenched in upper-caste, and invariably Hindu nationalist logics of our country, that any view that contradicts your positions, is met with hatred as you spew.

I have been warned about people from the Hindu right (and you dont have to be Hindu to belong to the Hindu right), like you. The moment there is an alternate point of view, rather than engage with it, you slap it down through any means possible. But not once do you engage and concretely point to errors or mistaken analysis.

Its a pity really.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, it was quite helpful and told a lot.