Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Between Gãocarponn and Goemcarponn: Fighting the pretenders to the Hindu throne

There can be no debate over the fact that the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) attack on the exhibition of the art-works of Dr. José Pereira was a scandal. Prof. Jose Pereira is a profound scholar whose works span the substantial realms of theology, architecture, aesthetics, music. Thus, this column will not spend time protesting this interference by the HJS. Rather it will look to other aspects that seem to emerge from this encounter.

The insight that this encounter presents to us is about the nature and character of Indian secularism, and the actions necessary to sustain it against the onslaught of groups such as the HJS. My problem with the practice of Indian secularism, has largely been that it is an invitation to become more Hindu. The crossovers from Islam, Jainism, Sikhism and Christianity to (upper-caste) Hinduism are more welcome than crossovers from Hinduism to any of these faiths, especially those faiths like Islam and Christianity. In fact, such crossovers are increasingly prosecuted by law and administration. Thus when I saw Dr. Pereira’s exhibition ‘Epiphanies of the Hindu Gods’ introduced as ‘a tribute to his Hindu ancestry’, I was somewhat displeased. To hark to your Hindu ancestry means a couple of things to me. It indicates that your present identity as Christian and Catholic, and the approximately 400 years of cultural experience as Catholic do not seem to count toward your being an Indian. To be authentically Indian, you need to dabble in imagined pasts that then come to you, quite literally as epiphanies. The second problem is that not all of us can claim Hindu pasts. Some of us (in Goa) came from African, Arabian, tribal and Muslim ancestry. When you celebrate your Hindu ancestry, drawing on the cultural capital of ‘Indian culture’ where does that leave us?

Subsequent to the incident with the HJS, I realized an error in my understanding of what it means to dabble in Hinduism, while being Catholic. It seems that Prof. Pereira does not enter the realms of Hinduism as an interloper. He enters Hinduism as a claimant of his patrimony. Catholicism may be his faith, but Hinduism is also, in his eyes, the faith of his fathers. Within the norms of patriarchy then, he has a right to the interpretations that he makes. But Prof. Pereira does not make his interpretations solely on the basis of his patrimonial right. When the HJS came to demand the removal of the art-works of Prof. Pereira they argued that he had misrepresented the facts of the myths of these deities. To this challenge, Prof. Periera leaned back, closed his eyes, and then recited, in the original Sanskrit, the verses from the Geeta Govinda that had inspired him. In doing so Prof. Pereira indicated his dominion over the faith of his fathers, as opposed to the ignorance of the HJS band. Indeed, so flummoxed were they in the face of this learning that the spokesperson admitted that “she was not a learned person”.

Dr. Pereira may be an extraordinary scholar, but his experience with, and claim on Hinduism is definitely not singular. Subsequent to this incident, a certain Catholic gentleman asserted his own claim to Hinduism. In an email broadcast this gentleman indicated that:

“The HJS, Sanatan etc must understand that we Goans are Christians …but first Hindu with a strong Hindu base….we shall not tolerate third rate outside(rs) …to dictate terms to us about our ancestral beliefs”.

He elaborated this by indicating that he had “always countered our 'settler' Hindus in Sontosgao that if at all they worship the Rawalnath kul deo at Vodlo bhat it is because it is the kul deo of our Sontosgao…ancestors who later chose to be converted to Christianity. …As (a) bonafide Sontosgaocar (I) have all the claim to the Rawalnath kul deo as it is my kul deo of my ancestors”. This argument he informed us had “been well taken by our Sontosgao settlers (who) respect this claim”. (Sontosgao is a fictional name inserted to protect the identity of this person).

The crossover to Hinduism then, is not always a crossover that necessarily results in rootlessness. On the contrary, roots in dominant caste groups are presented that allow for the assertion of patrimonial rights over Hinduism. At other times, one’s mere location in a socially and economically dominant position allowed one to gain claims on Hinduism. The mother of a friend once recounted how in earlier days, her father (a Muslim landlord) who loaned his grounds for the local Ram Lila, would be made the honorary President of the Ram Lila Committee. Today, with the displacement of both the Muslim and the landlord, such a scenario is unthinkable. To a large extent, this has been the basis of Indian secularism at the grass-roots of this country. To be sure this sort of secularism is not available to those outside of the dominant castes of the region, and while this is problematic, we need to recognize the value of this upper-caste discourse in creating secular frames that allow for the maintenance of communal harmony. In fact, this is the basis of Goa’s famed communal harmony, not some natural, genetic goodness that flows in Goan veins.

It is for this reason that the HJS pretensions are doubly troubling. The HJS histrionics do not appear to be about genuine “hurt feelings”. On the contrary, as in the Subodh Kerkar episode, it appears about seeking to establish HJS as the gatekeeper of contemporary Hinduism. (And yet, what kind of canonically illiterate gatekeepers are these?). Similar gate-keepers have attacked M. F. Hussain, trying to demarcate who is Hindu and who not, and who will decide (HJS and its ilk) and who not. This particular encounter displayed to me, that the result what the HJS and its friends are doing, is to end entirely the crossovers and experiences of non-Hindus with Hinduism. If you are a ‘Pereira’, you are assumed to have malice, and lack of knowledge. You are either Hindu, or you are not. The current practice of Indian secularism may not be ideal, but we have to acknowledge that it allows a certain bonding that creates the possibility of a tolerant atmosphere. The HJS and its ilk do not appear to be interested in such a scenario of tolerance. The involvement of their group members in the Margao blasts where they deliberately tried to incite violence is more evidence of their intentions. They are seeking to draw sharp lines, and then provoke violence, which they hope, owing to larger number the Hindus will triumph.

They will succeed if they manage to become representatives for Hinduism, which judging by the consistent actions of the police who acquiesce to their demands, they are becoming. It is for this reason, that the crossover to Hinduism is important. And it is for this reason, that the average Goan Hindu, must necessarily stand up and say loudly and clearly, “No! You do not speak for me!”

* Gãocars are male members of the dominant castes of villages, given an elite status. Literally translated, they are the Gão (village) makers (kar from the root kor to make)

** Goemcarponn - translates to Goan-ness.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 4 Aug 2010)

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