Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Letter to Amita: Unpacking Caste Politics

Dear Amita,

I want to begin this post by thanking you for your response to Dileep Padgaonkar’s review of Meera Kosambi’s book on her grandfather and Buddhist scholar Dharmanand Kosambi (Dharmanand Kosambi: the essential writings, edited by Meera Kosambi, Permanant Black) in The Times of India.

In your response you rightly point out that “To refer to the background of a brahmin landowner then as ‘humble’ is misleading and offensive.” No argument there. You raise points that are normally occluded in the debates and discussions within and about Goa. On the contrary, I would go further than you do when you say that “the condition of the non-brahmins was much worse, with many in grinding poverty, working on the land owned by the GSBs, unable to even think of basic education, their women and children sometimes bonded in the worst ways imaginable.” In fact, for most of the non-brahmin Hindu population of Goa, and especially in the Novas Conquistas, the GSB was the oppressor; not the Portuguese, and the GSB continues to be the oppressor. Let us also not forget that for the GSB the pre-Republic discrimination was not as severe as it was for other Hindu groups. There were sufficient number of GSBs within the system of the Estado da India to ensure that their interests were served, even while not being centre-stage. These inconvenient facts are unfortunately conveniently occluded in the anti-Portuguese hysteria that is generated by the ‘freedom-fighters’ whose lead figures are perhaps not surprisingly GSB! More recently, in other writings, I have suggested that perhaps the kind of stand-off that one saw in the Subodh Kerkar incident had as much to do with contra-GSB politics as with anti-non-Hindu politics.

Before I go on to my differences with you, and my suggestions of caution – that draw largely from Luis’ response to you - may I direct your attention ‘The Bomb,Biography and the Indian Middle Class’ published in the EPW issue dated June 10 2006, p. 2327. In this essay Sankaran Krishna points to the biography of the late Raja Ramanna. He points here to the curious fact, that like Dileep Padgaokar’s review, Ramanna’s review too begins with a reference to his Brahmin origins. Like you do, Krishna leads us from this reference to the Brahmin, to the manner in which this feature limits the extent of Indian modernity. Among other things, it is the basis on which the pride in one’s elevated caste background twines with the politics of ‘merit’ that we uphold to deny the reservation policy that Luis rightly supports, how it constructs the habitus of the Indian middle classes, its (our) response to the masses, and how it twines with Hindutva. The essay is a gem, and worth reading and I will hence cease to discuss that essay here. I will merely end by indicating that reference to the humility of the GSB caste is more than merely misleading and offensive. Padgaokar’s reference tells us also of how Padgaokar perceives himself, and the limits of his own modernity.

My differences with you commence from the position, where I argue that it is possible to conceive that the ‘humble GSB’ did in fact exist at the time in which Dharmanand was forced to manage the coconut plantations. Saying this does not, I believe, challenge your assertion of the preeminence of the Saraswat in Goa. This assertion only provides a critical nuance. What I am trying to gesture towards however is that we should not take the term GSB at face value but unpack it. The term GSB and the idea of a single GSB caste was in fact an invention of the early late 19th and early 20th century. This points was made in great detail by the historian Frank Conlon in an essay titled ‘Caste by Association: The Gauda Sarasvata Brahmana Unification Movement’ and published in 1974. That the discussion of this essay did not find its way into many of the discussions on Goan society and history, and contemporary Goan politics; I believe says much about the internal politics (and power structures) of Goa.

To return to Conlon’s essay however, he points out that the GSB community was forged in the early 1900’s primarily as a result of the efforts of non-elite migrants to Bombay city who members of around 11 historically related sub-castes. “The larger and more influential of these groups included Shenvi, Sāsastikar, Kudaldeskar, Bardeskar, Pednekar and Sarasvata (or Senvipaiki) jatis.” You will realize that his list, provides names for only 6 of these 11 sub-castes, and yet today most of us are unaware of the distinctions even among these 6 that until the early 1900’s were significant. These divisions were significant enough that non-elite members of the non-elite sub-castes had to attempt to create a single unified group that would allow them to gain from the combined strength of numbers, as well as the elite status of members of elite sub-castes.

These moves met with different responses. There were some, like the famed Shenoi Goembab who participated in this move by forging a ‘mother-tongue’ for this group outside of the language that the elite among them identified with. This caste-consolidation history of Konkani has today been occluded as Shenoi has been trapped in the Goan identity building movement (which is not unconnected with the machinations of some members of the GSB caste either). There were the Swamis (pontiffs) of some of the Maths, notably the Chitrapur Math and the Kashi Math who were not as keen to see these distinctions vanish. Indeed mention the commonality of Saraswats to a Chitrapur Brahmin even today, and you will see a smirk play on the their faces. Seeing themselves as Saraswats, rather than GSBs, they will tell you that the GSBs are known to be rather uncouth; villagers, shop-keepers and merchants. It was exactly this lower socio-economic standing among the non-elite sub-castes that the Gauda Sarasvata Brahmana Unification Movement sought to undo. This and get themselves recognized as Brahmins by other (notably Marathi-speaking) Brahmins.

I seek to raise this point, and stress this history for a number of reasons. First, we should not collapse the various sub-castes, the memory and identity of which may still linger, into the single rubric of Brahmin. The value of unpacking this term is similar to the value of the Dalit movement that resists their being packed into the box Hindu. Where strong ‘lower’-caste movements exist, for example Bihar, the specter of Hindutva has been diminished. I wonder whether the inclination of the GSB stalwarts in Goa who were formerly seen as secular, is not also the result of the recent years that has seen the effective consolidation of the GSB caste? Recognizing the non-elite status of some of these Brahmins would possibly also help generate insights into their other actions. Finally, unpacking ‘Brahmins’ would help deflect the kind of critique that the Luis who has responded to your post demonstrates.

As demonstrated by his response, the critique against casteism gets conflated into a critique against Brahmins. This then has less to do with a critique against casteism, and more to do with the continuing caste battle between the Brahmins and the Chardos. In fact, the conflation of monolithic Brahmins, or Chardos, aids precisely the attempts of elites in these groups to recruit foot-soldiers for the caste wars that benefit the elites. For make no mistake, the sub-castes that went on to compose the GSB, were and are very much present among the Goan Catholic as well. By this conflation, it is possible for Chardo (or any other dominant caste) sensibility to masquerade as ‘progressive’ while not questioning itself and its relationship to dominance and subjugation. Take for example the suggestion that not mentioning caste could possibly have to do with a higher level of maturity!

One could also take the other statement that Luis makes “It is difficult to otherwise imagine how else they’ll ever be able to rise from centuries of institutionalized injustice.” I do not have any problem with the ‘They vs. Us’ formulation implicit in this statement. After all I am sure that Luis comes from a dominant caste background and is acknowledging this. At the same time, there is nevertheless a certain teleology of progress embedded in the statement. It suggests that at the end of the day ‘they’ must rise to become like ‘us’. This is not a romanticisation of the miserable conditions of the oppressed. It is merely an attempt to contemplate a space for a Dalit response that is not dependent on dominant caste superciliousness. Off the cuff, the closest approximation I can think of is what I can think of comes from this little response to Gandhians from Dalit activists. Responding to being called Harijans, or Children of Goa, the Dalit activists retort, ‘if we are children of God, whose children are you!’

I will end on this note by simply summarizing, that as important as it is to point out that the GSB, no matter how ‘humble’ was also a landowner and oppressor; it is as important to unpack this term to display the variety of status groups that have been shoved into it. Simultaneously, we should beware of attempts to hijack this critique to aid the caste wars by other dominant castes against the clearly hegemonic Brahmin. Thus in saying so I return to your observation that “identifying caste is important in writings about India, for it can add crucial depth to our understanding of this caste-ridden society…”

Many thanks for your patience,


(First published on line at tambdimati: the goan review on 15 Oct 2010)

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