Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Toothless and blind: Insult, intimation, disrespect and the public space

Time after time, this column returns to the on-going fitna (or upheaval) in Goa’s political life. There have been calls to ‘Save Goa’ and this has now led to some campaigns to prop up ‘clean’ candidates who will clean out the system. There have been attempts in Mapusa, there are some plans for this in Loutolim, and a general hand-wringing and desperate pleas from overseas Goans over the internet.

One does not know whether to read the presence of Dr. Hubert Gomes in Benaulim’s electoral fray as a part of this movement for change. However, given that electoral success may result in the frustration of the establishment of a political dynasty and a familial capture of legislative power, his entry should be welcomed for the challenge it brings.

This challenge however has not gone unobserved. On the contrary, it received a rather nasty retort through an abusive public message signed by a number of Churchill Alemao’s supporters and recently published in the Herald. The notice has been rather mistakenly called defamatory, when really it should be seen as a naked threat of violence. Dr. Gomes’ response sets the tone for what this column would like to focus on, the building of bridges rather than engaging in mutually destructive warring. Dr. Gomes’ response pointed out that he had been advised to file criminal cases against the signatories to the message and trap them in a long drawn legal battle. He resolved the issue by asking himself the question if he should get involved in settling scores and waste his limited resources and get side-tracked from his real mission in politics, or focus on the task at hand? Thankfully for him, he opted to focus on the latter.

If Dr. Gomes’ response was the epitome of how we should build politics in our fragile democracy, then the responses of his well-wishers to the public message tilted to the other extreme. “Chorchill Alemao is a Pig and a big Chor of Goa.” went one message. More than one messages stooped to insult Churchill by calling him uneducated. Another suggested that he was a “Tarvotti cleaning toilets on the Asian cargo ship. He came up in his life by doing smuggling business.”

These responses of support are perhaps as shockingly unacceptable as the initial public message by Alemao’s supporters. What is additionally disturbing however is that they single out hard labour and a lack of education as the reason for Alemao’s alleged sins. Education, we should all know, is no antidote to corruption. Neither is ‘good’ birth. We have extremely ‘well born’ political leaders in Goa who engage in pretty much the same antics as Alemao is accused of. What the responses of support from Dr. Gomes indicate perhaps, is one of the reasons why we have the corruption that we do in Goa. In a society where the hard labour of a sailor, or a sanitary worker, is not respected, but on the contrary spat at, is it any wonder that we spur on a society that is looking to make a quick buck?

Dr. Gomes in his public response to the public message thanked his well-wishers for the various messages of support that apparently poured in subsequent to the message. If Dr. Gomes is serious about his aim of entering into politics in order to help clean up the State’s political stables, then it is incumbent on him, to issue a public statement distancing himself from these remarks. Such a message would indicate the norms that his supporters must necessarily follow in public debate and discourse. Clean politics, we must realize, is not only about what our elected leaders do within and outside the legislative assembly. It is also about the actions of all of us that contribute to creating the larger political environment. For too long, the activists who cry ‘Save Goa’ have been strutting around with a holier-than-thou attitude. They must realize that if their messages are anything to go by, they are as responsible for the internal class war that is tearing Goa apart. They must stop blaming the outsider (variously labeled as the ghanti, bhinta) and introspect as to their own role in the mess we are in.

For his part, Mr. Alemao would do well to distance himself from the public message that threatened Dr. Gomes. Dr. Gomes himself has assumed in his response that the message came directly from the hand of Mr. Alemao. This may be true, but seems entirely without direct proof. If we are to create a respectful public space, it behooves us to give him the benefit of doubt, and give him the opportunity to distance himself and request forgiveness for the actions of his supporters.

The message threatening Dr. Gomes, and the subsequent responses of his supporters against Churchill Alemao seem to indicate that the Goan public space is deeply lacking in traditions of respect that are necessary to create a civil society. Such incivility draws to mind the words of Dr. Oscar Rebello who a couple of years ago warned that Goa was in the middle of a civil war. We would do well to realize that the behaviour of our leaders is not determined solely by them, but also by our own actions and the way we treat those we disagree with. Goa’s problem is not merely corruption; it is the fact that it is a broken society. The building of bridges ought to be our primary political goal. Perhaps then we will get somewhere.

(This blog was first published in the Gomantak Time 16 Feb 2011)

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