Friday, August 12, 2011

Of Apologies and histories: The past that sits uncomfortably

A year ago, this column dealt with the matter of Portugal having to (or not) apologize for the atrocities of the past committed in its sovereign name. This matter of apology keeps coming up from various quarters, whether it is in places where persons were abducted into the slave trade, to places where these persons wound up as slaves, or places where there is a belief that the national spirit was unconscionably violated by the actions of the colonial power. Goa is but one of those places.

The earlier column questioned the value of these politics of apology and this column will not get into those issues. The focus of this discussion will be the suggestion posed by a Goan living overseas, of a different kind of apology. This gentleman, Silviano Barbosa, suggests that the apology that is required is one that needs to be made by the dominant castes in Goa. Mr. Barbosa’s argument is that these social groups, who were in control of the Comunidades as gãocars, need to apologize, to those residents of Goa who were cast out of the comunidade system and rendered foreigners in their own land. Further, he argues that ‘The word "gaonkar" is not politically correct for the 95% of Goa's original population, who are offended and belittled by it, every time comunidade books or history buffs or someone else uses it.’

This is a very interesting argument and is deserving of more attention than that it has currently obtained. In any circumstance, those who argue for apologies from the colonial powers, would do well to be more rigorous in their demand for apologies and consolidate all these demands. It would be an interesting move, because it would acknowledge that while there was violence done by the colonizer, there was also violence done by dominant groups, towards marginalized groups within the territory that subsequently came to be known as Goa. It would amount to an acknowledgement that none of us are angels, persuading us to a different path to deal with the violence that permeates history and our contemporary social structure.

Mr. Barbosa is also the author of a novel, titled The Sixth Night. In this novel, Mr. Barbosa crafts a situation that underlines an argument that this column has often made; that while recognizing the problem with the brahmanical order, this does not render only Brahmins the ‘bad guys’. In his novel, it is a Chardo individual that asserts caste privilege and edges out a Shudra from her preferred location in the church. This is an important recognition to ensure not only that an agenda against Brahmanism does not turn into an agenda for Brahmin-hunting, but also to ensure that covert caste politics do not continue under the garb of anti-caste politics.

In his review of The Sixth Night, Ben Antão, another Goan novelist, articulated his own challenge to the brahmanical beliefs that structure our understanding of Goan identity, a challenge extracted here at some length;

‘To those who would go back to the pre-Portuguese era and take on Hindu names, I say think before you act….If you look at the history of Goa before the Portuguese conquest, youd note that from 1469 this region called Goa was in Muslim hands; after the conquest in 1510 there were inter-marriages between Portuguese soldiers and Muslim women…. So we are now looking at a whole new generation of Catholic population with Muslim-blood antecedents. And yet a great many people in Goa today are brainwashed to believe that their ancestors before the Portuguese were Hindus! I guess Abdullah, Mohammed and Khan are not fashionable names!’

The reason these names are not fashionable among ‘Indianising’ Goans (or Indian Catholics along the west coast) is largely because of the Muslim antipathy built into the nature of brahmanically influenced Indian nationalism, as well as the ‘upper’ caste histories of those who wish to reclaim their past and settle comfortably within the power structures of post-colonial India. One should not excuse however, the European discomfort with the Islamicate that we in Goa have inherited in no small measure.

To return to the review by Mr. Antão though, we must recognize that the review was written in the year 2005, in the face of the flexing of the Hindutva muscle both in Goa and elsewhere. Mr. Antão’s review therefore, was not merely a literary review, but also the remarkably astute expression of a potential political project. The project argued that there was need for us to reframe our Goan (Catholic or otherwise) identity so that it did not walk straight into the Hindu nationalist trap that was setup even before Indian Independence. It is an argument that recognizes not only the value of diversity, but acknowledges the existence of such a history, that is all too often erased.

The untold side of this column is the self-doubt that often visits subsequent to articulating an idea. Is the column merely engaging in the Quixotic tilting at windmills, or does this speak to the daily experience of people. An affirmation of not being Quixotic (well not entirely Quixotic at any rate) was provided in a conversation subsequent to the Global Goans Convention. In a conversation with two sisters, and discussing the presentation of Dr. Sardessai, I mumbled angrily that we were always treated to the same old brahmanical representation of Goan history. Discussing genealogies, one of these two sisters commented, quite without prompting, that they were probably descended from the Muslims who lived in Goa, prior to the coming of the Portuguese. I stared at the woman google-eyed for a minute, until able to continue conversing. Her suggestion does not establish the fact of her Muslim antecedents, but it does indicate the possibility for Goans to actively re-imagine the past they have been persuaded into constructing. Interestingly, the fact that this lady did not come from the ‘gãocar’ wards of a village otherwise known for its snotty and insufferable dominant castes, suggests the ways in which non-dominant castes can imagine their pre-Christian past.

One does not even have to look for blood descent from Muslims however. Indeed, to do so would take us right back to the biological logics that form the basis for both race and caste. On the contrary, we can stress that we are culturally products of the time when the Islamicate idiom was commonly accepted as the idiom within which to articulate one's identity. Too often, the history of Goa has been written in a manner as to suggest that the Islamicate presence in the territory was a minor accident. On the contrary, the Islamicate was a strong presence within the Deccan and the Konkan before the territories that eventually constituted Goa were part of the Bijapuri Sultanate, and even after, even during the time of the early Portuguese sovereignty in Goa. This Islamicate presence ensured that dress codes, and modes of etiquette, were appropriately Arabic, Persian or Turkic inflected. There are other ways of measuring our ancestry, and blood is not necessarily the only, or even the most important one of them.

To return to Mr. Barbosa, his demand for an apology is also the articulation of a political agenda for Goa. While unaware of the nature of the apology that Mr. Barbosa is suggestion, one would imagine his demand is not merely for a formal apology, but for a structural change in the workings of Goan society. To this extent, this demand for an apology impacts fundamentally on the manner in which the movements to ‘save Goa’ have been operating. Demands for local self-governance are often subtly disguised demands for a return to the Comunidade system of yore. While the Comunidade system does offer the possibility for a holistic management of land, it is also couched in social inequalities that need to go if we are to revitalize and revive it. Mr. Barbosa’s suggestion of an apology, would work to constantly remind us to the inequalities we have to address, so that the Goan future is not built on the inequalities and the violences of the past.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 10 August 2011)

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