Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Between Colonialism and Constitutionalism: Reflections on fifty odd years of being Indian - II

On the 19 of December this year, the anniversary of the successful completion of the Indian action to integrate Goa into the Indian Union, two status messages popped up on Facebook. The first read “61 Years of illegal occupation by rapist from Delhi. Some call it being liberated”; the second read, “The day Portuguese colonial rule was replaced by Indian colonial rule.”

Both of these messages demonstrate the unease felt by a segment of Goans (regardless of religious identity) with regard to the consequences of what the Indian nation-state calls “Liberation”. While somewhat uncomfortable with the first proposition, I was glad for the suggestion of the second message, because it put a good amount of the Indian nation-state’s relationship with Goa in context; that Goa, and Goans, were inducted into a colonial relationship with India from 19 December 1961. The sooner we begin to start seeing the relationship in this light, the sooner we will be able to remove ourselves from the sticky situation that the politics of “Special Status” will eventually take us.  I argue therefore, that counter-intuitively, confronting the colonial nature of the Indian relationship with Goa will save Goa from the disastrous politics contained within the Special Status move. To do this, I seek to make a distinction between the colonialism of the Indian nation, and the constitutionalism of the Indian state.
The first status message referred to above makes two points. The first proposes that Indian sovereignty over Goa is illegal, a possibly logical conclusion given that the Goan people were, never really asked what their options would be subsequent to this “Liberation” from Portuguese sovereignty. They were not asked in 1961, at the conclusion of the Indian action; and they were not asked in 1974 when the successors to Salazar’s Estado Novo conceded India’s claim’s over Goa. Problematising the legal status of India’s continuing claims on Goa should not however blind us to the fact, as it seems to have blinded the author of this status message, that the Indian action in Goa was in fact a liberation for a great segment of the Goan population. Once and for all, it broke the back of the native feudal structure that enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with Portuguese sovereignty. Portuguese sovereignty sustained this feudal structure, and the feudal structure sustained Portuguese sovereignty over Goa. It was the challenge to this feudal structure that enabled a great number of Goans to pursue careers and relish freedoms that they had till date not enjoyed.

There is a popular misconception that democracy was unknown in Goa until the Indians came and introduced Goans to this system of governance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Goans were familiar with democracy from the time Portugal, of which Goa was part, became a constitutional monarchy. This was a liberal democracy however, and its scope severely restricted. It was nevertheless a democracy, and this induction into democracy was only deepened as a result of the induction into the Indian Union that gave every adult the right to participate in electing the representatives of the state. It was this deeper democracy, enabled through the provisions of the Indian Constitution that broke back of Goan feudalism, and for this reason, the actions in 1961 were, as much as they enabled Indian colonialism, should also be seen as a liberation.

India then, comes to Goans as a double edged sword, liberative, and at the same time exploitative. The demands for Special Status, in its popular sense, seek to deal with the exploitative or the colonial manner of India’s relationship with Goa. This popular sentiment however, is being exploited by another understanding for Special Status, one discussed in the preceding column. This understanding, pushed by the political, economic and social elites of the State seeks greater autonomy to enable greater unaccountability of these elites. This latter demand for Special Status would set us against the liberative project of the Indian Constitution. Indeed, we should bear in mind, that a number of the demands that twine with Special Status today, are effectively demands that militate against the freedoms guaranteed as fundamental rights to the citizens of India. Presenting feudal pre-1961 as an ideal, they challenge the claims of “outsiders” to the gamut of rights enshrined in the Indian constitution.

One particular example is that where a number of pro-special status Goans exulted in the  destruction of the makeshift residences of waste-managers in Margão in the middle of the monsoon season. Challenging the accession of some people to basic rights today will ensure that the same rights are denied to those who now deny to outsiders tomorrow. The problem in Goa, especially vis-à-vis land, is that a power equation, in particular a colonial power equation, presided over by Delhi, that allows certain kinds of Goans, Indians and foreigners superiors powers over the common person is not being challenged. A Special Status agenda that limits ownership of land to Goans alone, will simply not resolve the problem that is rooted in the colonial nature of India’s relationship with Goa (and other peripheries of the Indian Union’s neo-colonial empire). A constitutional project however, is committed to see real equality, not merely procedural equality, realised, and would deal with this hitherto unchallenged power equation.

The response of the common person therefore, ought to be located in a commitment to the constitutional project. As suggested earlier, this constitutional project began in Goa in 1834, and it is necessary to recall this history if we are to simultaneously challenge the rhetoric of Indian nationalism while at the same time supporting a project of Indian constitutionalism. Such a project would see that there can be a concept of an India that is wedded not to national cohesion, and the suppression of rights that it is accompanied by; nor to a Goan nationalism, that is simultaneously based on suppressing discussion of local problems; but is wedded to an constitutional project, Indian or otherwise. Such a constitutional project would ensure that rights are taken seriously; as opposed to the current Indian national practice that does not take these rights seriously.  This is an Indian nation-state that does not respect the individual, whether it is the cases where women are denied the ability to lodge a complaint of rape and treated like it is their fault, where persons are routinely tortured, or people dispossessed to suit the developmental goals of its capitalist classes. Indeed, a movement on Special Status that is incapable of taking a nuanced position on the future of the mining industry in Goa is one that is not taking constitutional issues seriously.

In sum, the event in 1961 was not wholly without redemption. It was in fact genuinely liberative for a large segment of the Goan population, even as it trapped them within a colonial relationship of another, and continuing, kind. The response to this colonialism is emphatically not the current brand of demands for Special Status, but a commitment to the constitutional project that the Indian State promised, and any state should. It will eventually be a realisation of these constitutional ideals that will ensure that the future of Goa is a secure one.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 16 Jan 2013)

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