Friday, August 8, 2014

Rethinking Special Status - I

I laughed, long and hard, and then laughed out loud some more on reading the aghast responses to the denial of Goa’s request for Special Status. The laughter was not because the demand for Special Status is unjustified, but because the response was so obvious! Our hopes were pegged on the assurances of Chief Minister Parrikar, and the electoral promises of Prime Minister Modi. It should have been obvious at that time that the Goans interested in Special Status were being taken for a ride. There is no way that a government composed of the BJP, a party committed to the RSS vision of an undivided India, and the creation of the history of a Hindu(only) India, will ever concede to the recognition of special-ness for any part of India that does not rest on Hindu-ness.

The impossibility of a BJP government ever conceding to Special Status is not, however, what I would like to focus on in this column. Rather, I would like to suggest that the denial of Special Status by the Modi government should be looked upon as a blessing in disguise. This denial opens up for us the opportunity to rethink what it is that we are demanding under Special Status, and how we are making this demand. In other words, what exactly are the principles that underlie the demand for Special Status, and what are the implications of each principle; that is to say, who benefits from the choices made?

Thus far most demands for Special Status seem to revolve around the issue of special economic status, and constitutional clauses to ensure that only locals can own land in Goa. In other words, the demand has been restricted within the bounds of Article 371 of the Constitution. I have argued in earlier columns that such a phrasing of the demand for Special Status ensures that it is really the landed and business elites in Goa who stand to benefit from Special Status. The vast segment of former tenants really do not benefit from this form of Special Status given that local landlords can still get into partnerships with external capitalists to allow for highrise apartments and other developments to allow for more of the wild speculative ‘development’ that has characterised Goa in the recent past. Similarly, grants from the Centre would appeal to the business and industrial elites and wold not reach the common person except through possible increase in employment.

If they are intent on ensuring that they do not get cheated in the process of being mobilised to demand for Special Status then it is critical that Goans put aside an obsession with form and identify the problems they seek to address by gaining Special Status. Thus far the debate has been about saving land, identifying land sold to non-Goans as the reason for cultural peril. This argument also blames Goans for selling land in the first place.  This is a particularly unhappy argument since it ignores the fact that the non-landed Goans who are selling land are doing so because this is by and large the only way through which they can make money. The argument does not recognise that these Goans operate in a context where a system of power is in fact loaded against them.

Put simply, the system of power that I am referring to is one where Goa, its homes and its landscape are fetishized by a Indian elite. Armed with greater economic and political power thanks to the fact of a different political history under the British Raj, supported by a representational system that privileges Goan property but disregards the Goans, these elite consumers from India are able to skew the market such that it often makes more sense to sell a property, than to sustain the property. Add to this the almost non-existent support provided by the state government to maintain homes, or even diverse employment possibilities within the state, as well as a solid public infrastructure. All too often then, the Goan who sells one’s property is in fact operating against a system that is solidly weighed against them.

The Special Status we demand, therefore, must be about meaningful political equality within the country and the right to reforge the political relationship with the Indian state. Further, unless we recognise the powers that operate to cause the insecurity within Goa, any demand for Special Status result in the repetition of the history of the past fifty odd years of Goa’s presence within the Indian Union.

While making this argument I would like to especially underline the fact that almost every postcolonial popular movement to save Goan identity ranging from  the Opinion Poll, Language Issue, Statehood, to the Regional Plan, has rested on the shoulders of the bahujan Catholic men and women of Salcete. Each and every one of these movements has appealed to their insecurity and each time their aspirations have been frustrated, largely because the demand for protecting Goan identity has been couched within the language of Indian (i.e. Hindu) nationalism. These demands have failed to assert that cultural demands, where Catholics are cast as not-quite-Indian are only a part of the problem. The other problem rests in the fact that there has been no systematic development that can empower the Goan population to gather both economic as well as cultural capital.

The result has been that the Catholic bahujan of Salcete in particular have been converted into the oxen pulling the cart that fulfils the interests of Goa’s landed and business elites. These groups have always managed to use these movements to increase the scope for their autonomy. Any demand for Special Status therefore, must be one that recognises that there is a great socio-economic diversity among Goans. This demand must recognise that different kinds of Goans require different kinds of support under Special Status, and that local elites need to be restrained from exploiting the situation.

One could also make the argument, that the failure to effectively articulate issues of social and economic equality both within and outside of Goa has in fact resulted in the kind of communalisation of Goan society that we are witness to today. The interests that were served were invariably of the upper caste and business elites, but the movements were always misrepresented as Catholic. This has pitted the vast bahujan majority against the Catholic bahujan minority.

If the movement for Special Status is to provide genuine benefit to the people of Goa then it must necessarily assert that the basis for this demand lies in recognising the insecurity and marginalisation that the non-Hindu, and bahujan minorities in Goa have faced since 1961, as well as commit itself towards a vision for economic justice. Such a twining of agendas would allow for us to also address the increasing communalisation of the Goan polity. The Special Status movement would need to make alliances with the Hindu bahujan samaj, who at this moment, have been largely seduced by Hindu nationalism. Indeed, there is good reason for them to be seduced, given that it was Indian liberation that ensured that they could escape the clutches of their landlords. Additionally, this Indian liberation has also involved providing space for the Hindu bahujan through the marginalisation of the Catholic bahujan rather than opening up new avenues for all Goans. The Special Status movement needs to necessarily reach out to the Hindu segments of the bahujan samaj to ensure that Special Status will meet the aspirations of both the Catholic and Hindu segments, and that development in Goa will be egalitarian. Such a reaching out would only be possible once we start asking deeper questions about Special Status, not limit it to the issue of ownership of land, or grants and tax breaks from the Centre, and recognise that the negotations for Special Status need to be directed both towards the outside, i.e towards Indian state; as well as inside, within Goan society.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 8 Aug 2014)

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