Friday, August 21, 2015

Bhembre, Nagri Konkani and the project of Brahmin supremacy

Some time ago, speaking on the BBSM’s platform against the assertions of FORCE Uday Bhembre, is reported to have represented “the FORCE action as not a mere step for English medium but a revival of the Portuguese agenda to denationalise Goans from its language and culture.” In addition, Bhembre suggested that, “‘English medium is a step of deculturisation, leading to the ultimate agenda of denationalisation. These are the same people who line up in front of the Portuguese Consulate for Portuguese passports. Tomorrow, these people would not hesitate to chant a slogan – Viva Portugal’”. Bhembre is not the only person to have made these suggestions.  Arvind Bhatikar is reported to have made similar statements. 
Persons familiar with recent history will not be surprised that Uday Bhembre is associating with the Hindu nationalist RSS and engaging in hate speech against the Catholics in Goa. However, at least the 80s this is the man who was hailed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church as one of the most secular leaders of Goan society. How then, did this switch take place?

This confusion will be allayed, and Bhembre’s recent statements make sense, if we place him within a tradition that seeks brahmanical hegemony over both Konkani and Goa.

For this it is necessary that we go back into the past, to The Triumph of Konkani penned by Vaman Varde Valaulikar (translated by Sebastian Borges, 2003), fondly known to his spiritual children as Shenoi Goembab. The first chapter of Valaulikar’s polemic seeks to establish that Konkani is the mother-tongue of Goa. This task was important for Valaulikar, because he was in fact trying to persuade members of his caste group to accept Konkani as their mother-tongue. This was not an easy task, because many of them, like a certain Raghunath Ganesh Shenoy Talwadkar, identified Konkani with the Catholics of Goa. Valaulikar spends some time in this chapter responding to Talwadkar’s arguments.

What is very clear from reading the polemic is that Talwadkar had a horrific distaste for Christians. Valaulikar indicates that Talwadkar had disparaged Dr. José Gerson da Cunha as a “defiled Christian”, “bigot”, and “goanese”; and had indicated his argument against adopting Konkani as a mother tongue because it was a Catholic tongue derived from the language of “the very low classes viz. fisherfolk and farmers (p.16).”

Valaulikar’s response to Talwadkar is very interesting. To the suggestion that Konkani is a language of lower caste Catholics, Valaulikar’s suggests that while Konkani may have been developed by the missionaries, these “priests in Goa learnt their Konkani from the Brahmins alone (p.21).” In other words, he dismisses the possibility that humble folk may have been at the root of developing the language. With regard to da Cunha, Valaulikar’s response is even more revealing. Rather than tick Talwadkar off for his prejudices, Valaulikar’s responds, “Dr. Gersonbab is certainly not a religious fanatic; he is a large-hearted, virtuous scholarly Brahmin who, having been born in Goa, endeavoured to spread worldwide the glory of his motherland (p.32).” In short, what Valaulikar stresses as redeeming about the language and da Cunha is the fact that they are both brahmin.

This reference to history is to highlight that, while Valaulikar’s project may have been about Konkani, it was also about establishing Brahmin hegemony over the Konkani language. The period in which Valaulikar lived and worked was the period when dominant castes across India, and especially southern India, were preparing to create linguistic homelands where they could rule the roost.  If the Saraswat caste was to compete with others, it was necessary that they have both a territory and a language. To fulfil this task, it was important to convince people like Talwadkar that Konkani was indeed their language. To do this, it was necessary to take Konkani away from the labouring castes, in particular the Catholic bahujan, both in Goa and especially in Bombay, and convert it into the property of the Brahmins. This was done by constructing a history that suggested Konkani was developed by brahmins and creating a hitherto unknown language, Konkani in the Nagri script. This also required that the development of Konkani during the colonial period be erased. The tragedy is that this period of the early to mid-twentieth century was exactly the period when the Catholic bahujan, drawing on Christian and European sources, were crafting a golden period for Konkani by reading, writing, composing music, and crafting theatre in the language. To make Valualikar’s fiction into fact required that history itself be denied, and this is why Bhembre wilfully ignores a complex Goan history to make the hateful suggestions about denationalisation.

This is the common link that joins the appeal of Marathi to the bahujan of Goa from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, the fight for the official recognition of Konkani in the Roman script, and the demand that the Government support English language as a medium of primary education. All of these are directed against Brahmin and brahmanical oppression, and it for this reason that brahmin supremacists like Bhembre have been opposed to all three of these liberation projects. It is possible that Bhembre is not in essence a Hindu nationalist, but has a more limited agenda of Saraswat hegemony in Goa. However, given that Hindu nationalism is a project that seeks, and sees, brahmins as the natural rulers of the land, it is little wonder that Bhembre makes common cause with the RSS and the BBSM.

(A version of this post was first published  in the O Heraldo on 21 Aug 2015)

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