Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Brahmin Double in Goan history

In his article, “The Brahmin double: the Brahminical construction of anti-Brahminism and anti-caste sentiment in the religious cultures of precolonial Maharashtra” ([2012] 2014), Christian Lee Novetzke discusses the cases of the Marathi bhakti poets Jnaneshwar and Eknath. Novetzke’s argument is that the image of Brahmin reformers is not as cut and dry as it is made out to be. Rather, he argues that these reformers were embodiments of what he calls “the brahmin double”. The brahmin double is the strategy through which a brahmin pokes fun of, or critiques other brahmins who are cast as bad, evil, or bigoted. In doing so, the brahmin operating as the good part of the double “provides one important way to separate Brahminism and Brahmins”. That is, the audience fails to see that the problem is not with individual brahmins alone, but also with Brahmanism. By deflecting critique toward individual brahmin figures, and not the system that produces brahmins and brahmanical structures, the good brahmin ensures that Brahmanism continues its grip over Indian society. Novetzke points out that a classic feature of the Brahmin double is that it always offers reform of Brahmanism, and never radical critique. Thus the Brahmin double ensures that there are superficial changes, even as the status quo is maintained.

Reading this argument, it occurred to me that recent Goan history offers great examples of the “brahmin double” over various generations. A previous column discussed Varde Valaulikar’s response to Raghunath Talwadkar. Valaulikar’s proposed that the Saraswat caste embrace the Konkani language as their mother-tongue while Talwadkar opposed this proposal pointing to the language’s association with lower classes, and castes, and with “defiled” Christians such as José Gerson da Cunha. As pointed out in that column, Valaulikar’s response was not to condemn Talwadkar’s blatant casteism. Rather, he offered the suggestion that in fact the Catholic missionaries had learned Konkani from brahmins, and that da Cunha himself was a brahmin. In this equation, Talwadkar gets castigated as the bad brahmin, and Valaulikar effects the “brahmin double” move by ensuring that brahmin hegemony is not challenged, but rather paves the way for the Saraswat caste and associated caste groups to assert their claim over the Konkani language.

Another argument that I made in the earlier column was to point to the fact that Valaulikar’s project was carried forward by men like Uday Bhembre. To this extent, Uday Bhembre, and his associates, are contemporary embodiments of Valaulikar. Bhembre was a hero of the Konkani language agitation, a legend of his time. He was lionized as the man who went into the meetings of pro-Marathi activists and shouted out loud that Konkani, not Marathi was his mother tongue, at certain risk to his bodily integrity. The more important legend for my argument is his response when asked by pro-Marathi activists; “How can you claim Konkani as your mother tongue when your father claims Marathi as his mother tongue?” Bhembre’s famous response was “But don’t you know that my mother and my father’s mother are not the same person?” In the course of the Konkani language agitation, Bhembre was playing the Brahmin double, and his father, Laxmikant Bhembre, and other brahmins, were cast as the bad brahmins, who could not see that Konkani was the mother tongue of Goa. Through his actions Bhembre junior ensured that he deflected attention away from the fact that the Konkani that he and his companions were pushing was in fact not a Konkani of the bahujan masses, but the Antruzi dialect and the Nagri script, both associated with Valaulikar’s project of brahmin hegemony in Goa.

Today, with the kind of association that Bhembre is making with the RSS against the demands for the recognition of English as a state supported medium of instruction, you have younger Saraswat men who are effecting the strategy of the Brahmin double. Responding with horror to Bhembre’s suggestion, they point out that there are more Hindus than Catholics studying in diocesan schools that have switched from Konkani to English medium. What is interesting is that these arguments do not fracture the meaningless labels of “Christian community” and “Hindu community” invoked by Bhembre and others. This is not surprising given that this group is actively engaged in Hindu reform, a process which neuters dalit-bahujan assertions, and consolidates disparate caste groups into a single Hindu community usually under brahmin leadership or direction. Their rhetoric and activism is never really one of a radical rejection of caste hegemony, but of managing the anger against their caste group and its leadership of the political community Goa.

Another touchstone to use for evaluation would be their response to the demand that the Roman script be recognised on par with Nagari Konkani. These secular Saraswat will agree that there is a need for a more “bahujanised” Konkani, but will not budge when it comes to giving equal rights to the Roman script. Thus, what they are doing is trying to make Nagari Konkani, the vehicle of Saraswat hegemony in Goa, more palatable to the bahujans, even while they completely ignore the real issue of Romi Konkani.

It is important to underline that it is not my argument that these men are performing the strategy of the brahmin double deliberately. Very often our actions are determined not by our conscious selves but determined by the milieu in which we are raised. The response, therefore, is not to necessarily condemn these men. Our response ought to be to always be aware of the manner in which the social structure asserts itself, and thus question brahmin saviours, and make these saviours aware of the pernicious politics that they reproduce.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 4 Sept 2015)

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