Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Church in Goa and the assembling of Konkani culture

Towards the end of last year Naguesh Karmali alleged that Church in Goa is doing what the Portuguese could not do to finish Indian culture.  “The suppression by Church today is much larger than the way Portuguese suppressed it in the 16th and 17th century”, he is reported to have said.

The souls of hundreds of dead Catholic priests must have begun clamouring for justice when they heard this baseless and hateful assertion. For, the fact is that a good amount of “culture”, Indian, Goan, or otherwise, in Goa today, was either formulated by Catholic priests in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then more assiduously developed since the 1960s.

Nationalism and its child, post-colonialism have assumed – often erroneously – that Christianization under the aegis of European expansion resulted in the destruction of culture. However, this was not necessarily the case. Much local culture is the result of European intervention and interpretation. This position derives from larger arguments that suggest that the need to understand local cultures, customs, and laws, in order to govern the territories, and the subsequent misunderstanding by the British, or the misrepresentation by local groups, especially elite groups, resulted in the Indian cultures that we are witness to today.

Going by this understanding, in Goa too, local culture, and in fact Konkani culture was developed by the missionaries.  Prior to the coming of the Europeans, it would be difficult to suggest that there was such a thing as society, in the sense of a community committed to the care of its constituents. There was a caste polity, and while the castes could understand each other, they did not share a common culture as we understand it today. For example, the language of the dominant castes, was definitely not the language of the oppressed castes. Konkani, as a single language spoken, and eventually written, by a wide variety of groups was created by missionaries trying to preach the Christian faith to locals. By this understanding, Konkani was the result of missionary intervention and seen as the language of untouchable Christians. It was for this reason that poor Varde Valaulikar had to struggle so hard to convince his caste fellows to abandon Marathi and claim Konkani as their own.

The Church’s patronage of Konkani in the Nagri, Sanskritized variant, became even more aggressive in recent times. This was soon after the Vatican Council II. Spurred on by the permission to translate the liturgy into vernacular languages, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Goa lost no time in switching over to Konkani. They produced a liturgy, songs, music. Read through the issues of Renovação, the bulletin of the Archdiocese, and one can sense the systematic way through which they went about installing Konkani in the liturgical life of Goan Catholics.

Their interventions were not restricted to the spiritual lives of Catholics alone. Rather, they also supported secular initiatives to promote Konkani in Goa. Take, for example, the fact that it was Diocesan schools that first made the switch to the Konkani medium in the Nagri script. In 1964 Fr. Vasco do Rego pioneered Konkani primary education by getting four schools in the vicinity of Loyola High School, Margão, to introduce Nagari Konkani as the medium of instruction in the primary section. Later, in the 1990s, when the State government refused to support English as a medium of instruction, the Archdiocese adopted Nagari Konkani despite vociferous and sustained protests from parents.

Some have argued that this was because the Diocese had no choice in the matter. This is but one side of the story. The other side of the story is that there were a great number of linguistic nationalists within the Church, and they rubbed their hands with glee at this opportunity. What is also true is that even before the pronouncements of the Vatican Council II, the universal Catholic Church had been priming itself to make space for vernaculars alongside Latin.

Uncharitable voices often argue that the Catholic Church did so because the Vatican was trying to suck up to the newly independent nations. While this may be true in part, what must not be discounted is that already, from the early 1900s, a number of Catholic thinkers were committed to producing distinct national Catholic cultures. The Church has always been producing nuanced vernacular versions of Christianity, as can be seen in Goa. However, in the twentieth century, a world in the grip of racist ideologies, ultimately traceable to the Romantic movement, was unable to appreciate these nuances. The forms of the Catholic Church were seen as European, rather than universal, and sought to be replaced wholescale with “native” culture. In doing so, these Catholic leaders played along with nationalist forces. However, they did this out of conviction that they were doing the right thing, not out of fear of the nationalists.

As I have suggested, the clergy in Goa were no different, and have played a significant role in assembling a more sanskritic Konkani identity for Goa.  It is a shame that this selfless yeoman service, even if misguided, not only goes unsung by their former collaborators, but worse, is neatly swept under the carpet to suit the interests of a wicked cabal.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 5 Feb 2016)

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