Wednesday, June 20, 2007

O Zé Faz Falta: Of Diaspora, Memories and Needs

Last weekend saw me in Lisbon at the Convention of the Goan Dispora organised by the Casa de Goa from the 14th to the 17th of June. It was for me, as with others present at the Convention, a wholly moving experience. The spirit of the days was perhaps best captured when at the party at the end of the Convention when the group broke into song creating the atmosphere of a family gathering. Not everyone knew all the songs that were being sung, some in Portuguese, some in English, some in Konkani, but it was nevertheless enjoyed by all. To me this was an indication of how the diaspora need not move toward a single, unbroken identity. There is no need for a single language, a common culture, a necessary history with a common geographical space. What a diaspora, and its meetings can be- and perhaps ought to be- is the opportunity for dialogue for people who share some connections and would like to build on them.

Indeed, this understanding of why a disapora meets could be the safest option for a diasporic community and gathering in the face of the problems it could possible raise. Despite the nature of the experience at the Convention, I still stand wary of the word diaspora and its politics. The word is too strongly associated with the formation of Israel and its racist and inhuman Zionist politics. One has only to realise that a large part of the growth in saffron right-wing politics in India is due to the interventions of the Indian diaspora in North America and the U.K. We should hate to see that in Goa. And yet the growth in the Goan diaspora’s interest in Goa has all the makings of this danger. Perhaps not yet saffron right-wing, but right leaning nevertheless. There is located in diaspora politics the same urges that motivated colonialism. “We, who live outside, know better and can show you the route”. And while there is no problem in learning, one has to contest the idea that it is the diaspora alone that can teach and have nothing to learn. We need to recognise that the ideas of the diaspora are often born in imagination and longing, and situations on the ground move to a different reality. One that is located in the daily lives of the people who live there.

The voice of the diaspora often pretends to be the voice of the authentic. “Just because we have left, it does not mean we are not Goan”. Indeed not. To argue so would be petty. However we have to recognise that while they may be Goan, they are not authentic. They represent a certain economic class and speak by-and- large for the interest of that class. It is not surprising that the Chief Secretary of the State highlighted the interest the Government was taking to protect the properties in Goa of the diaspora. What diaspora politics possibly represents therefore is the propertied gaining access to the ear of the Government. And while this is not necessarily undesirable, what is terrifying is that interests towards consolidation of property, away from the distributive ethic that ought to motivate our state, may be the only voice the State chooses to hear. It is this choice that the State exercises that perhaps it would do well for diaspora organisers to take cognizance of. For while the State is listening to those who would exercise a developmental role now, as it seeks to cultivate a new source of legitimacy, things may not always continue to be so hunky dory. We are aware of the power of the right, and the saffron right, to take over platforms created with good intentions. It would be a shame if a platform that seeks to redress problems in Goa goes to buttress rightist policies by a Government so inclined to listen.

It is to avoid these and other problems inherent in the nature of diaspora politics that it would be ideal to cultivate the idea of diasporic engagement as a dialogue. This idea was put best when it was suggested – recognising the continuing presence of caste and other markers in Goan communities abroad- that it is not necessary to have a single Goan organisation in an area, as long as these multiple groups can work together. There couldn’t be a better way to allow for diasporic engagement to allow for the flowering of multiple identities and diversity, an option that gets destroyed when we attempt to box ourselves according to the narrow identities of a political entity like the state of Goa.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

No Saudades in Portugal: Reflecting on Monumentalism

The time between this column and my last has seen me move continents so that I find myself writing this column from a location within the University of Coimbra. I could begin this recounting of experiences in this medieval capital of Portugal by commenting on the sudden feelings of déjà vu, as I look outside to see a familiar hill-side, building and what have you. I will however resist falling into the easy embrace of a seductive but superficial saudades and focus my energies elsewhere.

My preferred manner of experiencing a city is to use it, encounter it like a local, and yet at times one feels obliged to go looking for the notable sights in the town. Searching for the famed Sé Novo (New Cathedral) of the town I headed in the direction of the tall domed building I could see from my office window. I could see that it was surrounded by a high crenulated wall and suggested the location of an ancient religious structure within the medieval walls. I made my way in the afternoon sun, following the wall for an entry into the complex only to realise that the building was in fact the prison for the region of Coimbra. Now what do you think of that, A prison right in the heart of town! I can’t as yet figure out if it is some cruel and perverse humour that selected a site close to the happy voices and moments of the town, or a laudable attempt at social integration that locates a prison within the bounds of ‘normal’ society indicating that the inmates within are regular people who have only fallen temporarily from the graces of a whimsical society. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I am given to believe that the location of the prison within the town is a matter of much public debate, even while prisoners sometimes have conversations with those who live on the other side of the prison walls. I tell you no lies!

The prison building offers much food for thought though with its central tower that looks like copy of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, the ecclesiastical suggestion of which made me amble my way toward it in the first place. More than an ecclesiastical suggestion however is the disciplinary one it makes as it rises above arms that project from it. The structure of the building conjures up the image of Bentham’s panoptican. Bentham the famed positivist jurist conceptualised the panoption as a ring-shaped building that housed at its centre an inspection tower. The periphery of the building consisted of cells, each of which was meant to hold an individual prisoner. The design of the building was such that the inspector could always view the prisoner, an option never open to the prisoner. This vision of total control over people, the French thinker Foucault would suggest many years later was instituted into modern society, where our every movement and idea is under surveillance.

Portugal has had its share of totalitarian control, a power it has done away with and just refuses to talk about. And yet as one lingers in the University square one senses the heavy weight of the past with the stern, square and muscular statues that adorn the sides of building built in the time of the Estado Novo, the regime inaugurated by Salazar. I jest you not when I recount that as I shivered involuntarily when I encountered those statues, as visions of banner carrying and goose stepping soldiers came to mind. While the fancy images can be traced to an overdose of Hollywood, the blatant monumentality of these buildings is a throw back to a time, when not only in Portugal, but all over Europe, and the mini-Europes around the world, edifices were raised to commemorate and instruct the people about the absolute power of the State.

Buildings and edifices are not simply structures with a purely utilitarian intentions, no matter what old father Bentham would have liked. They are clear indicators of the predilections of society at the point of time, the ambitions, egos and power of the commissioners of buildings. Buildings of imperial dimensions more often than not tell us stories of oppression if we are willing to look beyond the façade. The dams we choose to build, the statues we erect, even the circle marking the entry into Panjim from Old Goa inaugurated during Parrikar’s earlier regime, they all tell us something about the society we would like to see. Question is, are we reading the signs of the times, or merely taking these at face value?
(published in the Gomantak Times 7th June 2007)

Thinking About The Invalid Vote: Generating Electoral Options

Another assembly election, another round of lies, filth, hopes and furious sloganeering- both by political parties and well-meaning citizens urging for voting for change. The question is though is change possible through the assembly level elections? Can we really change the system through the simple act of casting our vote? I’m not so sure, but I wouldn’t want to play spoil sport either. A good Foucaldian and a one-time Gandhian I firmly believe in the possibility of the individual and the capacity of individual physical acts of resistance.

While a student at the National Law School, the annual convocation at the university brought the former President of India, R. Venkataraman to deliver a lecture to the guests assembled at the Convocation. Hot and tired, I nevertheless perked up when he uttered the magic words “Invalid vote”. Unable to locate the text of his address, I will not attribute what I am about to suggest as electoral strategy to the late President but definitely credit him as inspiration. What I believe he suggested was that the invalid vote could be an important instrument to indicate to the political establishment in our states and country that we disapprove of the candidates standing for election and see no valid choice being offered to us. Contemplating what I heard that morning many years ago, I believe that Goa is a perfect location to try it out as electoral strategy. We have no real choice in Goa, the corrupt and the communal being located in every single candidate that is standing for election.

The option for the invalid vote is not one however that we can exercise at an individual level alone. I believe that this option while exercised individually must necessarily accompany a mass movement, such that the political establishment faced with a growing count of invalid votes must take heed that they face an electorate that is determined to literally throw a spanner in the works, and blackmail radical change into place. Allow me to illustrate the power of the invalid vote with another anecdote from the history of the National Law School. Refused direct elections by the founder-Director of the Law school and Faculty, after years of petitioning, matters eventually came to a head. The student body called for a General Body Meeting indicating to the members of the Electoral College (one composed of students selected by faculty to administrative committees) that if they were in fact representing the will of the students in this indirect election of President, then they would not vote that particular year. Later that evening the university made history and jammed the system when the student representatives refused to vote for a President. The Law school remained without a President for a year, but at the end of it, they had a new Constitution that provided for direct elections of a President from among the student body.

A state is not the small institution that the National Law School is, but I believe that the option of the invalid vote exercised by a vocal population allows for us to send a similar message and frustrate the operation of a corrupt and unresponsive political establishment. A growing and substantial population that chooses the invalid vote would similarly disrupt the operation of the political system in a state at most and increasingly refuse legitimacy at least. I see this as a possible option for Goa primarily because we are a small state facing by and large a similar crisis, whether it is in the coastal districts being bought up for leisure consumption, or the internal districts being mined out without respect for local livelihoods. Further a move to popularize the invalid vote necessarily requires a larger civil society movement, one that is not restricted to movements that emerge in moments of crisis and dissipate subsequently. In the eventual event that we should succeed in such a movement, what we would have is a growing focus on the village panchayat, an official space whose powers, at least on paper are growing. The Panchayat allows us an ideal forum where our voices are heard, and our frustrations necessarily dealt with by the elected officials – they don’t enjoy X, Y, Z security you see? Eventually I believe that if the political establishment is to change, it is through change where greater powers are effectively realized at the village level, allowing for a dialogical state, rather than the unresponsive behemoth we are forced to tango with.

We cannot however be blind to the fact that our exercise of the invalid vote would allow a goon to step into power. My response to this argument would be to point out that as of now we don’t really have a real option. There is no difference between the corrupt, the criminal and the communal. In the indirect democracy characterized by a dishonest and unresponsive leadership, I believe that the movement of the invalid vote is a genuine possibility, and one we need to actively explore and employ. Takers anyone? The revolution really begins with the power of ONE.

(published in the Gomantak Times 31 May 2007)