Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Symbols, Temples and the Goan Connection

This column is written from the in-the-middle-of-nowhere Bihari village of Maksudpur where the wedding of a dear friend is about to take place. Maksudpur may today be an insignificant dot on the map, but the buildings in this village testify to a possibly significant past as a centre of military might and revenue collection. The brief for this column has often been that it be focused on Goa, contributing to issues local. For this reason one may wonder what distant and Bihari Maksudpur has to do with Goa. Some Goans enamoured of their mythic (and) Aryan past would like to see an argument develop that stresses the Bihari (Gaud desh) and Goan (Gaud Saraswat) connection. Unfortunately for them though, this is not the argument that will develop. The argument I seek to develop though is nevertheless one that haunts the Goan and their relation to Indian authenticity.

Maksudpur that was once presumably focused on its fort -destroyed in the earthquake of 1934 - is now firmly focused on the Kali temple that is the family deity of its Raja. And this is not the only temple though, but one of a few dozen temples clustered around this central temple. What is interesting about this Kali temple though is that the goddess resides in a mansion that comes straight out of colonial British-Indian tradition, completely neo-classsical in style. And this is not the only example of an important deity residing in a European neo-classical temple, such an example being present once again in the Bihar town (and former zamindari) of Darbhanga. There is similarly an interesting temple in Bangalore that looks more like a Greco-Roman temple than a Hindu temple. To return to Maksudpur, parts of the interiors of the temple sport Indo-Sarcenic pillars and arches, employing the Mughal idiom that the British Raj used to legitimize its rule in India. No matter how weak the Mughal emperors following Aurangzeb, the recognition of the Emperor was central to the legitimacy of local powers continuously vying for power in the subcontinent. Which explains why even the Marathas (supposedly sworn Hindu enemies of the Muslim emperor) when in control of Delhi never contemplated dethroning him, but rather controlling him. The British recognizing the value of the Emperor and Mughal custom attempted to harness these symbols of legitimacy. Mughal custom defined power and legitimacy to such an extent that temples too adopted many of these symbols of power, as one sees in the architecture of the Maksudpur temples and temples across the country, in the jewelry of the deities and their other symbols of power. The Mughal court of course likewise borrowed from temple vocabulary in their attempt to indicate just who was boss.

What all of this indicates to us is a much more complex relationship between local culture and power than we normally recognise. As symbols of sovereignty temples borrowed from the royal courts and similarly royal courts used the imagery of temples to shore up their legitimacy. This understanding smashes to smithereens the idea of an authentic and pure Hindu culture that stands discreetly apart from the Persian influences in this country. Members of British-Indian Hindu elite will recount stories of their ancestors with Persian names and trained in Persian and Urdu and not in Sanskrit- options made out of choice and not force. The recognition of this mixing is not unique and rather routine, even though conceptually the tendency is to often go back to discrete Hindu and Muslim categories. We need to recognize that reality has never really had space for these discrete and authentic categories, but on the contrary recognizing and pressing forward the mixed as the favoured child.

In Goa much is made of our temples which look like secular, Portuguese-influenced mansions. Oftentimes this fact operates as a matter of shame- indicating our lack of Indian authenticity, our apparent cultural corruption. What we should realize is that this is not a unique phenomenon and that the secular- both European and Persian- has influenced temples across the land to create various local Indian idioms. In Goa where political power vested in the Portuguese it was only natural and normal to mimic the styles of the ruler. Recognition of this would help us appreciate the context of Goan temples, and arrest the multiple attempts to ‘purify’ them. If however the changes continue, no matter, cultures must necessarily move on if they are to remain alive. However if we recognize this principle of the exchange between secular and religious, it would help us see more clearly what political ideology influences us and just how we are attempting to remake ourselves, since the temple while the residence of the deity is also a testament of our cultural selves.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 21st November 2007)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On How To Stand With The People: Lessons for the Regional Plan

Subsequent to the announcement of Mr. Sardinha’s election as the MP for South Goa, the Chief Minister saw it fit to declare that “On SEZs I am with the people. Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa.” Where else would he be though, if not with the people? And how will he gauge what the people want? The media and the Congress also agreed that the election victory was a vote in favour of their government. It never ceases to amaze me how the national media is able to state with conviction what the results of our frequently held elections mean. With conviction they are able to affirm that yes indeed, X or Y is what the election result means. Their pronouncement is upheld as truth, the final answer to what the people think and want. Political parties and leaders have for long been claiming the same, but it is perhaps only with the explosion of the private media that these claims have now come to be treated as gospel truths.

As much as these pronouncements may be treated as sacred truths though, the fact remains that these are only possible interpretations. There is a need to emphasize this tentative nature of these pronouncements for a variety of reasons. The first is the practical, there is no possible way that one can state with certainty that this particular election result was a vote in favour of the Congress. This is true especially in the Goan scenario where there is really no choice between who is going to rob you senseless and sell out your interests, and where one might as well play tic-tac-toe and determine who you will vote for. The second is the more crucial in that these interpretations of election results are used in fact to deprive the people of a say in decision-making that will have a crucial impact on their future. Thus for example, Sardinha’s victory could be taken to be the approval of the people in favour of SEZs and the opposition to it the voice of a minority. The mere fact of an election, and a pronouncement by the - invariably status-quoist – media ensures to deprive the operation of the State of democratic content. If these interpretations cannot be considered the voice of the people, how then are we to determine this voice?

The answer lies partially in reevaluating CM Kamat’s statement, “Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa”. Who and what is this Goa? Does Goa reside at some abstract central (pun entirely intended) level or at the local level at which even the slightest changes – impoverishment as a result of a grandiose developmental schemes for example- are more dramatically felt and are best responded to? Very clearly if we are sincere about the “interest of Goa” then we need to identify this interest at the point it is most vulnerable at; the village and the city ward.

Unfortunately despite a Constitutional mandate to continuously consult the local, vested political interests in most parts of India have ensured that this truly democratic vision is not realized. Take for example the classic case of the Regional Plan where the Goan articulated her interest but is now being frustrated from realizing it. They wished their voice to be heard in the planning process and this is being ‘considered’ under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. And this is where the fraud lies. The Town and Country Planning Act (TCP) is quite clearly unconstitutional given that it flies in the face of the democratic requirements of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. The TCP has no provision for a positive role for the citizen participation the way it stands now. It conceptualizes the citizen in vague terms such as “the public”. Furthermore, this “public” can only bring objections to the plan, thus casting the citizen as essentially a negative player in the process that can be effectively realized only through ‘experts’. Further, the Act places no burden on these experts to go and understand the local scenarios that crucially impact on plans by talking with the citizen and learning from them. On the contrary, the citizen is expected to trek to a governmental office to examine a Plan that is written in a language understood only by experts. Where then is the capacity to hear the voice of the people when it is not allowed an opportunity to coherently articulate itself?

If this Government is serious about being with the people then its first act, following this election, would be to halt the deeply flawed and duplicitous process of framing the new Regional Plan. It needs to scrap the existing TCP and formulate a planning Act that takes into consideration Constitutional mandates and allows for the voice of the people to be coherently articulated, not merely interpreted by unaccountable minions of the status quo.
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 15 November 2007)