Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Muslim and the Catholic in Goa and India

This column is being written from Delhi where I have just completed a tour of North India with a bunch of Americans. It was while on this trip that I realised, with a fair amount of horror, the extent to which the Indian national identity is built on the idea of the image of an all-encompassing gentle Hinduism and an evil and barbaric Muslim. Despite the overwhelming Persian influence on this region, brought by the Islamic Turko-Afghans, at almost every site the tour guides stressed a ‘Hindu’ linkage where the Muslim emerged only as a destroyer of the wonder that was India. More often than not these stories twisted facts around to emerge with the Muslim as the villain of the piece.

Visibly agitated, I was asked the question if whether having a Muslim guide would have given us a different perspective. Thinking through this question I realized with sinking heart that this would not be a solution, since the nationalist narrative has effectively worked out the space for the Muslim. There is the good Muslim as represented by Akbar who is supposed to have Hinduised himself, and the bad Muslim represented by Aurangzeb who apparently violently asserted an Islamic identity over a syncretic option open to him. Whether they actually were or were not as this history represents them to be, is not really a choice open to the common man: we have to accept them as such, and then either praise or vilify the appropriate Emperor.

Arriving in Delhi this realization was further affirmed when I flipped through the brochure of a prominent centre for Islam in India. The Centre continues within a tradition that understands ‘Indo’ as code for Hindu, accepts the proposition that Islam is from outside and can never truly be internal(ised) but asserts at the same time that one can be a good Indian Muslim. This assertion, it should be pointed out, works for a particular class of Indian Muslims—the upper class/caste—who stress their foreign origins, and derive social distinction vis-à-vis the lower caste Indian Muslims from it. Further, their emphasis on clarifying the “true” meaning of Islam creates a space where their access to the text is privileged. This emphasis on the text of Islam, rather than the happy soup of lived practice inspired by the message of Islam, in fact creates the necessary background for fundamentalist Islam. In sum this acknowledgement confirms their place as leaders and representatives of Indian Islam and denies any space for lower class/caste Muslims to stress their vision of what it means to be Islam, a vision that could possibly escape the fundamentalist readings of what it means to be a Muslim.

In Goa, the Muslim shares a similar fate. There is a similar celebration of Hindu nationalist myths with the Muslim either erased or cast as the bad guy. The celebration of Indo-Portuguese art is a good example. The term Indo-Portuguese in fact operates as code for Hindu-Catholic and celebrates their union. The term leaves no space for the influence of the Islamicate in Goa, which though plentiful is expelled. The celebration of Indo-Portuguese art therefore casts the Muslim as the eternal outsider to Goa, while creating Goa as the legitimate space for the Catholic and the Hindu. This equation operates for only a certain kind of Catholic though, the upper-caste Catholic. The upper-caste Catholics are able to link up with the Hindu imagination for the nation through stressing their Brahmin, Kshatriya backgrounds. At the same time a textual interpretation of the religion stresses their distinction from the lower-caste Catholic masses. Both ways it leaves the lower class/caste Catholic without an option. It delegitimizes the easy mix of local and Catholic belief that marks Goan Catholicism and also leaves a lower-caste Catholic with no way to link up with a nation that is imagined primarily in upper-caste terms and pride in racial origin.

For years now the Muslim problem in India has been imagined as precisely that: as a problem of and by Muslims. Increasingly though we are coming to realize that this problem is the result of the history of Hindu nationalism and impacts equally on all communities that are not Hindu and upper-caste, or do not share in this exclusivist vision accepting a subordinate role within the narrative. In Goa our belly-gazing has still not allowed us to realize what exactly is going on, but for those who are willing to see, the writing on the wall is pretty clear!
(This essay is dedicated to Khaled Anis Ansari thanks to discussions with who I have been able to view the Indian Muslim community from a radically new perspective, which has allowed me to relook the Goan Catholic community as well.)
(Published as "A Celebration of Nationalist Myths" in the Gomantak Times, 30 January 2008)

Economic History and the Independent Goan

Last fortnight this column made a plea for a serious attempt at constructing an economic history of Goa; a history that takes as its starting point the recognition of Goa’s late entry into global capitalism. Responding to the argument a friend pointed out that it was not enough to point out that the local capitalist was also a possible loser as Goa was forcibly prized open as a market for India and the world. It was necessary to also look at role the local bourgeoisie will play when the ‘victims of history’ try to ‘compel’ the State into actions that would secure their interests. What would their stand be and for what reasons? Would their class interest be in keeping British-Indian bourgeoisie and global capital out, creating a protected enclave for themselves, or will they continue to play second fiddle to these forces? Common sense would instantly suggest that local capitalists would choose the latter option, and yet I believe that a detailed and researched answer may possibly yield a more complex reality of the manner in which local capitalists operate. This reflection would also open out options open to us for strategic association to stem the neo-colonial practices that current developmental solutions in fact represent.

Right now though I would like to ignore the local capitalist and focus on the manner in which Goan identity emerges through its historical location. The Goan it is believed, by both local and external capitalist, is an unreliable worker. They are lazy, soçegad and disappear at festivals since they loving partying. An earlier approach I adopted to moving past this obviously negative portrayal of the Goan was to locate this representation in the politics of post-colonial India. The British saw the Portuguese in exactly the same terms, since the Portuguese were great miscegenators the Goan was also tarred with the same brush, and the British Indian inherits this way of looking at Goa. Economic history however would also allow us another, not particularly divergent reading of this scenario. Understood theoretically capitalism emerges to release labour from the holds of such social structures as feudalism. In releasing labour though, it provides its own punishing way of encapsulating them once again. Historically capitalism has emerged through the dispossession and impoverishment of labour, a perfect example being the depopulation of the English countryside to create the urban industrial hubs of the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism thrives and sustains itself on the insecure and impoverished worker. It is only in this condition that it can effectively sustain itself, when faced with the worker ensconced in a variety of social relationships and capable of sustaining oneself outside of the industrial economy the capitalist machine falters.

Goans will never tire of indicating that in the Portuguese days there was no poverty. This of course is a myth; it was poverty that forced the migration of Goans into the broader world. But while there was poverty, there was also a relationship to society and land that allowed for basis sustenance and survival. It is this security of the Goan labourer who refuses to be pulled out of the comfort of the social and ecological safety nets that the capitalist cannot deal with or understand. We have to recognize then, that the project of the industrialization of Goa – as so tenderly forwarded by our Governor- demands the necessary destruction of social and ecological security of Goa. These are not necessarily conscious evil plans, but the necessary logic by which capitalism must reproduce itself. At the end of the day the supposedly lazy and unmotivated Goan turns out to be the smart cookie who engages with industrial employment on her own terms. She uses it to supplement an existing income and provide forms of temporary escape from the embrace of existing social networks that also need to be challenged. The capitalist system ofcourse cannot deal with such independent actions, predicated as it is on predictability, which is why it is the Goan’s choices that must be castigated.

Slowly but surely voices are emerging that are sounding the call for a rethink on the developmental policies of the State. These calls and voices are not anti-developmental since we are all obviously imbricated in the fabric of the global economy. These calls represent demands for a more democratic method of planning, a method of planning that respects local cycles and independence, and that is insistent that existent wealth must not be cast away merely to suit the demands of blinkered bureaucrats.
(Published in the Gomantak Times 17th January 2008)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Economic History and the future of Goa

While there have been many attempts to write a social and cultural history of Goa- histories that either stress or refuse the difference with British-India (the territory that often passes off under the name of India), there has not as yet been any serious attempt to write an economic history of the territory of Goa. This history, if it is to capture the nuances of Goa, would have to stress difference, rather than stressing the economic condition of colonization and the sad tired stories of bleeding the territory dry. Of course, this difference is not to paint the colonizers as the good guys, since they may come out looking just as bad. Difference would have to be stressed in this history to draw attention to the differential manner in which Goa financially integrated into the Indian nation-state.

The primary difference that marks the economic history of Goa is its late entry into industrial capitalism, very much like its colonizer Portugal. Goa entered industrial capitalism only in the 1950s with the opening of the mines, a particularly degrading industry that can be held responsible both for the ecological wasting away of its society, as well as its deliberate intellectual retardation. What were the mechanisms of making it big before this? One either was a member of the small aristocracia de coco,aristocracies dependent on returns from agricultural surplus, primarily coconuts; or one traded in opium or slaves and built the capital for other ventures; or one migrated, got on to the ships, worked one’s fingers off, sent money back and erected the homes that mimicked the grand style of the ‘aristocrats’. It appears that of these various types, it was really those involved in the illicit opium and slave trade of the days who were able to make the fortunes that would allow them to seize the opportunity to swing into industrial capitalism when the opportunity first presented itself.

It is not as if British-India did pass through a similar trajectory. It did also have similar groups, and yet its early entry into industrial capitalism, the nature of its comprador class and the sheer necessity to survive created a class that was built to a large extent also on the selling-off of land to obtain freely tradeable capital. This process of the privatization of land saw the impoverishment that one associates with British-India, a process that was by and large absent in Goa, allowing the Goan poor (and there were lots of them) to live off the common resources and fend off starvation at the very least. What we witness today, in the large-scale sale of land in Goa, is partially the attempt of those Goans who did not make the boat in the 1950s to create enough capital to get into the capitalist game, and survive in the contemporary world, clearly titled in favour of private resources and tradeable income. The tragedy is that for most of them, it is way too late, industrial capitalism has given way to globalized capitalism, which the British-Indians have managed, via their colonial history, to be a part of. It is not just the peasant, clerk and professional that this history impinges on, but also the local entrepreneur and small capitalist, a fact that was recently made obvious to me when a member of the GCCI complained that the DSIDC would prefer to cater to the larger capitalist from British-India than the small Goan fry.

In the highly charged debate that is rightly concerned with what is going to happen to our state, all too often the implications of our economic history is not taken into account. Goans remained by and large therefore tied to this heritage of a late entry into industrial capitalism. As such the problem Goa faces is not necessarily the migrant labour but the British-Indian capitalist who makes pawns of the migrants, the Goan peasants and working class. They do this of course, not consciously, since they are really playing out – to put it vulgarly- their class-determined historical role. The local State, though, can still be captured by these victims of history, and the State of Goa compelled to play a role that recognizes the peculiar vulnerability of residents of the State, and put in place an economic system geared towards them rather than the depradations of the British-Indian and global capitalist, both of who continue to play the role of a colonizer as they play the local market for labour and land. To not recognize this historical difference will be to doom the majority of the residents of Goa into the poverty that has and will continue to mark India, with a slim majority joining the ranks of the global capitalist.
(Published in the Gomantak Times 4th Jan 2008)