Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Citizenship and the Right to move…

“God did not create boundaries. He gave us the world to live our lives on. He did not create boundaries to marginalize us.” I was watching “Assaulted Dream”, a film documenting the desperate attempts made by men from the Central American republics, who unable to find decent employment in their own countries, embark on perilous journeys in search of work in the United States. These words rushed out at me, and I was aware instantly of the singular truth and power of the words “God did not create boundaries”. Ecological readings of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, emphasize the fact that God gave us dominion over the earth; he did not give us ownership of it. Indeed, God did not create boundaries. He gave us the world to satisfy our needs. It was man who erected the borders that operate to marginalize us.

It was perhaps the acknowledgment of this basic fact that caused me to recoil when I read the following in a column two weeks ago. Speaking about the Goans who apply for Portuguese passports, the author argued that “Surely, those Goans’ sudden love for ex-Estado da India's 'Patria' and clamour for Portuguese passports is but an undisguised attempt to infiltrate the European Union job market for low-end positions which have no native takers”. “Most of those 'patriotas'” he continued, “know nothing about Portugal, and do not intend to live in Portugal. Many of them are ready to beg, borrow, bribe and cheat to achieve their ends”.

The statement is a clear example of the many boundaries that men have built in order to marginalize each other. The boundaries in operation in the sentences are the boundaries of race, nationality, caste and class. God created no boundaries, and this was the way the colonizer found the world, a world populated by individuals bearing multiple identities and moving easily from one space to another. The colonizer to a large extent allowed that world to continue as such; indeed they actively encouraged the migration of populations from one part of the colonized world to the other, until the beginning of the 20th century, as the era of decolonization began. It was when the colonized started changing the direction of movement and arriving in large numbers on hitherto white shores, that this world came to an end. It was at this moment that the restrictive international regime that we take for granted today came into operation. International travel would no longer be a simple matter of jumping into a boat and seeking your fortune elsewhere. International travel now follows definite rules. Capital and citizens of the former colonial world travel with practically no difficulty. Those from among the formerly colonized, like Goa, the Central American republics and North Africa have severe restrictions placed on them. When they do travel, they are seen as infiltrators, defilers of paradise and treated as terrorists.

Regardless of the legitimacy of every human being to free movement across the globe however, can this Goan applicant for the Portuguese passport in fact be seen as the infiltrator? The Goan travels to Portugal not through any favour extended by the Government of Portugal but by a right that dates from before the Liberation of Goa, from a time when all Goans were citizens of Portugal, and who lost the right to Portuguese citizenship as a result of the Indian action. The Goan applicant is in fact not applying for Portuguese citizenship; but merely initiating a process to reassert their eclipsed right to Portuguese citizenship. To brand them as infiltrators is not merely a grave misrepresentation, but belies a sinister agenda. Labeling as illegal those who migrate by right to Portugal serves not only to delegitimize their presence in Portugal and Europe, but goes further to delegitimize the very process through which they go to Portugal.

What is baffling however is that it is not a European or a Portuguese who is branding the Goan as infiltrator, but a Goan himself. The puzzle falls in place when we realize that the author is implying that only those who know about Portugal, intend to live there, and who do not have to beg, borrow, bribe or steal, have a natural right to get Portuguese citizenship. In Portuguese-Goa, this meant the upper-caste and upper-class Goan (across religions) who spoke Portuguese and knew about Portugal. While from 1910 all Goans regardless of religion were Portuguese citizens, the same was effectively realized only by this small group of ‘assimilated’ folk. They were members of a coterie that incarnated the Empire in Africa and considered Portugal another home. The veiled thrust of this argument is that it is this class alone that must benefit from Portuguese citizenship. What this argument is doing, however, is to also employ the logic of nationalism. The logic of nationalism turns the logic of citizenship on its head. It is not the state that exists for you, but you who must exist for the state. Thus, you must love your country, know all about it – and yes, promise to never leave it. A perfect case of man being made for the Sabbath. The logic of nationalism however, is also the logic that is used by the internal elite to control the masses of the state. Thus, you have this argument: “Don’t let all of them go to Portugal, restrict this ‘benefit’ to only those who know Portugal.” That is to say, allow the freedom of travel to those of us who are one of you – the elite who matter. Colonialism did not end with decolonization, it merely opened up another, more subtle front of exploitation. An external elite left, to allow the space for a local elite to work in tandem with the former. This was the compromise of decolonization. We’ll leave, and as long as you control your teeming huddled masses, we’ll recognize your right to travel freely when you want to. And clearly, this is exactly what is happening.

The Goan leaves Goa for a plethora of reasons. She leaves because there is no work to be found in a nepotistic banana republic governed by a few families. She leaves to take any menial job abroad because there is no respect for labour in Goa-India, and you don’t have to suffer casteist humiliation on a daily basis. That they would beg, borrow or steal is testament to their desperation to get out. That we would condemn their desperation speaks for the callousness of our regime. And at the end of the day, is it a sin to want a better life?

God did not create a world with boundaries. He created it so for a reason, so that we could go forth and satisfy our wants, enrich ourselves, share it with others and hand it over to others when their time comes. The boundaries have been erected by man. And boundaries fall. They fell in Jericho, they fell in Berlin, they will fall in Palestine, and through the movement of Goans and other emigrants across the world, they will inshallah fall all over God’s earth. And I know that I will live to see the day. Amen.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 30 July 2008)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rethinking the Goan 'Revolution'

Some weeks ago, in the heat of the summer, I heralded a revolutionary moment. As citizens took to the Gram Sabhas, I was sure, that coming on the heels of the opposition to the Regional Plan, we could expect revolutionary change in Goa. Via our raised voices in the Gram Sabhas, we would challenge a State that withdraws into silence when it comes to safeguarding our interests. We would also challenge a State that was colluding with the forces of global capital, as they sought to enrich themselves even as they pushed us into poverty. This challenge, would involve the assertion of the right of the people to ultimately determine the location of projects in their immediate locality. It would involve the assertion of people to the recognition of their basic rights to life and livelihood over the rights of speculative capital and obscenely disproportionate profits. It would, above all, lay the foundation for a reorganized State marked by dialogue at all levels, rather than diktats from the top. Reviewing events unfold however, I have for sometime now, been contemplating if it is possible that I erred in heralding this revolutionary moment. Was it a possible misdiagnosis, where what we see occurring in Goa is no revolution at all, but a fitna?

An Arabic word used in Islamic legal thought, fitna has a wide range of meanings – schism, sedition, defection, desertion- invariably used as a term of disapproval. The disapproval was the result of Islamic jurists who viewed negatively the crumbling of the Caliphate and the establishment of regional and local powers. In a marvelous work on the Maratha svarajya however, Andre Wink argues that we should understand fitna as a socio-political upheaval, one that in the original context implied the ‘forging of alliances’ and was the ‘normal mechanism of state-formation’. In the context that Wink examines -the Maratha challenge to the Mughal Empire - he argues that the Maratha svarajya was not a rupturing of the Mughal Empire, or a movement in protest. It was in fact a fitna; a re-altering of alliances between the Maratha state and the Mughal empire, with greater powers now being handed out to the regional power. The fitna was a mechanism of state-formation that saw ‘management by conflict’, rather than the ‘management of conflict’, as the key to political success.

Like the fitna a revolution also involve upheaval and conflict. However, it demands more than these aspects of instability. The Persian and Urdu word for revolution, Inquilab, allows us some insight into the demands that a revolution makes of us. Inquilab which signifies an overthrow has as its root the Arabic word for heart, qalb. It is the constant act of the heart, of overturning, pulsating, pumping with blood that allows qalb to be used as a root for inquilab. Qalb has however, also been translated to mean the mind, the spirit, or something that is innermost, something deep within. All of these multiple meanings rather than contradict each other, contribute to our understanding of what a revolution, or inquilab really is, or must be. It asks us to get to the heart or the essence of a matter. It asks us to turn things around, not only systematically, but to also view things from as many perspectives as possible. A third meaning, is akin to the act of ploughing, where we are exhorted to turn the soil of society, the soil of culture, or the soil of our soul. Those of us familiar with Christian symbolism will realize that it is only if the soil is turned, that is able to receive the seed that heralds new life. And so it is with the revolution that requires an overturning, not merely for the sake of opposition, but for the creation of a new order. This new order eventually asks not for superficial changes but for changes deep within the innermost recesses of our soil, and likewise of society.

Goa, I would now correct myself, is in the throes not of revolution, but of a fitna. Consider the fact that rather than focus on issues of equity, what we constantly seem to get drawn to are issues of outsiders/migrants taking over our land. If this is, as many of us keep arguing, not the real issue, why is it that we keep coming back to the outsider issue? One way of explaining this is to understand the events in Goa as born from the challenge being posed to our internal elite by a national and global elite. The social order in Goa is changing, and changing drastically. Old hierarchies are increasingly under challenge. One has only to look at the manner in which former establishmentarian newspapers that would block out significant events in Goa are being forced to change tactic owing to the arrival of the Times of India. If mining money was earlier being used to control state and society in Goa, today this monopoly is being challenged by money that pours in from the ‘outside’. If the local elite is to continue to retain its hold over local society therefore, it is imperative that they create a unified local opposition. There is no better way to create this unified local opposition than creating the bogeyman of the outsider.

While the Goan unrest will dissuade external investment in the short term, it has definite benefits to the local elite. The local elite displays its continued relevance to external elites wishing to invest in Goa by displaying its ability to mobilize the masses under the call to protecting our land from outsiders. The message is clear, cooperate with us since we hold the key to maintain the environment necessary for profitable investment. It seems to me that if we understand the unrest in Goa, as the mobilization of popular discontent, by existing elites we would understand the situation in Goa much better. For the sole reason that issues of livelihoods (that include employment) are heard less frequently than the calls to keep Goa beautiful, and that the outsider/migrant issue dominates, we can be sure that the popular discontent in Goa is a manipulation of popular discontent. There can be no doubt that there is popular discontent that is struggling to find utterance. The tragedy is that this discontent is being effectively manipulated by the dominant groups within the State. What we are currently witness to in Goa is really a management by conflict, as less relevant or non-issues are pushed forward as the bases to fight on.

The moment of both inquilab and fitna are moments of change. The moment of inquilab however allows for radical and equitable change, while fitna allows for conflict to be used as a management tool. As with the Maratha svarajya the model of governance does not change, it is merely one ruler that gets more power than the other. The peasant sees no difference. Goa will see revolutionary change if only we don’t get sidetracked by the non-issue of outsiders (conveniently identified in the past few days as the Muslim) that is propelling us, even exhorting us, toward violence.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 9 July 2008)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Majoritarianism and the Fascist threat to Democracy

Let us begin by thanking heaven for the miraculous growth of various groups in opposition to the corruption and autocracy that marks the Indian Republic in Goa at this point in our history. They push through the debris of our society, just as the mushrooms will soon push through the deadwood, providing flavourful nutrition to our meals. One such group was stuck on the name that it should adopt. A faction within the group suggested one name, while another proposed another divergent name. A member of the minority group indicated that she had firm ideological reservations with regard to one of the names and would find it difficult to participate in the operation of such a group. She pointed out that a name is not merely a name; it is also a statement of our politics and priorities. There was an uproar; pleas were made to her that we should all be united in our opposition to the challenge that Goa is facing. And yet she stood firm in her opposition. Regardless of her sentiments the issue was put to vote and the first name won the vote. It was now held that since the majority had won the ballot she should, in the democratic spirit acquiesce to the winning name, her reservations notwithstanding.

It is on this issue that I would like to intervene. Does the voice of the majority in fact constitute the democratic option? Or is there another more meaningful way in which we could contemplate democracy, especially in the context where via our ‘Revolution’ we are attempting to create a democratic Goa.

On the 27th of May, the newly created Nehru Centre Goa, hosted a lecture by Mridula Mukherjee, Director of the Nehru Library in Delhi, and an acclaimed scholar. In the course of her lecture on Nehruvian Universalism, Mukherjee made a crucial observation. Never forget, she said, that Hitler was voted into power in the course of electoral politics. Fascism she pointed out rides on the energies of the people, it gains power from the collective voice of the majority people. And yet, not for one moment can we assume that fascist politics is democratic. If therefore, majoritarianism is not democracy in action, what is? And what role does the minority play in it?

Democratic politics is ideally not about the establishment of a final line, but about opening up the space for socio-political dialogue. It provides a dialogical basis for decision making. In the case above then, in the event of a majority, and the existence of a principled opposition to a point, is this majority capable of engaging in dialogue with the minority? If need be, is the majority capable of accommodating the minority position, if it does not violate any fundamental principles of the association? This would be an ideal democratic position. Unfortunately however, the Indian democracy has rejected taking to such a notion of democracy. Such a position as I argue for, has for a long time now, been called ‘minority appeasement’. This appeasement is deemed against the spirit of democracy, and it is this spirit that has shaped the Indian democracy into a simple game of majority politics.

Rather than the engagement in dialogue, the Indian democracy, has become the exercise of achieving goals. Those who stand in the way of those goals, by dissenting, even if for good reason, from the majoritarian position, are seen as threats to our unity and ultimately the nation. And so it is that we blame the Muslim who wishes to retain his beard, the tribal who refuses to give up her livelihood for the good of the nation, the ‘slum’ dweller who refuses to move out so that a high-rise can be built over her home. These dissenters are now seen as the problem, when in fact all they ask for is space to be different. These are dangerous trends in a democracy, especially when both in the electoral sphere, and the social, the majority is seen as having the right to determine the final position (solution) to issues that vex us. This position is a lot closer to fascism that we would like to admit. And yet, tragically, not a few of us are willing to acknowledge that the Indian democracy is in fact a society tethering on the brink of fascism

In our illustration for this discussion, the lady with the objection was asked to agree to the majoritarian position. We must be united, the majority argued, in the face of the opposition we face. And similarly are various minorities silenced into accepting the majoritarian position. These majorities, we should realise are produced, not by invoking unity, but enforcing uniformity.

This discussion on democracy, fascism, majorities and minorities is not without relevance to our Goan ‘revolution’. Those of us who are participants in this revolution realise that we are faced with decision-making at every step. In the course of this decision-making however, are we producing consensus by pushing some issues to the margins? Are we manufacturing consensus by creating priorities of threats? For example, as we unite Goa on the basis of the threat of real-estate scams, destruction of our environment and mega-housing projects, are we turning a blind eye to the communalization and the silent destruction of our society? In many cases in the attempt to create this ‘unity’ we are promoting people whose position on religious and other minorities are frankly fascist. When attempting to rally people to our cause, are we taking the easy way out and projecting the enemy as the outsider (the migrant) rather than exposing the class and caste divisions within our society that are creating the ground for the destruction of land in Goa?

The unity that is being created to pass Gram Sabha and other resolutions is tainted because it leaves the interests of Muslims, who are hounded in Salcette, it excludes the rights of tribals to land in Goa, and blames the migrant for the mess we have created for ourselves.

Democracy is about dialogue. If the upheaval in Goa is to lay the foundation for a Democratic Goa, it is imperative that we be open to dialogue, and constantly wrestle with the complex problems presently posed before us at. We ought not to simply squash it in the name of unity. There would be no space in our republic for an enforced uniformity in the guise of unity. Unity should mean the maintenance of space for difference and even conflicting opinions, and keeping open the space for dialogue. Uniformity on the other, asks that a particular point of view be silenced so as to create the image of unity in the likeness of the majority. This uniform agenda of the majority cannot be the basis for democracy it can only usher in a fascist polity.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 2 July 2008)