Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Of Recognition, Facts and Strategies: A Letter to the Editor after UTAA’s demonstration

Dear Editor,

I write this letter to you to thank you for your front page editorial on the issue of this newspaper dated seventeenth December 2009. In placing the editorial on the front page you have in many eyes; not just mine alone, reprieved the local media from a morass that many of us fear that it is headed into. News is not about the ‘neutral’ reporting of random (and increasingly irrelevant) facts alone, but as you have so strikingly indicated, about creating issues for the larger public and fostering positive politics. But your editorial did more than just set standards for media, it also helped refocus the priorities of the people of Goa, who, it appears, seem to by and large operate in blissful ignorance of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe members of our society.

In the opening of your editorial, you quoted Bayard Rustin, an American civil rights activist who argued that “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” In so quoting, you brought the debate to the heart of the matter, allowing us to counter all of the irrelevant criticisms that have subsequently been leveled against the protest that occurred on the sixteenth of December.

Acknowledging the dignity of a human being requires also that we acknowledge the existence of an individual. As already argued, we in Goa do not even acknowledge the existence of the scheduled groups and their needs. You pointed out that the protestors brought the ‘upper-caste Digambar Kamat-led government to its needs’, but the fault is not just this particular government, but the manner in which the entire society conspires in constructing Goa as an upper-caste almost paradise. All of the issues that we have been arguing for the past few months, those of the destruction being done to Goa etc, while critical and relevant, have failed to take into consideration this segment of the population, and argue the issues with their perspective in mind. Had they done so, our strategies and indeed, our achievements would today perhaps have been radically different.

It is for this reason then, because the protestors addressed the basic issue of recognition, in not one, but two different and associated forms, that they have cut for us, in their action on the sixteenth, a path that should have been trudged ages ago.

Associated with one of the groups fighting the big-capital take over of Goa via the Regional Plan, I was witness to the farce of representations to the Chief Minister and his government. No matter how logically argued or passionately represented, these written statements received no response from a silent and non-committal state. We were constantly asked to rely on the word of the Chief Minister, who would assure us that he would ‘try his best’. Our representations were like the flailings of an attention-deprived child, before an emotionally unmoved, and punishingly silent parent. We were faced with the toughest and most insurmountable barrier of all; Silence.

In the face of this silence, I had on numerous occasions, argued with a number of groups that it is this silence that we need to break. In the face of this silence, we need to up the level of civil disobedience, lay siege to the State secretariat, until our rightful demands are met. The silence of the Government rests on the sure knowledge that we will not challenge the daily rhythm of life, and until we hamper this carefree rhythm, until we get the silent to recognize us, we will, unfortunately not be listened to. The United Tribal Association Alliance (UTAA), on the sixteenth broke that compact, and they managed to draw the Chief Minister into dialogue. Viva!

They did more than draw him into dialogue however. This Chief Minister, like others, has often engaged in the farce of dialogue. Words, are cheap, it is actions that count. And on this latter front, despite its verbal assurances, this government has failed to act. UTAA to its credit broke through this sham and demanded a ‘written assurance’. We must remember that the modern State and its bureaucracy operate through the action of writing. When we represent in writing therefore, we deserve a response in writing. Else once more we flail pointlessly before a false Baal. Two successes therefore, and two lessons for the Goan activist to learn from. First, this government will not listen until you lay siege to it, prevent ‘business as usual’, and to paraphrase you, ‘drag it to its knees’. Second, no success until and unless you get a response (i.e. recognition) from the State, in writing.

I have not seen the written assurance of the Chief Minister and so do not know the form and content of its assurance. However I do know that a mere line indicating “I will get so-and-so done, by such-and-such date” is pointless. Our demands are valid because of a sound reasoning that lies behind it. A written response from the government must necessarily respond to these demands, point by point, acknowledging in writing the validity of our claims, and acknowledging in print its failure to do so. Only then do we move governance, from the scam it currently is, towards a democratic respect for justice and due process.

What was critical in the protest by UTAA was the fact that it operated in the best traditions of civil disobedience. No property was harmed, but what was placed in harms way was the body of the protestor. It also demanded that imperial forms of governance, that place a veil between the governor and the governed are cast aside, to allow for direct contact. We would carry this tradition further if we linked it to this recognition of responsible writing.

Very often we resort to the cliché that when the interests of the most marginalized are addressed the whole system sets itself in order. UTAA’s actions on the sixteenth, that have addressed two lacunae in the operation of our democracy, seem to have pointed to the validity of the cliché. I will end this letter, reinforced once more with thanks, with the knowledge that perhaps while all is not well with the state of Goa, there is as yet, still hope!

(Published in the Gomantak Times 23 Dec 2009)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Garden Restorations: Panjim’s Jardim Municipal, somewhere, beyond the green and the heritage, there lies a rainbow

The degraded state of the Panjim Municipal Garden, the Jardim Garcia d’Orta has been a sore point for some time now. However, on hearing news of the plans for the re-development of the park, my heart sank further. What new travesty would this latest venture bring? As if to prove these fears true, there was sometime last week, news of a confrontation with the powers vested with re-developing the Park. It appears that a number of the trees in the Jardim were slated to be cut, to make way for lawns and flower beds. Before the debate degenerates into an argument for the value of trees and a green lung, I would like to place the issue with a larger context.

Earlier columns have grumbled about the manner in which a Northern European understanding of the garden has colonized our mentality. In addition our understandings of the garden space have also been frozen within domestic frameworks, resulting in a narrowing of our garden-vocabulary. To place the Jardim in context therefore, we need to affirm that it was not just a ‘garden’ but a Public garden. Within the various types of public gardens one may find, the Jardim was an Alameda, a promenade garden meant for walking, and shaded by a variety of trees. Like Alamedas across the Iberian world, this garden too was (and continues to be) marked by commemorative monuments. The monument in this case being the column formerly dedicated to Vasco da Gama and now crowned by the Ashokan lions. The shading of the paths and the benches of this Alameda however were not randomly arranged, but followed, as is still visible if one looks closely, a formal symmetrical pattern. This feature of the Mediterranean garden drew from Islamicate sensibilities, that itself drew from the Roman. This formal arrangement however, was only the center of a much larger symmetry, represented by the buildings that enclosed the rectangle of the Jardim.

The Mediterranean public garden however, is not simply a space for relaxation; it is also a ritual political space. It is the symbolic representation of the public space, where the citizens gather, affirm their commitment to order in civil society and where the State affirms its commitment both to the citizens and to the notion of public order. This would be one way to think of the band-stand that stands at the centre of the Jardim. Every Sunday the Jardim hosted the band of the armed forces which played to the citizenry of Panjim who gathered there in their numbers, to see and be seen. In this ritual action, week after week, the notion of a civil society, and citizenship therein, would be reaffirmed, by State and citizen alike.

It is important to note this fact, a few days prior to the commemoration of the integration of Goa into the Indian Union. Very often forgotten in our celebration of the end of colonial rule, are the political specificities of the territory of Goa. Despite being a colonized space, Goa was nevertheless marked by citizenship. This status, peculiar to the Goan within a colonized sub-continent, emerged for the Catholic native elite from early colonial rule, and was open to all, regardless of religion from 1910. It is in this context that we should see and cherish this (and other Goan) public garden(s). We should also remember that this garden was a product not of some colonial mind, but of the local sons who were on the Camara Municipal. These local sons burned with the same zeal for independence, that Indian nationalists did, but owing to their political location as citizens, were able to articulate this desire within the confines of the Portuguese Empire.

Viewed in this manner, the Jardim Garcia d’Orta emerges as heritage garden with strong indigenous roots. These indigenous traditions of democracy and politics have however, largely been forgotten as they have been overlaid by the political traditions and understandings of the former British-India. This is perhaps nowhere as tellingly demonstrated as in the fate of the Jardim; first ravaged by the bureaucratic masturbation of the (British-Indian inspired) Forest Department’s tree plantation drives, and subsequently left to ruin as all wholesome notions of democracy have gone to mud.

The re-development of this garden and its structure, then, cannot simply be initiated de novo, nor can the debate be restricted to the need for a green space in the urban city. The re-development must necessarily be undertaken in the spirit of a Restoration. I capitalize the R here, for this Restoration is not to mean merely a physical restoration that one submits an edifice to, but a Restoration in the sense of a socio-political renewal as well. The Restoration must take the ritual space and history of the Municipal garden seriously, keeping the citizen once more at the centre of the development. If under the Portuguese regime the real (as opposed to the legal-theoretical) benefits of citizenship were restricted to the culturally equipped and bourgeois denizens of the city, then this Restored garden must ensure that those unfairly labeled ‘anti-social elements’ are not excluded. The garden as it did in the old days, must allow citizens to interact with each other, renewing both the use of the garden and civil society at large.

Incorporating this political dimension into our viewing of the garden as a heritage structure makes the word heritage bear more weight than it normally does. The formal stylistic arrangement of the park is no longer a mere aesthetic fetish, nor a fancy obsession with our past. It is a testament to a way in which we would like to see our democracy. It is also a testament to the fact that our colonial difference is worth embracing for it has something very valuable to contribute to the Indian democracy. In both these cases, the Alameda styling of the garden is critically tied to a definite kind of public and political culture. In addition, as opposed to the Northern European inspired garden of British-India, which stresses sun-kissed expanses that guzzle water, the Mediterranean inspired Alameda garden works with the local environment to provide the shade within which tropical life thrives.

If there is a debate around the development of the Municipal garden in Panjim, then that debate cannot and must not be restricted just to the issue of green cover and lung space. There is as I have laboured to point out, a much larger context within which it must necessarily be seen.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 16 Dec 2009)

Image of the newly planted Jardim Municipal courtesy Dr. Paulo Varela Gomes

Image of scene in the Alameda Gibraltar Gardens from Wikipedia

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Engagements from Beyond the Border: Reflections on the Know Goa Programme

Subsequent to hearing a critical participant’s observation about the ‘Know Goa Programme’ organized by the Department for NRI Affairs, I had my reservations about the Programme, wondering if it was not just another waste of public funds. My experiences with participants of the second edition of the ‘Know Goa Programme’ however, allowed me a partial retake on the initiative.

The ‘Know Goa Programme’ is apparently modeled on the ‘Know India Programme’ that has been designed for young adults (between the years 18 to 28) of Goan origin to spend some time in Goa, and get to know the place their parents or grandparents arrived from. The experience involves something of a guided tour across Goa, and the opportunity to interact with individuals, institutions and officials. Interacting along with other local Goans with these visitors over the past weekend, it became obvious that despite the possibility that the Programme could in fact be an all expenses paid holiday trip, it has it benefits.

Listening to the participants of this year’s programme speak, Harish Rao, a Californian-bred Goan, and present in the gathering, spoke up, hitting a nail squat on the head. He pointed out that when we (as young people of Goan origin) come to Goa on holidays with our parents, Goa is reduced entirely to an encounter with family. It boils down to visits from one family home to another, and a few photographs. There is no experience of a wider Goa outside of this family circuit. If we are to develop a connection with Goa, this young man pointed out, we need to be able to move out of these family circuits and establish larger connections with the society at large. To be sure, this is what the Programme seems to be attempting, allowing these young persons an initial engagement with Goa as individuals, and outside of the suffocating frameworks of family (and its often tiresome obligations).

Unfortunately though because the Know Goa Programme is couched within the larger context of diasporic politics, the Programme (or at least the part I was witness to) replicates the problems of diasporic politics. Two of these problems are, the essentialising of culture, and the restriction of the cultural identity within a national framework.

In their encounter with local Goans, the participating young adults were berated with the idea that they ought to learn ‘Konkani, our language’. Then came the usual lament of how we don’t do sing the Mando, dance fugdi, dhalo etc etc. There are a number of problems with this approach, the most important being that it freezes culture into being necessarily from the past, and must be held on to. There is no recognition of the fact that this culture evolved in the context of a certain time, certain kinds of social relations, and as time, economy and social relations change, this culture will change as well! One must be aware of the past yes, but hanging on to it suffocates a society. This suffocation is perhaps one reason why latter generation immigrants of Goan origin do not attend Goan events, or why younger local Goans take ‘cultural events’ lightly; these do not speak to the vibrancy of their lives and experiences. These events ask only that we continue to animate corpses that ought to have been buried.

Another problem with this way of understanding culture, is that once locked into lament mode, the only way in which you can address the Other (in this case the young participants) is to ask for their help. Because they also largely come from the countries of the developed West, this request for help comes loaded with all the implications of colonial and post colonial politics. Do we really want to continue these racist and deeply inegalitarian relations, or do we want to move on to equal and mutually nourishing relationships?

The third problem of diaporic politics is the manner in which a rich cultural tradition is shoved into a national framework. Thus given that Goa is now politically linked to the Indian nation-state, one has to stress the Indian connection. The rich histories of the Goan migrant that evokes memories in Karachi, in Mozambique, in Kenya are all erased. If not erased, then because we now view Goa primarily through an ‘Indian’ lens, there is no way to meaningfully make sense of, and engage with this wider cultural tradition and history.

I would like to supplement Harish Rao’s suggestion of breaking out of the family networks to engage with the larger society. I would suggest that the way forward lies in encouraging the participants of the Programme to engage as individuals with other individuals. Thus meet officials and get to know of institutions, but also know the individuals behind them. More importantly get to know local individuals who would like to know you on an individual basis. Such an individual interaction; quite simply the development of friendships, offers one way out of the problems with diasporic politics.

Get to know an individual and you get to know of her daily experiences and the manner in which she deals with the challenges of daily life. This is her culture, strongly rooted in the contemporary local. Vibrant and alive, there may not be a direct link to the Mando, fugdi, dhalo and Konkani. Yet despite this, they are profoundly Goan!

Engaging with another’s experiences draws you also into an understanding of local politics. The ‘Culture’ that is normally presented within diasporic settings is apolitical and hence dishonest. For example, when we are urged to speak Konkani, we are not told that there are huge contestations around the language. There are issues of dialect and script. Feelings of shame and humiliation. We are also not told that Konkani is just one (as it is) of the many languages that are natural to the Goan. Engaging with politics and with the individual, develops bonds of affection, that perhaps offer a far greater possibility of the person of Goan origin engaging with Goa’s future. What is more, for reasons of being based on a personal relationship, it is possible that these relations will tend towards being egalitarian, rather than reproduce the inequalities of international relations.

Finally, based on relationships, it encourages rising above the national boundaries that are severely limiting and fail to allow us to appreciate culture in all its breadth and depth. Emerging from a State initiative, it would be difficult for the Programme to achieve these objectives, but in merely creating a space, the Programme is perhaps doing enough!

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 9 Dec 2009)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The lament for Secularism: Secularism’s perils within a liberal democracy

It is perhaps time that this column addresses the matter clearly and directly. The concern to make matters clear stems from a few comments I have received, inquiring if I don’t believe in secularism anymore. ‘Are you another one of those anti-secular intellectuals’ I was asked, the question also implying my uncritical support for Islamist movements. Another suggested that while she got the point I was trying to make, surely the problem was not with the idea of secularism but with the manner in which the idea was implemented? To these responses then, allow me to present my defence.

One should not gain privilege or loose opportunities for reason of the religion that one follows. This principle lies at the theoretical heart of secularism as practiced in
India and elsewhere. This is a principle that surely none of us can argue against. However, my arguments over the past few weeks have been to point out that there have been problems in the manner in which this principle has been operationalised. The point however is that the problem does not lie merely with the operationalisation. The problem lies in the manner in which the principle is thought through. The problem lies with the words we use to describe it. Most persons when asked to describe secularism would almost instantly say ‘tolerance’. As sweet as it sounds, the word tolerance is based on certain assumptions. It presumes a standard, basic religion that ought to dominate, and then goes on to recognize that this religion must restrict itself and for a variety of reasons ‘tolerate’ the others. Tolerance therefore presumes the priority of certain religious traditions over others. When such an understanding of secularism informs our actions, it is little wonder then that there is a problem in operationalising it; little wonder that people have come to resent its operation. As we can see, there is reason for both sides of the fence to resent it. Those who are ‘tolerating’ as well as those who are being ‘tolerated’.

is today understood to be a Catholic country. However, prior to Catholicism becoming the dominant religion, Spain, especially southern Spain was a complex society hosting Jews, Muslims and Christians. For the most part, we are told, these people lived amicably, without much conflict, in a spirit that some historians call ‘Convivencia’. Convivencia, or living together, describes ideally the spirit that ought to animate secularism. The challenge however, lies in realizing this ideal within the contours of the liberal democracies that we live in.

In an earlier column I had indicated the problem lies with the kind of representative
politics that liberal democracies thrive on. The problem was perhaps best illustrated by the events subsequent to Shahrukh Alam’s lecture at Nijmegen (an event referred to in the last column). Subsequent to her lecture, a young Dutch man, of Bosnian Muslim extraction, was invited to offer privileged comment. Unfortunately this man did not speak to Shahrukh’s presentation, but presented his own take on the idea of secularism and Islam. This take involved asserting that Islam appreciated the sentiments of secularism, but if secularism did not allow Islam to be practiced, then it would find Islam its strongest opponent.

I have to confess that despite my Islamist ‘sympathies’ I found this presentation most distasteful. What struck me most however, was the restraint of the audience. Sharing with friends after the event, I remarked that had this been India we would have had a shouting match, if not a riot after such comments. Perhaps this then, is what secularism as ‘tolerance’ is all about! We need to recognize that there is a context to this man’s rant. The rant of this young man was made in the face of the suffocation that Dutch liberal secularism actually affords in the name of secularism. However, as a part of its tolerance, Dutch society will allow him to rant. More than this, it will subsequently allow him representation, and try to accommodate him within its structure of secular multiculturalism. This presents a number of problems however. First, we realise that we have to first shout and scream to get any attention from the State. Thus, he who screams and shouts loudest, and best, gets attention. In this process, it is the State that is creating the foundations for radical Islam (or other fundamentalisms). Not only are we encouraging an environment of resentment, but we are also forcing the formation of a monolithic identity of Muslims. This community of Muslims does not really exist. Responding to this young Dutch man, a Muslim woman of Surinamese origin stood up and countered him. ‘Please don’t represent all Muslims’, she said, ‘in Holland, we have Moroccans, Turks, Surinami-Indians, all of who are Muslims, but who have different cultures (of Islam)’. She made a valid point, but her (and it is invariably a She) voice is not normally the one that is heard. Thus it is that difference is in fact suffocated in the system of representation that secular multiculturalism presents to us. He (and it is invariably a He) who shouts loudest gets noticed, and groups that cannot shout, groups that are marginal, get sidelined. Despite its liberal protestations, the State does not negotiate endlessly with individuals. It negotiates only with groups, and this, is really a problem. To briefly refer to this Surinamese woman, when the State does recognise her, it recognizes her not as a Muslim, but as a woman, and a Muslim woman, in the process once more setting up Islam as the problem, when in fact it is its own representative politics that is creating and supporting radical and patriarchal Islam.

The idea of not having to suffer for the cause of the religious faith one professes is a welcome idea. The idea of living together in peace is similarly a desirable condition. The question is how exactly do we operationalise these ideas. The project of Secularism is compromised by the multiple ideas within which it works, which ensures that the promise is often time not recognized. By and large it has allowed for toleration under the hegemony of a dominant religious-cultural tradition. The demand I make, along with my many companions then, is not for thrusting the idea of convivencia into the dustbin of history, we ask merely that it be taken more seriously.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 25 Nov 2009)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Can Islam be Secular: On how the question predetermines your answer

A week ago, I had the opportunity of being present at the lecture of a friend in the Dutch university town of Nijmegen. Shahrukh Alam, one of the founder-members of The Patna Collective, had been invited to the Soeterbeeck lecture series to present her views as to whether Islam can be secular. Like me, Shahrukh Alam has her reservations about the theory and practice of the political ideal of secularism, both in India and internationally, and I looked forward to what she would have to say on this occasion.

Rather interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, what Shahrukh did was to invert the question. She pointed out that our answers are always structured by the logic of the question. The answer must necessarily conform to the logic of the question, for if it does not, the answer tends to be viewed as nonsensical. But this is not to say that the issues that are being raised are necessarily nonsensical. They become nonsensical only within the context of the question. The question in this case, is being asked from a location of power that perhaps refuses to get off its pedestal and engage equally with the concerns that result in the question being raised in the first place.

Thus Shahrukh reformulated the question to ask, if it was not the case that there was something wrong with the idea and practice of secularism in the first place? Rather than isolate the idea and practice of secularism from other practices of the national and international order, Shahrukh chose, quite sensibly in my opinion, to pose the question about secularism in the context of development. Like the questions that are being raised against secularism, there are questions being raised about the model of development that is followed by the Indian nation-state. The reasons for the opposition to both secularism and development she argued, is because they are both based on a similar position. Both secularism and development are based on the recognition of a certain standard of the ‘good life’. Certain socio-economic and political conditions are determined as the best possible conditions for life and are they imposed almost unilaterally on all. There is no choice to develop an alternative conception and practice of the good life. You just have to march to the tune that has been developed for you.

But the issue is not only about the manner in which this ideal is formulated. The problem lies also with the manner in which it is implemented. Thus, while secularism suggests that members of all religious groups will be treated equally, this is not at all the case. Take the example of the Netherlands for example, where national holidays are almost universally linked to the history and religion of white Dutch Christians. Despite their long association with South East Asian cultures, the long presence of the Turks and Moroccans, Muslim or South-east Asian feasts do not appear in the calendar of holidays. The promise of secularism falls short therefore.

Those of us who follow the histories of developmental projects similarly know that the promises of the good life that were to follow from the realization of these projects have not materialized. Those displaced by these projects have been pushed deeper into poverty. Where projects were meant to benefit the rural, we see the harnessing of these resources for the dreams and aspirations of India’s urban elite. There is thus a problem both with the manner of the formulation of the ideal, as well as the implementation of the ideal that results in the opposition to both these centralizing projects.

Having made the connection between secularism and development, indicating both to be manifestations of the intolerance of the state to its preferred ideals, Shahrukh was now able to point out that the problem with secularism is not about Muslims alone. There are plenty of people who oppose these unilateral, exclusive visions of the State. There are Muslims, there are tribals, dalits, marginal farmers, the list is potentially endless. What these people are asking for is not separation, but inclusion. Where the State excludes them in practice, their demand, maybe oftentimes plea, is for inclusion. It is then the stubborn commitment to exclusion by the State and its associated elites that is at the root of the problem.

Shahrukh did not however end by letting the Islamicists off the hook. She pointed out that when Islam is mobilized politically, to support claims of inclusion, very often the Islamicists use Islam in precisely the same reason as the secularists use religion, as an empty tool to advance political arguments and gains. There is thus not too much of a difference between the two. Given that I would like to explore this issue in some detail, I’ll leave this for another column. The central point that is worth emphasizing however is once more we are being encouraged to see beyond the divisions that liberalism encourages us to make in our real lives. Once we see the underlying similarity between secularism and development, we see that the problem is not about Muslims, but about many other groups that have been shut out of the operations of the State. A fantastic local example would be the partisans of the demand for recognition for Romi-Konkani. Despite their making a fairly simple claim for recognition and inclusion, their claim is constantly brushed aside and they are asked to be ‘secular’. Brush off a group, and caricature them long enough and you can be assured that they will emerge as the demon you accuse them of being. To return to Shahrukh’s argument however, the problems with secularism, are not those only of Muslims, but of any sensible person who wishes to lead a whole and complete life. The argument is not one that comes for a disrespect of difference, but a demand for the recognition and valuing of difference.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 18 Nov 2009)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Ghazi and the Bhatcar: Islamicism and the perils of bridging the secular divide

This week I crave your indulgence to continue with a discussion this column began last week. The column posed a challenge to the division that Eduardo Faleiro and a number of others were seeking to effect; the division between the secular and the religious. However the division they sought to effect was not one in the ‘secular’ sphere, but in fact in the religious. Taking the logic of secularism to absurd levels, they argued that priests being ‘religious’ ought to ideally restrict themselves to apostolic work, and not deal with issues of property. As with most arguments for secularism in Christian societies, this argument too was being pushed to allow for the eventual take over of Church properties by dominant private interests within the fold of the Church. It seems that the argument was being made precisely by secularized Catholics; i.e. those who are not believers anymore, but merely cultural Catholics, that is to say, Christmas, Easter and feast-day Catholics. These individuals tend to have political ambitions (not necessarily linked to electoral politics), and have upper-caste, upper-class backgrounds. It is for this reason, that I found Teotonio De Souza’s employing of the ‘subaltern’ argument in his column in the Herald hugely amusing. If anything, the move by Faleiro and the others represents the move by groups who having benefited from the economic and social consolidation provided by the Church (as a social institution), now wish to harness the economic (and social) power of Church properties for other purposes. If there is any group that is not making the argument for the release of the management of Church properties into lay hands entirely, it is in fact the Catholic subaltern classes, who would stand to benefit from the communal management of properties (though it needs to be maintained that more energy needs to be given to systematizing the forms of management).

But this concern need not engage us here today. What I would like to engage with is this whole divide between the secular and the spiritual. Why is it that the world (led by the Western power centers and media) fear and denounce the Islamicist movements through much of the world? To be sure, the tendencies that some of these movements display towards forms of violence is one major reason. There is the debatable suppression of the rights of women, and the politics of democracy. However, in my opinion, the eventual reason for this fear of the Islamicist movements is their refusal to separate the religious or the spiritual from the material. Islam, they say, provides a structure for our entire life, not just our ‘religious’, or for our ‘private’. It preaches a whole way of life that we are not willing to throw away, for the doubtful pleasures of westernized (read capitalist) forms of social (and political) life.

It is the rejection of the division of life into this binary, and the subsequent attendant divisions that shape contemporary political and social life, that causes the fear with which Islamicists movements are responded to. In their book Culture and the State, speaking in a different context, the authors David Llyod and Paul Thomas suggest that this fear is based on the recognition that when these binaries are challenged and overcome, the entire edifice of contemporary liberal bourgeois democracy will come crashing down. In the course of their argument they quote Rousseau who observed in his Essay on the Origin of Languages, that ‘to keep subjects apart; …is the first maxim of contemporary politics.’ This keeping apart, is managed by the whole process of representative democracy (a system which we Goans are having a particularly troublesome time right now). However, this keeping apart can only be done within a larger intellectual environment where conjoined spheres of life are kept apart. Thus, the division of life into the material, and the religious; and subsequently the division of individuals across boundaries such as nations, constituencies, wards. All of these are based on imaginary lines drawn across realities where people would otherwise be vibrantly engaging. The result of these imaginary lines is a transfer of our political power to higher beings who are expected to represent us. We alienate our political power to these individuals who are expected to operate for us. In doing so, our lives lose some of the reality that would otherwise be invested in it. Like members of a film-viewing audience, (remember that watching a film always requires first that we recognize, for however short a time, that what is happening on screen is, or was, real), we believe that the real world of politics, is out there, in the halls of parliament, in the closed council and cabinet meetings, not in our lives and daily decisions. The result of the system is that we are forced to believe in our lack of capacity to challenge the system. In the words of Robert Wokler ‘we have been numbed and made passive, displaced from the centre of cultural life and herded into the pits and mews. Transformed from agents of what we do into witnesses of what happens to us, we are, in the modern world, turned into a hushed audience and taught deference and timidity.’

The intellectual origins of Islamicist movements across the globe have recognized this fundamental scam that has been played on us. They recognized it just as Llyod and Thomas argue the early radical worker’s and Jacobin movements recognized this scam and opposed it. This intellectual move represents such a challenge to the contemporary global political order that it must be crushed, ridiculed and dismissed. And this is exactly what is happening. To this extent, the actions of Faleiro and the others are actions along this line of liberal politics. They seek to extend and maintain the order built on the separation of one life into different spheres. There would be some of you that would read this column as an indictment of the evil of Mr. Eduardo Faleiro. This column is least concerned with such an indictment. Very often, despite what we think of ourselves and our intellectual abilities, we are merely unconscious tools of larger systemic movements in the world. I seek to only highlight the possible systemic moves that Mr. Faleiro and the others are enabling.

Every intellectual move is fraught with the possibilities of its corruption when translated into reality. The Islamicist organizations across the globe are no exception. A large number are caught within the trap of parochialism, patriarchy, and other suffocating value systems. Nevertheless in challenging the boundaries that have been erected in our lives they fulfill their historical role, and for that we should thank them.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 4 Nov 2009)

* Bhatcar - literally the owner of a bhat or orchard, hence landlord.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

La Vie en rose: Why the material is mystical

Some months ago, the current Commissioner of NRG Affairs, Mr. Eduardo Faleiro inaugurated a debate over the matter of the management of Church properties in Goa. Initially it appeared that a suggestion was being made that the State take over the management of Church properties, or at the very least have a say, supervisory control over this properties. Howls of indignant protest followed, most pointing out that to suggest that the State have such a power would be like setting the cat among the pigeons. These objections pointed out that the State machinery itself has ruthlessly presided over the sale of common properties impoverishing the common man in the State, and such an institution is likely to only complicate matters further. In light of this rather robust response, Mr. Faleiro presented a document to the Archbishop that suggested internal reform and vigilance.

Among the many suggestions, there was one that particularly caught my eye, especially because it seemed to one that had purchase in some of the meetings organized by Mr. Faleiro. The suggestion reads “Administrative committees, duly constituted, may be truly empowered, so that lay persons feel really responsible for the administration, as the Church are Christ's faithful and the assets of the Church are their assets. Administration of the ecclesiastical assets should be their domain mainly. If this happens, priests will be left free for what is their proper field, viz. apostolate”. An interesting suggestion is being made here, that priests have really no business administering property, since property is a material good and priests have committed themselves to the spiritual. As such, leave property to be managed by those in the secular and material world. A version of ‘To Caesar that what is Caesar’s, and to God…’

Superficially the argument makes eminent sense. It extends one of the principles of secularism, of separating the Church/religion/spirituality from the State/secular/material life. Unfortunately however, this logic works well only if restricted to the secular world, it does not work at all if one does not admit of this distinction between the material and the secular. On the contrary to apply this logic to the operations of a religion, would ensure that religion ceases to have any meaning at all. The mistaken assumption of Faleiro and the secularists is that religion is about ritual and the spiritual, and it has no connection to the material. Making this assumption, they can extend the principle of secularism as they do. However, religion admits of no distinction between the spiritual and the material. On the contrary, religion is about precisely how to guide one’s material life, and as such has everything to do with the material. It is not as if Catholic culture does not admit members of the laity to be models to be emulated. On the contrary, there are a number of such examples, and priests more often than not, operate in parishes across the world in active participation with lay individuals who are identified (either by them or by social consensus) as significant members of the community. However, Catholic culture nevertheless gives the priest, one trained in the scripture, thought and tradition of the church, a preeminent place in guiding the community in its life. And because there is no such thing as a purely spiritual life, and life is lived out in a material world, this pastoral guidance necessarily extends to how we must mould our material life.

However Faleiro’s suggestion is troubling not only because it turns the idea of religion on its head. His suggestion is troubling because it perpetuates other deeply disturbing, though admittedly popular, distinctions. This distinction is between that of the public and the private. One of the reasons for the early continental European separation of Church from the State, was not because these republicans were necessarily averse to Christianity. On the contrary, their public culture continued to echo Western Christian tradition. The separation was necessary because the Church, as a human institution, was closely tied to the feudal order that the bourgeois republicans were seeking to destroy. These liberals also forged the distinction between the public domain and the private. In the private you could continue with your religious (and other traditions), and in the public they cultivated the religion of the State. Feminists for a few decades now have pointed out the problems with this distinction, pointing out that this distinction serves only to blind the eyes of State justice to abuses that go on in realms that are marked out as private. Just as there is no distinction between the material and the spiritual therefore, there is no distinction between the public and the private. Echoing the phrase ‘the personal is political’, popularized by the feminists in this context, will make the overlap between Faleiro’s suggestion and this larger ‘secular’ tradition strikingly clear. [As an aside, I should mention that this proximity between the spiritual and the feminist argument should make some in the clerical hierarchy sit up, take off their bigoted blinkers, take notice, and start thinking!]

One of the reasons I seek to articulate this critique, is because this separation that is being pushed will have a perilous impact on public life. What it will result in, is the further reduction of religion to ritual. Most of us, already thoroughly secularized in our thinking, even if we consider ourselves devout, understand religion to be ritual. Ritual in religion is however, animated by a spirit that makes meaning of it all. When that spirit is divorced, ritual is emptied out, becoming what secularists and atheists hold it to be ‘empty ritual’. The danger of empty religious ritual is that it becomes a kind of a communal marker that is then pandered to, building up the foundations of communal tensions in multicultural societies. Shorn of the mystical element that gives it meaning, and in fact allows us to transcend narrow social markers, ritual becomes the basis for marking difference. We can already see this operating in the Indian polity. ‘Hinduism’ is emptied out of the ethical values it contains to become Hindutva, an empty shell of symbols and rituals that are believed to represent a community. Islam is similarly emptied of its ethical values to become the political agenda of the jihadi. Similarly Christianity. The State panders to these symbols, only exacerbating the problem, when in fact the ethical practitioners of these faith traditions would, in daily life, normally transcend these barriers.

This particular suggestion that Faleiro makes therefore, has multiple problems for which it must be firmly ignored. The larger point however, is of the problem with this binary ‘secular’ logic; that has more followers than just Mr. Faleiro. It is a logic that is so built of partitions that it fails to allow us to lead holistic lives where we can see the connections between each other. It is a logic that builds solutions on partitions, rather than transcending the divisions that are created or may exist. If the feminists suggested so many decades ago that the personal is political, may I now suggest that indeed, the material is mystical?

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 29 Oct 2009)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Diwali I Loved: Saudades after an Explosive Naraka Chathurdashi

If there is one thing that I absolutely adore about Diwali in Goa, it is the relative quiet as compared to other parts of India. It is as if all our explosive tendencies get used up in the course of Chathurti and it is only the die-hards who actually make a bang at Diwali. It could also be a reflection however, that the rhythms of our Hinduism is markedly different from that present in the rest of India, especially North India. Diwali is definitely not that big a deal for us, as compared to Ganesh. And if it is, then Diwali has still not been reduced to the consumeristic orgy that marks Diwali at least in the north of India.

Perhaps the fondest image that I have of Diwali in Goa is an image captured from a rather modest house in Taleigão. It is late on the night of Diwali, and all the world is asleep. It is the proverbial silence of Christmas in the air and before me, was the façade of this little house and its courtyard in front of it. All that one can make out of this house are the tiny, red fairy lights that hang from the eaves of the house’s roof, bathing the Tulsi and the rest of the court yard in the softest and most delicate red hues. I return often to this house, and simply drink up the scene. Having quaffed this scene so often, I can regurgitate it whenever I am away, drinking in once more the beauty of a silent, but light filled Diwali. What is perhaps most beautiful about this remembered scene, is that for me, the weak but constant light of the fairy lamps represents what Diwali could be all about. The weak, yet insistent commitment to good, over evil, that is always more powerfully arrayed and always returns with a vengeance.

If there is one thing that I abhor about the Goan Diwali however, it is this supposedly ‘unique’ celebration of what is now being called Naraksur Nite (shudder!). I used to be under the impression that the Narakasur effigy was this peculiarly Goan Hindu observance, until an anthropologist friend dragged me out of this dream. It is apparently, an invention that came to Goa from Goan migrants who had traveled to Bombay and then returned. Authentically Goan or not, my early recollections of Naraka Chathurdashi are fond. These memories remain fond despite the fact that I now recognize that they brought children and youth together in bonhomie under the umbrella of secular Hinduism. They remain fond, because there was nevertheless a spirit of innocence that we all shared. It was a time when it was possible to not be aware that there were problems with the way this nation was being sutured together. After all in the 1980’s we were just 2 decades away from being Indian and still without the bitter experiences that the last couple of decades has brought.

If there is a Diwali-related orgy in Goa, then it has to be Narakasur Nite. I use the word orgy very deliberately, since the event as it has been arranged does in fact have the necessary requirements for an orgy, which is an out-of-control mob. There is this awful din of pre-recorded music that allows for no conversation, and no meaningful participation. One becomes merely a spectator, who can only watch, ideally with open mouth, stand a while and then move on to view the next creation somewhere down the street, and then watch again. What Naraksur nite becomes is a night for the rowdy young man.

There is more than the environment that allows for the emergence of the rowdy young man, the image of Narakasur has over the time come to also represent the body of the violent young man. The Naraksur of perhaps a decade ago displayed something of the physical types of most, lets say, Goan men. Solid chest and arms no doubt, but definitely the pot-belly! Have another look at the Narakasur from a few days ago. He had the sculpted male body that is sold by Hollywood and Bollywood. This is not just a male body, it is the embodiment of untrammeled male power; muscled and hard. Funnily enough, these contemporary Narakasurs represent the same mistakes made by a number of Indian men who engage in ‘body-building’. So obsessed with cultivating the image of the powerful and strong man, they focus entirely on the chest, growing like bulls around their torso, but running around on stick-like legs. Just like the boys who fashion these Narakasur then, the effigy too is top heavy, and has to necessarily be built sitting down! Talk about worshipping gods with feet of clay!

There is definitely an element of worship that has crept into the celebration of Naraka Chathurdashi. Perhaps this is what the Sanathan Sanstha (SS) and the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) have also sniffed out. This seems to contravene a certain code that they have, as to what Hinduism actually is. I cannot pretend to make sense of this code, because I am as yet puzzled by the contradictions between this group that encourage militancy, and simultaneously discourage it. Could it be the contradictions of Hindutva itself? The contradictions of an ideology that rests on lower-caste/class mobilization and militancy, and yet must bind these cohorts to upper-caste/class leadership. Refering to the ‘dancing, drinking and singing and loud filmi music’ at the ‘Ganapati festival’ Kancha Ilaiah suggests that there has been a certain ‘Dalitisation’ of what had been intended to be modes of conversion to Brahmanism. Given the response of the SS and the HJS, that seek to clean up these acts of their bawdry, perhaps Ilaiah has a point. Perhaps the bawdry does represent a challenge of the ‘lower’ orders to brahmanical norms!

As perplexing as these contradictions are, it is crucial that we make sense of them if we are to ensure the kind of low-intensity Diwali that we seem to be used to in our little State. A rather belated, but nevertheless heart-felt Diwali Mubarak to all.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 21 Oct 2009)

Image Credit: Cecil Pinto via www.goa-world.com

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Politics of Apologies: Portugal, Slavery and the Politics of the World Order

I get extremely agitated when Portuguese academics express the need to apologize for, and attempt to undo the damage done during the colonial period, especially that of the slave trade that was conducted in part by them. It is not that there is no need to recognize that this slave trade, and other heinous practices under colonialism took place. There is such a need. An example of this need for recognition is the rather disingenuous manner in which in the course of a competition searching for the 7 wonders of the Portuguese architectural world, the history of slavery linked to a number of Portuguese architectural marvels was omitted. But this recognition does not necessarily imply the need for an apology. Even if it does, the fact of apology carries its own baggage; baggage that can further complicate relations between the colonizer and the formerly colonized.

When Portugal apologizes for slavery, it does not do so on a blank slate. It does this on a slate that is already loaded with a large variety of meanings. For example, it is understood that slavery was the slavery of ‘black’ people. Further, it is understood that this slavery was conducted by ‘white’ people. Thus when we apologize for slavery, we apologize not only as Portuguese, but as ‘white’ people who did grievous injury to ‘black’ people. What this apology does therefore, is to re-inscribe race back into international relations. It makes some people (not all) from the African continent black, and the people in continental Europe white.

This easy equation between white and black is also deeply problematic because the historical situation is not so cut and dry. When Portugal engaged in slavery, it was not only white people who were conducting this trade. The trade flourished also because there were other groups from the African continent (‘black’ and otherwise) who participated in this trade. Not just those in the African continent though; the slave trade was profitable also for a number of Goan families, whose current fortunes are built in part by their participation in the slave trade. For the Portuguese to ignore this complexity and shoulder the entire blame for the slave trade is sweet, but it results in another patently colonial act. It casts the (‘white’) Portuguese as responsible and the others (‘Black’ and African) as not. Classic colonialism rested on the distinction between the all-knowing, responsible, adult White, and the child-like, irresponsible, coloured native.

None of this is to suggest that the Portuguese are wickedly manipulating statements to re-inscribe a racial dimension to post-colonial relations. On the contrary, the urge to apologize comes from the more conscientious segments of Portuguese society, who are appalled by attempts to forget or ignore the barbarities committed in colonial times. However what they fail to realize is that given that the postcolonial world is already configured by certain practices established by the dominant powers of the world, their apology only goes to further complicate and worsen postcolonial relations.

What might these practices established by dominant global players be? Take for example the fact that when we speak of slavery we very often only speak of and imagine slavery in the Atlantic Ocean circuit (i.e. toward the Americas). The slave trade in the Indian Ocean is completely erased. Further it is imagined that only Africans were enslaved. Historians of Goa will know that there was also a slave trade in Chinese and peoples from the Far East. And yet one but rarely hears of this trade.

The reason for this bias is owing to the Anglo-American leadership of the debate. This stress leads to the whole imaginary that is created particularly for the US based Afro-American, that the continent of Africa is ‘Home’. There is the specific imagination of these Afro-descendants in the Americas as the African ‘Diaspora’. Some time ago, in the sixties and the seventies, the whole idea of a return to Africa, that was quite fashionable among Afro-American activists. The experiences of those who ‘returned’ were disastrous. The idea however still has some resonance. This longevity can be explained by the similarity of this construction with other racist and nationalist imaginations. It feeds from and in turn supports the whole idea of the State of Israel and the right of Jews to return to a land (that is imagined as originally being theirs). It buttresses the whole idea of Muslims in India being invaders and hence eternal outsiders to the country. The slave discourse that the Portuguese unwittingly enter into when they wish to apologize is loaded with such ideas. And to be sure, there would be some in Portugal, who would like to see Portugal as a ‘white’ space, with the Blacks knowing for sure that Africa is their space, to which they are more than welcome to return to.

As I stated before, there is a need for us to not ignore or forget the cruelties of colonialism. However this whole business of apologies seems to generate as many problems as it does benefits. For one it is similar to the whole idea of righting historical wrongs. When one tries to do that, one invariably gets into a larger mess than one started with in the first place. Have a look at the wars in the Balkans, the Basque demand, the Hindutva demand. Secondly, the apologies generate as indicated above a whole new system of relations between peoples and countries. The recognition of culpability generates the demand by African (and other Third World countries) for Western developmental aid. Once again, though we recognize that Western European and Northern American wealth is built on colonial exploitation, we should recognize that the demand for aid is not so innocent. It is the demand not of the masses of people of the African and Asian nations, but of their elites. The developmental aid that comes in on the backs of the recognition of responsibility is used to cushion these elites, and to push projects that invariably hurt the poor and the marginal of these countries. Finally, the politics of apologies push certain populations in the formerly colonized spaces into tight (and dangerous) corners. In the context where some segments blame Goan Catholics for the real and imagined attacks on Hindus during the pre-Republican Portuguese regime, does this politics of apology not further condemn the Goan Catholic?

The field of postcolonial relations is a mine-field. In the case of Portugal, which does not share the history of dominant world powers, the field is even more fraught with dangers. A case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There are for sure however, ways in which we can recognize the sorrows of the past, not ignore them, and then go on to build relations that do not depend on apologies, especially when they involve the creation of further complications in our already troubled world. This route involves recognition of the combination of local and overseas elites in colonial domination. The route involves a refusal to allow any actions that would reinscribe racism and clientalism of formerly colonized States into international relations. The route involves getting on with our lives and not getting caught up in nationalist politics.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 14 Oct 2009)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We’re Brahmins! : The transnational transactions of caste capital

There is a certain segment of readers of this column who believe that it deals too much with caste. For the sake of those readers, I was hoping that my time away from Goa, and in Goa’s former metropole would allow us both to get away from the terrible ‘C’ word. Unfortunately, this was not to be. In a bid to be friendly, a student from one of Portugal’s more ancient universities, told me of a classmate who was also Goan. “He always reminds us that he is a Brahmin” this acquaintance told me with a grin. I rolled my eyes thinking, “Here we go again!”

If we imagine life to be a board-game, then the claims that we make in this game are not mere talk. These claims are in fact strategies, or counters for us to get higher in the game, or retain the position that we have. Flashing the right card at the right time can win us a particular round of the game. Thus we often flash our upper-caste belongings when there is need, through the way we speak, the way we look, our names, etc. This country, as almost any honest person will acknowledge, works along brahmanical lines.

Very often in a game, we are left with counters that seem to have no value. In such a case, we would need to transform the counter into something of greater value. The board-game of life seems to provide such options in certain cases. It is for this reason that Goan Catholics from the upper castes very often flash their belonging to Brahmin or Kshatriya categories when forging their careers or trying to make an impression in the former British-India. What they do is to transcend the peculiarity of being Catholic Brahmin or Chardo and find equivalence by casting their identity along pan-Indian lines.

But Portugal is not India, and while it may help to proclaim one’s upper caste status in India; what purpose does it serve in European Portugal? Proceeding purely on logic, it should serve only to make an oddity of oneself, sticking out like a sore thumb. And yet this student claims, we are told, this status constantly!

Trying to make sense of this puzzle, my mind flew back to a conversation I had had 2 years ago. Referring to Narana Coissoro, a significant Portuguese, a man of Goan descet; the lady I was in conversation with said “Ah Narana Coissoro! He’s a noble isn’t he? A Brahman from Goa”.

Speaking with a Portuguese anthropologist who studies Goa, I confirmed what I was beginning to suspect, the early Portuguese understanding of the Brahmin in Goa was to find equivalence for them in European aristrocracy and nobility. This reading was made possible through the fact that the Brahmin caste in the area around Goa was already in the early 1500’s a dominant caste group with substantial land holding. For the late medieval/ early modern European, control over the land translated into the fact of nobility.

Clearly then the counter of ‘brahmin’ that our friend keeps throwing about is not without some value even in Portugal. ‘Brahmin’ is used to signify social distinction, the fact of being a ‘noble’, a cut above the rest, of being special. Portugal’s long relationship with Goa has clearly then established certain rules in the game, rules that are understood particularly well by the elites there, through which counters in Goa, can be translated and made sense of in Portugal, allowing one to play the game with higher stakes there.

Having made sense of this situation, we can now begin to understand why the claims of expat Indians in non-metropolitan parts of the US make no sense to Anglo-Saxon residents of the US. ‘White’ friends from the US invariably indicate that their Indian friends never fail to point out that they are Brahmin, and confess that they have no idea what it means to be Brahmin. The counter that these upper-caste Indians are seeking to parade before to the others does not have any value without the shared historical bonds, and without out the value of the counter having been acknowledged by the larger collective of elites of the US. Ofcourse it does not stop these expats from continuing to claim their distinctive status back home, and it is possible that as India’s star as a potential ‘super-power’ continues to rise, there will emerge a way for this counter to make some sense in dispersed communities in the US too. The situation in Goa was markedly different though, the Brahmin (across religion) was for a long time a collaborator with the colonial power (indeed, this is a common understanding of the Brahmin in Portugal – the section of people with who they had intimate relations). This equation, specifically located in both time and space, allowed for the counter to continue to have significance in the Luso-Indian world.

An ancient coping mechanism when being in the realm of the unfamiliar is to domesticate it by comparing it to the familiar. The tables were turned on me when the unpleasantly familiar turned up rather innocuously in a Lisbon conversation. But perhaps the experience showed me more than the transnational character of caste, which operates as social capital. This episode also showed us how these two societies for all their differences, may in fact be joined in many more places that we often imagine.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, October 7th 2009)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sand-dunes, Monserrate and You: The story of an aesthetic hijack of our sensibilities

The decision by the CCP to ‘clean’ the sand dunes on the Miramar beach has thankfully been objected to. And it is not as if these objections are merely for the sake of objecting. More than one individual, who clearly know what they are saying, have pointed out that removing the vegetation from the sand dunes will result in their destabilisation, allowing for the sand to be blown away, as has already happened in other parts of Miramar beach.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Atanasio Monserrate has once more been linked with the controversy, resurrecting the possibility of our looking at the issue through the lens of ‘the embodiment of evil’. The ‘embodiment of evil’ however is not a particularly useful lens, since it obscures the larger societal processes at work through the individual who is marked out as evil. What this lens does, is only to create a scapegoat so as to absolve society of the guilt and responsibility of its error. While the sand dune issue may be the result of Mr. Monserrate’s larger urban design project in the Miramar-Caranzalem-Dona Paula stretch, we need to excavate the larger aesthetic reasons for which the CCP and Mr. Monserrate thought of going about the ‘cleaning’ project in the first place. I stress this, because even though Mr. Monserrate is a largely reviled figure, many of his actions, find support and aesthetic approval, not just among the Taleigao under-class, but among the middle classes as well. Understanding the source from which Mr. Monserrate draws his plans, will allow us to understand how much as we may revile Mr. Monserrate, his plans are but the logical result of our collective desires.

The whole idea of the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes is possible only when we look at the natural environment as a garden that can be scaped by human activity. Such a view is not new; people have looked at the natural environment as a garden that they can mould for as long as humankind have been able to use tools. Indeed, scholars tell us that there is in fact nothing ‘natural’ about most of our ‘natural’ environment. Large parts of ‘nature’ are the result of human intervention and their interaction with nature. Not all of this has been necessarily intentional however, a good amount of these impacts being unwitting and unplanned. The problems begin to emerge in the event of two factors being realised. Humankind’s increasing ability to radically change the face of the environment, and secondly when the models for this landscaping are at radical odds with the existing environment.

Making a quick detour let us have a quick look at the urban design Monserrate is systematically laying out on the Miramar beach-face. The whole project is designed to face the ‘natural’ theatre of the mouth of the Mandovi river framed by the Cabo Raj Nivas and the Aguada Fort and the Miramar beach. This ‘picture’ is to be viewed in different ways. From the windows of four-wheeler vehicles zipping along what is effectively a highway; from the pedestrian paths and benches that have been placed on the side of this road; and from the exclusive villas and apartments that have been given permission to rise alongside the road. There can be no doubt that this whole project attempts to articulate an urban design that is appealing to most ‘cultured’ people. No matter how idealistic this project maybe however, there is a problem with it. The problem is that it is entirely the product of an imagination fed by the images from Hollywood, American TV dramas and notions of the West.

These televisual worlds are not ‘real’ worlds, in the sense that they exist nowhere. They are the product of careful editing, so that any object that would disrupt the lyrical beauty of the image is clipped out. Thus in these televisual worlds, we have gardens with lush green lawns, carefully trimmed hedges, white picket fences, sandy dunes, interspersed with a few dry wisps of grass leading to the sea, people who work in immaculate clothes, and people who never really sweat. The impact of continuous viewing is that we assume them to be real, and then try to scape the world around us accordingly.

To emphasise my point that it is not only Monserrate who is the victim of this imagination, let us look at most of the traffic islands and attempts at road beautification in the State or across the country. In a climate where we need shade, and ought to plant trees, we systematically plant either lawns or other water-guzzling flowering plants. We only have to look at cases where governments have tried to beautify a location, and we see evidence of how the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden has colonised our consciousness. It is because the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden is inside our heads, that we constantly see Panchayat and Muncipality workers constantly engaged in ‘weeding’ large expanses of public property. Around my home, every year after the monsoon, the Panchayat systematically cuts down a ‘boram’ tree that has struggled to grow the previous year. Obsessed with ‘weeding’, the Panchayat does not seem to realise that ‘boram’ trees are nature’s way to revive degraded lands. In this case the barren terrain of the Taleigão plateau, destroyed by two decades of real estate development. What is clear from the reasons that CCP has provided about the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes, is that what they are attempting is a weeding of the dunes; replacing bad vegetation, with ‘good’ vegetation. Whether they originally intended this replacement or not is immaterial. What is important is that they were able to provide this reason for their action, indicating the popular legitimacy that the ‘Western garden’ model has for public landscaping.

While there are definitely problems with Monserrate’s vision therefore, we have to give him full marks for trying, and recognise also that what he is attempting to do is within a popular notion of what a civilised and cultured location ought to be. The problem then is not Monserrate’s alone; the problem is a social one, almost universally shared by all of us.

If there is to be a more sustainable saving of Miramar’s sand dunes, or of our landscape, then what we need to engage in is a weeding-out of the notion of the televisual environment, and with it the primacy as a model that the Western domestic garden has achieved. We have to realise that nothing actually lives on TV, the televisual life is a mirage, aspired for but never attained. As for the Western domestic garden, it was the product of a definite class, in a definite time and a definite environment. Riding on the tails of Western imperialism, it has now been transplanted across locations, with great success but often at great cost to the local environment. What we need is to educate ourselves in being able to see (beauty) differently.

As the lyrics of that popular track go, ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow!’

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 30 Sept 2009)