Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Crime and Punishment: Punishing Goans, anti-Goans, outsiders; and judging ourselves

A couple of weeks ago, a prominent member of Goan society verbally assaulted and hounded out another individual from the anniversary party of the Times of India (TOI) newspaper. The Goan accused this other person of being ‘anti-Goan’, of selling Goa and manipulating the truth surrounding the irresponsible and illegal operations of an industrial house in the State. Subsequently, this news was then circulated electronically, and the actions of this Goan lauded, as patriotic, and as having rightfully punished the desecrator of our land. For those of you who have your ear pressed to the rumour mill, you already know which incident is being referred to and the names of the persons involved. The rest of you will without doubt soon figure it out. And yet, there is good reason why no name is being mentioned in this column. The identities of those involved don’t matter in this case, what matters was the action that transpired, the public legitimacy that was subsequently accorded to it and most crucially, the kind of society that we would like to form ourselves into in this period of crisis and transformation.

When society is sentencing a criminal, we should bear in mind, that it is not just the criminal who is being judged, but society itself. How this society deals with the offender is an indicator of the morals and values that the society cherishes and holds as sacred and relevant, as ideal for its future generations. What is the problem with the event described above? To begin with, this individual Goan took it upon himself to judge this other person, and then execute the verdict that he had deemed fit. There would perhaps have been no problem if this Goan had decided to cold-shoulder and ignore this ‘anti-Goan’. This would have been an acceptable personal mode of action, of non-cooperation. There would have been no problem had our Goan friend encouraged others to ostracize this individual. Once again, using the power of logic and persuasion, and moral conviction, to increase the space of this non-cooperation. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, for the rest of us, was only the first of the problems. How does this action differ from what precedes a mob-lynching? Not very much it could be argued. Lynchings normally begin this way, one man against an other, one man marked as public enemy and popular justice meted out to this individual marked as the public enemy. The popular approval that this action received is some indication that had this event taken place in the marketplace, or on the street, this ‘anti-Goan’ may in fact have been lynched. He should thank his lucky stars.

On the other hand, our brethren have in fact been engaging in some amount of popular justice, having burned down the home of Mahanand, hounding his wife out of both her marital and natal home. We should bear in mind that Mahanand has merely confessed while in police custody. Such confession is not binding in a court of law, and the man, no matter how heinous his crimes, deserves a chance to be heard in a court of law, with the options for understanding, clemency and mercy that the legal system offer. The more enthusiastic among us however, are already demanding capital punishment for this man. On what basis has this decision been made? Newspaper reports alone? In such case why do we even need the court system?

It is in contemplating this position that we could possibly see the sense in the maxim presented above, When society is sentencing a criminal, we should bear in mind, that it is not just the criminal who is being judged, but society itself.

What is the kind of society that we would like to create at this moment of crisis and transition? Is it a society that is dialogical, based on processes, respectful of life and non-violent? Or is it a society that encourages vigilante actions, where each of us arrogates to ourselves the rights to independently judge our neighbour?

There is much myth making about Goa. That it is a peaceful society, not given to violence. As with many other popular myths about Goa, this too fails to represent Goa accurately. And yet it is also true that Goan society is not marked by the levels of violence we find in other societies. Living in a transitory moment in history however, we have the unique opportunity to determine the kind of society we want for our future generation.

In many parts of the country the institutions of the State have been systematically broken down to allow for an anarchy within which the mighty profit. From the collusion between the political establishment and the business lobby, we know that this is taking place in Goa as well. Yet the criminal justice process still works. In the case of Mahanand and other such episodes, we should exercise restraint and allow the law to take its own course. Principles of natural justice require as much, that both sides be allowed an opportunity to present their case. Humanity requires that we curb our blood thirst, realizing that if it were a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, the whole world would land up being blind and toothless.

In the case of dealing with the violence to our land and the people perpetrating this violence, a social ostracism may not be a bad idea. And yet this cannot be the only option. Too much is made of free will. Most of us also operate within structures of power, and clearly the framework of power in our State is corrupted. If there is any violence to be directed, it should be violence that we force to State to openly direct at us. As of now, it deals out this violence surreptitiously. Let us force this violence out into the open, and then, in full glare of the world, let them be accountable for it. In doing so, we will also be correcting the system. This is the primary need of the hour, and yet one that we constantly fail to address. To fail to do this, even while we ostracize the petty individuals involved in the desecration of our land, is cowardly and duplicitous. The episode at the TOI party indicates as much. TOI has been known to offer Goan properties for sale, a fact that some Goans have had problems with. The venue of the party was the property of a mine-owner. The venue is also rumoured to be a CRZ violation. In such a scenario how do we justify actions of popular justice against a single individual, no matter how distasteful this individual’s actions in fact are?

It is because we are implicated in a corrupt system, because the same system will then go on to judge us, that we must be wary of the kind of system that we are sanctioning through our actions. The ideal action in these times therefore, would be that addressed towards cleaning up the system, and valuing it where it exists in order.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 20 May 2009)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Taking Caste Seriously – III: Caste, Democracy and the ‘Friends of the BJP’

On the 7th of April 2009 the ‘Friends of the BJP’ organized a political meeting in Panjim. The meeting was a part of the electoral campaign for the soon-to-be concluded general election to the Parliament. In their own words, “Friends of BJP is a subset of the educated civil society that is BJP-leaning, and willing to be vocal about it. We are not part of the BJP. We also do not agree with everything the BJP says or does. It is our belief that at this point of time the BJP is the better alternative.”

I was personally, profoundly impressed by the meeting; the location for the meeting, the tech-savvy presentation, the suave speakers from the ‘Friends of the BJP’. The meeting left one with the impression of a dynamic organization brimming with energy and life, promising a better tomorrow for the country.

This was only a preliminary impression however. Sitting down to evaluate the messages sent out from that meeting, I realized that while there was without doubt a dynamism in the organization, it wasn’t a positive dynamism. The dynamism of the ‘Friends’ was the dynamism of a group determined to lead a counter-revolution and recapture the power that it had lost to the democratic processes of this country. If at all the ‘Friends’ appeared dynamic, it is because the only group we have to compare them to, the Congress Party is in all senses dead. It survives purely on the inertia of the past, and the sheer lack of any serious electoral alternative for India’s voting population. The option between the two parties should be compared to the option between two different poisons. One will agree it is not much of an option!

The first thing that strikes one as we read the Manifesto of the ‘Friends’ is their uneasy positioning vis-à-vis the BJP. “We are not part of the BJP. We also do not agree with everything the BJP says or does” but we do believe that “at this point of time the BJP is the better alternative.” What is it that these ‘Friends’ do not agree with? Reading through their website, one does not find a response to this crucial question, except a suggestion at some point that the BJP may not be the ‘Whitest of the parties’. Let me suggest the other reasons that they may have for this uncomfortable distancing even as they seek to propel the BJP into power; the hate speech that proliferates under their shadow, the hate crimes that maim and kill innocents by the thousand in their regimes, the perverse re-writing of Indian history and political culture to create the subcontinent as a land of gentle Hindus now exhausted by the patient hospitality extended to foreigners (read non-Hindus) that parasitically feed off the land. It is because the ‘Friends’ market themselves as members of “educated civil society” that they are unable to defend these actions of the BJP that are an integral part of its agenda. Since no educated person, or member of a civil society can stand for the retrograde positions of the BJP, these members of ‘educated civil society’ must necessarily glide over this aspect, and focus on the apolitical matter of corruption, where in any case the BJP is one among many.

The ‘Friends’ market themselves as members of civil society, but their speech and positions declare them to be anything but constituents of a civil society. To begin with, there is no express rejection of the BJP’s excesses. More importantly there is a constant harping on the fact that their constituency is ‘middle (class) India’, the urban Indian, the ‘educated’ Indian. As we all now know, these three images that they offer are images of ‘upper-caste’ India. What the ‘Friends’ offer us therefore is a ‘casteist’ vision of India, and of course, the BJP is the best alternative to realize this vision, since unlike the Congress, the BJP is frankly open about this agenda.

The ‘Friends’ continuously stress the difference between the superior ‘us’ and the inferior ‘them’. These inferiors are the rural, the uneducated (in English that is) and the non-middle class. The term ‘middle-class’ in India cannot be defined economically, since it is by and large a broad caste location. A clerk barely able to feed her a family of two children would still call herself middle-class. Why is this? It is because if you are upper caste and verging on poverty, you have ‘fallen on bad times’, if you are bahujan-dalit and verge on poverty it is because ‘they are lazy’. This caste equation that they offer, in keeping with the times, can in fact accommodate persons with dalit-bahujan backgrounds. But only if they are able to, on their own effort, overcome the historical barriers that prevent their entry into this club of the urban, middle-class and educated (read English speaking).

It is because the BJP and the ‘Friends’ stresses this coded language of the club, that they appeal to the middle-class constituents of the ‘minority’ groups in India. ‘We are one of you’ is the message that the ‘Friends’ seek to convey, ‘not like those barbarous, unwashed, unlettered natives who abound in the filth of India. It is our duty to educate (read civilize) them and take India forward’. So as to make a point, the bouquets to the guests at this meeting in Panjim, were presented by two Catholics, both middle class, and almost certainly upper-caste. It is for this reason, that all of Catholic Fontainhas votes convincedly for the BJP. This civilizing mission is common to all the upper-caste elements of all religious groups in India, be it Christian, Muslim or Hindu. They all believe in the need for the lower elements to be educated and civilized, failing which, policed.

The ‘Friends’ does not anywhere speak the language of rights. It speaks the language of governance, or what it calls ‘good governance’. As important as governance is, when governance is divorced from rights, as in the case of the ‘Friends’ discourse, it allows for the emergence of autocracy. The discourse of the ‘Friends’ not surprisingly, given their business school backgrounds, is Managerial. Their vision is not one of democratic negotiation and discussion, but of the management of people, to maximize economic production. There was this hungry man, a couple of millennia ago, in the deserts of Judea who cried out in the face of temptation, “Man does not live by bread alone”. That man was right; democracy cannot be reduced to a system that allows us to achieve higher production and consumption. Democracy is about a spiritual ethic that recognizes rights. The ‘Friends’ however would like us to reduce democracy to a managerial system, a system of ‘good governance’ divorced from other civil, cultural and political rights. This is in keeping the upper-caste vision of the BJP and the Friends where it is only the upper-caste, educated, English-speaking urban denizens of the country that know best. One presumes that the rest of us must just shut up.

The Friends of the BJP present a mirage of dynamism. In reality, their vision is regressive and seeks to undo the liberation of people that the Indian democracy has achieved. As in the Puranic story of the churning of the Ocean of milk, the democratic process has unleashed a number of problems. The solution however lies in more democracy, not a casteist oligarchy.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 13th May 2009)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ballot gone Bust: Contemplating the ‘Wasted’ Vote

When on the 23rd of March I informed friends and family that I had voted for the Communist Party of India as my choice of representative in the Lok Sabha, a number took it on themselves to inform me that I had ‘wasted my’ vote. The Communists stood no chance at winning either in Goa, or forming the Government at the Centre. It is to this notion of ‘waste’ that I would like to attend to today. Is voting in an election only about voting for a candidate who is likely to win, or is it about making other statements as well?

At the time when Al Gore stood as the Presidential Candidate for the Democrats against George W. Bush Jr. a number of my friends expressed some amount of anguish that the Green Party insisted on fielding a candidate of their own. Al Gore they believed was as green a President as they would ever get, and fielding a Green Party candidate merely divided the loyalties of those who would otherwise vote for Al Gore. To this general position, another held the opinion that regardless of how green Gore was, it was necessary for the Greens to field a candidate merely to make a statement about the viability and seriousness of the Green Party as an electoral option. I believe I am able to appreciate that position only today, subsequent to this general election in India.

Increasingly I have come to believe that in a democracy one does not vote only to win, and place one’s candidate of choice in Government. One votes also to express one’s choice. This choice may not be a popular one, but it nevertheless needs to be expressed for reasons that I will discuss below. This association of elections with getting one’s party into power we can perhaps trace to two tendencies within our democracy. The first is one where getting one’s work done has come to mean everything. By any means, fair or foul, one must obtain one’s objective. The second is the tendency to assume that coalition politics of the kind we have seen in the last few Parliaments is a problem, and we should move toward a two party system. It is in the expression of support for this shift towards dual party politics, that the full significance of ‘choice’ becomes evident.

The two-party system is, at least in today’s world, no choice at all! Is there a significant difference between the Republican and Democrat Party? Some would argue not really. Is there a difference between the Congress and the BJP? I believe that the choice between the two is a false one, both playing pretty much the same game. These parties (and especially the BJP) welcome a two party system, because coalition politics requires you to balance the interests of the diverse segments of the polity. A two-party system where a single party has a significant majority, allows greater leeway in simply pushing agendas through. A two-party system in fact allows for majoritarianism (the rule of the majority). In India t

oday, by and large democracy has been understood to be majoritarianism. However, democracy is really about securing the rights and interests of the minority groups, a political truth that most of us would rather ignore. The creation of multiple electoral choices is therefore a crucial aspect of rescuing the Indian democracy from the morass into which it seems to be sliding.

Over the past few years, and especially in Goa, we have been encouraged to think that electing representatives to create the government is our sole democratic responsibility. Subsequent to the election, these representatives take over and we need to exercise ourselves only in another five years. This situation has led to the almost oligarchic tyranny that prevails both in Goa and in the rest of India. Voting in this scenario must also be about the active creation of political choices, voting for parties despite their dim chances, because this vote may encourage them to refashion themselves. A ‘wasted’ vote this year, could result in a ‘serious’ option opening up at the next election.

None of these possibilities make sense however, in an environment where ideologies, principles and dreams (all variations of Hope) have perished under the glare of cynicism. The crisis we face today, the same crisis that allows us to consider a vote ‘wasted’, is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. The early secular republics in separating the Church from the State, also set up a spiritual realm for the citizens of the God-absent polity. The Nation was deity in the Republic, and the dreams of liberty, fraternity, equality were its religious creed. Like the religious vision it replaced, Republicanism also believed in a paradise. The only distinction was that this Paradise would be achieved not through the coming of the Deity on earth, but through the political labours of (hu)man. Voting in the elections was therefore just one of the citizen’s many actions towards committing to the realization of Paradise on earth. Citizenship called for (and still does) a total commitment of human endeavour toward the realization of this perfect polity. The election, if only one, was nevertheless an important mystical ritual in the life of the secular Republic. In the glare of the cynical sun of contemporary politics, this vision has all but burned away.

A return to the mystical in politics therefore would not be out of place and the ‘wasted’ vote has a fine tradition to fall back on. One thread in this tradition is that of Nishkama Karma, where the action is performed without the expectation of the fruit of the action. One performs the action merely because it is the right thing to do, not because of the fruit of the action. Another elaborate argument is present by Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical titled Spe Salvi. Spe Salvi presents an argument in favour of Hope, arguing against the cynicism of our times, against the selfish individualism that marks our times and our pursuit of justice. A reading of Spe Salvi, in the context of political action would present to us a scenario where voting for a party most likely to come to power is not an option at all. On the contrary he argues that Hope would ‘give us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in hopeless situations, aware that, as far as the external course of history is concerned, the power of sin will continue to be a terrible presence’. The ‘wasted’ vote then, has also a mystical dimension, where it is a symbol of our commitment to Hope, a refusal to participate in the ‘sin’ of ‘pragmatic’ politics. Where the BJP is marked by ‘sin’, the option for us is not the Congress, marked as it is by similar and other ‘sins’. We are charged with creating the option for choice, even if this means our preferred candidate does not win, and the exercise of this vote will place us in a seemingly hopeless situation. When the ballot is exercised with Hope, and our participation in democracy extends beyond participation in a quinquennial ritual, the ‘wasted’ ballot in fact lays the foundation for the emergence of a stronger democracy in the future.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 6th May 2009)