Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Learnings from the Peoples’ Tribunal: Common Property, Communidades, Temples and Churches

A critique leveled against this column last week, when it entered into the debate on the ‘Political Economy of the Church’ was that it ignored the issue of the lands and properties controlled by the temple committees in the State. It was pointed out, that the temple committee’s in the State are like the Church, also custodians of vast properties, that are effectively held privately, under the ridiculous proposition that they are private temples, and hence in that sense family properties.

To respond to this issue, we need to address a fundamental myth about communal institutions in Goa, be they the Communidades or the Temple Trusts in the State. Since perspective, or the position from which we understand the issue, is also important, let us adopt the perspective of those who are edged out of the whole equation, be it Communidade or Temple; the tribal communities of Goa.

In the course of the recently held Peoples’ Tribunal for the Restoration of Tribal Homelands, the institution of the Communidade emerged as a major location of conflict with regard to the livelihood rights of the tribal groups of Goa. In a large number of cases before the tribunal, it turned out that despite have Portuguese-era documents that attested to their rights in the land, the names of tribals in possession of, and husbanding properties, were not present in the Survey Records dating from the 1960s (that is under the Indian dispensation). In some cases, illiteracy has resulted in some people having no documents at all to prove their presence on the land. The result is that they are by and large unable to avail of any government service related to the land, since they have to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Communidade office. The Communidade in most places (both New Conquests and Old Conquests, and the majority of the stories came from the New Conquests) is run by dominant caste groups, who either dissuade them from pursuing the matter, or tell them to buzz off. In any case, the Communidade officials do not cooperate with the tribals to establish the fact that they have in fact been tenants of the Communidade, and are thus entitled to the rights that come with such a fact. As a result, when these Communidade lands are sold by the Communidade or acquired by the State, the tribal communities who are either wholly or substantially dependent on land have no stake in the process or benefit from the sale.

The case of temple properties is somewhat similar. The temples are claimed as family temples by a handful of upper-caste groups and vast properties cornered by these groups, while the tribals, to whom the deity originally belonged and who tend the properties of the temple, are reduced to persons who are merely tolerated. Once more rights are denied in pretty much the same way as in the case of the Communidades.

How did this situation come to be? The situation it should be noted is universal. In almost every society that makes a transition – through colonialism – to a capitalist society with written rules, the less resourceful groups get pushed out. They get pushed out because the colonizer does not speak with them to ascertain their rights in the whole process. It is the dominant group that represents the working of the social system and the rights of various groups. In this process, they either outrightly exclude marginal groups, or underplay the rights that they had in the working of the system.

In Goa thus far we have been treated to the myth that the communidades are composed of gãocars who are members of the ‘founding families’ of the village. This story should hold as much water in today’s world as the idea of ‘old families’. All families are as old as the other, what we mean when we say ‘old family’ is that the family has been powerful for a long time. Similarly ‘founding families’ are those clans/ caste groups who were dominant in the village at the time. The rest of the village groups, were subservient to these dominant groups, but definitely not without traditional rights. It was these rights that got excluded at the time of the framing of the Foral of Afonso Mexia in the early 1500’s and formed the basis of the Communidade system.

Much later in time, the Portuguese realised the need to regulate the Temples and formulated the Lei de Mazanias. Once more, upper caste groups were able to take control of the process and through relying on the already established myth of ‘founding families’, and the fact that they were literate and able to manipulate records, argue that the temples (and their properties) were family temples.

The release from Portuguese rule should have ideally led to a release from the mistakes of the Portuguese (feudal) past into the socialistic future we were promised. However this was not to be. As mentioned above, the Survey of the 1960’s has in fact made life even more difficult for Goa’s tribal groups, since their Portuguese era land documents, held valid under the Portuguese are no longer recognized by judicial authorities. Even worse, the possibly liberative recognition by the Portuguese State embodied in the Code of the Communidades, that the village lands were not owned by the State, but were the property of the village, was not recognized by the Indian State. Liberation from the point of view of the Goan tribal then, has yet to come.

What is the solution to this problem? Tribal activists argue that the answer lies in the recognition of their right of private property over the lands that they were tenants to, or rely on. My personal position stems from a recognition of the situation that in fact existed prior to the Portuguese arrival, a system that was de facto in place over large parts of Goa, until the capitalist expansion began hardly 3 decades ago. There can be no private ownership of land. Land does not exist to be owned. Land is the property of the village in which every member of the village (gãocar or not) has an equal right to benefit from. Land unused by a family, returns to the village pool, to be re-allotted elsewhere. This is not a utopian system, it exists in the North-east protected under the very same Special Status provisions of the Indian Constitution that are desired by some for Goa.

This argument is NOT an argument against private property. It is an argument in favour of a tendency toward equal access to land, and against the notion of ownership of land, while respecting the right to occupy land. It is also an argument that privileges democratic control over resources (like land) that are already seen as common property.

To return to the issue of the Church and property, we must recognize that the contemporary Church has taken some steps toward democratizing the operation of local Churches, and access to its resources. Caste based confraternities and fabricas have been done away with, at least on paper, and the operation of the local Church opened up to all caste groups. What is required now is to push for these on-paper-reforms to be equitably enforced (without animosity to formerly dominant caste-groups). This is an example that Goan temples riven with inter-caste disputes would do well to adopt.

Under this circumstance, it does not appear as if greater governmental control will resolve anything. What is required is for either effecting changes in governance structure to make the institution more representative of village communities. And subsequently ensure that these institutional changes don’t remain on paper. This task requires a social movement not governmental control. If anything, we know that putting our faith in the government will result in more sale of common property for dubious ‘public purpose’ schemes.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 17th June 2009)

1 comment:

augusto pinto said...

Dear Jason I think your column is very much More nuanced than the last one. Influenced no doubt by a PH.D -less Dotor of sociological significance from the Taleigao Plateau. Good going.