Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Kunbi Devi and a Secular Republic: Learnings from the Peoples’ Tribunal – III

At the concluding ceremony of the Peoples’ Tribunal, like all grateful organizers, GAKUVED presented the members of the jury and the expert panel with mementos. In this case, a classically-styled image of the Goddess Bhagvati Chimbelkarin as Mahishasura Mardini. That single moment threw into sharp focus the possible options that GAKUVED – the organizers of the Tribunal- have before them in their continuing quest for justice for Goa’s tribal people.

The presentation of the image of the Goddess was hugely problematic not only because it was the image of a Hindu goddess being presented to people who don’t necessarily share that faith. The first problem with the image of the goddess was her representation as Durga Mahishasura Mardini. As Durga, the demon slayer, what GAKUVED presented us was the image of a brahmanical goddess, killing the demon in the shape of buffalo. A number of Dalit activists, and other scholars have often pointed out that brahmanical myths operate to justify the subjugation of non-brahmanical groups, represented in these stories as asuras and demons. This story should be familiar to the organizers of GAKUVED who see the brahmanical myth of the advent of Parashuram as the story of their enslavement by brahmanical groups; an enslavement that eventually left them without control over land or their temples. It is for this reason that the presentation of a Brahmanical image of the Goddess was surprising and even troubling.

The brahmanical representation of the Goddess, as fair-skinned, tall and supple, with sharp northern (Aryan!) features is just one of many ways to represent the Goddess. A scholar friend who was researching the temples in the New Conquests, once recounted the visit of the Goddess to her in a dream. Not one to dismiss such visitations as nonsense, I asked her what the Goddess looked like, having in my own mind, the image of a fair, light-eyed woman, decked in gold and green. Imagine my surprise when with the deepest of conviction this researcher should indicate that the Goddess had appeared as a Kunbi woman!

This appearance of the Goddess in this form should not startle us, since it was the Kunbis who first discovered and recognized the presence of the Goddess in our lands. The original rocks and ant-hills, that were the primal mark of her presence, were worshipped for long without the brahmanical imagery that we today associate with her. In fact, this brahmanical imagery exists in a very interesting manner to the actual object that is held to be the deity. The images of the deities that we see today, are only coverings (masks) placed over the objects held to be the deity. These objects are either rough, misshapen rocks or ant-hills. The brahmanical decorations therefore, reject this original appearance, mask it, and present their own image as the acceptable image of the Goddess. At multiple levels therefore, the brahmanical image is a rejection of the tribal element of Goan culture and the tribal roots of our Goan-Hindu deities.

GAKUVED would do well to recognize this fact, and realize that the liberation of the servitude that Goan tribals find themselves hinges also on the creation of a counter-culture and an aesthetic that shuns the brahmanical and privileges the non-brahmanical. On receiving the image of the Goddess I inquired from a friend, why they would think that the image of Durga was appropriate as a memento. He explained to me that Chimbel was an area that was reputed to have the largest number of tribals and hence they were presenting an image of Bhagwati Chimbelkarin. Even more so therefore, the need for an image of the Goddess as a kunbi woman. To fashion the Goddess in this manner, would unleash a huge amount of self-respect within the community.

GAKUVED would also do well to take a leaf out of the history of the Bahujan samaj both in Goa and Maharashtra. By not challenging Brahmanism itself, but only fighting the Brahmins, they continue to be caught in the brahmanical trap, unable to get the respect they originally started out for, on the contrary, getting trapped as the foot-soldiers of Hindutva’s attack against the minorities of this country.

On this note, we can see how the presentation of the image of the Goddess (and use of other paraphernalia such as the ‘traditional lamp’ at the inauguration) stands to divide the tribal population of Goa, rather than unite them. Goa’s tribal population includes Catholics, and both groups would do well to combine to fight for their rights together rather than separately. The use of religious symbols however definitely acts as a deterrent to this unity.

Brahmanical seduction is however not the only barrier to tribal unity in Goa; the law does it fair share too, pointing to the brahmanical bias of the Indian state. GAKUVED is the association of Gawdas (GA), Kunbis (Ku), Velips (VE) and Dhangars (D). These groups stand to benefit from their mobilization, primarily because they are recognized by the State as Scheduled Tribes. This privilege is available only to Hindus, the non-Hindus among the tribals unable to benefit from State recognition. Until such time as this State-incentive to not renounce Hinduism is removed, it is difficult to see a collaborative demand for the correction of the systemic injustices that the tribal segments of our population encounter. Given that we work in a system where numbers count, it stands to reason that until such a time as tribals from all faiths come together, their demand will be that much easier to dismiss.

This legal obstacle toward the unity of the tribal demand, is one more evidence of the manner in which both State and society in India conspire to consolidate the existence of a Hindu community in brahmanical mould. Starting the Tribunal with the lighting of the lamp, and ending it with the presentation of an image of the Goddess, created the tribunal of a Hindu movement. Unless GAKUVED reflects carefully on the manner in which it mobilizes, it risks becoming the unwitting foot-soldier for the Hindutva movement. The challenging of Hindutva does not necessarily mean a conversion to Islam, Catholicism, or Buddhism. Neither should it be assumed to be a call to secular atheism. On the contrary, all that it calls for is a conscious articulation of a tribal identity that throws off the Brahmanical mask that stifles it. Recast the image of the Goddess as a Kunbi woman. Discard the brahmanical rituals that are seen as the only possible ritual. Rediscover, reinvent even, rituals and a religiosity that comes directly from the tribal experience. Babasaheb Ambedkar pointed out that “For a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights”. Such a thorough conviction of justice and the necessity and importance of political and social rights, would ensure that GAKUVED fights for the rights not only of those who have been recognized as Scheduled Tribes by the State, but also for the recognition of those who the State unjustifiably prevents from obtaining rights that they ought to have.

I wish you luck and strength my friends.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 1t July 2009)

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