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)