Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Redundancy of Courage: Reading Goa in Timor

Living in the metropole of your former colonial empire definitely comes with its benefits. For one, like summer holidays at your grandparents, you get to interact with persons from other parts of your colonial family. Like distant cousins who live in a foreign land, one slowly gains intimacy with them, realizing that while placed in different contexts, there are nevertheless similarities that you both share. These similarities at the end of the day are what allow us to bond as family.

It was in just such a context that I came across Timothy Mo’s novel,The Redundancy of Courage’. A friend from Mozambique thrust it affectionately into my hands. ‘Read it’, he said ‘I think you will identify or sympathise with it’. Timothy Mo seems to have a way with describing the small things that are striking about the Portuguese colonial experience’. The Moçambicano was right, Timothy Mo does have a way with describing the Portuguese colonial experience. In fact Mo’s narrative in ‘The Redundancy of Courage’ was so familiar that in many places he could have been speaking about Goa.

‘The Redundancy of Courage’ which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1991 is a novel set in the island of Danu. There is enough in the initial chapters of the novel to indicate to us that Danu is in fact the island state of East Timor. Danu is located on half an island, not too far from Australia, is a Portuguese colonial possession and at the start of its independence from the mother country is invaded by the ‘malai’ who control most of the archipelago of which Danu is part. The ‘malai’ invasion and occupation is genocidal in its thrust and leads to a spirited guerilla resistance. The novel is narrated from the point of view of Adolph Ng, a gay Chinese hotelier in Danu, and follows him as he witnesses the invasion, is forced to host a malai General in his hotel, joins the guerillas in their armed resistance, is captured by the invaders. Subsequently, he works as a domestic slave, until he is finally able to buy his freedom to eventually settle in Brazil.

Adolph is an interesting character to narrate the story from because he is located on numerous margins. To begin with he is gay, though thankfully – and this is credit to Mo- there is no perverse interest in detailing his sexual exploits. Adolph is educated in Canada (in the English speaking world), which allows him a perspective outside of those steeped in Portuguese. Most crucially of all however, in being Chinese he is regarded by the native and mestico Danuese as not really being Danuese. This location should ring true for so many ‘outsiders’ in Goa, who while having known no other home, are very often still cast as being unable to feel the passion that ‘ethnic’ and ‘native’ Goans feel for the land.

The feature in this novel that resounds most in the Goan experience is the manner in which Mo has been able to suggest and capture the small size of the Danuese people. Everyone knows everyone else here. And in the finest of Southern European traditions, every one holds an opinion and almost everyone is a polemicist. This tendency towards polemics does not allow for a peaceful transition to independence however, since these polemical battles, lead also to a brief civil war. In an observation that should echo in Goa too, Mo has Ng observe that the while it appeared that the battles – both polemical and otherwise - were the result of ideological positions, in reality, these were merely reflections on older tribal or family feuds.

Perhaps the finest feature of Mo’s novel however, is the manner in which he has captured a type of character that almost all of us in Goa are familiar with. To lend flesh to this character Mo creates Martinho Osvaldo. Martinho used to be a seminarian, but didn’t ordain as a priest. Not a priest, he nevertheless retains a manner which allows him to pontificate, indulge in the world and yet act as if uninterested by it. There was a time in Goa, when the seminary provided one with a decent education and an opportunity for upward mobility. Not everyone who enrolled in the seminary went on to become a priest, and today Goa is littered with remnants of that age, men who masquerade as priests, sanctimoniously preaching rather than engaging. Indeed, as I read the novel, I configured Martinho to look like one of the activists in the Save Goa movement. Veering to the political left like Martinho did, this man too is not above invoking fire and brimstone as he coaxes people to tow his political line!

In the context where there is much social tension in Goa, tensions that are defined not only by the current socio-economic conditions in Goa, but are influenced also by our past as a Portuguese territory, ‘The Redundancy of Courage’ is definitely a book that should be on the reading list of all Goans. Possibly, with the reading of this book we will be able to walk away from the tired clichés with which we think about Portuguese colonialism and identity in Goa. The impact of Portuguese colonialism has impacted all of us through the fact of our being small societies markedly different from the others around us. This difference stems not from our knowledge of the Portuguese language, not from the food we eat, or the dress we wear. Least of all because of the religion we espouse. It has impacted on us, because of the kind of the late industrialism that preserved the cozy (sometimes too cozy) feel of our societies. It has impacted on us for the kind of polemical politics we are given to. One could go on, but it would perhaps be more fun to read the book!

(With thanks to Luis Rafael for the gift of this book)

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 28 April 2010)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Separate States and Self-determination: Learning from the Telangana struggle

A week ago the Deccan Chronicle published a statement by the famed activist Kacha Iliah. The statement was a response to a demonstration that had been held outside Illiah’s house by students who are pro-Telangana. These students opposed Illiah’s support of the demand of tribal activists in current Andhra Pradesh for Manya Seema, a separate State of their own. Iliah reports that ‘Most of the upper caste Telangana leaders were of the view that those who live in the region should support Telangana and no other issue of caste, tribe, gender or exploitation should figure in the debate in any form’. The Telangana agitators, he argues ‘seem to think that whatever their position, the tribals should not raise their problems now. If they raise such issues now, the separate Telangana process would be hindered. Similarly, if the minorities or exploited castes raise the question of their status in Telangana state, the process would be hindered’.

This debate is an interesting one for a number of reasons, not least because there is an echo here from the observations of activists demanding the recognition of the Roman script for Konkani. In my conversations with them, they too recollected that at the height of the Konkani language agitation, the details of script was never discussed, but left for another time. The activists recollect that they were told not to worry, that their interests (i.e. that of Roman script users) would be taken care of. Subsequently when they raise the issue, the old fear of merger into Maharashtra is raised. This column is not about the Romi–script demand however.

Reading the text of Iliah’s response, it occurred to me, that for reasons that will become evident, we should perhaps see the demands for Telangana and Manya Seema as self-determination movements. These movements may use sub-nationalist languages, and continue within the framework of the Indian nation-state, but they are in fact demands the recognition of their difference from the larger group within which they find themselves lumped. We should not be surprised to realize that there is an overlap between the contours of the demand for Telangana and of the boundaries of the Nizam’s provinces. There is a similar mulki movement, in the portion of the Nizam’s domains that are now subsumed within Karnataka. Similarly, as was the case with Jharkhand, Manya Seema seems to draw from cries of non-representation of tribal interests and their persecution within the non-tribal polity. Anti-colonial self-determination movements made similar demands; for democratic representation within political formations that undermined local (i.e. national interests) for the interests of the metropolitan centre. Nationalist self-determination movements assert cultural differences that cannot be sustained in the current political arrangement. We should bear in mind that most successful nationalist self-determination movements began within the framework of the colonial legal system, and were radicalized only when rebuffed by the colonial State. Why should we therefore, see Telangana and Manya Seema differently?

Allow me to confess support for the Telangana movement. From within the alleyways of my twisted imagination I see it as the right, and perhaps natural response, of the former Nizam’s provinces to articulate their difference from coastal Andhra. Merely speaking the same language does not guarantee a similarity of interests. There is such a thing as a different political history that counts as well. Clearly there is a subtext to my expression of support. As Goan, I speak from a similar context where a subject population was dragged willy-nilly into the Indian Union. And yet, despite this support, one can have no sympathy for the Telangana activists’ opposition to the tribal demand.

It is typical of self-determination movements, to deny or delay the demands of the weaker. This has been the standard ploy of most citizenship movements, starting with the French Revolution. This column referred a couple of weeks ago to the Haitian revolution that sprung from a refusal of the French metropolitans to recognize that the Rights of Man applied to slaves as well. For a long time, women too were not deemed to be able to benefit from these Rights of ‘Man’. In the light of the colonial empires’ careful distinctions between citizens and subject populations; nationalist freedom struggles for self-determination were a part of this demand to extend citizenship rights to the elites of the colonial world. Thus the demands that we see popping up in various parts of India, are not aberrations, but continuations of the logic of citizenship. As they continue this logic, they continue also the exclusions of the original understanding of citizenship, where the demand is made in the name of all, but restricted to but a few.

In light of the playing out of this logic therefore, there seems to be matter here for us to realize that while the demand is something we can sympathize with, the real solution to the problem does not lie with self-determination movements.

And yet, as a friend pointed out however, are there ‘real solutions’ anywhere? We invariably have to settle for ‘precarious consensus’ in the sphere of the political. The fact is that eventually, these ‘precarious consensus’ will break down, as any such consensus does. The resulting chaos (or fitna if you will) will result in new articulations of suffering, victimhood and disadvantage, leading to a deepening of democracy. Indeed, one can thus see the Indian ‘police action’ in Hyderabad as necessary to get rid of the feudal rule of the Nizam, and the subsequent Telangana movement as necessary to get rid of Andhra dominance, and the tribal demand as necessary to a broader realization of democracy in the region.

The above is a pragmatic response and I am not saying that we (especially those of us who see merit in the tribal demand) should abandon the route of demand for a separate state. As long as independent nation-states are the basis of the articulation of the international order, such a route is inevitable, and indeed necessary. However, if we hold some cynicism as regards the success of the separate State solution, even as we fight for it, we might be better served.

Thus we can continue to support the separate state of Telangana, and articulate a demand of Manya Seema, hopefully resulting in an amelioration of the lives of the tribals in this process. But we should disabuse ourselves of any hope of a final solution in a separate state.

(A version of the article was first published in the Gomantak Times, 7 April 2010)