Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Social-engineering and Re-education camps: Preparing the killing-fields in Goa

The way anti-national elements within the country are cropping up, there is need for re-nationalisation’.

My blood curdled when I read these words, reportedly made by a prominent Goan at the ceremony in the town of Vasco-da-Gama held to purify the waters of the Arabian Sea. The sea had apparently been polluted by the presence of the Portuguese naval ship Sagres. The gentleman in question is used to a somewhat bombastic turn of phrase, and perhaps his own social location (‘upper’-caste and Hindu) blinded him to the connections that other persons not so comfortably located (‘lower’ caste and non-Hindu) make when they hear such phrases. Let us contemplate for a moment then, the analogies that could be made to similar statements from history and their contexts.

Take as a first example the Chinese experience of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in his effort to regain power over Communist China. In his attempt to maintain hegemony over the country and remain in power Mao insinuated that the revolution was being infiltrated by liberal bourgeois elements that would threaten the recent successes of the communist revolution in China. In the turmoil that followed this move for power, large numbers of persons were sent for re-education. This process of ‘re-education’ included the exiling of persons to distant parts of China where they were engaged in hard labour, and publicly humiliated, submitted to torture and public lynching, sometimes killed. The Cultural Revolution was an unsafe period in China where persons who were skilled above the average were targeted by the mob, where personal vendettas were carried out justified by the ideological language of the revolution, and where minority groups were forced into assimilation programs. Thousands were killed, maimed or their life-chances destroyed as a result of the Cultural Revolution that insisted, as was insisted in Vasco, that there was a threat to the country and a need for re-education.

A second example, once more from Asia is that of the Khmer Rouge. Originally inspired by communism, the Khmer Rouge sought to create a nationally appropriate form of the ideology for Cambodia and create an agrarian utopia. The result of this was a project of social engineering which unfortunately, and not unsurprisingly, turned into one of the worst genocides in human history. About two million Cambodians are estimated to have died in the in waves of murder, torture, and starvation, aimed particularly at the educated and intellectual elite, but included other groups – including ethnic and religious minorities - as well. As was suggested in Vasco, re-education was attempted by the Khmer regime, that like in China subjected persons deemed to be against the regime, to hard labour, humiliation, torture and death.

The Cultural Revolution and the regime of the Khmer Rouge are just two of the horrific examples from Asia. In both cases dominant groups within the country subjected vast numbers of innocent persons to torture and death for failing to meet the national ideal as articulated by these groups. These groups were those groups that could not, according to the logic of the dominant, be re-educated. All horrific experiments like the two presented for contemplation begin with innocent ideas and grandiose statements like those made in the town of Vasco-da-Gama. It is for this reason that we should not brush this episode under the carpet but take it very seriously indeed.

India is no stranger to experiences like those in China or Cambodia. The Muslim populations of India have been subject to such experiments as well. One does not have to look far, but only toward the experience of Gujarat, where Gujarati Muslims were demonized over a long period of time. As a result when the proper environment was created it was possible to kill them in the thousands since they were no longer seen as human beings, but as enemies of the State and society. We all know of the days in the early 80’s and before when Muslims were seen as being unpatriotic for allegedly celebrating when Pakistan won cricket matches. How innocent that Indian nationalist annoyance seems today when compared with the violent killing of Muslims that took place in Gujarat in 2002.

The statement made in Vasco-da-Gama belongs to the kind of imagination that converted Modi’s Gujarat, Mao’s China and the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia into a horrific examples of human savagery. What was scary about the sea-purification episode in Vasco-da-Gama was that it targeted not only the Portuguese, but local Goan Catholics as well. It put the Goan Catholic who may culturally identify with some aspects Portuguese, on the same level as the Kashmiri who demands Azaadi, or the Indian Muslim who is deemed to be rooting for Pakistan. This is a matter of concern that we should not take lightly. It is only a troubling portent of darker times to come.

(A version of this blog entry was first published in the Gomantak Times 29 Dec 2010)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Taking photos: The visual archiving of Goa and its challenges

For sometime now, there have been a number of Goans engaged in documenting our state visually. Two of these photographers are, the USA based Rajan Parrikar, and the anonymous JoeGoaUK. The impression that one gets is that this visual archiving of our state is motivated by the not-unfounded-fear that the Goa that they (and we) knew, is fast fading into oblivion. For this archiving, future generations of Goans, and no doubt others as well, will be grateful.

In embarking on this project however, these people have embarked on an ethnographic project. As basketfuls of anthropologists have indicated in debates within this academic discipline, the ethnographic project is not without its problems. For example, what is the gaze, or view, that one adopts when documenting? For a space like Goa that has been, for at least fifty years now, ceaselessly pictured as a tourist paradise, is there a way in which we can see the non-touristic side of Goa? Goa’s representation has thus far been equally (but silently) dominated by ‘upper’-caste visions, is there space for the representation of Goa by marginal groups?

Thus while there is much that is being archived and documented, there is equally much more that is not. And this gap is significant. It represents that which the archivists do not see, or consider trivial or not important enough to document. Despite this gap, it is from what is captured that a reality is constructed. Indeed, scholars such as Nicholas Dirks make an important argument about the ethnographic project. They point out that the British launched this project as they sought to understand the general features of the subcontinent they were beginning to administer. In the process, they froze certain aspects of society and made these permanent features of ‘Indian’ society. An example of this would be the images that we often come across depicted ‘A Hindu holy Man’, ‘a banian merchant’ and such like. These images further depicted these people engaged in their ‘traditional task’. Thus images that were representative of a particular time and circumstance were frozen to become the ‘traditional’ image of the subcontinent and the various groups that these images became representative of.

A similar process underway inspired this column. Another Goan interested in documenting his homeland put up images of his project and lent captions to these images, very much in the style of the colonial anthropologist- ethnographer. The caption that caught my eye was one that read ‘Bamboo weaver - Paitona’. What was remarkable was the similarity of this caption to colonial era ethnographies that similarly described these images. What were missing were details that could give us an insight into this particular basket weaver. His name, his age, perhaps a story that drove home the point that this ‘basket weaver’ was an individual with his own history and story to share. To be sure the mere presentation of this data may not suffice to do justice to this man, but perhaps it would mitigate the possibility of his being captured for posterity with out the dignity of a name and his own personal story.

The need to give dignity is an issue of importance because of the context of the image. Goa apparently had a rather rich tradition of weaving baskets of various shapes and sizes that is now almost extinct. The reason for this was that as soon as they could, the Mahar community that engaged in this weaving gave up a practice that marked them as untouchable and brought them no respect. From within Goa one hears stories of these basket-weavers who were not allowed to come up to the house to deliver the basket, they had to throw the basket so as not to pollute the ‘upper’ caste home. The ‘upper’-caste Goan is largely clueless to this history, and mourns only the loss of the basket-weaving tradition. The weaver is largely, unimportant. Perhaps it was this entire background that I read into that little caption that innocently contextualized the image.

It would be unfair to demand that the visual archivists, who are going about a task they clearly love, also engage in collecting the stories and voices of the unheard peoples in Goa. This column seeks only to point to what we are leaving out, and contemplate a situation in which we could possibly amplify the effort of these archivists. Indeed, a contemplation of these issues could allow the same archivists to be sharper and more discerning in their capturing of Goan images.

In the context of these ‘basket-weavers’, their name was unimportant. They had to merely produce and deliver. They were not the individual artisan or artist whose work was celebrated. Perhaps even if we provided only a name for this individual in the image we would take one more step toward a more equal and inclusive Goa. Transform the nameless basket-weaver into an individual, a man who has a name, and who, in addition to the many things he does, is also an artisan, able to weave magic with bamboo.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 15 Dec 2010)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Political systems, journalists and ethics: Anti-democractic tendencies of the face of a democratic nation

This column must begin by acknowledging that perhaps some of the ire directed against Barkha Dutt susbsequent to the release of the ‘Radia tapes’ is unfair. Barkha, as she never fails to point out, is but one of the many journalists, and public figures who have compromised themselves through their conversations with Nira Radia. To focus entirely on Barkha would be to forget about the other significant issues that this scandal has revealed. Nevertheless Brakha Dutt’s responses raise significant issues that are worth probing independently.

First, the force of the backlash against Dutt should be seen as a backhanded compliment. It was only because Barkha actually attempted to, and (sadly) succeeded in representing herself (and NDTV) as the face and voice of the nation, that the shock of the Radia tapes has ricocheted on to her in this manner. As the old saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It is to this monumental significance that NDTV and Barkha Dutt sought to achieve that this column will refer when discussing some of the ethical issues that emerge from this case, and Barkha seems unwilling to address.

This discussion of the issue takes as its focus the interaction engineered by NDTV between the editors of various print media and Barkha Dutt. In this discussion, despite a suggestion from one of the editors that ‘we all make mistakes, one can say sorry and move on’, Barkha seemed to obstinately refuse this possibility. All that she was willing to admit to was, ‘an error of judgment’. This seems like the first steps towards an apology, but the mea (maxima) culpa was significantly absent.

Both Barkha and various persons in support of her have more or less argued that her conversations with Nira Radia constitute the way Delhi works. There are a number of people who want favours in return, and to get the information that one wants, one has to ‘string them along’ even if one will not in fact do so. The suggestion that they make, is that to act as a go-between, to trade favours is not ethical, and hence they refrain from acting in such a manner. Let us concede for the sake of argument that these journalists are in fact sticklers for such ethics. But is one able to keep stringing this person along ad infinitum? And if one is able to do so, what are the ethics regarding the relationship with the person you string along? Are these persons occupiers of significant positions of power, or are they smaller cogs in the larger mechanism, hoping that the trade of these small details will give them the dignity that is otherwise denied to them? Let us not forget that the political mechanism in India (and publicly on display in darbar style in Delhi) is one that is built on an hierarchy of humiliation and material deprivation. Such stringing along then, ultimately amounts to an abusive relationship with people who may be unable to retaliate.

Journalism and journalists occupy a central position in democratic societies because of the belief that they will speak truth to power; that through presentation and discussion of critical issues in the public fora they will maintain the vitality and spiritual purity of the democracy. The practice of democracy then, rests not only on the periodic elections, and the honest functioning of elected officials, but also on the ethical behaviour of the democracy’s journalists. In the case where Nira Radia is a peddler of corporate interests what would be the ethical response of a democratic journalist? The response would rely on the recognition of a number of factors. First, that a democratic polity is in fact constituted to further the interests of ‘the people’. These ‘people’ are not the fictional personalities that private corporations are, but the real people who vote governments and politicians into power. These interests are further not the interests of either the majority or minority, but of the ensuring a uniform and just access to resources to sustain livelihoods. This access is eventually enabled through the sustaining of working democratic systems, where one is not allowed to take short cuts based on who you are, who you know, or on how much money you have.

What is galling about Barkha’s response that ‘this is the way Delhi works’ is that she seems willing to allow the system to work the way it does. She will play the game, since otherwise she would not get any information. This is however not her fault. She is the member of a profit-making organization, and while democracy is good, it cannot be allowed to get in the way of the generation of profits. Its action is not to speak truth to power, but to not get in the way of the functioning of power, and ideally get in bed with it. Indeed, a careful observer of NDTV presentations will indicate how they have continuously flaunted their access to power, whether it is through referring to Union Ministers by first name when conducting interviews, or through their body language that suggests an off-screen camaraderie, or at least the desire for such.

If Barkha were to conform to the ethical position of the democratic journalist, then her ideal response when first propositioned by Radia would have been to respond, ‘I’m sorry Radia, but I think you’re approaching me in this manner is unethical and I would be forced to include such propositions as part of my coverage.’ Matter ended. We are not obliged to always follow the ethical position, because admittedly real life is somewhat more complex than the ideal ethical positions. But the beauty of a legal system (and ethics is a certain kind of legality), is that you are free to ignore the law, but when you get caught, at the very least you acknowledge your mistake, and pay the price for the transgression. Further, an ethical system is never ideal. It is always opposed to the ways of the world. But this gap between reality and the ideal is critical. It is this gap, that allows for the realization of utopia. Without the gap, there would be nothing to challenge the status-quo. And the status-quo, based as it is on power, is always oppressive.

Barkha Dutt fails to show remorse or acknowledge her guilt apart from an ‘error of judgment’. Given that in the interaction with the editors she presented herself as a ‘political journalist’ suggests to us that either her understanding of a democracy is rather shallow, or she is wholly committed to a different form of political arrangement; an oligarchy. A system of democratic values holds no particular significance for her. In addition it forces us to ask the question if both NDTV and Barkha Dutt would prefer to persist in the lie that they dispassionately represent the nation; that their presentation of news and views is not deliberately slanted to favour the oligarchically-inclined class (regardless of the red herring that political party represents) from which they emerge and belong to.

(A version of the post was first published in the Gomantak Times dated 8 Dec 2010)