Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wheat from Chaff II – An eye for an eye, but no teeth please.

A fortnight ago this column strayed from its usual path of picking on Hindu right-wingers to focus on the Catholic bigot. The varied responses to that column justified the decision to take up the issue of the Catholic bigot. Rich and varied have been the response, some supportive, indicating that it was something that needed to be said, some sympathetic pointing out that the Goan Catholic elite are a group that history has left behind, while others were frankly piqued and peeved. It is the last that are perhaps most instructive and useful to construct a counter.

Before moving on to these piques though, it should be pointed out that the earlier column was not about the Goan Catholics, nor about the Goan Catholic elite. It was more specifically about the bigots that populate both these groups. A supportive response rightly highlighted that while the column provided ‘picture of a part, or even a good part of this elite…there was another relevant part (of the Goan Catholic elite) that was anti-Salazarist, active or quietly, and that though even professionally dependent on colonial rule had the courage not to compromise with it.’ To be sure there were these brave persons, whose examples we cannot and must not forget. Indeed, these women and men are the examples we need to hold aloft. However it needs to be pointed out that the bigotry of the Catholic elite was not merely tied to Salazar. Salazar was only one facet of a larger problem that colonial values created in Goa. In contemporary Portugal Salazar is conveniently made a bogeyman for all things bad, so that to stone him allows contemporary Portuguese to self-exculpate themselves from post-colonial faux pas completely. To brutally paraphrase the Urdu poet Faiz, there are greater evils in the Lusofone world than Salazar.

This defense of the past column to affirm that it was not calling all Goan Catholics bigots stems from the fact that the largest piques resulted from this particular misreading. These posts inquired why the column was ‘baying for the blood’ of ‘Goan Catholics in Goa (who) today are a shrinking minority. Jason can get around and finish the job he has set out by crucifying the remaining.’ This is a somewhat bizarre response since a shrewd appraisal of the situation would point out that when a community can identify its bigots, and effectively deal with them, it creates the space to protect the larger community from external attack. This response was indicative of the manner in which the sense of persecution or marginalization (the fact of which this column has consistently argued for) contributes to an inability to introspect and address problems within. It is in this sense then that Hindutva (or any other majoritarianism for that matter) prevents minority groups from addressing issues of inequality and injustice within it. When pushed to the wall, the dominant groups within a minority invariably manage to suffocate internal challenges to the status-quo. Thus the critique of a bigoted mindset among Catholics was castigated as a challenge both to Goa and to Catholics itself. As argued in the earlier column, given the representational dominance of the elite, it is elite representations of Catholic Goan-ness that get frozen as the representative of an entire community. It was also within elite Goan Catholic contexts, that this peculiar brand of bigotry was produced. To this extent then Catholic bigots (like bigots in any group) are not harmless but act as foils for majoritarian attack, and also work together with this right to undermine the non-dominant groups within their fold.

There is also a need for us to challenge notions of a homogeneous and unified Catholic community. Just as there is no single Hindu community, but a Hindu community fractured by region, caste and class; just as the Indian Muslim is a fictitious character, similarly the ‘Goan Catholic’ too is a largely fictitious entity. This is not to deny that there are factors and features that bind different groups together as Catholics and Goans. This is merely to point that this unity is not total. It is fractured by the existence of caste, class, region and goodness knows how many other factors. The last column was castigated for dragging caste unnecessarily into the issue. This was surprising given the last column argued that Catholic bigotry was not restricted to a class or class, but can be, and is present, among all groups. I would like to extract two comments here. The first, ‘I am a sudra fighting for the Goan cause.’ And a second, ‘Not sure which Bamon rubbed Jason Keith Fernandes on the wrong side for him to paint all Goan Catholics with his dirty muck calling them bigots!’ These comments tell us that there is more to caste among Catholics than we care to admit. Both these comments assume the blemish-free nature of Sudras and non-brahmins, and assume that it is always Brahmins or Bamons who are trouble-makers. This column has time and again argued that Brahmins do not hold a monopoly on brahmanical thinking. However, given that the brahmanical frameworks work to their advantage, like other dominant castes, they have a tendency towards it.

Speaking of bigotry among Goan Catholics is important because their bigotry often masquerades as a call to ‘Save Goa’. It prevents any opportunity for internal debate as they present the Hindu right as a far greater threat and call for ‘unity’ in the face of this attack. In both cases there is a reason to fight, both for Goa, as well as Christian security in India and in Goa. But we should not allow the bigots to colour our choices and strategies. These bigots would not have us work with other minority groups or create a genuinely democratic politics. Thus in Goa, they would have us spurn choices to align with the cause of Muslim persecution in Goa, or to work with Dalit and tribal causes in both Goa and other parts of India. They will not contemplate the possibility that Goa's emigration/migration problems could perhaps be partially addressed through better and respectful labour conditions. The bigot would have us believe in our superiority merely because we are Catholic and embody (forgotten) Portuguese values. Indeed they would use discontent with the present to produce an idyllic and blemish-free Portuguese past, which indeed it was not. The bigot would have us confuse uniformity (of opinion) for unity. And in these embattled times, this is no option at all.

(P.S. The reference to 'Save Goa' is not a reference to the 'Save Goa Movement' that existed fas a coalition of groups or a brief moment in recent Goan history)

(A version was first published in the Gomantak Times 19 Jan 2010)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The African in Goa: Village Goa beyond the Gãocaria

Every month the Xavier Centre in Porvorim hosts History Hour, a platform for local (national and international) scholars to discuss their works. In doing so it provides happy stimulation for a diverse audience. Last Friday the Centre played host to the release of Beyond the Beach: The Village of Arossim, Goa, in Historical Perspective. The work of Dr. Themistocles D’Silva, the book is a history of the village of Arossim from which Dr. D’Silva hails from.

The work is clearly a labour of love from one of its native sons, perhaps born from the nostalgia that émigré sons feel for their motherland. Dr. D’Silva’s work however also continues a longer tradition, that initiated by his father, Justino da Silva. Justino da Silva, was an archivist of village history, having laboured over the genealogical charts of the prominent families of the village. In his presentation of the work at the Xavier Centre, Dr. D’Silva pointed out that he hoped that his book did not remain an isolated work. On the contrary, he pointed out that there was a need for greater numbers of us to put into writing the histories of our villages, increasing the documentation on the rich histories of Goa beyond the beach. Such histories also go beyond the Goan histories obsessed with the sixteenth century and the Portuguese governance of the territory. Indeed, in the course of the presentation Dr. D’Silva pointed to the urgency of the task given that many of the older generation and their memories are passing away, and that private archives fall victim to the ravages of insects and weather. On this front perhaps Dr. D’Silva was being kind to the custodians of these archives. Though Goan society has produced a number of luminaries, the same intellectual drive that powered these luminaries is not necessarily passed on to the next generation. Many archives have no doubt been discarded into dust heaps and kitchen back-yard fires.

What is most interesting in this book, is that Dr. D’Silva has written it by combining the various influences that have moulded him as an individual. In doing so, he brings to the fore a central problem in the manner in which we think about the Goan village, and thus Goan identity.

A member of the village elite of Arossim, his book locates the village gãocaria (or Comunidade) as one of the points of departure for his narrative. This is not entirely out of place; the Comunidade was a powerful institution in our history and to speak of a village history without delving into the history of the Comunidade would produce a dull, incomplete history. However to speak of the village from the point of view of the Comunidade alone does not exhaust the history of the Goan villages, since there were (and are) a number of people who while living in the village, were not gãocars of the village. What would the history of the Goan village look like if we were to write a village history from their point of view? The threads that Dr. D’Silva draws out gives us a hint into this possibility.

Dr. D’Silva points out in his book a fact that has by and large been left unsaid and unspoken in the public sphere about the Goan village. This fact is of the presence of African slaves within our village communities. The few voices that do mention the presence of the African are Dr. Savia Viegas, Adv. Valmiki Faleiro, and Margaret Mascarenhas in her novel Skin. While speaking of the presence of the African slave in Goa, Dr. D’Silva manages to point out to us that the Goan village was not an idyllic, happy setting for all. These slaves were ill-treated sufficiently to make them want to escape. And escape they did, into the jungles of British-India where slavery was abolished much earlier than it was in Portuguese-India. Dr. D’Silva made reference to the fact that the failure of their master’s to provide a nutritious diet to the slaves forced the latter to poach for fish from the village ponds at night. He also pointed to the fact that these African slaves and their descendants lived at the edges of the villages, pointing to their social marginalization.

When we speak of the African slave’s presence in Goa’s villages, we must recognize that their descendants married local men and women, or if they did not marry, in any case produced babies with local persons. This gives to a good amount of Goans, a history different from those of the gãocars – who in any case could not have been a majority of the population. When speaking of the Comunidade we often create – as did Dr. D’Silva - for the Goan, a Hindu pre-history. If we recognize the presence of the African’s as a part of the Goan village – by not being obsessed with gãocarial histories – we create a Goan with an African history. And what a different, richer and more exciting history that would lead us to!

The entire row over a proposed mosque close to the site of the former World Trade Centre resulted, among other things, in a couple of discoveries about US History. It was pointed out that by virtue of the presence of African slaves in early USA and the site of New Amsterdam (subsequently New York city), early American history includes the history of peoples who professed an Islamic faith. True many African slaves were baptized when they were brought to Goa, but as the Hindu-past obsessed histories tell us, mere baptism does not drive away former influences. In addition to these African slaves, Adv. Valmiki Faleiro has pointed out the presence of Chinese labourers (who worked the railway line that passes through Arossim) and of their marriage to local people. In addition, we have the presence in pre-Portuguese Goan history of the many Muslims who converted to Christianity to save their lives and properties.

All of these people contribute to the histories of Goan villages, which we, befuddled by Gandhian idiosyncrasies, often erroneously believe to be where the real Goa resides. To effectively write about these histories, or to even realize that they exist, we need to move beyond the framework of the Comunidade centered histories that we still take as the central focus of our local history writing. While largely within the frames of this traditional perspective, Dr D’Silva was possibly able to move beyond this traditional framework because of the fact that he is not trapped by traditional social-science ways of writing about Goan history. Or the fact that he has clearly spent a good amount of time in and interacted with the politically inclusive trends of thinking about society within the United States.

For his effort we must thank Dr. D’Silva, buy his book, and then go write our own village histories!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 12/ 11/ 2011)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wheat from Chaff: The Catholic Bigot, the Hindu Right and Goan Citizenship

‘Ghar ki murgi dal barabar’ (the gravy of the home-bred chicken tastes like lentil soup) and ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ in addition to the obvious, also seem to capture perfectly a widespread social tendency. Very often we are so bothered with what is going-on on the other side of the fence that we forget to adequately focus on issues that crop up within our ‘own’ backyard. Oftentimes it may seem that I am so caught up with decrying the histrionics of the Hindu Right, both in Goa and elsewhere, that I forget to focus adequately on the Catholic bigot (CB). There was however, no way I could ignore this bigot given a number of emails I have recently been subject to, which seem determined to painfully flesh out every nuance that the CB holds.

Despite the fact that I often time focus on caste and class location as a way of identifying social tendencies, I would like to identify the CB not with caste or class – though these definitely play a role – but with a mindset. Perhaps belonging to the Catholic club allows one to forget one’s social location and think like the bigots, given that these bigots ruled the Goan roost for a long, long time. Thinking like them, who knows we might persuade them and ourselves that we are like them?

At the risk of committing a grave historiographical error, let us locate the origins of the Catholic bigot in the circles of Goa’s colonial Catholic elite. These ladies and gentlemen used Portuguese as a way of distinguishing themselves, not just from the lower orders among the Catholics (who spoke Concanim) but from the ‘Hindus’ as well. The Portuguese language was, as is the case with certain varieties of Konknni, their caste marker. With the rise of Indian nationalism across the border with British-India however, they persuaded themselves to think better of their caste brethren in the Hindu fold. Nevertheless the fact that they were not Catholic or linked to the Portuguese colonial power structure in the same social network ensured that they always thought of their upper-caste cousins across the religious divide as the poorer, less civilized cousin. Indeed, a good amount of the Hindutva animosity that the Goan Catholic has to deal with today is linked to this cultural superciliousness. We should not forget however that the non-elite Goan too suffered from this superciliousness, at the hands of these CBs. Given that these elite groups effectively represented themselves as the paragons of Goan Catholic culture, they wound up giving all Catholics a bad name. A case of pretty houses, but such bad manners!!! This cultural superciliousness however, is one of the significant burdens that a number of Goan Catholics unwittingly carry, even though their own personal histories are not twined with those of those who originated it.

These CBs for the most part loved Tio António Oliveira Salazar. The days he presided over Portugal (and this included Goa) are indeed the glory years in CB imagination. Those were the days, we are told, when ‘we’ had genuine law and order in Goa. Order equaled the oppression of the ‘lower’ social orders and ensured a situation where everyone knew their ‘place’. This is not to say that the CBs were the only one who loved Tio António, but let us leave the colonial Goan Hindu elites alone for now. The problem with social oppression however, is that you are oppressed yourself, even while you oppress other people. Add to this our noxious caste hierarchy and you wind up with an elaborate ladder of social oppression that rests critically on constant humiliation. Thus, it is possible to find a good number of CBs from outside of the absolute top of the social ladder, merely because it was so much fun to spit on someone lower than you and pretend like you were one of those at the top. Nothing, it appears, salves a wound better than the spit you hurl at others.

Another feature of the CB is their self-love of their social backgrounds; their ‘Good’ and ‘old’ families. Their self-understanding is of being cultured, which however is in fact the mere ad nauseum repetition of social traditions of the past, and the display of inherited furniture (and other heirlooms) that keep diminishing with every passing generation. So concerned are they with keeping up appearances, an integral part of a social system based on scorn for the inferior, that innovation is by and large discouraged by the CB. And hence, they continue to churn out provincial Doctors, Engineers and Lawyers, most of who are marked by their singular inability to innovate or engage with new ideas or arguments, wedded as there are to their own blinded and devastatingly outdated ideas.

Given their love for Uncle António Oliveira’s Estado Novo the Indian annexation of Goa was a devastating blow for the CB. Their entire vapid social order of privilege and oppression came crumbling down in an instant. Their anger against the Indian State and post-colonial Goa then is not the anger at the illegality of Indian action, or the Indian State’s bias towards National Hinduism, but the anger that the unjust system that generated their privilege, was shut down. They do not, indeed cannot, recognize that the Indian State’s otherwise illegal and unethical action was in fact ‘Liberation’ to a new social and economic order for thousands of Goans otherwise chaffing under domestic feudal rule.

It is for this reason that the objections that so many of them – both overseas and within Goa – raise to the sabre-rattling of the Hindu Right are so pathetically funny. A particular gentleman sitting in the far reaches of the East comes to mind. A regular Dom Quixote he tilts against every imagined Indian aggression, seeing Nehruvian conspiracy in every little thing. The poor man fails to realize that through his inane babbling he does greater harm to the cause of minorities (and this includes Hindu minorities) faced with the growing might of National Hinduism. Indeed, when the ancients pronounced that it is better to have a clever enemy than a stupid friend, they probably had this Goan Quixote in mind! The problem of the CB with Hindutva (or National Hinduism) is at the end of the day cosmetic. They have a problem with the cultural manifestations of Hindutva, for example the ban on beef, or the restrictions or ban on the consumption of alcohol; but not with the power relationships that Hindutva proposes; namely control of the lower social orders and their service to the dominant castes of India. Little wonder then, that the CB’s of the capital city have often re-elected a representative whose promises often sound like those of the Estado Novo.

There is a genuine problem that most non-dominant caste Indians face in the coming decade. Within Goa this threat manifests itself as the delegitimization of all that is seen as Catholic. There is also a problem that the nature of Goa’s integration into the Indian Union continues to pose for the Goan. Because of the manner in which India is defined as Hindu, being Catholic is a favoured identity choice for many Goans who are not offered many options, or indeed ignored, by the Indian State. However the real danger that they (we?) face, is that given the dominance of the CB in the sphere of cultural representation, in articulating our valid dissent, we may unwittingly choose the route of the Catholic Bigot. This would be a tragedy, because what we would be doing would be to only engage in useless polemics (a favourite pastime of the colonial Goan elite), and lend our muscle power to the definitely anti-democratic social imaginations of the CB.

May God save the Catholic…and grant you a good year!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times on 5 Jan 2011)