Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Standing for Rights: The demand for English and the ‘Mother tongue’

The events subsequent to spectacular showing at FORCE’s (Forum for Rights of Children's Educations) rally on March 20, present a delightful opportunity for us to reflect on the nuances on Goa’s complex politics.

To begin with, the opponents to this move have raised the predictable bogey of ‘mother tongue’. The attempts by FORCE and related groups and individuals so far has been to respond to these arguments by rather weak formulations. In these formulations, lacking anything more than a superficial understanding of Goa’s linguistic politics, as well as operating as if movements in the rest of India did not matter, they fall over themselves while making statements about Marathi and Konkani, alienating rather than gaining allies. This situation could be resolved by focussing on the real issue here, that of power. Addressing the situation in this manner, will provide them an effective platform to display the mother tongue argument for what it is, a scam.

An essay in a recent issue of the Economic and Political Weekly pointed out that ‘In the case of historically marginalised sub­jects who have been denied their rights, such as Dalits, arguments in favour of Eng­lish as the language of empowerment and emancipation have been around for some time now.’ These pan-Indian movements, most notably Chandra Bhan Prasad’s celebrations of Macaulay’s birthday, and the setting up of the cult of the English Devi, point to the question of power. In which language is power held they ask? The answer is quite clear. Universally, nationally, and locally in Goa, as demonstrated by the publication of the State’s Gazette, power is wielded in English. As groups since British-India’s freedom struggle have realised, access to English is imperative to demand rights that are being denied.

Within Goa, there is another language that holds power; Konkani. This Konkani while masquerading as the popular language of Goa, is not a Konkani (or 'mother tongue') universally spoken or written by all Goans. It is primarily a Konkani spoken by the Sarasawat and its allied castes, and is presented to the rest of the Goans as the pure language that they must all mimic. The model for Goanhood is thus, the Saraswat, and all other local cultural and life-style models are either faulty, or as some would not hesitate to bluntly accuse, anti-national. By this model, despite the suggestion that one can eventually ‘blend in’, one can never be properly 'Goan', until and unless one is Saraswat or part of a similarly aligned caste. The operation of Konkani in Goa therefore, confers supreme power on some (caste groups), and deprives others of power completely.

This latter reason ensured a participation in the March 20 rally that cut across divisions of caste and religion. The demand at the rally was truly unitedly ‘Goan’ in that sense. It is perhaps also for this reason that the Education Minister, Mr. Monserrate, who represents a social group largely excluded from official power, responded positively to the rally’s demand.

The letter written by Fathers Mousinho de Ataide and Jaime Couto to the Archbishop in opposition to this demand however, point to an interesting fact. The leadership of this demand, as evidenced by those who were on the platform on the 20th, are largely Catholic (and I dare hazard a guess and suggest dominant caste/ middle class). FORCE would do well to make its leadership more representative of the forces that support it. This would be the perfect and only way in which it can effectively respond to its critics, gain its objectives and not fall into the Marathi trap that the Konkani lobby regularly lays. In other words, they need to forge alliances with those Hindu bahujan who were clearly present at the meeting and also wish a support for State supported English language education. This alliance can only come about, if the current leadership of FORCE takes the perspective of power seriously. To do so would require them to relook the Konkani-Marathi agitation, and ask the questions that Dr. Oscar Rebello asked us recently, why did almost the entire Bahujan Samaj want to merge with Maharashtra? The answer is that they feared power be firmly established in Brahmin hands. Those unaware of the history of ‘Konkani as mother tongue’ should know that it has largely been a brahmanical history dominated by the socio-political goals of the Saraswat caste. Merely look at the caste origins of those opposing the current demand to understand the value of caste analysis.

Caste analysis would also warn us that those in favour of support for English education need not engage in Saraswat bashing. For, does the opposition to English not include Mrs. Shashikala Kakodkar under the banner of Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch? Caste analysis will point out that support for ‘Indian’ ‘mother-tongues’ is largely the tool of brahmanised castes and groups. Through this tool, they effectively restrict other groups from accessing State power in India. Ms. Kakodkar’s opposition however may largely flow from the internal contradictions of the Maharashtrian Maratha-pride movement that structured the reform experiences of Goa’s bahujan samaj. In Maharashtra the Maratha despised the Brahmin, but sought to become brahmanised themselves. Further, a look at the largely ignored history of Goa’s Portuguese period will point out, as has Rochelle Pinto, that Goa’s Catholic elites, whether Bamon or Chardo, used the brahmanical imagination of the Indian national movement to settle their own scores against the Portuguese and demand autonomy. To do this, they also had to buy the argument that their own cultures were inauthentic, and they gleefully placed the blame for this condition on the Portuguese. In adopting Konkani as their sole mother tongue, not only did they ineffectively attempt to ‘blend in’, but also obscured the fact that the South Asian experience of language does not accommodate narrow 19th century European formulations of ‘mother tongues’. Rhetorical use of the value of Konkani however also served these elite Catholics to keep non-elite Catholics ‘in their place’.

The failure of the attempt to ‘blend in’ is the reason that FORCE has obtained the support of such staunch nationalists and formerly Nagari-Konkani stalwarts as Tomazinho Cardozo and Fr. Pratap Naik. A word of advice to Mr. Cardozo though; Drop this ridiculous argument that the ‘Medium of Instruction’ clause was a conspiracy against the Archdiocese schools. On the contrary, the Konkani language movement has been piggybacking on the Archdiocese schools to secure its power. Via this argument, Mr. Cardozo stands to unwittingly convert the issue one of Catholics versus the rest. Conspiracy to destroy is not part of the equation, and if so, may have applied to an earlier context, that does not hold now. It would be especially a pity since Mr. Cardozo has thus far admirably held the tenor of the demand for recognising the Roman script to the issue of power, and not succumbed to the red-herring of ‘us Catholics’. But then this is because the Roman script issue is a caste battle, against the brahmanised castes and groups in Goa, and even though Mr. Cardozo does not use this lens, he is a remarkably perceptive man.

It is when we speak of power that the single most powerful argument of the FORCE is revealed, it is the parent that has the right to decide the education of their child. The democratic rights of the parent cannot be held hostage to the national-community building fantasies of either a small group of people, or a State. To do so is ultimately what fascism is about. A focus on rights, would also reveal the possibility that this fight could be taken to the courts, which may perhaps prove less amenable to nationalist arguments and open to the demands of democratising access to education.

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 30 March 2011)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Learning from Egypt II :Picking out the greys from the black and white

Last week, when attempting to draw lessons for Goa from the Egyptian revolution, this column pointed out that the problems with Goa’s socio-political activism lay in the compromises effected by the elite leadership of these movements. Presented as an example, were the appeals by the Convenor of PINC to not vote for the panel proposed by Babush Monserrate. What was also stressed however, was that the attempt was not to demonise the elite/middle class leadership. On the contrary, the attempt was merely to raise a cautionary voice, so that we can benefit from the sensitivity they bring, but also know when to move on.

Another opportunity to follow this train of thought was presented in a recent essay penned by the Convenor of PINC, Dr. Oscar Rebello, no doubt in personal capacity, in the Herald under the title, ‘Meeting up with G.H.A.N.T.I.’ The essay highlights the manner in which this particular social segment of Goa has much to offer socio-political change but also the limitations of its imagination.

Dr. Rebello wrote movingly of the manner in which the ghanti is ostracized and blamed for situations that are in fact the product of Goa’s internal problems. There is much to learn from this argument that, to his credit, Dr. Rebello has unceasingly articulated at every possible moment in his public role. However, we should spare a thought to an uncomfortable fact. Being a member of Goa’s cosmopolitan classes, the fears of cultural difference that the migrant (of whichever economic hue) wave brings to Goa is less of a threat to De. Rebello, than to the Goan whose social universe is largely rooted in the structures of ‘traditional’ life. This ‘traditional’ life may perhaps be a bigoted existence that deserves to change, and this migrant the best option for it. Indeed, the threat of the ghanti is very often raised by another segment of the leadership of Goan social-political movements. Small time village bosses, made significant through the fruits of working overseas, the ghanti is a symbol of the local changes that threatens to void their years of hard labour. While not sympathising with their attempts at rabble rousing, we need to recognize that the process of change is not easy for persons without the substantial cultural capital that Dr. Rebello is lucky to have. The question before us, persons like Dr. Rebello (and self?) is how do we intervene in the process to make it easier and understandable?

Dr. Rebello’s essay could perhaps be one part of his personal efforts, and in doing so, he opens the door for a discussion that may otherwise have not commenced. There would be no discussion however, if we only agreed with what he had to say. Disagreement with his position, or indeed that of any other, does not imply that he is wrong, and the response to his positions correct. Such clear options are only theoretically available to us. However, the responses could point to the problems inherent in the suggestions made.

Before disagreeing with aspects of Dr. Rebello’s argument however, we need to point out the other spaces where we agree with him. Dr. Rebello is spot on when he says that ‘The youth in the slums unlike their parents are rebelling for being treated like toys without dignity.’ The migrant will remain a threat to the Goan order only as long as they are in a position where they are forced to operate as a vote bank. Aiding their access to better conditions of labour, educational and employment options for their children works to the interest of the niz Goencar. For the children of these migrants, Goa, and its diverse cultures, are the only home they know, and culture they are intimate with.

The first of my problems with Dr. Rebello’s formulations stems for this understanding above, that of a Goan culture that while it can be contained with the box called Goa, is in fact plural and diverse. If Dr. Rebello has often asked us to not target the ghanti, he is also typically elite in his urging us toward ‘unity’. This unity that Dr. Rebello urges us toward however, seems to be not so much unity as uniformity. Unity lies in deciding to stick together while recognizing our differences and agreeing to respect these. Uniformity on the other hand rests on the rejection of difference. Take for example the manner in which in the course of the GBA’s mobilisations, those persons who sought to raise the issue of Romi Konkani were told to shush up. The GBA leadership at the time told them in no uncertain terms that the Roman script issue was not to be part of the GBA’s agenda. As the fantastic turn out at the rally demanding Government aid to English medium schools indicates, the hegemony of Devanagari Konkani is a singular part of the problems impacting Goa and Goans, regardless of caste or religion, or indeed ghantiness or otherwise. Discussing our problems with Konkani, or anything else, requires that we recognize our differences and stop trying to suffocate these out of existence.

Perhaps these ideas stem from the larger group that Dr. Rebello associates with, ersons whose names figure in PINC, and were part of the GBA leadership at the time. These figures seek to create a Goan nationalism, a single Goan national community. Such nationalists are incapable to tolerating internal difference. To these nationalists I ask, why do you not want to recognize that there are different groups in Goa? Groups who may respond to the term Goan, but do not necessarily see themselves as part of the same community. Or are only grudgingly together? Creating a national community of Goans, will not resolve Goa’s problems. Addressing the larger demands of these groups, building a community that recognizes each others differences probably will.

The second disagreement with Dr. Rebello is the suggestion that it is private profits that are responsible for Goa’s ills. This is only a part of the problem. Undoubtedly some groups, like the real estate lobby, and the politicians that harvest this greed make private profit. However, both these groups are able to exploit a larger need of the Goan peoples which is the need for capital to transition to the new economy. The tragedy is that the money they make does not seem to be resulting in the collective and social institutions that can support them in this transition but the further breaking up of collective infrastructure. This may sound like a quibble, but it is imperative that we recognize that genuine need fuels much of the silence and support for the politicians who enable the privateering that is destroying Goa. If we can recognize this need, we may in fact open up more doors for understanding the nature of the challenge that Goa faces.

To conclude let me reiterate once more. The elite groups of Goa have something to contribute to socio-political change in our society, however their thinking stems from their sometimes narrow agendas and is the result of their social location. We need to work with them when we can, and disagree vehemently when their positions block equitable social change rather than support it. It is not a case of black or white, but selecting from our choice of greys.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 23 March 2011)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Letters from Portugal: A Geração à rasca

Three French men, Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexandre Dumas, are credited with declaring that ‘Europe ends at the Pyrenees’, or alternatively, that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. What these wicked, wicked men suggested was that the Iberian peninsula, comprising Spain and Portugal, shared more with Africa, northern Africa at any rate, than it did with Europe. A number of Portuguese too will laughingly use this reference to explain away the laxity that marks this western most part of the European continent.

It is no secret that the Portuguese economy is today in an unholy mess. A good number of Portuguese will lay the blame for this mess squarely on the same laxity. The sins on this list are rather long. They will agree that Portugal is not marked by a meritocracy. If you don’t come with the right name and the right background, moving forward could be substantially difficult for you. Add to this the political graft that marks the country’s operation. Business interests and political leadership are shamelessly twined, official power used to further private interests. Joining the European Union has meant that the directives from Europe regarding the setting up of systems and procedures are met, but in a manner that recalls the spirit of that famous response by the Spanish Viceroys in the Americas, ‘I obey, but do not comply.’ The procedure is followed, but the spirit absent, resulting in applicants being caught in the nightmare of bureaucratic purgatories. But perhaps what makes this worse is the situation where there is no widespread culture of popular dissent in Portugal.

In apparent synchrony with the North African comparisons however, the pot boiled over subsequent to the Afro-Arabic revolutions. Fed up with the situation in the country that includes the cut back of funding for students, the lowering of salaries of public functionaries, the rolling back of the rights of workers, the significant amount of unemployment among the young, a good amount of these under the excuse of dealing with the economic crisis, a group of 4 young persons finally said enough is enough. This group of 4, speaking in the name of the geração à rasca, or the cornered generation called for a demonstration in Lisbon on the 12th of March. They pointed out that their generation was the most qualified generation in Portugal’s long history ever. And yet, large numbers of these youth are unemployed and have to emigrate, to find futures outside of the country.

The response to this call was monumental. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese congregated to march in the protest scheduled to end at Praça de Restauradores. So large were the numbers that once at the end of the march, they carried on to other parts of the city, continuing to voice their protest at the systems that has pushed the lives, dreams and ambitions of so many in this country into crisis. So large was the demonstration that some have pointed out that this was the single largest protest demonstration in the country subsequent to the collapse of the Estado Novo in 1974. This is perhaps a dubious distinction, pointing once more to the lack of a vibrant culture of political dissent in the country.

As powerful as this demonstration was however, one wonders if it continued to resound with the problems that mark this wonderful but sadly traumatised country. The leaders of the demonstration failed to offer a suggestion to go forward beyond the manifesto that launched the demonstration. The manifesto itself, framed in the broadest possible manner to attract broad support, did not get down to specifics. And here lies the problem, one that we share in Goa. We can demonstrate all we want, but until we are able to mobilise this anger and transform this into a sustained critique of the system, and create agendas for change, we will remain in the rut.

This is not yet the moment for critique though. This is the moment to congratulate the geração à rasca and wish them strength to network and combine to create options for systemic change in their country.

(A version was first published in the Herald March 20 2011)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning from Egypt: Separating Water from Milk

This summer I attempted to beat the heat by drinking rose-syrup flavoured water. It is sweet, turns the milk a lovely shade of pink, and is best served chilled.

The results of Panjim’s municipal elections are still unknown as this column is being written. However the results are rather irrelevant to the points this column seeks to make. This column was motivated by the vigorous campaign launched by the Panjimites Initiatives for Change (PINC) against the panel supported (or propped up) by Atanasio Monserrate, MLA from Taleigão. Interestingly, the members of this group were also at one point prominent faces of the GBA. They faded from the GBA at about the same time that the GBA agreed to join the Committee set up by the Chief Minister to review the Regional Plan.

Rather than attempt any deep reading of this situation, we may perhaps be instructed by the voice of an activist from Egypt that seems to speak remarkably to PINC’s initiatives.

Hossam al-Hamalawi is a labour activist who in an interview with Al-Jazeera pointed to some misconceptions that were being propagated around the world about the Egyptian revolution. The revolution was not fought and won only on Tahrir Square he reminded us. It was fought and won because of the simultaneous strikes by large numbers of Egyptian workers across the country. He went on to remind us that these strikes were continuing, even as the demonstrations in Tahrir melted away after Mubarak, the figurehead of the regime, was done away with. In his telling, this dissipation of the pressure on the regime was enabled by the ‘lullabies’ sung by the middle class. ‘Let us get things back to normal’ ‘return to law and order’. When were things normal? he asked. What law and order can we return to when for 3 decades there was no law and order, but a mockery of it? Do you ask these men, living on paltry sums, to wait six more months before their most basic, roti, kapda aur makaan demands are met?

Al-Hamalawi’s observations point to the problematic role of the middle-class in any revolution. It rides the wave of popular unrest, obtains its adjustment with the regime and forces in power, and then asks the masses to go home and let the law play its role.

The point here is not to vilify the middleclass, on the contrary they may very often sympathise with the oppressed. As a class however, they will play out their inherent tendencies. The point is that we must be aware of the manner in which they will operate. The Goan mass despite having been led on a merry dance on multiple occasions now, seems to continue to buy the palliatives of the Goan elite groups. Perhaps the reason that they do so is because in Goa the middleclass groups to a larger extent overlap with caste group configurations. The middleclass aspires to lifestyles largely set in place and upheld by dominant caste groups.

It appears that the success of a Goan revolution lies in the development of a strong caste, and class consciousness. Political discourse in Goa, and especially among the Catholics, needs to grapple with these issues, going beyond dislike and hatred of caste groups, to understanding the manner in which these groups operate and influence politics. Further, there is a critical need for us to embrace livelihood issues as the primary cause. This column has pointed out on earlier occasions how the GBA’s mobilisations (when led by this PINC segment) were largely based on (dominant caste/class) aesthetic considerations. Till date the issues of mining and its impact of livelihoods, or real-estate development and its destruction of livelihood options, have not been systematically embraced by these groups who claim to want a change in Goa’s state of affairs.

Allow those groups impacted by mining to lead the demonstrations for change and watch the difference. The demonstrations will automatically take on the dimensions of Tahrir. There will be a besieging of the homes of the CM, of the Secretariat. There will be no backing down till there is a complete halt of activities. There will be a necessary confrontation between the contradictions that we do not want to, but must necessarily addressed if we want to move Goa out of the mess it is in. Contrast this then with the efforts of the groups that led the GBA, and they will begin to look like the tea-parties (pun intended) they were.

As a conclusion, regard the plea by the Convenor for PINC. He requested us to vote for the candidates identified by this group of largely dominant caste elites because “We promise to keep them on a tight leash, if elected, to obey peoples’ mandate”. Words such as these Al-Hamalawi would call lullabies. First, given the fact that the Indian democracy gives its citizens no right of recall, once elected, there is no control on a representative by the voting public, except at the end of their five year term. Second, ‘keeping on a tight leash’ suggests that the members of PINC endorse a backroom management of democracy, rather than a public, deliberative democracy. These are hardly the people you can rely on to lead Goa out of the mire of political graft, nepotism and privateering. On the contrary, as this very same group and leader demonstrated in the past, they are capable of taking command of popular movements and compromise it at exactly the moment it can press home the advantage. They did so, not because of their inexperience in social activism, but because of their deep faith and commitment to the backroom politics that has compromised the effort of so many Goan mass movements.

If Goa is to learn from Egypt, we are required to examine our politics and make a consistent stand with livelihood issues. Developing finely tuned, and publicly debated political analytical skills that account for caste and class are imperative. This will eventually allow us to live in a society where the elite-led middle class groups may contribute their mite to change, but will not compromise or hijack change. At that point, perhaps we would be able to separate milk, from water.

(A version was first published in the Gomantak Times 16 March 2011)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Breaking Secularism´s cast(e): The curious case of the poor Indian Muslim

In an opinion piece in The Hindu on the 3 March 2011, Vidya Subrahmaniam wrote of her discussion with a group of Muslims in Deoband about the reported validation that Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, the controversy shrouded new Vice-Chancellor of the Dar ul Uloom at Deoband. These are her words;

I raised the Modi issue and was instantly put down: “We are not saying that Muslims should forgive Modi or forget 2002. But all of you in the secular media want the Gujarati Muslim never to get out of his grieving. Hindu or Muslim, the Gujarati is a businessperson, and that is what Vastanvi was trying to say.” The words stung but they were true. The Congress and the secular media wanted the Gujarati Muslim forever to fight Mr. Modi but neither was there to protect him.

Subrahmaniam should be credited for her perspicacity and sensitivity. This fact should be obvious to many an observer of the unfolding of Indian secular democracy, but has by and large remained unspoken.

The fact is that in addition to being pilloried as a result of the Orientalist and subsequently nationalist histories of India, the Indian Muslim is held hostage by another force that masquerades as its friend, the ‘secular’ Indian. The key article of faith of the secular Indian in contemporary times has been to moan the fate of poor blighted Muslim. Reams of paper, rivers of ink and oceans of tears are spent in this cause, to the extent that the cause of secularism – in this case the welfare of all minority groups in Indian – has become less of a concern, and has been replaced by a singular concern for the Muslim.The problem with the Orientalist and subsequently nationalist understanding of India is that it has understood India to be originally Hindu. All those who came ‘after’ are seen as the non-Indian, or less Indian. In the terms of scholarly debate, they are the ‘Other’ to the Hindu ‘Self’. Given the locus of dominant Indian nationalism in North India, the Muslim was seen as the ‘Other’ to the Hindu state, and blamed for all the shortcomings of nationalism, most significantly of all, Partition. Ever since, the Indian Muslim has been bludgeoned to the desperate condition they find themselves in today. The argument here is not that concern for them is misplaced. The argument is that by focussing on the Muslim ‘Other’ alone, what these secular Indians do is reaffirm the central place of the Hindu in the national imagination. The problem with Indian secularism is not the Muslim, it is the central place of the Hindu in the national imagination. This problem can be rectified only when we start realising that India is more than Hindu and Muslim, but includes tons of other minorities as well, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Adivasis, Dalits to name just a few. Displace this binary relationship, recognise the pluralism of the Indian reality, and we would have progressed multiple steps towards combating the problems confronting Indian secularism.

The question that remains unanswered in all of this however is why does the ‘secular’ establishment in India fail to grasp this seemingly obvious fact? Why does it persist in this obsessive focus on the Muslim and reaffirm the central place of the Hindu? The answer is once more hinted at by Subrahmaniam in her observation that ‘The Congress and the secular media wanted the Gujarati Muslim forever to fight Mr. Modi but neither was there to protect him.’ In her formulation of the problem, Subrahmaniam falls into the regular trap of identifying the Congress as secular, and the BJP as communal. We would grasp the nuances better if we harked to the words of Khalid Anis Ansari, a scholar researching the Pasmanda movement.

Ansari points out that ‘…there are a few differences between BJP and Congress … even when in the ultimate analysis they defend the same caste/class interests. For one Congress is dominated by anglicised and elite Brahmins, the BJP on the other hand is controlled by Brahmins from the rural or middle class backgrounds.’

In this formulation, Ansari helps us get to understand the obsession with the Indian Muslim. If one reads the ‘BJP’ and ‘Congress’ as symbols for opposing camps in Indian politics, and not merely – as normally done – as representative of the electoral parties, then one can see Indian politics as the struggle between the anglicised and elite dominant castes, and the rural and middle class dominant castes. The first group sold on the idea of western modernity, is empowered by its access to western cultural capital and drawing its power from international hierarchies, seeks to make a modern ‘secular’ India on these ideas. The other group as yet unable to acquire this western cultural capital, drawing its power solely from local hierarchies, seeks to delay this transition to western modernity until they too are in the seat of power. In the battle between these two dominant caste elephants, it is the Muslim grass that suffers. As Subrahmaniam rightly realised, the Muslim is by and large a pawn in the battle for access to State power. The ‘Congress’ claims to uphold Muslim interests, and the ‘BJP’ in response attacks them. In response to these attacks the ‘Congress’ calls the ‘BJP’ communal, and restricts our understanding of ‘secularism’ to essentially the Muslim cause. In the meanwhile secularism as a larger ideal of the protection of minority interests against majoritarianism falls by the wayside. What complicates this picture is that the battles are not between religious groups, but between caste (and especially dominant caste) groups. As such when the ‘Congress’ espouses the ‘Muslim’ cause what it is primarily doing is espousing the cause of the dominant Muslim castes. Further, it is quite capable of absorbing those people into its upper echelons who can walk the walk and talk the talk, be the Muslim, Christian or Hindu. All that is required is the ability to behave like an anglicised dominant caste. The power of the ‘BJP’ on the other hand, given its rural and middle-class character, is largely based on the assertion of ‘traditional’ caste structures. Thus this group too can make peace with non-cosmopolitan Muslim (or Christian) dominant caste groups toward the larger end of preserving rural social orders and traditional hierarchies.

Two lessons emerge from Subrahmaniam’s observations. The first that the solidarity that large portions of the secular lobby in India show to the Indian Muslim are motivated by the desire to wipe out their contender for power. Second, is the lesson that these political divisions in India, are not so much about religion as they are about caste power and caste battles. It thus appears that we would make some progress towards secularism if we complicated the picture of secularism in India to look beyond the Muslim, and also accounted for the manner in which both groups seek to establish the norms for gaining power in this diverse country.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 9 March 2011)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Lux tua vita mihi.

Like so many children in India I grew up in Goa in the shadow of the former British Empire. As a result London was a fabled city, the former centre of a truly global empire, and imagined to be filled with architectural marvels that should rightly grace an imperial centre.

Visiting London for the first time was a truly depressing let down however. There was practically nothing that was on a truly monumental, imperial scale. The experience on travelling to Lisbon on the other hand was an entirely different matter. Here indeed was a city that knew how to present itself as an imperial centre. Huge squares framed by monumental buildings. Façades of churches that, to borrow a phrase from James Fergusson, seemed to have been conceived by giants and finished by jewellers. And to top it all, as if to stick a tongue in the England’s gloomy direction, was the light.

Lisbon’s name is said to be derived from the ancient name for the settlement Olissipo. This name in turn was associated with the mythical founding of the city by Ulysses, the Greek adventurer of the epics. The more boringly pedantic, will tell us that the name derives not from the Greek adventurer, but from the words that meant ‘safe harbour’. In time, Olissipo was transformed to its Arabic version Al-Isbuna, until when after the Crusader conquest it came to be called Lisboa. While there may be good reason to name the city for its safe harbour, it seems a travesty that Lisbon is not in fact called Luz Boa, and named for its good(Boa) light (luz).

This city has the most amazing light! It is a light that is sharp and sparkly and does the most amazing things to the city. The contribution of this light first dawned on me when traversing the city one morning early in my stay of the city. Moving from the cold shadows of the Rua do Loreto into the light in the Praça de Camões, one realised how privileged one was to live in this incredibly beautiful city of light. Whether it is out in the squares, or on jacaranda shaded avenues, the light that this city receives converts the golden yellow, salmon pink and powder blue façades of its buildings into so many Fabergé eggs. Polished by the scores of feet that daily caress the limestone cobbled streets of the city, in this light these sidewalks shine like so many silken ribbons nestling these exquisite precious eggs.

And this light induces ecstasy. Standing on the edge of the Praça de Camões is the neo-classical façade of the church of the Incarnation (Igreja da Encarnação). Surmounting this façade are a series of dramatic ornamental urns sculpted to appear as if with flames at their mouths. Come sunshine and these urns catch the rays of the sun to incarnate variously as the burning bush of Sinai, or the icon for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. If light ever contributed to the drama of architecture this is a perfect example. The profound changes that this sight works on one’s sentiments can only be experienced every attempt at description falling short. It does drive home the point however to the perfection of Lisbon as a stage for this light. And it is thus that my heart confesses, ‘Lisboa, lux tua vita mihi’ (your light is my life)!

(First published in the Herald 5 March 2011)