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)

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