Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Of Revolutions and Turns

April is a month sacred to the Portuguese democracy, having toppled on 25 April 1974, the authoritarian Estado Novo. This moment allowed for the Portuguese democracy to be renewed, offering a second chance to a nation that had commenced its tryst with parliamentary democracy with the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in the 1800's, and declared its Republic in 1910.

In the face of the fiscal difficulties that the Republic has been facing however, there have been a number of questions regarding whether they really achieved much. In the words of Professor João Confraria, a Portuguese academic: “The problem of our democratic framework is we do not have a political system strong enough to say 'No more money' to the demands of private interest groups and some state groups….We have failed to forge a viable domestic consensus for 150 years.”

While the country’s problem stem from a failure to inculcate robust institutions of democratic critique, there can be no doubt that the 25 of April also brought in a sea-change to the Portuguese people. There has been a growth of the middle-class, larger numbers have availed of education, and the country has managed to sustain the procedural requirements of a parliamentary democracy. South-Asians know that the process of democratisation, especially in the face of entrenched elites who refuse to share power, is not easy. However, what must not be forgotten is that Portugal’s problem is also a result of its location in the international order.

We should remember that while styled the ‘Carnation Revolution’, the changes of the April 25 flowed from a coup d'état. Though encouraged by a people tired by authoritarianism, the radical social changes unleashed in the course of the coup were curbed in the following years. The coup was launched because the army had had enough of the unceasing loss of young Portuguese lives in the battlefields in Africa; and supported by segments of the Portuguese elite because they realised that the Estado’s policy of holding on to its ‘colonial possessions’ was causing them not only loss of lives, but an isolation from Europe. It is suggested therefore that April 25 represented a strategic turn of the Portuguese establishment, outwards from its colonies, and inwards towards Europe. Some argue that this joining of the European community was also a way for Mario Soares to stabilise his government against the internal resistance he continued to face subsequent to the ‘revolution’.

But how did ‘Europe’ receive Portugal? Often missed amid the hype about Europe, is that it is a disciplinary project. A core group of ‘European’ states determine historically specific ‘best practices’, and enforce them across the board. Non-core countries, especially those of the European south are seen as inherently unable to embody these values, allowing the ‘Europeans’ to be school-teacher act to these errant children of Europe. Thus Frau Merkel threatens to withdraw from the Euro, suggesting that Germany can do without these pile-ons to the Euro. The Portuguese however point out that the good lady does seem to recognize that her country exports a good amount to Portugal, precisely because of the existence of the Euro. Spain has similarly been castigated for years now, on how the Spaniards don't work 'hard enough'. Then there are the warnings that have followed the Portuguese government's request for aid, that aid would come along with conditions.

With a perspective conscious of the intra-European hierarchies, one can see that while Portugal has bumbling and corrupt elite; the problem it faces is also one of perceptions. Portugal’s situation is not just of financial mismanagement but one of humiliation, where Northern institutions, and especially the tyrannical ratings agencies, seem to have ganged up against Portugal.

The turn to Europe came at an opportune moment for Portugal, but it also came at a price; that of discipline, dealing with prejudice and junior partnership. The costs of that bargain are now being paid. After the holiday for the 25 of April therefore, it may not be a bad idea for Portugal to refigure which side it wants to turn, and perhaps renegotiate its relationship with ‘Europe’.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Herald 1 May 2011)

Gandhi and Hazare: Two peas in a pod?

Subsequent to Anna Hazare’s ‘endorsement’ of Narendra Modi, a number of persons, who formerly supported Hazare and his Gandhian method, found themselves angry and confused. They could not understand how Hazare, a Gandhian could make such an endorsement.

We should perhaps give thanks to Hazare for his entire intervention, right from his decision to fast unto death. It has allowed for a number of revelations about the peculiar nuances of the Indian political system. In particular it allows us a position from which we can evaluate Gandhi himself, and see him as a man, not as the god he has been converted into. Indeed, it is precisely because we have deified Gandhi, that we have ignored the problems that are a part of Gandhianism.

In his argument against Hazare’s fast, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that ‘The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue.’ He further argued that a fast to persuade the Government to adopt one’s own formula for institutional change was a rather perverse utilisation of this method and amounted to arm-twisting. Mehta however understates the problem. The morality of a fast to death has always been a tricky issue. Gandhi himself was aware of the problem, arguing that ‘A Satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.’ But Gandhi was not without his contradictions, and also used fasts to arm-twist people to meeting the goals he had set out for the ‘nation’.

Take for example Gandhi’s indefinite fast in the face of the Communal Award of 1932. The Communal Award was granted to ensure separate electorates and hence separate representation to the various minorities in the British Raj, including the Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, and Dalits. Gandhi agreed with this award for most of these electorates but drew the line at a separate electorate for the Dalits. He would have none of it. Such a separation would threaten the unity of the ‘Hindu community’ he argued. Clearly, the Dalits, under the leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, did not see themselves as Hindus and feared an eclipse of their interests by the ‘upper’ castes if not provided an electoral mechanism to safeguard these. When Ambedkar refused to give up on this assurance for Dalit interests, Gandhi began his indefinite fast. Sure enough, pressure mounted on Dr. Ambedkar, who realised that should Gandhi die as a result of the fast, Ambedkar and the Dalits would be held responsible for Gandhi’s death. Succumbing to the pressure, Ambedkar gave up his demand for separate electorates, agreeing to the provisions of the Poona Pact.

The use of the fast in this context was to effectively bully one’s way to success. It follows therefore, that when Hazare opted to fast unto death to get his way with the Jan Lokpal Bill, he was acting in Gandhi’s not so ethical foot-steps.

These same events that led to the Poona Pact, also point to the manner in which Gandhi, despite his much professed, and no doubt genuine, horror against ethnic violence, also worked to consolidate the construction of a homogenous Hindu community that would lead the Indian nation. Gandhi’s refusal to see Ambedkar’s rather valid point of a need for separate electorates was not surprising. Gandhi saw the end of the caste system not through the recognition and assertion of Dalit rights, but through the melting of ‘upper’ caste hearts against such atrocities. When Dalit activists today reject the Gandhian neologism ‘Harijans’ as condescending, they are rejecting Gandhi’s concept of a Hindu fold, where ‘upper’ castes were firmly seated at the top. Take for example as well, the terminology Gandhi used, such as ‘Ram Rajya’, a term deeply rooted in the Vaishnava tradition, to signify the political structure post-Independence. Gandhi was, we have to admit, rooted in an ‘upper’ caste Hindu vision of India.

As if this were not enough, we should also have a look at the manner in which a number of Gandhians, subsequent to the passing of the freedom struggle seem to have found their place within a distinctly saffron order of things. One does not have to look far. Within Goa itself, those who gained fame as Gandhians, were in fact bitterly opposed to the recognition of difference (in this case that of the additional recognition of the Roman script for Konkani) and insisted on the brahmanical script of Devanagari. Indian-ness to these Gandhians, was located in an ‘upper’ caste Hindu view of the subcontinent.

We should therefore once more not be surprised that Anna Hazare sat underneath an image of a ‘Bharath Matha’. Many groups in India have a problem with the depiction and deification of India as a Hindu goddess. Even more unfortunate was the fact that the depiction that Hazare sat underneath was to a remarkable extent the image of the RSS Bharath Matha. All that was missing was the Lion the RSS Matha leans against, and a replacement of the saffron flag with the Indian tricolour. If you were intimate with the RSS image however, you knew that the lady up there was the RSS Matha. Add to this the songs sung at the Hazare protest that were markedly Hindu and upper-caste, and anti-reservation in tone. . It is also no surprise that Hazare seemed able to make a distinction between Modi’s ‘governance’ and his ‘communalism’, for Gandhianism is infact strongly marked by the presence of ‘upper’ caste (largely Hindu) values and perspectives.

Hazare’s meet was marked also by the presence of Archbishop Vincent Concesso and Maulana Madani. This is not a mark of secularism, but a problematic entangling of faith and religion. Gandhi himself laid the foundations for this with the religious imagery he used, recognising people as members of religious groups with distinct religious interests. The Khilafat movement, which he used as a way to unite Muslims and Hindus against the British, is one pertinent example.

We should recognise then, that the Gandhian project, for all its contribution to the Indian freedom struggle, and global struggles (and these are many and substantial) is filled with contradictions. We need to recognise that Gandhi was actively deified by the national movement, a process that Gandhi played along with. This deification masks the fact that Gandhi contradicted his high moral codes, and periodically engaged in arm-twisting. After all, he was primarily a political leader. Secondly, his project, though not rabidly right-wing, was nevertheless imbued with shades of Hindu nationalism. When Anna Hazare then claims to be a Gandhian, we must recognise that the contradictions that we see in him are not contradictions that he personally brings, but part of the contradictions that were present even within Gandhi, often faithfully carried forward by contemporary Gandhians.

(A version first published in the Gomantak Times 27 April 2011)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Passion Week Reflections: Ecology and the good death

“The glory of God is a human being 'fully alive.' ” St. Irenaeus.

The ritual climax of the Holy Week is special. It is special not merely for the ritual drama following centuries old traditions that unfold at this time, but for the opportunities for personal reflection that open up through the emotion these rituals release. Every little action, and prop used in the course of the ritual drama offers the opportunity to change the course of our daily performances for the rest of the year or our lives. And at the end of the day, is this not one of the reasons why we repeat this sacred drama year after year?

Some time ago I had the opportunity to hear the plans an elderly friend was making for his final rites. Concerned with his ‘ecological footprint’ this friend decided that he did not want to be buried as per the norms observed by Goan Catholics. He wanted to go to his grave simply; without being dressed in a suit, without claiming for eternity a space in the soil of a cemetery, and without the wooden coffin that carries us to our final rest. He would rather be cremated he reasoned, going to his end in a shroud, a bamboo litter and then reduced to ashes that could be disposed off with greater ease than in the case of burial. As if in need of some sort of social sanction, he culminated these reflections with a nod towards his ‘Hindu heritage’, indicating that he would like to return to the elements in a way his ancestors had.

Our common ecological concerns had laid the foundations for our friendship, I was moved by his concerns for a good death, that seemed to echo the observation by St. Irenaeus. Concerned even in the contemplation of death with creating space for life, wasn’t this an example of a human being fully alive? I cannot say I agreed entirely with this friend however. But, there are times when one does not argue; one merely lets the moment pass. The issue has however stayed with me, motivating this week’s reflections.

For those who follow this column, the first part of my argument should be obvious; I took objection to a Catholic unproblematically assuming his (or her) ‘Hindu heritage’. The assumption that we had ‘Hindu’ ancestors can largely be made only by those groups who claim ‘upper caste’ ancestry. For the rest of the Goan Catholics, that is, the majority of us, we have the blood of many peoples within us. We come from groups that include Muslims, persons from Africa, China, and other groups that were less concerned with marrying into the ‘right background’. A ‘Hindu heritage’ is not something we can uncomplicatedly claim.

Further, given that ‘Hindu-ness’ as we know it today is the product of the nineteenth century efforts of upper-caste reformers, we cannot technically say we had ‘Hindu’ ancestors. Also, even if one would like to call our non-Muslim ancestors Hindu, we must remember that a total burning of the corpse was a practice followed largely by ‘upper’ or dominant castes. The money for, or the quantities of wood, used for a complete burning of a corpse was available only to a small part of society. Other castes groups either buried their dead, or only partially burned the corpse and then buried it. In any case, there is no reason to assume that burning of the dead in this manner is any more eco-friendly than burial of the dead. On the contrary, a burial, without the heavy coffin, that is an unpleasant class marker in the first place, may in fact be more ecologically friendly, since it allows nature to do her work at her own pace. It is when we demand exclusive use of the burial space for all eternity that the ecological costs start mounting.

Finally, in what may perhaps be the most Christian argument against recourse to ‘Hindu ancestry’, our belief, through baptism, in a man who transcended through His resurrection both time and space, makes it difficult to select just one group as our ancestors. Through Christ, who conquers all time, all groups in the past, and indeed in the future, are our own. They become especially our own, when they are found exemplary in a Christian lifestyle. This awareness adds critical dimensions to St. Ireneaeus’ observations.

One of the props in the Passion Play on Good Friday offers us an interesting option for Christians seeking an ecologically responsible burial. In a number of churches the bier that the figure of the dead Christ is carried on in procession is the kind that is still used by Muslim communities in India and other parts of the world. This bier holds the shroud wrapped corpse, and is not interred into the grave with the corpse. On the contrary, only the body wrapped in the shroud is deposited in the grave, the bier is reused. This practice is not very different from the image we get from the reading of the Gospel during Holy week.

The funerary practices of local Muslim communities it would appear offer us an option in the imitation of Christ. This option however offers us more than the opportunity to imitate the life of Christ. We are also allowed in this process to identify more actively with one of the more sinned against communities in contemporary India. It allows us to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and our ancestry. In doing so, we are offered the opportunity to participate in laying the foundations for the just kingdom that we are committed to through our faith in Christ. Additionally it also gives us the opportunity to multiply the ways in which we can be fully committed to being alive. To stand for life, includes, creating the options for life subsequent to death, the expansion of our imagination of who is ‘our own’, and creating circumstances where people live in anticipation of life, not the fear of persecution.

Have a prayerful Holy Triduum and a Blessed Easter Season.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 20 April 2011)