Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Identity Mishaps: How the Portuguese Never Get it Right

As the debate around the innocent request for English to also be granted State support when used as a medium of instruction (MoI) rages in Goa, and the issue converted into a case against Goa’s Catholics, who are just one segment of the population making this demand, on other fronts, life goes on as usual.

Take the example of the rather interesting initiative of the Fundação Oriente to organise the ‘Goan Short Stories 2011’ competition, with an aim to contribute towards Indo-Portuguese cultural exchange and the promotion of Goan identity. This initiative by the Fundação Oriente is clearly marked by an attempt at fostering the pluralism that constitutes the Goan identity, given that it has indicated that stories written in Portuguese, Konkani, in the Roman as well as Nagari script, and English will be accepted. In accepting stories in these languages, what the much maligned, and often unwarrantedly so, Fundação Oriente seems to be indicating, is that the evolving Indo-Portuguese cultural complex, as far as Goa is concerned, is composed not just of Portuguese, but these other languages as well that are a part of the Goan cultural fabric. This is a broad and welcome statement, and is a credit to the Fundação.

And yet, it appears, the Portuguese can never get it right. In crafting a statement of commitment to Goa’s pluralism, and indeed that of our Indo-Portuguese heritage, the Fundação Oriente has left out another significant Goan language, Marathi.

This exclusion is unfortunate given Goa’s and indeed the Estado da India Portuguesa’s historical relationship with the Marathi language. Marathi was effectively a State language in the days of the Portuguese State, a status that was never enjoyed by Konkani. As Rochelle Pinto’s research on the print politics of nineteenth century Goa demonstrates, Marathi was inserted into the official lexicon of the Portuguese State in India thanks to the efforts of the Catholic elite of the time, who saw the demand of the Brahmin elite (the ‘big families’) of the time, as a legitimate demand. Marathi has been the language of social emancipation for not just the Hindu bahujan samaj, but also of the impoverished segments of the Hindu dominant castes in Goa. The poor, rural segments of the ‘small families’ of the Hindu dominant castes used education in Marathi as a tool through which they could migrate to the Bombay Presidency and gain employment there. Pinto is quick to point out that very often the writing in Marathi did not reflect the specificities of Goa, and was often used as a vehicle to criticize the operation of the Portuguese State in India. Regardless of this argument however, Marathi was (and continues to be) a part of the cultural heritage of Goa and its Indo-Portuguese cultural basket, given the fact that so much of its social reform, a good amount of it supported by the Portuguese State, happened in the Marathi language. Even if not used actively in Goa today (a fact that will doubtlessly be contested) Goan segments of Indo-Portuguese history is written in Marathi, as much as it is written in Portuguese.

While unaware of what exactly has led to the Fundação to this forgetting of an important part of Goan, and Indo-Portuguese history, one wonders if the presence of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal, one of the organisers of this competition had something to do with this exclusion. The Konkani Bhasha Mandal, as we know, are rather zealous Konknni-mogis (Lovers of Konknni). Their love is a jealous love. No other language may share space with their beloved Konknni. As the current controversy over the MoI will indicate, they are a skillful lot these Konknni-mogis. When English seeks to assert its place in the Goan sun, they will gang up against it along with Marathi. When Marathi seeks to assert itself, they will gang up against it with those who produce in the Roman script. The winner at the end of the game will always be Konknni, this peculiar version of the Concanim language.

The Fundação Oriente should not feel terrible however. It is not the only institution to get the complex configuration of Goan politics wrong. A much more venerable institution, like the Catholic Church in Goa, has also, and often, got the equation quite completely wrong. In an earlier time, responding to the call of the Universal Catholic Church via the II Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in Goa acknowledged various errors of the past and made amends by adopting wholeheartedly the Konkani language. Indeed, it went a couple of steps further than what was required under the changes suggested by the II Vatican Council. Rejecting a Concanim by the priests and understood by the Catholic laity, it converted Concanim into Konknni, sanskritising the language with the vigor of the Brahmanical partisans that destroyed the Buddhist hegemony in South Asia. Aligning itself with the sub-nationalist cause of an earlier generation of Konkani Bhasha Mandal leaders, it stood by while the Catholic masses were rallied in its name to the cause of Konkani, converted the Diocesan schools to teaching in Konknni, and reveled in the warm glow when it was praised by these leaders. The mat was subsequently pulled from under the Catholic hierarchy’s feet when they responded to the demand of parents for English as MoI in diocese run schools, the good Church, had become in a twinkling of the eye, the bad Church.

A close reading of post-colonial Goan history should teach a few lessons to the leadership of the Fundação Oriente. One does not become the good guy by blindly dancing to the Konknni fiddle. Like the Catholic Church is learning today, they were but a tool in the establishment of an intolerant hegemony in Goa. The moment one steps out of the line dictated by the Konknni hegemony, one transforms in an instant, from the good guy to the bad guy. You cannot dance the tango with a Konknni-mogi.

And so, my dear Fundação Oriente, after this little letter to your good sense, will you dance the Fandango with me? Why not contemplate the inclusion of Marathi in the list of acceptable languages for the competition?

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 29 June 2011)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Letters from Portugal: A New Salazar?

Those who have been following the news in Portugal know that the country has a new government, with the centre-right Partido Social Democrata’s Passos Coelho leading the government as Prime Minister. This result was received with some relief by Vitor Matos, a political journalist whose blog I follow. Responding to the comments by a Neill Lochery, who promises a rather interesting book on Portugal in the subsequent months, Matos crowed with rather visible delight that ‘Neill Lochery wasn’t right after all. The Portuguese didn’t look for a new leader with the likes of Salazar to set their public finances straight…. This is not 1926. Portugal is a consolidated democracy and a modern European country. Passos Coelho is no dictator, nor is his right-wing ally, Paulo Portas.’

Matos charged Lochery with being offensively simplistic, but it may be that it was Matos, who was both offensive and simplistic. Before we address that matter though, it must be said that Matos did indeed hit a nail on the head when he argued that Portugal’s contemporary Salazar was the memorandum that the troika of lending agencies presented Portugal.

Matos was being simplistic because while he recognizes the crucial fact that the country is in the grip of a dictator, the troika, he seems to be unable to see that this institutional troika can also create the conditions required to produce a national leader of the likes of Salazar.

The reasons he does not see this possibility is because of feature that afflicts not just Portugal, but a number of polities that have had fascist or authoritarian leaders, the creation of a single individual as scapegoat. It is not German society at the time that is blamed for the mess of the Third Reich, but Hitler alone. The result is that society and the larger social processes are exculpated as we create a single individual as the embodiment and font of all evil. But the fact is that Salazar did not start out by plotting to be dictator. He was aided in this process through the urgings and accommodation of a society that believed that all it required to resolve its problems was a person with ‘plenty of authority, little hesitation, agility and swiftness.’ What is scary, is that this is the exact formulation that Matos suggests is required of the new Passos Coelho - Portas government. Passos Coelho and Portas may not intend to be dictators, but if there are more voices like those of Matos, it may well set them to on their way to being as dictatorial and authoritarian as the circumstances will allow them.

Matos coupled his simplistic dismissal of the political crisis that hovers over Portugal with an offensiveness that while not uniquely Portuguese is a striking feature of this society; laying the blame for extreme positions on the economically lower classes. Thus for example, he dismisses the angry shouts of “We would need 10 Salazars to put things into order!” in a Portuguese market as the anger of a hapless and ignorant woman. The desire for another Salazar Matos affirms, is the call of merely the ignorant, and maybe the Portuguese ‘taxi drivers’. This is incredibly offensive because it assumes that it is the poor and the uneducated that lay the foundation for authoritarian leaders, when all too often, it is the desire of the elites, like those of Matos who by virtue of his intellectual role is a member of that elite, for firm decisions and strong authority that roll out the red carpet for capable persons to morph into autocratic monsters.

Mr. Lochery might yet be right Mr. Matos.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo 24 June 2011)