Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sneezing at the Brahmanical: Polemics at the Global Goans Convention

Responding to earlier columns, a friend recently asked for a definition of the word ‘brahmanical’. While perhaps a definition of the term will not be forthcoming, at least not in this column, perhaps examples of brahmanical thought, in this case history-writing, could be provided. A rather interesting example of the same was provided in the course of the first sessions of the Global Goans’ Convention held in London over July 22- 24.

The most striking example of brahmanical history-writing was provided by Dr. Damodar R. SarDesai, who is Professor Emeritus at the University of California in Los Angeles. That he is a historian is a somewhat tragic indicator of the manner in which brahmanical polemics, such as displayed in his presentation, are so often accepted as the acceptable basis of social science. Conversely however it is precisely because he is a historian, that we can see the manner in which polemics is converted to history.

For Dr. SarDessai, reflecting on 50 years of ‘Liberation’, the period of Portuguese sovereignty in Goa was one long and dark period of trial, tribulation and lack of development. He was able to say this however because he was speaking from the position of the brahmanised dominant castes of Goa. He did not recognize the fact that the initial period of Portuguese sovereignty allowed to the oppressed castes in the region, the possibility of conversion to Catholicism and thus social mobility. In later periods of Portuguese sovereignty, it allowed non-dominant Hindu caste groups similar options of social mobility, especially after the Novas Conquistas were added to the Catholic territories of the Velhas Conquistas. This acquisition, allowed for these caste groups, to not only change residence, and hence escape persecution of their ‘upper’ caste feudal overlords, but it also allowed them to represent themselves in the process of the shift, as a different caste group entirely, increasing in this process their social standing. Much later, the Portuguese State offered any options, especially to the Gomantak Maratha Samaj, for education and social mobility.

These facts are inconvenient to a brahmanical history, that because they see the pre-colonial period from the point of view of the dominant castes, see this period as a happy conflict-free time. The other side of this happy story however is that this pre-colonial time was an unhappy time for suppressed groups and for all its faults, colonialism also provided space for the partial liberation of these non-dominant groups. Brahmanical polemics do not necessarily see the post-colonial period as a necessarily happy one either. Until the post colonial order works to the benefit of the dominant castes, the brahmanical will not be appeased. Thus in Dr. SarDessai's polemic, it was not sufficient that the Portuguese were ejected from Goa, the first, and confirmedly anti-brahmanical Chief Minister of Goa, was mentioned but once, and in so flippant a manner, it left the audience wondering as to the man's ultimate worth.

A column of this length cannot do justice to the absolute horror that was the presentation of Dr. SarDessai. What should for the moment suffice to demonstrate its horror was the response of Dr. Teotónio R. De Souza. Dr. De Souza is recognized within the field of Goan and ‘Indo-Portuguese’ history as an authority. What is often not openly stated, by whispered and smiled at is the fact that Dr. De Souza does not normally spare a kind word for the period of Portuguese sovereignty. Dr. De Souza was forced however, by Dr. SarDessai’s polemic, to abandon his (no-doubt carefully crafted) text, and ad-lib a response to Dr. SarDessai. In a muted manner, perhaps owing to the presence of Indian government officials and non-academics in the room, Dr. De Souza sought to tone down Dr. SarDessai’s assertions.

Perhaps the rebuttal comes to late however, because Dr. De Souza has himself many occasions built his version of Indian nationalist history of Goa on brahmanical lines. An example of this foundational presence of brahmanical thinking was obvious when he argued that the specificity of Goa (as with any other place) was contributed to through the presence of the minorities in Goa. This assertion is brahmanical because it accepts the brahmanical assertion that Hindus across the subcontinent are the same, they are one single and indivisible community. Such assertions while patently untrue, are necessary to ensure the domination of the brahmanised groups (and the supremacy of brahmanical thought) that control the destinies of post colonial India. We should at the same time recognize however, that Dr. De Souza seems to have been forced into this position of speaking of the Catholic, because it was obvious in the course of Dr. SarDessai’s presentation, that his intense disparaging (bordering on hatred even) of the Portuguese formed an ideal basis on which to denigrate the cultural condition of the Goan Catholic. It should be pointed out simultaneously, that more recently, especially when he argues of the presence of 'many liberations', Dr. De Souza seems to be moving toward a more complex understanding of the moment of the integration of Goa into the Union of India. In doing so he seems to be recognizing the limiting frames that nationalism and especially brahmanical nationalism present to the study of Goa, colonialism, and the post-colonial. One suspects that it is the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalismto this rethinking, that spurs Dr. De Souza since Dr. De Souza persists in (rightly) calling out instances of Portuguese superciliousness in the academy. Dr. De Souza further betrayed the brahmanical influences on his thought when he responded to Dr. SarDessai, that the success of the Portuguese lay in the fact that they also managed to convert one-third of the population to Catholicism. Dr. De Souza made another error here, where he clearly (if unconsciously) buys into the generally accepted idea that it is only the Catholics that were ‘tainted’ by the Portuguese, while the ‘Hindus’ retain their cultural purity and authenticity. Once more, nothing could be further away from the truth. In the course of their working with the Portuguese State, as well as in the course of everyday market relations, the brahmanised groups in Goa were, and are, also children of the Portuguese (and other Catholic and European) cultural influences. This impress exists on their food, their language, their dress and every other cultural institution they may seek to present as authentic and untouched. Why then, assume that the Goan Catholics alone are the mark of Portuguese success? One does so, because of the brahmanical assertion that it not only in upper caste practice, but more specifically in Hindu practice that authentic ‘Indian-ness’ is captured

What was perhaps most striking about Dr. SarDessai’s address however was the fact that he found it necessary to humiliate and insult the Portuguese (and their lack of effective colonization) in order to retrieve the honour and prestige of the brahmanised groups he spoke for. Those who have reflected on the workings of caste will know that humiliation – whether verbal, when we point to someone’s birth in a ‘lower’ caste, invariably to ‘put them in their place’, or physical, through the practices of untouchability – is the most significant strategy of casteist and hence the brahmanical order. Interestingly however, when one humiliates the Portuguese for ineffective colonization (or development), one is praising the British style of colonization and development. This move then, demonstrates that close ties that the brahmanical makes with the colonial. In this move we realize that brahmanical thinking, is not necessarily an ancient framework that necessarily returns us to a moment of pre-colonial innocence, but in fact a contemporary development that gains its power from colonial (and especially British) intellectual frameworks. Through this lineage, the brahmanical is connected to the racist and other exploitative frameworks that held sway in the nineteenth century.

What should be mentioned in conclusion, is that it isn’t poor Dr. SarDessai alone who should be blamed. That he is the carrier of an infectious brahmanical thought process is true. However, his pronouncements were by and large accepted silently by the audience, because Dr. SarDessai was able to quote from a stock of knowledge that has gained credibility over time. Merely because it has gained credibility over time however does not make it right, it only makes the task of dealing with it, and the sneaky manner in which it secretes itself into our work, that much more difficult.

Jai Bhim!

(Comments are welcome at

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Portugal and the Prophet

Many months ago this column commenced suggesting that it was perhaps not necessary for us, as Goans and South Asians, to look solely to a reliving of the colonial past to forge a relationship with Portugal. While acknowledging the colonial past that ties us together, one can explore the contours of a contemporary relationship by looking at features of Portugal that speak to a common experiences and circumstances.

One of these circumstances it appears, is the rather unlikely counter of Islam. True we are all aware that Portugal once had Moorish sovereigns and has imbibed a substantial Arab heritage that lies under the surface of the Portuguese cultural tapestry. We are perhaps less aware that in recent times, Iran has ‘discovered’ the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Connecting the names of the location (Fatima), and the miraculous appearance of a Lady; to the Islamic and specifically Shia history, of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet; Iran encourages pilgrimages to the same site normally venerated by Catholics alone. In Her own right however, Mary as the mother of Christ, enjoys reverence in the Islamic tradition.

Another thread in this Islamicate link however emerged in conversation with a young monarchist in Lisbon. Portugal, he believed, should cease to be a republic, and return to being a monarchy. Elaborating why a return to the monarchy was a good idea, he suggested that having the head of the House of Bragança as Head of State would allow Portugal a special relationship with Muslim countries, given the Duke of Bragança’s claim, apparently recognized in North Africa, of descent from the Prophet Mohammed. This claim would make the Duke of Bragança, like groups of Muslims across the world, a Sayyid.

As per the telling of this claim to Sayyid status, Dom Duarte is descended, as are a small number of other Portuguese, including the young monarchist recounting this tale to me, from Saint Queen Isabel. Queen Isabel, one of the early Queens of Portugal, was elevated to Sainthood, thanks to her leading a virtuous and prayerful life, being a peacemaker, and doing so consistently enough to be a model to others. The process of canonizing Rainha Isabel, however took an undue amount of time, given the serious obstacle her lineage provided. Queen Isabel was said to have descended from the Prophet. Happily however, these obstacles were resolved, allowing us to claim a descendant of the Prophet among the pantheon of Catholic saints, and continuing a happy give and take among Father Abraham’s spiritual family.

There are a number of problems with this story. The claims to Sayyid status, even among those who have been Muslims a long time, is merely that, a claim, that may not possibly stand up to scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, it appears that Queen Isabel’s lineage derives from the Moorish sultans of Iberia, none of whom (save the Fatimid Caliph) were apparently descended from the Prophet. Nonetheless, claims, stories and myths are the basis of what allow us to see strangers as brothers, and foreign lands as (also) home(s). Take the Saraswat migration, and conversion from Hinduism, myths that allow so many Goan Hindu and Catholics to see themselves as brothers, despite existence of scientific facts to the contrary.

Our common Islamicate heritage it appears, allows us to formulate alternate bases for the manner in which we in South Asia forge a relationship with Portugal, as well as the manner in which the Portuguese can imagine themselves.

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Left, Right and Centre: or, Jerry Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aya

On 14 July, a day after the latest violent attack in the city of Bombay, NDTV put together a panel to discuss the issues flowing out of this occurrence. One of the guests invited to participate in this discussion was Jerry Pinto. Jerry Pinto is an articulate voice from Bombay, a litterateur and journalist. When he was invited to join the discussion however, Jerry Pinto exploded and he let the host and the other participants have it.

Why did Jerry Pinto get annoyed? Unfortunately for us, in losing his poise, Mr. Pinto seemed to have lost the opportunity to make calmer and more collected an argument. However, because he lost control and let his emotions run loose, it seems his breaking from the script, allowed us to understand a couple of issues regarding the manner in which the latest attacks on Bombay are being responded to.

Initially fazed by his outburst, Nidhi Razdan, the host of the show eventually ventured to try and gain control of the situation. ‘Tell us how you feel!’ she cooed, ‘what is going through your mind.’ Tell us how he feels? But surely madam, he was telling us exactly how he felt! He was telling us that he felt awful, that the city he was a part of had been attacked, and that the manner in which NDTV sought to deal with the issue was to merely harvest the grief, he called it a ‘camera rape’, of those who had lost friends or family for the benefit of its TRPs.

What seemed to enrage Mr. Pinto further however, was the fact that while it was Bombay that had been attacked, it had taken all of 31 minutes for the host of the show to invite a Bombay voice into the discussion. And when this Bombay voice was summoned into the discussion, it was not to ask for an independent opinion to be articulated, but for this Bombay voice (that of Jerry Pinto) to perform the usual monkey-trick of responding to that cliché ‘the resilient spirit of Bombay’.

But in her response to Mr. Pinto’s further fusillade, Ms. Nidhi Razdan, provided a further demonstration of the manner in which NDTV is part of a larger system that harvests grief and other sentiments born from vulnerability, for its centralizing purposes.

Mr. Pinto’s first couple of responses to the invitation to join the discussion was to ask why the issue had become something that would be discussed by ‘Delhi people will talk about, in Delhi, as if it had nothing to do with Bombay.’ As with his remark discussed earlier, this was part of a demand that Bombay, and its citizens, be addressed, and asked to participate more meaningfully in responding to the blasts. There was sentient life, Mr. Pinto was suggesting, outside of Delhi. Through the blasts, this life had been temporarily deprived of agency, and what NDTV was doing by engaging with citizens of the city so superficially was to add to the sense of helplessness. To this thread of thought, Mr. Razdan, responded ‘But, Mr. Pinto, don’t get upset, Mumbai is a part of India, and so we are all upset’. And later ‘Mumbai is a part of India, and that is why people in Delhi will talk about it’.

Ms. Razdan has internalized nationalist logics so completely that it appears she did not realize how infuriating, and at the same time painfully hilarious, her trite formulations were. Thus she glibly compared the violence and disturbances in Kashmir (‘the State of Jammu and Kashmir’ as she so touchingly put it) to the violence and disturbance in Bombay. Indian nationalism has so effectively tailored her vision that she is unable to see the radically differences that both cause and attend upon the violence in these two radically different spaces. She also failed to see that one of the central points that Mr. Pinto was making is that just because it is an Indian city, it does not allow for persons in Delhi, to hijack the issue and determine the contours of the response to the incident.

If Mr. Pinto was speaking from his heart, then the panel in Delhi was ‘discussing it as if nothing had ever happened’, or discussing the matter ‘in abstractions’. What was being discussed in the NDTV studio was the imperial Indian response to the occurrence in Bombay. In that studio in Delhi, the trauma and emotions of the people in Bombay, were being harvested by NDTV, and through the public policy comments by the members of the panel, converted into a ‘national issue’ and the path that India would now have to take. Interestingly, in the course of this national policy discussion, it fell to just one person, Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, to point out that the possible culprits could also be Col. Purohit, thus disrupting the Hindu nationalist rhetoric that had until then quite calmly held sway.

While Mr. Aiyer remained the sole sensible, balanced voice in the discussion, had there been more sentient voices from Bombay perhaps the response would have been more appropriate to the moment. How does one reach out to a city that is both hurting and afraid? Perhaps that option would have allowed us a route out of the clichés that both Ms. Razdan, and subsequently a dramatically drenched Barkha Dutt offered the viewer.

There is much that is deeply disturbing about NDTV (and other similarly placed TV news channels in India). The least troublesome is the fact that they harvest and manipulate the emotions of viewers for the sake of their TRPs, and to create a jingoist nationalist audience that is unable to do more than bay for blood in name of the greater glory of India.

More bothersome however is the fact that NDTV seems consistently unable to respond to the more complex thoughts that are presented to it in the voices that it sometimes brings into the studios. NDTV has its own little script, one that is based on the interests and aspirations of a small group of middle-class nationalists in Delhi. Indeed, this class can well be said to be the inheritors of the multi-ethnic, pluri-religious 'nationalist class' that effectively determined 'national' agendas in the first few decades of Indian independence. It is their narrow and self-serving agenda that largely determines the manner in which an issue will be responded to, and this is the perspective that they force everyone else to internalize, limiting scope for any divergent thinking in this large, complex and diverse country. What this group and NDTV does not seem to realize however, is that Jerry Pinto's outburst, was only a sign of the times. There is a very genuine fatigue with the manner in which 'Delhiwallas', a code-word for this group of self-obsessed elites from all parts of the country, divert and demand attention and all manner of resources to their narrow, limited interests.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 20 July 2011)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Secularism: Moving beyond Goa’s politics of personality

The opportunity popped up, some days ago, to read the reflections of Dr. Oscar Rebello on the Medium of Instruction (MoI) ‘controversy’. The discussion in this column will focus not on the issue of the inclusion of English as a State-supported MoI, but on Dr. Rebello’s observations that have some implication for the manner in which we in Goa understand secularism.

In his column, Dr. Rebello argued that ‘Uday Bhembre; Arvind Bhatikar; Prashant; Pundalik & Hema Naik; N. Shivdas and many other stalwarts in the BBSM movement specially the youth brigade I know well, are the finest, secular and principled individuals in Goan society. Just because they take a position on a cultural issue does not make them communal. Indeed, if the crazy bats from the Sangh were to run riot terrorizing minorities in Goa, some day, these individuals would be in the front line of fire defending secularism.’

This is an interesting formulation of secularism that Dr. Rebello proposes; it suggests that one is secular not because of what one does, but because of who one is. Or rather, one is secular because of one’s history, and based on the understanding of that history of one’s actions in the future. The actions in the present, both seen and unseen, can be safely ignored when determining a person’s secular credentials.

Dr. Rebello’s is not a unique position, but shared especially among some members of the diocesan hierarchy in Goa. A suggestion that the actions of one of these gentlemen, but especially Dr. Bhembre, verged on the communal, one is greeted with a stunned silence, followed by ‘But he is one of Goa’s most secular individuals!’

There is no need to debate Dr. Bhembre’s secular credentials. Indeed, perhaps there is a need for us in Goa to move away from the politics of personalities and of the personal. This column would like to however, challenge these understandings of secularism that are based on this cult of the personality.

To counter this focus on the personality, perhaps we should recognize that secularism is not an inherent quality in any of us. It is a process that we engage in, where we continuously try to rise above the politics and interests of our personal locations, and work to make the public space more accommodating of the choices of others. We do not impose our own social, familial and other prejudices onto the public space. It must be emphatically stressed, that to be able to do so is not an easy task; which is what makes a secular society so difficult to reach. Secularism, is the rough and narrow path of the pilgrim. It is not a pedestal we can climb on it (though, it has to be recognized, one can also so easily fall off pedestals!)

To recognize secularism as a process, rather than as a state-of-being, would allow us to recognize the fallacy of Dr. Rebello, and segments of the Goan Church hierarchy’s, understanding of secularism. One could very well be un-secular, or communal, despite one’s previous contributions to the fabric of the Goan public sphere. Indeed, when one challenges the idea that a person is inherently secular, then one is able to evaluate, based on the actions in the present, if this individual’s actions in the past, were an attempt to be secular, or were in fact even then mixed up in a more restricted social agenda. The problem with many a secular society, not just in Goa or in India, is that all too often, in the attempt to forge a secular society, the preferences of a segment of people gets foisted, often unconsciously, as the secular ideal. The sad truth is that when these groups are faced with the realization that their idea of the secular is not shared by others, they are too entrenched in their positions to now make way for dialogue. The case of the MoI ‘controversy’ in Goa, is perhaps a case in point.

Much energy has been invested by the people mentioned by Dr. Rebello in the paragraph extracted from his essay, to set up Konkani as the basis of a secular society in Goa. What they have, perhaps unwittingly, not realized however, is that Konkani does not capture the extent of the desires of much of the populace, and neither have the contours of official Konkani managed to encompass the various Konkanis that exist in Goa. Thus, as harsh as it may be, despite the value of their past commitments, and their antipathy to the extremism of the Sangh, their ‘a position on a cultural issue’ could in fact make their position contrary to the realization of a secular public environment. Indeed, it is precisely our positions on cultural issues, not our family or personal history that makes or breaks our commitment to the realization of a secular society.

Dr. Rebello makes another interesting observation in his essay. He argues that ‘In India it is simple. The majority Hindu can choose to be communal or secular. The minorities have no option but to be secular. We are blessed that a large percentage of Hindus in our society choose to remain inherently secular.

Dr. Rebello’s observation can be phrased another way. Issues are secular when a majority of the majority Hindus deem an issue secular, and communal when the same majority deems it communal. The option for the rest then is to dance to this tune, or opt out.

Within this frame, we could possibly read Dr. Rebello's exculpation of the individuals he describes as secular, as the position that an individual caught between the personality politics of Goa's small society, and the larger politics of Indian secularism, is forced to take. Indeed, Dr. Rebello starts off by exculpating these individuals, and then breaking ranks with the position they take in no uncertain terms. We would do well to not ignore the manner in which Dr. Rebello deals with this dilemma, and not dismiss Dr. Rebello as either hypocritical, or the puppet of powerful groups in Goa, as indeed, some have more recently been wont to do. One could in fact read Dr. Rebello's reflections as the strategy of a peace-maker. Rather than standing up and reveling in polemics and denunciations, Dr. Rebello, has kowtowed at the altar of personality, thus ensuring that his position is not a personal attack, and simultaneously taken the position that he feels is the proper position to take. This is not an easy task, and is wonderfully demonstrative of the kinds of compromises that we sometimes need to take to bring warring groups to the table to talk. As the biblical praise goes, 'Blessed are the peace makers, for they call be called children of God.' There is a need to move out of the overwhelming reliance that Goan politics places on personalities, and Dr. Rebello's move, while not entirely satisfactory, may perhaps be one way out.

Having said this however, it should also be pointed out, that there is a danger in assuming, as Dr. Rebello does, the natural secular position of the minority. Too often, it is assumed that if one toes the line of the self-proclaimed leaders of minority groups, one is secular. Thus, if the self-proclaimed Catholic leadership (whether this leadership be of the laity, clergy or of the diocesan hierarchy) determines that a position is in the Catholic interest, then any Hindu who supports this position, is deemed to be secular. This however may in fact not be the case. Once more the history of Konkani provides us an example. For a variety of reasons too complex to get into in this column, the Catholic leadership determined in the 1960’s and subsequently, that Konkani represented the Catholic interest. Thus any person who sang a similar tune, was deemed secular. What was not inquired into at that point of time however, was why were these 'Hindus' (in fact only a segment of the Goan Hindu population, almost clearly defined by caste) in fact supporting the demand for Konkani? Herein lies the problem.

Just because this minority leadership phrases the issue in a particular manner, it does become secular. As should be obvious from a study of the history of the demands of segments of the North Indian Muslim leadership, merely supporting a minority leadership interest, does not necessarily contribute to a secular society. On the contrary, it confounds the situation, since interests are now assumed to be necessarily based on religion alone, and the interests of the religion are the interests of a usually small group of elites within this religious grouping.

The secular society is like the messianic kingdom; not something that already exists in fact. It is something that will come. For this coming, we need to need to walk a pilgrim path continuously examining our actions, for the slightest move may upset earlier actions. Also, we may often mistake the straight and easy path for the secular, when in fact it is the tortuous that leads us to this secular kingdom.

(A version of this blogpost was first published in the Gomantak Times 13 July 2011)