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)

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