Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Portuguese language and the future of Goan Liberation

A popular rhetorical cliché used on the anniversaries of Indian independence, inquires if indeed, we Indians are really free. This cliché urges us to consider independence not as a single moment in time, but as a process towards realizing a utopian society free of all social evils and problems. It would not be out of place therefore, to ask a similar question of Goan liberation, and stress that liberation cannot mean a single moment in time, but must necessarily be seen as a process, of our deepening commitment to the democratic project.

The introduction of Indian democracy to Goa has been an interesting process. Unfortunately however, it has also meant the abandonment, or erasure of the Portuguese language in Goa. It should be stressed however, that the learning of Portuguese by the contemporary Goan, is not unconnected with the larger project of greater democratization of Goan society. On the contrary, the fulfillment of the democratic project is critically tied to more Goans learning and using the Portuguese language.

This stress on the Portuguese language is not to give this language a rightful place in Goan history, nor to legitimize the traits of those Goans who have a marked ‘Portuguese’ aspect in their lifestyle. Such an argument borders on recognizing Portuguese for its value as Portuguese, and does not hold much value from a cultural-nationalist point of view. An argument that would (and should) hold value from a nationalist position, is one that is tied to the manner in which Portuguese is linked to the arrangement of power in contemporary Goan society.

To wholly understand the significance of this argument, it is essential that we underline a well-rehearsed argument; colonialism in any part of the world, and this holds true for Goa as well, was not merely the result of unilateral foreign domination. On the contrary, colonialism persisted thanks to the participation of local elites in the colonial project.  Thus, as English ensured access to power in the colonial British-Indian administration, and education in English models of education ensured participation in the power forms of the British Empire, so too in Goa, the adoption of Portuguese was critical to gaining power not merely in the administrative and political sphere, but also in the social. Righting this balance of power is critical to the democratic project.

In colonial times the Portuguese language was so intimately associated with elite groups, both Hindu as well as Catholic, that the knowledge of Portuguese was, and continues to be, effectively a caste marker of the dominant groups in Goan society. Thus for example, at least among Catholic circles, despite the predominance that English has come to take as a marker of social mobility and status, to come from a ‘Portuguese speaking background’, continues to indicate one’s (longer) privileged location within the hierarchies of Goan Catholic society.  Furthermore, it is not uncommon to have it pointed out, that Portuguese was not a lingua franca within Goa but one largely used by the elites. In making this seemingly innocent factual assertion however, one is simultaneously also subtly marking the boundaries of Portuguese heritage within Goan society. Thus for example, as a result of this logic, it is overwhelmingly the lifestyles and material culture of the landed elite that have been focused on as representations of Indo-Portuguese architecture, while those of the more humble are largely ignored. These demarcations ensure a privileged focus on the lifestyles and material culture of just this small elite segment of Goan Catholic society, casting the rest into a kind of cultural barbarity. Take for example the manner in which the vibrant Tiatr tradition, primarily because it was not, and continues to not be, the entertainment of the Goan elites, is constantly shrugged off as ‘lacking standard’ despite the fact of its stellar role as a medium of social analysis and entertainment. To encourage a broader learning of Portuguese would effectively challenge this link between social status and the language. If more Goans become ‘Portuguese speaking’, it would make nonsense of the ‘Portuguese speaking background’ marker that we currently use, effectively frustrating, albeit partially, the manner in which social difference is articulated today.

More critically, and moving beyond the possibly restricted frames of the Goan Catholic, knowledge of Portuguese was critical to the maintenance of control over the State administration as well as State documentation of land rights. Not a few family, and caste group, fortunes were made by virtue of this restricted access to the language in colonial Goa. Even though English has now replaced Portuguese as a State language; as the continuous stream of persons perusing land records in the State archives in Panjim would indicate, Portuguese continues to be critical to being able to assert, and mask, claims to land. Today, when subaltern groups in contemporary Goa face even an greater threat of access to land rights, it would be a  strategic error to allow control of the interpretation of Portuguese language documents and laws, to be based in the hands of just the few, largely ‘upper’ caste, groups that have resumed learning the Portuguese language.

The popular history of the Portuguese period in Goa has largely been restricted to the gory tales of the initial conquest of the island of Goa, of the Inquisition, and the dramatization of the anti-colonial episodes in the territory’s history. To a large extent, this nationalist history dissuades Hindus from subaltern castes from studying the language. This has ensured that it is solely dominant-caste narratives that are incorporated into the histories of the territory, preventing alternative and liberatory narratives to emerge from a re-reading of the texts and narratives of the period of Portuguese sovereignty over the territory.  It is little known for example, that the knowledge of Portuguese is critical to the bahujan challenge to Hindu upper-caste groups’ monopolistic control of the Goan temples. This monopolistic control of the temples was forged in particular through these latter groups’ knowledge of Portuguese.

Finally, is the argument that rests on the recognition that the emergence of equality is facilitated when there is parity in representational power. While a number of Portuguese scholars work on Goan history and society, it is extremely difficult to find Goan scholars who work on explaining Portuguese society, and its history unrelated to Goa. When we are able to effectively build up this band of scholars, who can represent the workings of the Portuguese to Goa, India, and the world; and engage in Portugal’s press and academy, with their representations of Goa; then we would lay the definitive foundations for greater equality between the two spaces. To do this however, requires that the Goan learn Portuguese.

For these reasons therefore, the learning of Portuguese by the contemporary Goan, is an essential component of our democratic project that the action of the Indian Union in December 1961 sought to forward.

(Published in the commemorative section of the O Heraldo 19 Dec 2011)

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