Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Heads or Tails? : This farce of good governance vs. corruption

And so it has come to pass, that the contest for the constitution of the Goa State legislative assembly, has been cast as the choice between corruption and its alleged polar opposite of good governance. We should bear in mind, that this ridiculously simplistic and erroneous equation has been made possible as a result of that tainted agitation of some months ago, the Hazare drama. This equation is ridiculous not because the Congress-wallas are lambs bleating at the altar of the common good; after all, who can deny that they are, almost to the last of them, wolves. This equation is ridiculous because ‘corruption’ emanates not from a party, but from the political and executive process in which we are all immured. Should the BJP be elected, there is no doubt that one will be witness to similar levels of hand-over-fist looting of the public treasury. It is hilarious infact, that the BJP can make it sanctimonious positions when some of its candidates are not just miners, but builders as well, when some of the individuals contesting on the BJP-alliance tickets, were in fact indicted in the PAC reported tom-tomed by Mr. Parrikar.

To certain segments of the population, the BJP’s claim to Good Governance rests on the unsullied reputation (in matters of graft that is) of its ‘Chief Ministerial candidate’ Mr. Manohar Parrikar. They present a list of impressive developmental works that he undertook for the city of Panjim, both during his stint at CM and subsequently as MLA. In the course of his term (or was it reign?) as CM too, they point to the simplicity of his life-style and his blemish-less personal track record. Commonspeak has it that indeed Mr. Parrikar is above reproach, not a single paisa entered his personal estate. The same commonspeak however suggests that his position as CM influenced the coffers of the Party. On this front, there is a lot of suggestion that indeed, figures were hiked, and contracts offered to party favourites, so that the party coffers and favourites might prosper.

The issue that emerges therefore, and one that we should take seriously, if corruption is being made the issue, is not only of fiscal corruption, but moral corruption as well. While the above scenario, of using his public office to benefit the party would come under such scrutiny, one must also examine the political ideology of the BJP, which in itself is fairly corrupt. The reference ofcourse is to the saffron agenda of making India a Hindu state.

Now Mr. Parrikar has been reported to have publicly acknowledged that the sectarian actions of his previous tenure as CM, was the result of ‘bad advice’. He vows not to repeat this ‘mistake’again. This is a rather large herring to swallow however. Given the manner in which we sneer at the ‘uneducated’ persons getting tickets on the Congress train, one does not expect a focused and educated individual such as Mr. Parrikar to be so easily swayed by ‘advice’. Perhaps Mr. Parrikar is using a euphemism, and what he means by advice, is in fact pressure; from his associates, both from within the BJP as well as his parent organization, the RSS.

Let us change track for just a moment and have a look at the track record of the BJP in one of the two states that have been racked by communal tensions; Gujarat and Karnataka. A recentreport on the saffronisation in Karnataka in the Tehelka points out that in 2008, “Once the BJP government was installed, it had a choice between broad-based development of the state and consolidation of the Sangh structure. Four years on, it’s obvious which path was chosen. In its first year itself, the government had given evidence of its agenda. Bajrang Dal activists attacked churches, with the administration scarcely taking stern action. The question of whether the government would rein in extremist elements was answered in the negative.”  There is every fear of such a systematic consolidation of the Sangh structure taking place in Goa if it comes within the shade of the saffron umbrella. Hark back to episode, where on the course of his tenure as CM, government-run schools were handed over to the ‘NGO’ Vidya Bharathi. Vidya Bharati it turned out was an RSS outfit. An outfit prone to tailoring the teaching of history towards Hindutva designs, and cultivating all manner of sectarian myths about non-Hindus. Such actions are hardly the result of bad advice that one can ignore. It is the result of a deliberate, calculated policy of the entire Sangh structure that the BJP is a part of. Such a careful scheme of deliberately poisoning the social environment of the state and country, cannot be excluded from the ambit of corruption. On this count, the BJP cannot, under any circumstance excuse itself from the charge of being corrupt.

There is another count on which when examining the reputation of Mr. Parrikar, the BJP fails to match up to its rhetoric of good governance. Mr. Parrikar’s term in office was likened to a reign. Like absolute monarch, Mr. Parrikar is reported to have done exactly what he felt needed to be done. Of course, given our ‘democratic’ times, he would be more likely compared to a fast and efficient, CEO. Good governance however, is emphatically not only about efficiency, it is also about consultation and partnership, values that are widely felt to have been markedly absent in the course of Mr. Parrikar’s term in office. Indeed, it is not surprising that it is precisely the Catholic business (and feudal) classes that feel attracted to Mr. Parrikar, and would be willing to overlook his rightist tendencies. The larger neo-liberal environment within which we live privileges such autonomous action that favours technical and authoritarian resolutions of problems, forgetting the more important fact that institutions alone cannot resolve problems.  Take the naïve claims of the India Against Corruption, an in effect right-leaning association, that seems to think that corruption is some switch that people turn on to get jobs done, and all we need is a Lok Ayukta to turn that switch off and resolve the corruption problem. Social problems emerge from a plethora of social issues, and these must be addressed, one problem at a time.

A continued interaction between individuals and associations is fundamental to the elaboration of good governance. No matter how loathsome the politics of Mr. Digambar Kamat, the man has always remained approachable. One may not get a response, but one gets a hearing; a scenario which has markedly absent from the workings of Mr. Parrikar. This lack of a hearing bears out, given the kind of cultic image that has been built around the man. All-knowing, all-capable (and all-powerful) why was there a need for civil society when he knew what you needed and how it needed to be done? The absence of a space for civil society and the dominance of the cult figure is not a mark of good governance; it is a mark of the fascist polity.

There is another argument that needs to be made in light of this building up of a personality cult around Mr.Parrikar. The man is no longer addressed as just a man, but per force becomes, as in this column, the target for the large claims that are being made on his behalf. Such a depersonalisation is deeply unfortunate, tragic even, given that Parrikar the man, as I would personally be able to attest, when relating with an individual in need, is a profoundly generous person.
In conclusion, the point has to be stressed that this column is not an argument in favour of the Congress (I), it is a plea against reducing the upcoming election to just good –governance or corruption. To quote a friend, ‘elections are fought and won on multiple considerations which go beyond communalism or corruption’. This is to say that an election is not an either-or game decided between good governance and corruption. There are plenty of other considerations that we need to consider. To ignore these considerations, is to engage in a very dangerous game of simplification. A game that later generations will eventually hold us accountable for.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 29 Feb 2012)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Cooking ‘Indian’ in Lisbon

They say that when you step outside your country, you are in fact an ambassador of your people to the world. This must be true, for why else, would they ask you for example, which are the best Indian restaurants in Lisbon? You are expected to know, whether intuitively, or through sniffing out to satiate home-sickness, the institutions and elements in a foreign city that incarnate the homeland when one is away. The problem with this little Indian however, is that he stoutly refuses to go to a.n.y. Indian restaurant in Lisbon. He will have none of it. The reason for this refusal to visit or patronize the Indian restaurants in Lisbon is quite an involved story.

To begin with, these ‘Indian’ restaurants in Lisbon are something of a play-on-words. Invariably run by Bangladeshis, or Pakistanis, they could more appropriately be called South-Asian, or sub-continental kitchens. To call them ‘Indian’ is to stretch political boundaries to unholy limits on the one hand, and to further encourage continental (European that is) fuzziness of the world outside of Europe on the other.To further complicate this mess is the fact that these ‘Indian’ restaurants serve up a strange mélange. They call it Indian, but the food served is really that strange version of Punjabi food, that perhaps even those in the Punjabs (on both sides of the Radcliffe line) do not consume on a daily basis. Within this state-of-affairs therefore, one would hardly go to an ‘Indian’ restaurant to relive the flavours of one’s home, or capture the blessed scents of one’s maternal kitchen.  One would rather just cook up, or valiantly attempt at any rate, to concoct the ambrosian delights that mother manages to unfailing produce each day. If the process of cooking itself is therapeutic, then what could resolve the aching nostalgia for home, than to pound, grind and fry one’s pining away? Furthermore, there seems to be a curious pattern to the dishes that are served up in these restaurants. Order as many dishes as you like, the flavour of these dishes seem to vacillate between a restricted set of flavours; perhaps four to five. When one eats as a good amount of sub-continentals do, by mixing various foods together, reveling in the surprises that explode in one’s mouth, this lack of variety can be quite a buzz-kill.

There is one more reason why one would not like to go to a sub-continental kitchen when in Lisbon (or in any other part of the great ‘White’ world for that matter). Invariably, your companions summon the waiter and indicate that they would like their food spicy, ‘Extra spicy!!’ One gets the impression at these events that the point of the meal at the Indian restaurant is not to enjoy the varied and often delicate spicing that sub-continental food can provide, but to prove, through a trial by fire, just how ‘native’ these white folks really are. Not amusing. Not amusing at all!

If you do want to know where to get the nicest, Indian food in Lisbon however, you are in luck. The nicest, sweetest smelling dal is served up at the canteen of the Hindu temple in Telheiras.  To go by, on a cold winter’s day, and plunge your fingers into the dal-chaval, and wolf down the accompanying veggies is to transport yourself in an instant, away from the world of the Atlantic, to a place only you know, realizing in that instant, the meaning of the term ‘comfort-food’.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 19 Feb 2012)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Post Christian dilemmas: Looking Christ talking Caesar

On the fourth of February, the Archbishop Emeritus Raul Gonsalves released a book authored by Fr. Desmond de Souza on the social teachings of the Church. Titled ‘The Concerned Face of the Church’, the Catholic Association of Goa, under whose aegis the book was released, invited John Dayal, a nationally recognized Catholic activist to deliver the key-note address. Dayal began his address by pointing to a rather disturbing observation. He pointed out that the Catholic Church in India has educated a number of Indians, rich and poor, contributing immensely to the rising of this nation. However, when Christian religious are murdered, raped and harassed, when Christians are attacked and their property destroyed, one does not hear a single voice of protest from any of these non-Catholic educated. Perhaps Dayal overstated him case while making this broad claim. Surely there has been at least one, if not a handful of Hindu voices that have joined their voice to the chorus of Christian protests. There was an element of an ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ through the course of Dayal’s address that was deeply problematic, bordering on what some would call communal. However, if one does not make the broad sweep that Dayal did, but look at the issue more broadly, he does have a point. Why is it that it is the very people who have been educated by educational institutions of the Church are very often the ones instigating hatred for the Indian non-Hindu?

Dayal had an answer for this dilemma, and his answer credited the fact that we, ‘the Church’, were seen by these recipients of Christian caritas as service-providers. In the minds of the vast majority of this country, non-Catholic and Catholic, these Christian educational institutions were seen merely as service-providers. The recipients of Catholic education had received education yes, but they had also paid a fee for their education; the debt, as they saw it therefore, was discharged. Connecting with the theme of the book that was being released, the social teachings of the Church; in his analysis of the problem, Dayal argued that we ought to take the Christian understanding of the word service more seriously. Christian service was not merely a commodity that was up for sale, but an overflowing of caritas, a virtue that combined love and charity, a sentiment that he argued was uniquely Christian.

There were a couple of things however that Dayal did not do in his analysis of a genuine problem. First, he did not question the complicity that the Catholic Church in India has developed with nationalism. Much Catholic education is equally twined with the cause of making India the nation great, rather than focusing solely on developing the spiritual character of the student. As Christ told us so many millennia ago, one cannot serve both Caesar and God. In the moment of truth, one has to choose between the two. Secondly, Dayal did not ask the caste question. He did not ask how the fact that the overwhelming majority of students of Christian educational institutions are in fact persons from upper/ dominant caste groups, and how these people have a sense of entitlement impacts on the situation. They see themselves as natural leaders, born to rule the nation, and as such expect to be catered to. This is their right. This column will not explore the second question; it has expended much space on this question, and thus will look at the first.

Addressing the first question requires us to return to take a look at some of the other persons who spoke at the release of the book. The voice the author, Fr. de Souza, in particular stood out. Fr. de Souza indicated that for a long time the teachings of Christ discordant with the status-quo were torn off from the teachings of the Church and cast into a waste-bin. From this waste-bin they were found by Karl Marx and reintroduced into the world as an emancipatory agenda for the masses. If the Church can be held guilty of having abandoned one facet of the teachings of Christ, then the Marxists were guilty of ignoring the other facet, that which stayed in the books. After the II Vatican Council, there was in some quarters an unhealthy over-dependence on these Marxian principles to interpret the Christian mission. It was this imbalance that could be credited with having robbed the Christian service of the element of mission.

There is another link with this story however that must be told, and this is the manner in which the understanding of mission itself had changed for some time before the II Vatican Council. Moving away from the more orthodox view that the Christian mission was about the conversion of souls; inspired by the work of Gustav Warneck a Protestant theologian, the Church adopted the plantio principle. This principle understood "Christian Mission" to mean "the totality of an action which is aimed at planting and organizing the Christian Church among non-Christians." In addition, this principle called for 'a systematic spreading of the visible Church through deep-rooted measures which would lead to the emergence of local clergies and hierarchies in the Missions'. For most of the Anglo-American and German Protestant mission theoreticians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the goal of the Mission therefore was the establishment of independent local Churches. The stress therefore was not on the catechumenate, but rather activities which would lead to the organization of an indigenous clergy, a task which would not be thought of without education and the school.

Catholicism’s own foray into this principle came via the efforts of Fr. Pierre Charles S.J. who pointed out that 'One may reply that because the goal of the mission is to convert pagans, we establish schools in order to bring about conversion and to entice to our missionary enterprise those who would otherwise not come to us and listen to us in our churches. But this answer would rather be grotesque. The goal of the mission is not only to convert the unbelievers; it is also to sustain and ameliorate the converts....If you teach arithmetic, it is your duty to make sure that your pupils also comprehend [and utilize] it; otherwise do not teach it....The religious objective simply disappears and is superseded by a humanitarian goal. You may entertain the secret hope that your educational effort may produce religious results, but you should not make that hope the primary motive of your enterprise...'

Caught up in the anti-colonialist and nationalist fervor of those times, these efforts received Papal blessing even before the II Vatican Council. As we can see however, both from the quote from Fr. Charles as well as from Dayal’s reflections, the religious objective of mission (that is not merely restricted to conversion, but Christian witnessing) came to be superseded by the humanitarian goal, that in turn, with the materialist emphasis since the Vatican Council has been cannibalized by the human goal, namely nationalism. Inspired by such ideas, the works of great Catholic educationists in India, such as Fr. Heras S.J., was to produce not just good souls, but great Indians. Indeed the Xavier’s College in Bombay was indeed the location of nationalist struggle as the efforts of these priests worked to convince Goan students then of their Indian, not Portuguese identity (which is not to suggest that their Portuguese identity was any more real than their sub-continental one).

In sum, the problem that Dr. Dayal raised must seriously address fundamental questions that get occluded when we uncritically embrace the more materialist interpretations of the social teachings of the Church. In the face of aggressive nationalism these questions may not be easy to address, but we stand the greater risk of falling into uncritical minoritarianism if we fail in this regard.

(Most of the quotations in this text are from  Omenka, Nicholas Ibeawuchi. 1989. The School in the Service of Evangelization: The Catholic Educational Impact in Eastern Nigeria, 1886-1950. BRILL.)

(A version of this post was first published on the Gomantak Times dtd 8 Feb 2012)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Monsoon Nostalgia

A couple of years ago, when I announced to a Portugal-familiar friend that I was soon to leave for Portugal, arriving there in September, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind. ‘But why September? You do realize it’s going to be raining cats and dogs then?’ He had a point, as, captured in the Portuguese proverb,’Chuvas verdadeiras, em Setembro as primeiras’, September marks the end of the Portuguese summer, and as if on clockwork, it pours come the first weeks of September.

This letter is not going to be about the Portuguese summer, there will be other times for that happy season. Though terribly out of sync with the calendar, this letter is to be about the autumn rains of September that draw watery curtains down on the holiday month of August. For a couple of years now,  while the rest of Portugal  sighs, folds away their summer clothes and begins to air their winter clothes,  the south Asian peasant heart that beats in my chest begins to trill its monsoon song. 

If you have invested a sufficient amount of energy in those romantic poetic tropes, that celebrate the weariness of the Indian summer and the dramatic break of the monsoon, then you know that once one is so invested, there is no way you can suffer the monsoon without also looking forward with increasing expectation for the monsoon to slake both earth and our fevered brains. The drilling beat of the monsoon rains is as much part of the experience as the cool that the sheets of water bring.

Sometimes I wonder if I would ever be able to encounter Portugal’s autumn rains on terms other than sub-continental. The sweet coolness that these rains bring after the not-to-be-laughed-at baking  summer afternoons evoke in this turned-towards-the-Atlantic-planted-garden sweet memories of monsoons in Bangalore. The rains are still warm, but the caress of the breeze cool and soft to the touch, and one could still run around with one’s shirt sleeves rolled up, the dread of heavy winter woolens still far, far away. Indeed if one is lucky, one can also smell the very same eucalyptus, that were planted as mistakenly in Portugal as they were across India, and especially in Bangalore.

Encountering the rains (Portuguese or otherwise) in a South Asian manner also involves greeting them with song.  From out of the internet and personal archives then come the Malhar and the Des raags, the songs of Khusro, and the sawaan geet of the North. To these South Asian choices however a couple of mood and monsoon appropriate fados have also now made their way. And as the rain lashes down, drenching the earth, saudades is reinvented to mean not the South Asian’s longing for a Portuguese metropole, but a Portuguese metropolitan’s longing for South Asia.

Romance however can only take you so far. Some hours of the music, more than a couple of weeks of the rain, the setting in of winter, and the rains begin to lose the charm with which they flounced in at the start of September.  It is then, that this tropical South Asian begins to clamour for the sun, yearns to be buffeted by the warm winds that coast off the Arabian sea, and thinks to himself; ‘Yes, it is about time we bought that ticket back home for Christmas.’

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dtd 5 Feb 2012)