Saturday, March 31, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The Looking Glass

The entry of Europeans into Japan, in the sixteenth century, as traders and proselytizers, resulted in what is called Namban art, a response of Japanese artists to the novelties that they (and their noble Japanese patrons) were witness to as a result of this presence. Of the various productions of this art style, it is the Namban screens that are perhaps the most popular, or widely known, representatives of this style.  Composed of multiple panels, these folding screens depict the most quotidian scenes in the most exquisite manner, stylizing trees, waves, and ships, and setting the whole lacquered scene against gilded backgrounds. It was the image of these screens that formed the immediate frame of reference on encountering one of the acclaimed wonders of the main auditorium of the Gulbenkian Foundation

Many were the stories that I had heard of the glory of this hall. To understand the wonder of this hall however, some amount of context would help. CalousteSarkis Gulbenkian was an Armenian businessman, who gained phenomenal amounts of wealth as a result of his interventions in the petroleum industry. On his death, he established a trust, now the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which is one of the most substantial private foundations in Portugal. The Foundation has its seat amidst a complex of auditoria, art galleries and auditoria, all of which sit within a garden that covers around 7.5 acres. The garden, designed by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreiro, is a joy to behold.  Partaking of some of the stylized forms of pleasure gardens of the Far East, the garden teems with babbling brooks, quacking ducks and bird-song, even as it uses shrubs and foliage to play with our sense of space and create the illusion of a vast garden paradise.

It is within this setting then that the buildings of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation are located, very much like gems, within a worthy setting.  These buildings do not just sit within the park however, but interact with it, portions of the garden entering within the built complex, through internal courtyard gardens, the themes of water that mark the park substantially commencing from some of the buildings. And most significantly of all, the back of the stage of the main auditorium within this set of buildings, opens out to give members of the audience a view of the gardens beyond and at times, to integrate the scene behind this glass, into the performance itself.

It was this view that forced the metaphor of the Namban screen that commences this column. Like a Namban screen, the glass-wall of the auditorium is composed of multiple segments; seven in this case, thus creating the sense of being in the presence of a trompe l'oeil. But this is the kind of trompe l'oeil, that every artist would seek to accomplish, yet few could ever accomplish. In this case what one views, is not the representation of an image that fools the eye of the spectator, but indeed a vision of the image itself, framed by the wood paneling of the auditorium and captured via glass. What is perhaps most charming about this vision however is that based on one’s location within the auditorium, the image that one’s view changes. One could gaze either upon a cluster of trees, a concert of greens, silver and brown, that with illumination seems to partake of the character of the original Namban screens, or gaze upon the large pond that forms a part of the landscape of the garden.

For those that suggest that culture consists of a give and take, then the Namban frame of reference that suggested itself at the Gulbenkian, may perhaps give weight to this assertion.

(A version of this post first appeared in the O Heraldo dated 1 April 2012)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lux in tenebris: Mathany Saldanha and the projects of his day

The loss of Mathany Saldanha is indeed a great loss for Goan civil society. By all accounts, Goa has lost a principled man of politics, one who rather than acting merely for a private or familial interest, had the larger interests of society at heart. In an age when ideology seems dead, it appears as if the death of Mathany Saldanha has taken away from us almost all hope of an ideologically driven politics. It is thus with heavy heart that we must mourn the death of Mathany Saldanha, who leaves us as it were in tenebris.

The death of this clearly inspirational figure must not however prevent us from asking questions about some of the decisions that he took in his long life as an activist. Two questions stand above all in my mind; the first, when it should be so obvious that ‘Special status’ for Goa is not going to resolve any of Goa’s problems, why did Mathany Saldanha commit so much passion for it? The second question that emerges is, why did Saldanha, rather than remain the principled independent, join forces with the BJP, not once, but twice?

A more cynical response to the second question is the one given when most marginalized figures join dominant power blocs. Starved of executive power for so long, they are willing to make compromise with even the devil to be able to get into power and convert into reality their vision for the space they represent.  When Mathany Saldanha has been lionized by so many as not one to compromise, this answer does not seem to hold much water. Perhaps a look at the life of the man would provide us with other possible answers.

If we look back into the life of Mathany Saldanha, and to the moment when as leader of the ramponcars’ agitation, he appeared on the stage as an activist to reckon with, we see that it was not merely formal equality that he was looking for, but internal equity.  This involvement was subsequently followed by his role in the Konkani language movement in the 1980’s, the Meta-Strips opposition of the 1990’s, and more recently the mass mobilization against the SEZs, one of the many movements that lent palpability to the call to arms to ‘Save Goa’. Finally was his support for the demand for ‘Special Status’, a demand that has gained much strength from the ‘Save Goa’ cry. What becomes obvious when we look at this long string of associations, is that these were not merely isolated events that he associated with, but part of a larger commitment to the issue of citizenship in Goa. This is to say, Mathany Saldanha was involved in a larger project of renegotiating the citizenship pact in Goa, the relationship between the Goan and the State (be it the regional level, or at the national); and the relationship between and among Goans.

Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that what exactly we mean by ‘Special Status’ has not as yet been clearly outlined in any public debate. All we have so far are emotive calls that assure us that things for Goa will be much better, that it will be saved in fact, by the acquisition of Special Status. What we do know however, is that the demand for Special Status is one that cannot simply be wished into existence, it requires an amendment to the Constitution of the country. To be sure,  this is merely an amendment, if the demand for Special Status is on par with the kinds of special status that have been granted to other territories within the country (though ‘ofcourse’ not including Kashmir). However, it should be emphasized that the Constitution is not merely a document containing administrative clauses that can be modified this way and that, depending on the mood of the moment. On the contrary, the Constitution is the singular document that embodies the kind of relationship that we enjoy with the State, and with each other, as individuals, and as communities.

If one keeps this equation in mind, then perhaps Mathany Saldanha’s association with the BJP begins to make sense. Perhaps the single most important project, at least in terms of citizenship, that the BJP was involved with when it was in power in the Centre between 1999 and 2004 was an attempt to renegotiate the State-citizen compact in Indian republic. The Constitution Review Commission, that was set up by the BJP-led NDA government in Feb 2000 was a signal part of this effort. The reason for the Commission was ostensibly ‘examine the experience of the past fifty years to better achieve the ideals enshrined in the Constitution’. The unilateral move by the NDA government raised a hue and cry across the country, not only for the manner in which this process was initiated, but because the government had failed to specify clearly what exactly were the issues that required changes in the Constitution. What was clearly hanging in the background were statements by the BJP’s ideological partners, the RSS and the VHP that have often called for changes in the Constitution to make it more representative of the Indian ethos.

Even though the NDA government assured its critics that it had no intention of tampering with the basic structure of the Constitution, one has to keep in mind, that such issues as secularism, that forms a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, are not terms frozen in stone, but open to interpretation. A good number of scholars of secularism, have pointed out, that the BJP is not against secularism, where the concept separates State from church (or religious bodies). What some segments of this body are opposed to are a secularism that recognizes that different communities are placed differently in society and require differential (while remaining equal) treatment. The term that they gave to this at the time, was ‘pseudo-secularism’. These segments would rather ignore the fact of real differences in society and treat unequal people, equally. Furthermore, what these groups would like to see is the enforcement of the secularist agenda along radically different lines. One, where the secular citizen is understood as the  upper-caste Hindutva subject, and all other 'communal' groups required to conform to such standards as would be comfortable to this upper-caste Hindutva subject. The presence of cultural difference then would not be tolerated, as is currently the case.

A review, or change in the Constitution, and in the citizenship relation of the people of India with each other, and the Indian State, are clearly a larger part of the BJP’s national agenda. Mathany Saldanha’s agenda, even if directed towards different, nore local, intentions, twined with this larger agenda. Indeed, from among the basket of arguments often forwarded when making the claim for 'Special Status', is the argument that Goa had no representation in the Constituent Assembly when the Constitution was being framed.It would have made sense therefore for him to lend his might (and it has to be recognized that it was he that was lending might to the BJP, and not necessarily the other way around) to the BJP. The question that we need to ask however, and one that I regret not being able to ask Mathany Saldanha directly, is;  is it worthwhile taking this risk? The risk is that, for the goal of gaining ‘Special Status’ within the Union, a remedy whose potential benefits have not yet been effectively ascertained, we may be aligning ourselves with a power that will use our power and voices, to effect larger changes. These changes, it must be recognized will not be in the larger interests of the Indian population, and will radically change the nature of the Indian citizenship compact.

Mathany Saldanha began his career with a commitment to internal equity, and it is my belief, that if he were to contemplate deeply the larger impacts of his commitments, whether to the BJP, or the demand for ‘Special Status’, he may have changed his mind. There are times, when our love blinds us. In this case, perhaps it was his love for Goa (and Goans) that blinded this Prince of Patriots to the larger implications of his move. We need not be guided by his possible errors however, but by the larger principles by which he led his life.

Mathany Saldanha, may you rest in peace.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 30 March 2012)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Intimacy equation: Chamber concerts and the sound of music

The ‘Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci’, an oil on canvas, hanging in the halls of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin is one the more famous works of the German master Adolph von Menzel. The work depicts the intimate circle of Frederick the Great of Prussia, gathered in one of the halls of the palace Sanssouci, listening to a flute concert performed by the Prussian King. Sanssouci was built by Frederick as a getaway from the pressures and crowds at court, and this work captures that spirit of Sanssouci perfectly,embracing the small audience (of ten persons) and its  six performers tightly within the aura of light generated by a couple of candles and a single chandelier above.

Though the audience was somewhat larger than that the audience depicted in Flute Concert, there was something of this sense of intimacy at a concert of three young sopranos trained by Dona Juliana De Sa. Perhaps numbering not more than a hundred odd, the audience was gathered in the handsomely proportioned hall, which operates sometimes as music room, sometimes as art gallery, in CasteloVermelho, the home of the artiste couple Rudolf Kammermeier and Yolanda De Souza.

As with the Flute Concert what marked this special concert was the intimacy of the gathering, of artistes within breathing distance of their audience, reaching out to each other in the course of performance, and the blessed absence of amplified sound. What this concert, and other concerts that have been held at Castelo Vermelho, do, is to draw our attention to the possibilities of chamber music. A fledgling group of Carnatic musicians in Madras, the ‘Oli Chamber Concerts’ team, has recently taken up the cause of chamber concerts for Carnatic music in that city, arguing that “We do not use any kind of amplification…. A mike is used only to record the concerts. With a smaller and serious audience we hope to explore themes that cannot be explored in a sabha concert”.

There is unfortunately a whiff of elitism in the reported statement from the Oli team. While the Oli team may be right about the possibility of exploring themes in the presence of a ‘smaller and serious’ audience, we should also recognize that chamber concerts for reason of their size can also be the perfect locations to nurture a taste for classical music, and be a space for education. Indeed, one of the exciting features of the concerts at Castelo Vermelho is the fact that it takes place in Calangute, opening an opportunity for those who may not be able to travel with ease to Panjim, where so much cultural activity is often trapped. There was something of an attempt toward this spreading of seed away from Panjim, in the concerts that featured the soprano Joanne D’Mello in various village locations, one of them being the Mae de Deus Church in Saligao. Also, the concerts held as part of the Casa da Moeda Festival in Panjim. What separates these efforts however, from a chamber concert, is the attempt to fit every person who lands up within the chamber, a sentiment that while eminently hospitable, may somewhat draw from the comfort necessary to create that aura of intimacy in a chamber concert. To be sure the concerts at the village churches and the Casa da Moeda festival do not intend to be chamber concerts, and neither should they feel obliged to. These efforts however, in moving away from large halls, underline the possibility, of hosting small music concerts, bereft of amplified sound in the halls of so many homes across Goa. Indeed, some of my own more memorable musical memories come from my experiences at the Guruvar Mandal in Hyderabad. Hosted in a modest-sized home in Hyderabad’s Chikkadpally neighbourhood, the Mandal meets every Thursday, and offers the music of the session to the deity Dattatreya, as also a homage to the teachers of the musicians who perform at these intimate sessions.

If the flow of emotion between performer and audience is one of the benefits of the chamber concert then there was one event, held in the Dinanath Mangueshkar Auditorium in the Kala Academy, that may have benefited tremendously from the ambience of a chamber concert. The memorial concert to Lea Rangel-Ribeiro held on the 22 of February 2012 seemed to have been done a great disservice by the choice of its location. The concert featured works that were especially dear to the departed Lea Rangel-Ribeiro, and were played (and conducted) with great emotion by her husband and daughter. However a good amount of this feeling was lost thanks to the distance between performers and audience, a loss amplified by the unfortunately small turnout at the concert. Perhaps a smaller location, not necessarily more exclusive, as the Oli team suggests, but more intimate may have been a better location for this event?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to that touchy question of size. Less is more, and, More is More. The chamber concert, it would appear, would definitely tilt on the side of less is more. Without resolving that grand debate therefore, let us cross our fingers, and request, more, chamber concerts, in our blessed land!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 21 March 2012)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Building impressions

Remonstrated an elderly friend in Lisbon, “These days, it is fashionable to decry everything from the time of the Estado Novo as bad! This is simply not true!” Without pronouncing on whether the Estado Novo was a paragon of virtue and has an undeservedly bad reputation, one could agree that there are things one could appreciate from the Estado Novo

In matters of the built form for example, there is much that one has to appreciate (if one can separate the form from the authoritarian socio-political context that gave birth to it). The constructions of the Estado Novo are often examples to behold. Solid, monumentalist structures, these buildings were very much influenced by the European fashions of the times, whether it was the Iberian styles favoured in Franco’s Spain, or the tough, no-nonsense, forms of Stalinist architecture And yet, not everything that the Estado Novo produced was (or is) worthy of delirious acclaim. Take Portugal dos Pequenitos for example.

Portugal dos Pequenitos, or Portugal of the little ones, is an architectural theme park in the historic city of Coimbra. Set up in 1940, the park is a mélange of scaled miniature replicas of a variety of monuments and buildings that constituted Portugal in 1940. Thus, one has representations of; the famous monuments within continental Portugal, homes from different regions in continental Portugal, as well as monuments, or other built forms from what were then Portuguese territories spread across the world. The objective seems to have been to stamp in the minds of the young, and those of infantile imaginations, the grand diversity that was Portugal, underlining the refrain of the time Portugal não é um país pequeno” (Portugal is not a small country).

Rather than constitute buildings in their entirety however, the theme park focuses on particularly noteworthy features of buildings, and incorporates them into single constructions. The result can be quite overwhelming, like eating too much of a rich dessert (Portuguese desserts are particularly heavy, but this is another matter), forcing one, after a point, to effect a quick escape from the place. But then, given that the visiting children, the park’s intended audience, don’t seem to suffer from such affected sensibilities, perhaps if some want to effect quick escapes, they are welcome to?

If there is one particularly embarrassing portion of the park, then it has to be the entrance to the park, that is constituted, or was at the time of my visit some years ago, of towering statutes of muscular ‘African’ men depicted from the waist up, arms crossed over their chests. In a politically correct age, when we do not engaged in racialised depictions of persons, where the ‘African’ as the ‘savage’ with thick red lips is definitely not a polite representation, this reception to the park is quite horrific. Perhaps, however, the answer to this debacle is not to get rid of them, but to place those statues in the context of its time, highlighting the racialised understandings of the Estado Novo).

In racial terms, what should please the activists of Goa Indica, is that when one excitedly runs over to the representative models from (Portuguese) India, it is not the Arch of the Viceroys that stands out, but the representation of Goan temple towers, and a building that looks like a blend between temple and mosque. It seems that, contrary to popular opinion, the Estado Novo, was also at pains to recognize the presence of non-Christians in its most symbolic overseas possession. So much for the Estado Novo.

(A version of this post first appeared in the O Herald dated 18 March 2012)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Grave violations: Looking beyond the obvious

In its reported response to the violations in Curchorem, the Archdiocese has rather appropriately advised restraint in expressing their “justified anger”.  We could quibble however, over the emotion that is being referenced. Should we be angry? Or should we be upset and hurt? Anger seems to suggest a certain right to retaliation, one that in this case we have been asked to necessarily restrain. Hurt on the other hand seems to be more appropriate since it suggests the vulnerability of the person who has been the victim of the attack, while opening up, in a rather Christian manner, the possibility for reconciliation, necessary to sustain the environment for happy coexistence in the State.

However, this column would not like to dwell on semantics, nor on an exploration of the appropriate emotional response open to a Catholic in this situation. What this column would rather do is explore the explanations that are being provided for the unhappy incident in Curchorem. The logical response has been that such actions could not possibly be the work of the BJP, therefore, it must be the handiwork of the Congress, smarting under the humiliation of their rejection at the polls. The deplorable actions in Curchorem, this strand of logic informs us, were an attempt to embarrass Mr. Manohar Parrikar, our Chief Minister, and send a warning to the electorate ‘be prepared for the mess that you have invited upon yourselves’.

This could be one explanation. However this should not limit the field of possibilities that we entertain. Any investigation, criminal or social, should ideally open itself up to all possibilities, even the improbable if it would like to ensure a clearer conceptualization of the subject. This is what this column will attempt. If commonsense tells us that the BJP would not engage in such an obviously ill-timed exploit, and therefore it must be the work of the Congress party, then this column will go on to contradict commonsense and suggest some counter-intuitive possibilities.

This exploration must begin however may suggesting that it would indeed be ridiculous to suggest Mr. Parrikar’s hand in the affair. The suggestion must come not because we know Mr. Parrikar is clever enough to not encourage such an action so soon after his election, but because we know, from personal and private estimations of Mr. Parrikar, that he would not stoop to such a possibility. Mr. Parrikar may have an ideological agenda rooted in the vision of the saffron organizations in the country, but it appears that this vision extends to the centrality of the Hindu as a citizen of this country, and a disciplining of the population to making them have a sense of civic consciousness. We can dispense then, with the thought of Mr. Parrikar being culpable.

We could also perhaps dispense with the possibility that the BJP, at an organizational level has had any hand in the actions in Curchorem. To be sure, one can suggest that the BJP orchestrated this entire event so as to show up the CM as a caring man, outraged by the incident and thus gain brownie points.  This possibility is too patently bizarre to contemplate, and if true, would be simply grotesque. If such be the case, we would as a society (not merely as Catholics and Muslims) have to really gird our loins for the storm that should come. For now, this seems unlikely.

There is a need however, for the popular imagination to make a distinction between the BJP as an organization, an electoral party that seeks to come to power on a certain agenda, with a vision that has definite supporters, and other right-wing Hindutva organizations. We often make the mistake of assuming that the BJP is representative of the big bad guy. This would perhaps, be a conceptual error. We have to recognize that with the successful rooting of the Hindutva ideology in the Indian polity there are many more players in the field than just the BJP.

Let us take the example of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene. We cannot forget the incident in 2009 where the Sene rose to national attention for beating-up women and men, for engaging in the un-Indian activity of women drinking in pubs. The question we need to ask is how far was the Ram Sene under the control (at an organizational level) of the BJP, or indeed even of the RSS? Similarly, let us take the examples of the bomb blasts that have been occurring all across the country, whether in Hyderabad, or Pune, or Malegaon, where the perpetrators have been (surprise, surprise) not Muslim fundamentalist groups, but Hindu fundamentalist (Hindutva) groups like the Abhinav Bharat. We could even look to occurrences in Goa where the works of Dr. Subodh Kerkar, celebrating the diversity of the Ganesh icon, was met with a violent response by the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti. In a highly volatile, and politically competitive, environment, how obedient are these groups to the BJP or the RSS, even if they are linked, at some organizational, or ideological level?

In such a situation, could we postulate that these diverse saffron groups (and they are very active in Goa) have equated the BJP victory with the raising of the saffron flag over Goa, and are now flexing their muscles, assuming their protection by the BJP controlled governmental apparatus? Goa’s case is different (as we as a society are so fond of repeating) but in light of the State’s quiet acquiescence, both in Gujarat and in Karnataka, these groups would have good reason to believe that it is open season for minority hunting, and that the State machinery will not necessarily act on them. Curchorem is not a bad place to symbolically and effectively begin such hunting given the manner in which sectarian tensions have been systematically stoked in that little town.

In conclusion, it may very well be that the whole episode is, as word on the street goes, a Congress orchestrated incident to upset the new balance of power in the State. However, any good investigation would explore all possible options, and as was pointed out in an earlier column, we need to be aware that there is more to politics that elections, and that the diversity of political players is not exhausted by political parties, and that the contests in our country and our state are not exhausted by a simple binary exhausted in the Congress-BJP rivalry.

If indeed it turns out that the incident in Curchorem was the result of Hindutva groups, then the Parrikar government would have one more agenda clearly outlined on its plate; a stern controlling of these groups, an action that was not taken seriously in any form by the Kamat-led government. Given that the BJP has promised its actions to be contrary to those played out by the previous government, we know that we will see action on this front as well.

( A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times  14 March 2012)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rules of Engagement: When People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy

Following close on the heels of the close of elections, the link to an article, with a rather disturbing suggestion, found its way into my inbox. “Democratic elections” it suggested, “produce mediocre leadership and policies.” This startling assertion was made a Prof. David Dunning, psychologist at Cornell University, whose research apparently demonstrated that “incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas.”  Prof. Dunning is represented as having argued that given that most people do not have the mental tools to make meaningful judgments, “no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. His final cut was even worse, where he suggested that "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is".

One could agree with Prof. Dunning to a limited extent. Most people do not in fact possess the mental tools to recognize the sophistication of certain ideas. Thus they simply fail to see these ideas, and address these ideas at the most basic level. But we will come to this point later. The first point we need to deal with is the basic flaw in Prof. Dunning’s work, which is that "The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognize the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.” This may be one of the arguments for direct democracy, but it is not a foundational argument for democracy that rests on the idea that every person must have a say in the way they are to be governed. The work of people like Dunning is part of an elitist and rightist move, prevalent the world over, and also visible in Goa and India, where we would like to restrict the role that ‘the people’ and their legitimately elected representatives play in democracy on the grounds that they are ‘uneducated’ ‘unqualified’ or such like. We would rather have persons who are ‘educated’ and ‘capable’ (this is of course being just another variant of that annoying upper-caste, anti-Mandal argument of ‘merit’).

There is no doubt that most of the people may be making choices that in the long run are deeply detrimental to the status quo; but this is one of the compromises that one makes when one enters into democracy. For the sake of the principle of justice involved in allowing everyone a say in the way they are governed, we acknowledge the possibility that things will not always go our way. In doing so, we also acknowledge the possibility that our way is not necessarily the best way. Indeed, as one scholar pointed out, one the benefits of having a minority is that they often  preserve options that the majority may not be particularly inclined to think about at a particular moment in time.

The beauty with a democratic setup however, is that merely because one has given up one’s right to make the choices all the time, one has not surrendered all of one’s options. Given that democracy is also about the right to argue one’s position and persuade others, democracy is also a profoundly pedagogical system. Indeed, the great Euro-American bourgeois democracies prior to the Great War, and subsequently the welfare democracies after the end of the II World War were substantially based on education. This pedagogical exercise was not limited only to schools however, but extended to creating a public sphere where people outside of privileged backgrounds could imbibe what were essentially aristocratic and bourgeois ideals and sensibilities. Museums, opera houses, public parks, all of these ensured that a certain sensibility was imparted to persons who could not earlier ‘see’. A good amount of this exercise rested on philanthropic work given that these elites recognized that the continuation of the status-quo rested on the creation of a group of people who even if they could not see as clearly as the leading elites, would at least acquiesce to the decisions that were being made.

What Dunning’s work represents is a certain global breakdown of this earlier democratic strategy, in the face of neo-liberalism and the growing trend toward privatization. Part of the new strategy now rests on confirming the absolute, congenital even,  impossibility of certain groups to participate in democracy, laying the foundations for the nakedly oligarchic control of the State that must definitely follow. One could still follow the Greek ideal and call it a democracy, just as we are prone to calling the communidade- gãocaria system democratic, but both these system rested on forced and unfairly unremunerated labour.

In Goa, there was a valiant attempt, in the shape of the Konkani language movement, and led to a large extent by the Konkani Bhasha Mandal to follow this European ideal of forging a public with a common (Konkani) consciousness. The trouble with that effort was its timing. The period of crafting a common language as the basis of a (sub) national democratic public had long past. Furthermore, given the cussed parochial tendencies of the KBM and other Konkani language groups, anything that did not fit into their idea of what Konkani or Indian could be, was cast out. This was especially mistaken because of the sophisticated tastes of the average Goan, open to, as a result of so much migration, influences from all over the subcontinent and the world. Add to this the supercilious caste prejudice that only a certain kind of Konkani could be Konkani and they sealed the fate of their project.

In a Goa where we lament so much about the ‘bad’ choices that the ‘common’ man is making, it behooves those of us who moan and crib to engage in a project of education of these masses. There is no doubt that choices are being made that will lead us down the road to hell. And yet, there does not seem to be a broad enough consistent effort to engage these masses with a larger pedagogic project. A project that while being philanthropic in nature is decidedly not populist. On the contrary when one does have opportunities, like the IFFI for example, one sees the resort to that old Roman strategy of  Panem et circenses, where rather than encouraging the public to engage with nuanced cinema, they are treated to a common carnival.

One particularly noteworthy effort however, that runs contrary to the prevalent strategy, is that of the D.D. Kosambi Festival of Ideas. Despite the debatable caliber of more recent speakers at this festival, it is one of the more interesting attempts at engaging the public, especially given the size of the audience it manages to muster. One wishes however that this festival either traveled across Goa, or that other towns in Goa saw similar festivals of such caliber.

In sum, while it is true that not all start with  the capacity to make reasoned and nuanced decisions when faced with electoral or other political choices, this lack is not a congenital impediment. It is one that can be rectified though a systematic engagement with these groups where we hope to win these groups over to our point of view. When they fail to be won over however, rather than turn around and blame the democratic system, we need to recognize that perhaps there is a reason why our point of view is not being accepted in the first place, and go back to the drawing board. In short, we would need to suck it up for the moment, while continuing with the longer project of public engagement.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 6 March 2012)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Letters from Portugal: All that matters is gold

It would be difficult to not know of the response of the assorted ‘freedom fighters’ and Hindu right-wing groups that opposed the docking of the Portuguese naval ship in Mormugão in 2010.  A conversation with one of the participants, who justified why the protest had been important, culminated in a dramatic stage-whisper ‘They, (i.e. the Portuguese) are neo-colonialist!’ 

Given that Portugal is a wasted imperial power and, as we can all testify to,  in deep financial crisis, this charge of neo-colonialism, was a bit bizarre at the time. But in retrospect, and in light of recent events, perhaps this freedom-fighter was right, even if he did grab at the wrong end of the stick.

Sometime last month, a storm broke out in Portuguese politics.  It turned out in late January 2012, the current affairs show Este Tempo (This Time) on public radio station Antena 1 was suddenly pulled and the contracts of its five contributors terminated. It is believed that this action resulted from an opinion piece that had been aired on Este Tempo that had been critical of RTP, the dominant public broadcasting network Antena 1 belongs to, for having assisted the Portuguese government in an attempt to portray the deplorably corrupt Angolan regime in a favorable light.

This controversy is interesting and relevant to us in Goa, because it points to a relationship of power different from the one that our local freedom-fighters imagine. In this relationship of power, where the former colony is possessed of a vibrant economy, or rich in resources, and in the possession of a powerful, and self-assured post-colonial elite, it is the former colonizer that requires the colonized, not the other way around. As such, the government of the formerly colonial power will not brook any criticism from metropolitan civil society, of the governmental structures of the former colony that might possibly ruin the relationship between the two governments.

The situation is not very different in the case of Goa. Casual conversations with people who know, and even a cursory glance through reportage on the relationship between Goa and Portugal, will reveal that this relationship exists primarily through Delhi. Portugal seems in no great desire to rupture that link and neither will Delhi tolerate such a rupture. It is not only post-colonial democratic etiquette that governs this relationship however; as we all know, like Angola, India’s booming economy is gaining it increasing prominence as a market, and player in international politics. The relationship of power then, between India and Portugal is similar to the relationship that Portugal has with Angola. Meetings with a plethora of people in Portuguese institutions indicate the manner in which a presence for Portuguese products and Portuguese corporations in the Indian market is an urgent priority.

What we must keep in mind, after this discussion, is that the Indian state is not always a well-behaved state, its actions often riddled with human-rights violations on numerous fronts. These human rights violations are involved not only where people are involved in freedom-struggles, but also where locals protest the state-subsidized expansion of corporate activity that will destroy their livelihoods. Where the human rights disciplining of a state depends not only on the strength of the civil society of that state, but on international pressure as well, we should know that when business becomes so critically important to a foreign state, these otherwise vocal supporters of democracy, and self-professed embodiments of democratic best-practices, are hardly going to rock the boat by pointing to the state’s track record on human rights.

Capitalist exploitation was the basis of the development of colonialism. This colonialism continues via the actions of local elites in post-colonial states. Thus, if Portugal is to be neo-colonial, it appears that it may well be so, via its silent acquiescence of the actions of the Indian state, even if they be murderous.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 4 March 2012)