Thursday, June 21, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Embracing the Philippine heritage

If you were travel up to north India, say to cities like Lucknow, or Agra, and had conversations with the ‘small’ folk, or just people who had lived for generations, and whose lives did not involve some kind of grand rupture, you would hear references to a Rani Todiya, or Mallka Todiya. Rani Todiya is used by such folk, as a marker of time; invariably of the good old days, when things were cheap, when life was simpler, when there was a rule of law. What is interesting however, is that these folk are not referring to some Satyayug deity, but of the Queen-Empress Victoria; the Victoria being compressed to Todiya. What is interesting about this term for Victoria is that not only is her reign the marker for the good times, but it is also evidence of the manner in which she had been internalized. Not only was her name transformed into a vernacular form, but her position in society, as ‘their’ or ‘our’ Queen, was also to a large extent internalized. The Empress Victoria reigned over an entire psycho-social edifice, an edifice that transcended the seven seas, incorporating native-rulers, castes, panchayats, producing in this manner, the British Raj. The Raj to that extent was very ‘Indian’, as much as Rani Todiya was our queen. This may come as a surprise for those who have been raised on the nationalist intellectual frameworks in use in schools. Frameworks that suggest to us, that there was always an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ between the British and the Indians. What these frameworks forget to mention however, is that when Todiya was made our Queen, it was not just she who had a right over us, but as is necessary in any form of kingship, we too had a claim on our kings (and queens).

In a similar manner then, what we in Goa, given the spectacular disinclination to teach our history in schools, have largely forgotten, is that in addition to claiming the Portuguese kings and queens as our own, we can also rightfully lay claim to three Spanish kings. From 1580 until 1640, the Portuguese crown was united with the Spanish crown, allowing for two separate kingdoms, but just one King; a situation that ran its course under the three Hapsburg Phillips of Spain.

With such a history in mind, the Goan traveling in Europe has not merely a Portuguese link with that continent, but larger European link. When traveling in the Netherlands, one thinks not merely of the Dutch opponents of the early Estado da India Portuguesa, but also of the fact that the Netherlands were once upon-a-time part of the Hapsburg domains. Domains lost in the course of the wars that broke out in the continent in the course of the Reformation. Similarly, when one travels to the one-time imperial capital of Toledo in Spain, one does not start when one sees those large double-headed eagles clutching the arms of the Hapsburg kings in their talons. On the contrary, the emotion that one is faced with is that of pleasant surprise when encountering the familiar. For did we not already see this motif in Old Goa, proudly recording the sovereignty of Phillip, king of all of Iberia?

The journey to Portugal was not, as this column so often points out, to reconstruct some empty colonial saudadismo with regard to Portugal. On the contrary, the trip to Portugal was to figure out if there were other ways in which our relation to this country could be rearticulated in a contemporary context. This contemporary context would not include only the examination of the manner in which we can relate as South Asians, members of the Indian ocean world, and as Indians, to Portugal.  This movement would also mean embracing its complex (sometimes obscured) histories and giving them new relevance and meaning. In the course of this embrace, we are not bound to the nationalist interpretations of this history that the Portuguese may feel obliged to produce. On the contrary, we can legitimately rewrite this history from our own point of view. Embracing this history, making it genuinely our own, allows us, in the manner that Mallka Todiya was claimed by her Indian subjects, allows us to make similar claims on the heritage of the Philippine emperors. This claim of inheritance should not ofcourse only be narrowly read, or shortsightedly utilized, but more properly embraced, so that we effectively become citizens of the world, a marked characteristic of the Goan (often an emigrant into this large world).

Some may find this suggestion of embracing an Imperial heritage, especially by former subjects of the Empire, problematic. There is no denying that such an embrace is problematic. However, we should recognize that this embrace, while possibly problematic, also comes with its fair share of empowerment. It allows the contemporary resident of the global South, to go to foreign lands, in the knowledge that these lands that must today be crafted into home, were in earlier times, also home. This embrace also allows us to transcend the binaries of 'us' and 'them' and recognize commonalities that unite us outside of the frames that we normally use to see ourselves; constructing in this manner a common humanity.

Speaking of embracing this larger heritage, and seeing ourselves outside of the frames we normally use, most people would be surprised to realize that urinating on the street is not particularly a crass Indian habit. All too often, one is apt to find contemporary descendants of Philippine subjects, be they male or female, easing themselves on the streets, especially late at night over the course of the weekend. Come to think of it, this is not, and was not a practice unfamiliar in the former realm of good Rani Todiya either!  Some uncommon embraces it appears, can engender uncommon perspectives.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 22 June 2012)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Minority Report: Strategies for secular survival in a majoritarian world

For some time now, a group known as the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum (CSF) has, ironically enough, been a matter of concern for some Indian Catholics who see themselves as secular. The reasons for this concern are numerous and this column does not intend to discuss the problems that the CSF poses; there will be plenty of time for that, especially since the CSF does not look like it is going away. While flagging the CSF as a concern for Indian Catholics committed to crafting a secular society in the face of rising religious extremism in the country, this column will only highlight that one of the central problems with the CSF lies in the manner in which it seeks to build up the idea of the Church in India being a persecuted church.

There can be no doubt that like the Muslim communities in India, Christians too are being persecuted by segments of both State and society. However, while this may be a problem, it is not the full picture, and we need to bear this fact in mind, as we combat, and combat stiffly, this persecution. The problem with the CSF lies in the fact that, just like segments of Muslims and Hindus in the country, they seek to create a minority complex among Christians in India. Nothing can be more detrimental to the creation of a secular spirit than the creation of a minority complex, since this complex engenders a siege mentality within the group. Once cultivated sufficiently, we are unable to see social relations except in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Every action is read as being an action of ‘them’ against ‘us’. Most importantly, the creation of this siege mentality ensures that internal questions of democratic reform are suffocated to allow the dominant forces within these groups to run the show without brooking any argument.

To this extent then, Fr. Thomas Sequeira, who recently stepped down as the deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had it right when he is reported to have said that Christians in India should not entertain a minority complex. Unfortunately however, after this sage bit of advice his argument seems to have capsized into the sea of majoritarianism that constitutes the dominant political thought in our country today. Fr. Sequeira went on to suggest that while the Christians should not entertain a minority complex, but they should nevertheless “consider their minority status as an invitation to join the majority community for the nation building.”

Let us exclude for the moment the fact that the word ‘nation’ has a specific history and meaning, and assume that what Fr. Sequeira did in fact mean, was ‘country-building’. Indeed, in other parts of the interview Fr. Sequeira uses the word country, in the same context as he earlier used ‘nation’. Even if we exclude this possibility, we are still left with the problematic equation that Fr. Sequeira has drawn up, one in which the relationship is between one minority, the Christians, and one majority, the Hindus. Erased completely from this equation are the other groups outside of Hinduism, such as the heterogeneous Muslim communities, as well as the minorities within Hinduism.

This formulation of the equation unfortunately, may not be the result of a minor error. On the contrary it is reflective of a larger position within the tendency of the leadership of the Catholic Church in India to see itself. It sees itself as largely in conversation with the Hindu majority, the Muslim (and other) groups either falling as a second-rate priority or none at all. We need merely look at the manner in which Fr. Sequeira reportedly illustrated the argument he was making. He suggested that his native state of Goa was a good example to show how people in villages, and especially in the panchayats, think beyond religious consideration to work together for the common good, resolving issues of electricity, water and urbanization. Given the manner in which in a number of cases Muslim communities in Goa have been targeted by panchayats, it is difficult to believe that Fr. Sequeira was thinking of the happy interaction between all kinds of Goans, and not just Catholics and Hindus in happy dialogue.

An interaction with those Catholic religious engaged in dialogue with Muslim communities in India, will reveal the kind of frustration that they experience as a result of a failure to find any support from their religious communities. As it turns out, a good number of Catholics (religious and lay alike) do in fact see the Muslims as a part of the problem, rather than as victims of a complex problem. Allow me to suggest that the reasons they may see the Muslims as the problem, is not only because of the upper-caste positions that the hierarchy  and lay-leaders of the Church often adopt, if not actually being drawn from these caste locations, but also as a result of the uncritical adoption of Indian nationalist rhetoric.

One such possible example can be gleaned from the article reporting Fr. Sequeira’s observations. The article reported that Fr. Sequeira suggested that Christians have to work to remove the perception among certain sections of Indians that the Church indulges in conversion works. His suggestion was that what the Church was in fact engaged in was an attempt “to strengthen our country.” Fr. Sequeira is not wrong in making this suggestion. Owing to developments in missiology since the early twentieth century, there has been a genuine attempt by the Catholic Church to engage not merely in conversion, but in standing witness to Christ by ameliorating the condition of those in need of aid. Thus in the words of Pierre Charles S.J., one of the foundational missiologists of our time “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...” To do so, Fr. Charles suggested, would leave the missionary in a morally rather unpleasant position.
This could be what Fr. Sequeira was referring to when he refers to the work of the Church in India as developmental, and not as conversion work. However, at the end of the day, we must recognize that the Church is founded on carrying the faith to others and thus welcomes (after due diligence and examination) persons into its flock. Thus while the church may be engaged in strengthening the country, its premise must continue to be hoping for gains to its cult. To skirt around this issue is to agree to the Indian nationalist position, built on Hindu minoritarianism, that conversions are unacceptable, as they pose a threat to nationalism and the majoritarian idea of the Indian community imagined as ideally Hindu.

Fr. Sequeira however emphasized that “[R]ecent cases of Christian persecutions have not discouraged the Church to carry on with its work among the poor and the deprived” suggesting therefore, that the Church embraces persecution, rather than shies from it. If such be the case then, it would behove the CSF and other Christian groups to understand that the persecution that various minority groups in India are witness to is not reason to retreat into minoritarianism, but on the contrary a reason to expand into the realms of the secular, contesting the right of a majority to dictate terms in a democracy.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times  20 June 2012)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Putting the citizen first: Creeks, forts, heritage and the citizen

The attempt to revive the creek that runs through Campal and Tonca, and sometimes erroneously called ‘Campal Creek’ is one of the many urban regeneration projects that animates Panjim’s citizens these days. This is a happy occurrence and we must all hope that the initiative will come to fruition. An earlier reflection on this column had observed that what marked Indo-Portuguese architecture, was not merely an interaction between Goa and Portugal, but in fact an interaction by Goa with Europe. In this context then, the inspiration that Amsterdam’s canals and bridges provide to the Campal Creek project is a continuation of this longer tradition. Given that the project is being led by citizens from the generally more well-to-do area of Campal, the project continues another tradition, in this case the Dutch tradition where the canals of Amsterdam were the product of an active initiative of the Dutch elites of centuries past.

However, what we need to also remember that Amsterdam, and its pretty canals and bridges were not always this pretty. On the contrary, for a very, very long time, and until fairly recently, the canals of the city were receptacles for the city’s sewage. Indeed, it was only in 1987 that the last house to send its sewage into the canals was connected to a sewerage system. What is important to note then, is that the Amsterdam project, if one can put it that way, is a continuing one. What is also important to note, is that this project was not motivated by the possibility of gaining tourist visits to the city. Rather, it was motivated by making the city more livable, providing a better quality–of-life to its citizens. Thus, in addition to the joy rides that tourists may enjoy on the canals, and walking around the streets, the canals are also used as a source of regular transport for its citizens.

This location of the citizen, rather than the tourist, is important for us to bear in mind in the course of engaging not only with urban regeneration projects, but also the variety of heritage restoration projects that one sees around our State.

This observation holds particular importance in the context of the recent completion of the restoration of the Reis Magos fort. In the past few years there have been a number of restoration works that have been carried out on heritage buildings that are the property of the State. These include the Forts at Tiracol, Reis Magos, Santo Estevam, as well as the premises of the former Escola Medica.  A news report in the Times of India on May 31 pointed out that the Government does not seem to have a policy that would cover adaptive reuse of heritage structures that belong to the State. A number of people, especially those intimately involved with heritage conservation, make the argument for adaptive reuse, stressing at the same time the need for “revenue generation through cultural tourism”.  Regardless of whether it is linked to cultural tourism or not, what has to be recognized is that once the question of the decay of the monument has been addressed, the issue of generating resources for its upkeep become important.

The question however, is to inquire into the manner in which the resources for this requirement will be generated. This is where the question of choice, between placing the citizen or the tourist, at the heart of the project comes into being. Given the manner in which tourism is such a critical part of the Goan economy, all too often tourism, cultural or otherwise, becomes a focus of our options for adaptive reuse. In this context, the words of the Chief Minister are somewhat disturbing. He is reported to have indicated that “the fort would have to find a way to make itself commercially viable” indicating that "The government is good at building, not maintaining." It was perhaps under similar logic that the location of a mall-shopping arcade was contemplated within the refurbished Escola Medica.

We must recognize however, that such logic is indication of an abdication of the responsibilities of the State, creating the grounds for the privatization of public resources. The argument that this column would make, an argument that is perhaps not different from those others in the heritage conservation groups are also making, is that it is possible for the monument to address the local community first, and simultaneously also address the larger interests of cultural tourism in the State.
It is in this context that Amsterdam in particular, and Europe in general can be used as an interesting case to learn from. Social spending, in catering to the citizen, educating them, and opening cultural options for them, is what simultaneously generates the options for cultural tourism. It was not catering to the tourist that generated its prettiness, but catering to the citizen first. Even though the European economy is now in crisis, it must be pointed out that this crisis should not be used to suggest that the model of social spending was the problem. On the contrary, to use the words from The New Yorker “social democracy in Europe, embodied by its union, has been one of the greatest successes in history.” And further “A continent torn by the two most horrible wars in history achieved a remarkable half century of peace and prosperity, based on a marriage of liberalism properly so called (individual freedoms, including the entrepreneurial kind) and socialism rightly so ordered (as an equitable care for the common good). Any pleasure taken in the failure of Europe to expunge all its demons threatens to become one more way of not having to examine our own.”

This advice was given to the USA, however, we in India, with our elitist biases in the working of democracy would do well to take heed and find the governmental resources to support adaptive reuse the works to make refurbished monuments, locations for the edification and personal growth of our citizens. This would only work as a wise investment, creating citizens who would be able to spin more creative concepts than perhaps the less-challenged governmental departments in charge of tourism. Such an option need not necessarily preclude entrepreneurial intervention, but we must be clear that high-end malls and boutique hotels do not seem to constitute the kinds of projects that can meet this larger end, given that they actively exclude, even as they may generate some revenue for the State. What we must bear in mind however, is that these investments should be evaluated not merely for commercial viability, but from the kind of human-resource generation that they provide.

In welcoming the Reis Magos fort back to life, and wishing the Campal project a similar trajectory, perhaps we should also make space for the citizen at the centre of our plans, and not only the tourist.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 13 June 2012)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Fighting for space: Streetside vendors and urban design

This column on an earlier occasion remarked on the absolute frustration with the lethargy, cynicism and callousness that marked the Kamat model of governance that gave the current government its lease of life. With the election of the Parrikar government there has also been unleashed, as a result of the same frustration, a variety of utopian initatives, not least of which is perhaps the Non Motorized Zone (NoMoZo). This column will deal with two other expressions of this utopian drive, both of which are, like the NoMoZo, concerned with urban design, and the experience of life within the city. The first of these expressions is the suggestions contained in the O Heraldo column of Daniel F. De Souza on the twenty-fourth of May, and the second, a YouTube video petition articulated by Joegoauk Goa, an anonymous visual archivist.

De Souza begins his column by pointing to some of the very real traffic problems that plague the city of Vasco da Gama. He points to the disregard for parking rules that see two-wheelers using space reserved for four-wheelers, and to the unsettling tendency to overtake from the left. It seems however that De Souza saves his best ire for last, when he takes on the presence of roadside garages and makeshift repair shops on the streets of Vasco, charging them with not only being eye-sores but also with posing an inconvenience and hardship to the general public. De Souza argues that by conducting their business on the sidewalk, these shops are forcing the pedestrians off of their rightful space on the footpaths and onto the road and the path of the disorderly traffic and endangering the lives of these pedestrians. 

The video petition of Joegoauk has a similar problem with persons that make a living on the sidewalks and by the sides of roads. His video draws the attention of the Panjim Municipal Corporation the Chief Minister (also MLA of the city of Panjim) to the number of hawkers vending everything from fish, vegetables and plastic toys, amidst the buses and commuters at the Kadamba bus terminus in Panjim.

Both these interventions in the public sphere are motivated by a similar logic, suggesting that the roads are for traffic, the side-walks for the pedestrians, and that the hawkers and vendors, and others making their livelihood off the streets ought to find some other place. Indeed, this is the suggestion that De Souza makes at the end of his column, indicating that the Mormugao Municipal Council ought to identify a location, and then relocate all the makeshift repair shops to that one single location. In making this suggestion De Souza is treading on a well-used path, given that this was a logic that was used in the relocation of the gadey from various parts of Panjim to one single location.

Before differing with the logic that both these gentlemen propose, it should be acknowledged that De Souza does have a point with problematizing the existence of the vehicle repair shops/ garages, though his logic differs from mine. It is true that these enterprises do interfere with the use of the sidewalk. However, the larger problem is that because their presence is not accounted for by the urban-planners or city-council, the highly toxic waste that they generate is unsuitably handled. Invariably the oils and grease they reject stain the ground and find their way into ground water and other water bodies, and other material waste fails to find a route for appropriate waste disposal. The most significant problem with these garages is that they externalize the costs of our usage of vehicles, since the environmental damage that is caused by aging vehicles is not accounted for. Were these garages forced to fulfill norms laid out by the State and municipal bodies, the cost for these norms would have to be borne by the owners of vehicles, giving us a sense of the real cost of our usage of private vehicles that currently dominate our streets.

For all his good intentions however, De Souza’s logic does not seem environmentally responsible. On the contrary, it appears that his logic, and that of Joegoauk, would in fact eventually result in a greater usage of vehicles and the associated environmental resources. In arguing for clearing the streets of street-side vendors, both these individuals subscribe to an urban-planning logic that has created the suburb in other parts of the world. This logic designs urban spaces by their usage, segregating shopping, business, residence from each other, and forcing people to use motorized transport to move from one location to another. Where there is no system of public transport, this results in high use of private vehicles. Simultaneously this same logic designates the street for vehicles able to move at high speeds, and sidewalks for pedestrians only.

There are many problems with this form of urban design, most significant of which is that it does not correspond with the realities of life in India. This reality is one that includes a history of densely populated, multi-use living spaces, as well as the poverty and markedly unequal distribution of wealth. Urban design models that segregate urban use from each other, assume the existence of a prosperous, and middle-class inclined toward high consumption. In forcing the use of private vehicles, this model also spells the death of integrated communities, creating the conditions for crime and social dysfunction.

Both De Souza and Joegoauk, probably have cities like Dubai and Singapore as their models for what our cities should look like. This is not an uncommon desire among the Indian (and Goan) middle-class. We should however keep in mind the words of the RahulMehrotra, and architect, urban studies academic and practitioner who recently authored “Architecture in India Since 1990.” In a recent interview he pointed out that “Looking at Dubai or Shanghai or Singapore as metaphors not only undermines the fact that we’re a democracy but it also undermines the fact that the poor even exist in our cities.”

Street-side garages and vendors exist in our cities not because we are an indisciplined nation, but because these are forms of urban life and commerce particularly suited to the manner in which our society is currently socially and economically structured. These vendors are those who cannot set up shops, and they cater to those who cannot or are unable to visit shops in the course of their daily life. Having a vendor, whose prices do not include a substantial overhead makes economic sense for these consumers. Indeed these vendors are making our society more productive and efficient, and exist only because there is a need for them.

Rather than hounding these vendors away from the streets therefore, rather than criminalizing their presence, there is a need to see how we can effectively integrate them into urban design. De Souza hits the nail bang on the head when he asks the municipal body to address these issues, stressing that the general public needs these services. However, we should be clear that the presence of street vendors is not a problem, that our cities and roads should be seen as spaces shared by pedestrians and vehicles and that urban models designed for undemocratic, wasteful societies are not blindly implemented to our collective loss.

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