Monday, July 30, 2012

The Itinerant Mendicant: From the outside looking in

Who doesn’t love to be a tourist? To go out and see the world, returning home with tales of the strange and the uncommon? And yet, there are some among us who would have none of this. They will travel, yes; but refuse to play the tourist. Not for them the routine of travel for merely a week or a fortnight, whether in groups or with a friend or two in tow. They refuse to move from one scenic site and monument to another. They refuse to engage in that universal marker of the tourist, the capturing of photographic images. Anything (and everything) that marks out the tourist, this group will avoid, wearing this refusal to participate as a badge of honour. A medal, that proclaims to the world that they are different and special. Quite unlike the crowds, they are the wolves that hunt alone.

These lone wolves seek to make their experience of travel different. They would distinguish themselves from the tourist, by calling themselves travelers, and indicate the difference in their manner of going about the whole experience of experiencing the outside world. Rather than spend short periods of time, capturing impressionist vignettes of places, they would rather spend prolonged periods of time. They would prefer to get into the skin of the city or other locale of the place that they are visiting. The object of the experience for this bunch of travelers is to see the city through the eyes of the local. Privileging this way of experiencing the foreign requires them to, either befriend a local, and then follow that local through the paces of their regular life; or turn oneself into a local, participating in the rush or sway of local life. In the course of this strategy of experiencing the foreign, one either does not make stops at the usual tourist-haunts, or if one does, one tries to use this tourist space in a manner that would be different from the regular tourist. Thus for example, rather than visiting a church to gawk like the rest of the tourists, one would rather turn up for the mass that the locals attend, experiencing in this process the building and its sacred art through the filters of faith.

As interesting as this strategy may be however, one can entertain certain doubts about the extent to which these travelers manage to achieve their cherished desire of seeing the non-native, or the foreign as an insider. How much time does it require for us to get ‘inside’ a society? Even more crucially, are we not making a certain error of assuming that a society is one happy whole that shares a common vision of its world? Every society has its outsiders, people who refuse to participate in the common consensus. In doing so, these dissidents fragment this idea of an inside and make the space of the insider particularly difficult to identify. It turns out then, that no matter how hard the traveler may try, s/he is still, almost always, on the outside, looking in.

(A version of this post was first published on 27 July 2012,  on The Goan on Saturday, the first of a regular monthly op-ed column.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reviewing Moda Goa: A story of how the choice of style makes a difference

Released early this year, Wendell Rodricks’ book Moda Goa: History and Style , a work that presents a history of Goan costume, clothing and accessories, has garnered a good amount of unstinted praise from the popular press.  This review will not however follow suit, but will attempt instead a more critical position on this work.

To begin with, one should recognize that in having consolidated the plethora of views on ‘Goan’ style and costume, Moda Goa has effectively created the foundation for a discreet line of study; style and costume in the areas around what has come to be called Goa. With the lavish images, and acknowledgement of sources, Rodricks provides future researchers with a starting point to commence their discussion of the themes that he attempts to consolidate. We should also acknowledge that unlike so many other books, a good number of the images in Moda Goa point to the identity of the individuals, who are otherwise unfairly left without mention. However, some credit for this democratic act should perhaps also be shared with Rajan Parrikar, given that these acknowledgements accompany Parrikar’s photographs in the book.

By popular accounts, Moda Goa would in fact live up to its promise, of presenting a narrative of History and Style. The book continues the grand tradition of understanding and writing about Goa that was first established by Goan public intellectuals in the late nineteenth -century. Toward that end, Rodricks must rightly be held to have joined that company, demonstrating also the continuity of intellectual traditions that Rodricks is heir to. The problem with this tradition however, is that it is one that is in severe need of updating in light of theories propounded by scholars working outside of the narrowly nationalist, orientalist and racist frameworks that marked nineteenth century scholarship. 

Rodricks’ work would have benefited immensely had he engaged with contemporary scholarship. Indeed, had he done so, it is more than likely that Rodricks would have crafted a remarkably different book. For example, Rodricks currently attempts an encyclopedic presentation of style and design, presenting a narrative of a linear history of Goan costumes, stretching from the prehistoric to the contemporary. The result is a work that is markedly thin in a number of areas, allowing him to suggest for example, it was the Emperor Ashoka’s Greek wife Helen who ‘set the style for Indian women who continue to drape their saris in much the same way even today’. While this may be a part of the story, failing to mention research that indicates the more contemporary origins of the story of the sari leaves us with the idea of a pristine garment that has come down to us. Contemporary research suggests that the contemporary Indian sari, along with the blouse and petticoat, was a Victorian era adaptation in nationalist Bengal, this model being popularized through Raja Ravi Varma’s wildly popular depictions of brahmanical goddesses. Another example is his suggestion that ‘The Muslims who traded with Goa after the Inquisition was lifted wore traditional fez caps’  challenging the suggestion from scholarship that the fez gained popularity in the sub-continent around the time of the Khilafat movement, the deliberate adoption of a fez cap being a mark of solidarity with the deposed Ottoman Sultan-Caliph. It is possible that, given the general disregard for the nuances of sub continental histories outside of British-India, Rodricks is in fact overturning established scholarship through reading the largely ignored Indo-Portuguese archive. However his failure in following standard academic norms of citations prevent us from ascertaining if this is the case, or if Rodricks is simply extending commonsense back into time.

Engagement with this body of research would also have ensured that at the very least Rodricks would have problematized the linear history he makes use of. Linear history is eminently suited to nationalist agendas that see the culmination of history in the idea citizen for the nation. Once this ideal citizen has been identified all else is held of dubious value. Given that the ideal citizen for the Indian nation is largely imagined as the upper-caste Hindu, the history that Rodricks crafts is an upper-caste history that often runs counter to the evidence that he himself provides. Thus for example, the departure of groups from Portuguese controlled Goa, was not necessarily that of Goans, but often of upper caste groups, especially those who had already, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, established themselves as a dominant group along the length of the West coast. Further, the presence of the (Mangalorean) Catholics in Kanara was not merely the result of Goan Catholics fleeing Inquisitional terror, as Rodricks suggests, but also the result of combined factors of peasant abandonment of villages when faced with excessive taxes from the Portuguese State, and Maratha incursions into the same territory. It is not as if this fact is not recognized by Rodricks, but so great is his verve in telling a nationalist mythology that he fails to make this, and other facts, cohere with the larger narrative he weaves.

As a further result of following these nineteenth century patterns of historiography, and having marked the (upper-caste) Hindu as the central pole, the entry of Aryans into the subcontinent is clearly specified as not an invasion, but an arrival (though to be fair, this early clarification does not translate into consistency, given that the Aryans are saddled with invasion later in the text). Such a clarification however, is not in evidence in the case of the Persianised adventurers and dynasts in the subcontinent, who are simply brushed off as ‘the Muslims’. It is perhaps this dismissal, where he fails to distinguish between the Mughals, and the Deccan Sultanates that is the reason for the plethora of gross historical errors. Take for example the suggestion that  the Vijayanagara empire fell to the ‘merciless Tipu Sultan’, when it was in fact the Wodeyar dynasty that was effectively displaced around 1761 by Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, whose throne Tipu inherited. The Vijayanagara polity fell much earlier, subsequent to the battle of Talikota in 1565. With this dismissal, and the following the nationalist common-sense of ancient Goa as a brahmanical seat, Rodricks misses the opportunity to engage in more nuanced understandings of the Islamicate impact on the evolution of Goan dresses, such as the pano baju and the cabai, that he discusses. Indeed, almost completely missing from the 'history' that Rodricks produces, is reference to the Deccan Sultanates, especially the Sultanate of Bjiapur that played a significant role, culturally as well as politically, in the development of the Goan aesthetic. All we have in the book are references to the Delhi Sultanates of the Tughlaks and the Khiljis; and subsequently the Mughals.

Finally, as a result of falling into the nationalist trap of seeing invaders as largely having a negative influence, and, especially in the case of the Portuguese, seeing their influence largely as a rupture from what ought to have been, Rodricks is forced to makes uncomfortable suggestions. Take for example the suggestion that “The Kunbis who were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese were forced to wear a blouse.” Rodricks would have done well to reference the literature that discusses the extensive battles that depressed groups in other parts of the subcontinent (one good example being Kerala) where women had to fight against upper-caste oppression, for the right (to cover their breasts) that the Portuguese state required by law. This is just one of the many places where one wishes that Rodricks’ otherwise detailed work had benefited from deeper reading to provide a more layered, nuanced, and perhaps responsible text. Devoid of an understanding of the power relations that mesh with costume practice, at times there is the danger that this book will slip into a mere coffee-table picture book recounting mythology, not history.

Perhaps most disappointing in the book, is that as a result of making this choice to present to us an encyclopedic narrative of Goan history, and choosing the nationalist frame in which to cast it, Rodricks spends more time on the ancient, medieval and early modern periods of history. As a result, he barely spends much time on the more exciting, and chronologically nearer period of the twentieth century. One would assume that as a trained stylist, conversant if not in active dialogue with the styles of the recent past, this would be Rodricks' area of expertise, one where he would be able to shine through. Furthermore, with the liberation of the Goan underclasses from feudal dependence, as they moved abroad, bringing up money and differing fashion sensibilities, a great many changes were introduced into society. This period is thus hugely interesting. How did these fashions create different ways of being? These are some questions that could have been asked and answered, a route that Rodricks unfortunately does not take. In a similar vein, some of the more interesting stories from the present remain untold. In his final chapter, Rodricks mentions the challenges and potential for a fashion industry in Goa, but fails to mention his own challenges as he made his, at the time laughed at, leap into setting up base in Goa. Some attempt at this is made in the stand-alone piece by Meher Castelino but it lacks the involvement of Rodricks' first hand telling, and given his elegant voice, mores the pity. 

However, to gain a comprehensive sense of the value of the book, we need to ask why it is that Rodricks is attempting this linear history? In this question lies the redemption of Rodricks’ attempt, which can be seen as the effort of the Goan Catholic to find and make space for himself within the largely upper-caste Hindu narrative for Goa and India set in place by nineteenth century intellectuals. In doing so, Rodricks has chosen one of two options, to negotiate space for himself, and others like him, according to the norms that have been laid down by the dominant forces within India and Goa; rather than fighting for a more democratic and open telling of a Goan history.  Rodricks is not the only Goan Catholic to go down this road, we need only refer to the review of Moda Goa by Maria Aurora Couto in the Outlook, to see that this affirmation of the Indian-ness of the Goan, as well as the space for the Goan Catholic within India is uppermost on her mind. Take for example, the deep concern for the Goan image, one that is born from a shame that most Goans feel when Goa is represented merely as a pleasure periphery with no valid 'culture', that is in evidence when Rodricks speaks of his interventions with the Kunbi sair; "if Gujarat can have its Patola and Maharashtra its Paithani, Goa too can proudly present its Kunbi sari in a new designer avatar." While we cannot therefore, fault Rodricks for his choice, we can nevertheless lament the fact that the fine voice that he possesses did not choose what could have proven to be, the more historic option.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 18 July 2012)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Letters from Portugal: No Reservations in Lisbon

“Just you wait!” this British-Indian friend of mine had said, rubbing his hands with glee, sometime after I had decided to go to Lisbon. “This love that you have for Portugal will disappear in some time; just like it did for us when we first went to England. All the romance will wash away, and you will dislike it so much!” He was right, this British-Indian; this starry-eyed love for Portugal, that so many Goans imbibe, almost with their mothers’ milk, did wash away. In its stead however, grew a different, perhaps more mature kind of affection. A sentiment like that born from a long marriage; we suffer a little, roll our eyes a lot, but at the end of it all, there is a desire for the object of our love, a passion for one we know so intimately. A love that burns not like the mercurial flames of young passion, but smolders like live coal, ever ready to burst into flame. 

It was this kind of love, then, that burst into flame, not unlike that which burst in the heart of every other Portuguese friend, when we viewed Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations featuring Lisbon, our very own, beautiful city of light. Before we move on, we must place this episode in proper context. For a certain segment of food and travel aficionados Anthony Bourdain is God. He travels to the most exotic of locations, or exoticises the most banal of locations, discovering and creating culinary adventures, as he tries out local foods, from the barely braised rectum of a warthog in Namibia, to Spam in Hawaii. Added to these travels, is his presentation style. This granddaddy speaks about food and the whole business around it, like a young jock would talk about sex. This man oozes oomph, and you lap everything he lays out before you, and then you lie slavering at his feet, and beg for some more.

All too often, one watches Bourdain in locations one doesn’t know, but this time round, he was right here, and believe you me, there could not have been a slicker presentation of the city. Running through the length of the forty-five minute program like a cord that strings a set of pearls, was the music from the Portuguese duo band Dead Combo. Dark at times, unmistakably contemporary, and without doubt also something that could only have been midwifed by older forms of Portuguese music, the music was perhaps what brought the whole show together (forgive me Bourdain, but I still love you). It was a welcome break from Fado, something we all love, and a musical genre that was definitely featured, but for the love of God, there is a Lisbon beyond Fado and Dead Combo’s music captured that complex Lisboeta soul perfectly. And that soul is so, so, sexy!

Indeed, if there is one thing that Bourdain probably got wrong, was the presentation of Fado, where once more we were treated to these silly old clichés about the genre. About Fado being about the Portuguese propensity for saudade, wrongly interpreted as nostalgia for the past, and testifying to the Portuguese being a sentimental lot. Oddly enough, or perhaps as is the case with most marginalized peoples, because they didn’t want to contradict the all-knowing American, the Portuguese on the show played along with the whole one-sided interpretation.

Taberna Ideal
As is often the case with Bourdain, there was no sissying about solely in fancy restaurants. On the contrary, the man did the entire gamut, from lunching with a fisherman and his wife (the principal feature of the menu, the to-die-for rice with octopus), to the simple no-nonsense pork-steak sandwich at a somewhat popular cervejaria (beer-house), to the fancy not so ‘straight ahead meal’ full of ‘sauce and garnish’ meals at more upmarket Lisbon restaurants run by new-ages chefs like José Avilez, HenriqueSa Pessoa and Ljubomir Stanisic. If you are asking me for my opinion, and I’ll treat you to it even if you aren’t, what I think is one of the finest places to eat sexed-up traditional Portuguese food up, the two Ideal restaurants, weren’t really featured. But then, you can’t win every time can you? And what is the voice of one anonymous Goan when pitted against Portuguese and Americans of renown?

The other guest that featured on the show was the economic crisis that Portugal is currently suffering. The varying Portuguese opinions of the crise (crisis) came through on the show, if it was the pessimistic hands-up-in-the-air attitude by the famed Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes; as something to be laughed at, in the opinion of comedian Zé Diogo Quintela; or the vaguely rightist opinion by the fadista Carminho who suggested seeing it as an opportunity! What most agreed on however was that tourism was critical to keeping Portugal’s economy. If they were right, and if the folks outside of Lisbon were as wowed by Bourdain’s presentation of Lisbon, then we have less to worry about, because that single episode possibly generated a good amount more interest in Portugal as a destination. For that Anthony Bourdain, thank you. But then, you didn’t have to try too hard did you. For surely, doesn’t Lisbon make it all too easy?

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dtd 14 July 2012)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Tutu’s sins of omission

Perhaps this series of letters has made the point in the past, but even if it has, the point cannot be stressed enough. The Gulbenkian Foundation is perhaps one of the finest things to have happened to Portugal and in particular to the Portuguese capital Lisbon. The productions of this Foundation, in general, contribute much to the cultural, artistic and intellectual life of the country and capital.

One of these productions involved the hosting of a conversation on the theme of “Peace and Sustainable Development”, between Archbishop Desmond Tutu of SouthAfrican and Jorge Sampaio the former President of the Portuguese Republic, and now High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations. A number of those who had turned up for the event, however, hoping to hear powerful and profound ideas from the Archbishop were sorely disappointed. Personally, this disappointment stemmed not from what the Archbishop said, which amounted to very general, and clichéd thoughts on the oneness of humanity, and the need to take seriously the responsibilities that came with being placed as the Viceroys of God on Earth. On the contrary, the disappointment stemmed from what he did not say. It was Archbishop Tutu’s silence on two broad themes that turned the aspirations for the evening into crushing disappointment.

The first theme on which Archbishop Tutu could have responded, were the rather provocative suggestions by President Sampaio on the inadequacy of current models of democracy. President Sampaio was perhaps correct when he suggested that most of the problems we face today are beyond the time-frame of a normal democratic mandate. They cannot be met by political representatives who are elected for a short period of five years, for a variety of structural reasons. Most important of these reasons is that, if they desire to be reelected must look to more immediate results, rather than the necessarily long-term investments that are called for to make the unpopular civilizational changes necessary to achieve sustainable development. President Sampaio, was perhaps also not wrong when he suggested that the regular bureaucratic process of liberal democracies seem unable to meet the needs of the people. Anyone who has spent days within governmental departments often unable to achieve the most simple task for the inability to produce a ridiculous document will know the truth of President Sampaio’s assertion. Despite the truth of these statements however, what made them problematic, and this is what Archbishop Tutu ought to have taken up, when President Sampaio failed to do so, was to point, that despite the indubitable problems with the model of liberal democracy, as well as the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures of this liberal democratic state, as of now, there are no other models that allow for the vast mass of humanity access to power. In light of his struggles and what he has gained recognition for, it was Tutu’s obligation to point out that these perhaps valid truths were not backed up by suggestions as to how exactly to overcome these challenges. There can be no doubt that attempting to articulate possible ways in which to overcome these challenges would present a substantial challenge. However, in failing this struggled articulation, and especially given the peculiar history of Portugal, and its contentious present, one that mirrors its early twentieth century past in disturbing ways, Sampaio's suggestions merely suggest (perhaps falsely) a consensus toward authoritarian solutions.

The second theme on which one would have liked to hear Bishop Tutu respond was the posturing of President Sampaio that created an odd ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy when speaking about models for the future. Sampaio began this articulation with the strange assertion ‘ofcourse we (Portugal) are a Western country’ and then proceeded to elaborate on how there was a need for ‘us’, i.e. Europe (and the developed West) to create links to ‘them’ i.e. ‘the emerging order’. Perhaps it was not what President Sampaio had in mind, but running like a particularly disturbing thread through this segment of his conversation, was a particular condescension. This condescension was composed first of the implicit suggestion that Europe and the West were prior in time in terms of achieving democracy; and then secondly that there was something to learn from this ‘emerging order’. This condescension was taken up in a comment by the moderator of the conversation, Ambassador Fernando Neves. In his intervention, he chose to present a variety of human rights as European. He made particular reference to the suggestion he received in Indonesia, that human rights were not universal, but in fact peculiarly western in nature.

On this second theme, once again for reasons of the nature of his participation in a historic struggle, one would have expected to Archbishop Tutu to temper these statements with a gentle counter, and especially with a counter to the moderator Ambassador Fernando Neves’ offensive suggestion. Perhaps Ambassador Neves needed to be reminded that the argument from Indonesia came from a polity that had a history of military and authoritarian rule. To be sure, members and representatives of such a polity would make nativist arguments of the sort against norms that curbed their drive toward Pharonic power. Could it be then, that the ready acceptance of this Indonesian suggestion, had more to do with Ambassador Neves attempting to suggest a European (and Portuguese) difference from the ‘emerging order’, and their moral superiority?

There was no reflection on these issues however, and in part, this may have been a result of the awkward moderation offered by the chair, who, did not encourage the speakers to speak to each other, but allowed them to spin independently on their own courses. It could also have been as a result of the internal culture of the diplomatic world, and we must remember that after being an activist, Archbishop Tutu has become a diplomat, that seems to thrive on broad feel-good suggestions, and that will often not disrupt the status quo, unless there is a definite gain for the powers that these diplomats represent.

All in all, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant evening, though it did, it must be said, provide food for thought.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Catching the social: And not missing the bus

As the Non-Motorized Zone (NoMoZo) initiative progresses toward its third installment, there are two broad cautions that is appears we need to keep in mind. The first is that without the leaders of this initiative indicating quite clearly the direction they intend to take, and the larger principles that animate the initiative, NoMoZo could well turn into just another feel-good event organized at regular intervals. There is no doubt a larger intellectual framework for the project and it would be worthwhile to share this with the larger public, both those who turn up with such enthusiasm for NoMoZo, as well as those who do not. This act of sharing would impart to NoMoZo, which already brims over with popular energy, a democratic element, in so far as democracy ideally involves an element of information and consciousness. Without these two elements, an initiative, no matter how popular, would remain merely populist.

The second caution that we would need to address, and one that this column will spend some time on, is that of the response that a good amount of persons involved in the exercise seem to toward the perceived goals of the project. Where the goals are being demonstrated to be to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads of Panjim, the solutions being offered by these enthused members of the citizenry are largely technological fixes. Thus, the solution to the  swarm of traffic that currently clog Panjim’s roads are held to be the banning of vehicles into the centre of Panjim, the introduction of trams and bus routes, the adoption of cycles; and to resolve the parking crisis, the creation of multistoried parking  facilities.

This column will suggest that while technological fixes are necessary, they can only be a part of the solution, and perhaps in the final analysis a rather small part of the solution. Any comprehensive solution, we would argue, must necessarily take the social into consideration. We mean a number of things when we say ‘the social’. First, that there is not only the need for a change in social attitudes, but we need to ground our efforts and suggestions in the NoMoZo in an empathetic view of the society we live in.

An empathetic view of our society would commence with the idea that recognizes that our society is extremely status conscious, and that vehicles, both two-wheelers and four, are marks of having arrived socially. They are indicators of our social and consumptive power. Having recognized this, we could make a distinction between people who have held power for a substantial amount of time, and now spend money in purchasing either one (or more) vehicles (for each member of their family), and those that have spent blood and tears and have put together enough money to purchase their first motorcycle or first car. It would be quite alright for us to suggest to the first category, that enough is enough, they might as well start using cycles and public transport; while on the other hand, to tell (either directly or indirectly) those who have only just got their first vehicle, that their desire is bad and that they need to move to cycles and public transport, especially given the state of public transport in Goa today, would be positively cruel. As was argued in an earlier column, even while we attempt to reduce the number of vehicles on our streets, NoMoZo, would have to effectively recognize that the purchase of vehicles is fueling a social need of the claiming of respect, and this is something that we will have to live with.

A second way in which we have to ground our dreams for NoMoZo, is to recognize that Panjim enjoys a certain relationship with the peri-urban spaces around it. A vast majority of the people that use Panjim as an urban centre do not in fact live in Panjim, or even around Panjim, but often at great distances away from Panjim. It is going to be practically impossible to tell them to use cycles in Panjim, even if one makes provisions for the public transport system leading into Panjim to be fitted with cycle carriers. There is simply no way in which we can enable so many people to use public transport to transport their cycles into Panjim. In such a case, we need to recognize that alongside the creation of reliable public transport within the city of Panjim, we need to also create a system of reliable state-wide public transport that allows people to travel between Panjim and their homes and back with the greatest of ease possible.

The Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar seems to have got this little detail right. In a recent interview he indicated that unless the manner in which the bus-system operated was changed, how could he expect people to give up their air-conditioned vehicles and travel by public transport? Mr. Parrikar, may also have been the force behind the brilliant innovations of the Kadamba Transport Corporation (KTC) some years ago; in particular the shuttle services between the main cities in Goa. For those who wanted to abandon their vehicles at home and travel by public transport (even if not air-conditioned) this was a dream come true. As with all things however, the system slipped after its initial enthusiasm, becoming extremely unreliable. The questions that NoMoZo should ideally start encouraging the public to pose is this, can this system be pulled back to its former ‘glory’? Can this system be replicated by creating hubs in larger villages from where one can catch similar shuttles into the major cities in Goa? Thus, for example, could we take a shuttle from Aldona to Panjim or Mapusa, instead of having to travel to Mapusa and then taking the shuttle to Panjim? More importantly, does this system necessarily have to be led by the KTC, or can we ensure that the private bus operators are able to fulfill this function effectively? Mr. Parrikar may in fact be the right person to set this process in order, given not only his much-lauded desire for instituting discipline, as well as his sympathy for some form of privatization. It is when we take an empathetic view of our society, that we would believe that it is possible, under the right combination of incentive and punishment, to get the existing entrepreneurs to work in the larger public interest. Our general attitude would invariably be to dismiss these entrepreneurs as irresponsible and uninterested in the public good. If NoMoZo is about giving our cities another chance, it should also encompass giving our people a second chance.

An empathetic view of society would understand that making NoMoZo a reality is not simply about asking people to take pledges to give up something, nor about offering technological fixes for our problems. It is about recognizing that NoMoZo is really a popularly led policy initiative, and like all policy initiatives, needs to be based on a comprehensive understanding of the society it is seeking to benefit. Understand the needs of the society, the constraints that force people to act in particular manners, and one will not need people to see the changes as sacrifices. On the contrary, they will automatically embrace the proposed changes.

With luck to NoMoZo’s third installment, scheduled for Sunday, the fifteenth of July on 18 June Road.

(A version of this post first appeared in print in the Gomantak Times dtd 11 July 2012)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My way or the highway: Thoughts on the value of process

The O Heraldo carried a rather shocking report on the twenty-eighth of last month. Titled ‘Farmers, NGOs raise huts in Margao’, the report was about the unchecked vigilantism by a group of citizens, who in the face of the alleged lethargy of the State authorities about a collection of tents, decided to take it on themselves to demolish these make-shift dwellings. Subsequent to this demolition, these citizens then informed the authorities to make sure that the materials of these tents was carried away, and the tents not allowed to be set up again.

This report was tucked away in an internal page of the paper, and was a little fragment of the day’s news, which is tragic. The issue holds grave consequences for the state of civil society and governance in our State and should not be brushed away so lightly. To begin with, what we have here is a case of citizens taking the law into their own hands. There is no doubt that all too often the state machinery does not move fast enough for us, and indeed in many cases there appear good reasons for us to take the law into our own hands and set matters straight. To do so however, is to ensure that we are effectively going down the road of such groups as the Sri Ram Sene, who take it on themselves to institute a case, adjudicate it, and then execute the decision taken as per their sense of what the law should be. There has been a lot of debate in Goa as to whether we should allow the Ram Sene to enter Goa, and there should be this discussion. But alongside the pleas to the Chief Minister to ban the Ram Sense, there should also simultaneously be pleas to the Chief Minister to not take this thus-far-minor incident in Margão lightly. On the contrary, the Chief Minister should take stern action to ensure that the group that motivated this action is hauled up before the law and punished appropriately for its roguery. 

This actions by these so-called NGOs is perhaps more appalling because of their timing, and the nature of the groups that they were attacking. The news report indicated that the people living in these small tents were waste recyclers, and it was their fouling of the local area both with plastic waste that they could not recycle, as well as their excreta, that caused the attack to be carried out. We should be clear then, that this attack was one by middle-class persons against persons who would very well qualify as poor. That this action should have been carried out in the course of the monsoons, is perhaps the most inhumane part of the exercise. While there is no doubt that the tent-dwellers may have inconvenienced these middle-class groups, we must not forget that these persons would have no doubt also had older members of their families, as well as children who also lived in these tents. Thus, what this vigilante demolition effectively did, was to ensure not only that these vulnerable segments of already marginalized groups were forced to be without a roof over their head in the course of the pouring monsoon, but also ensure that these segments would have missed meals, for reasons of losing not just hearth, but possibly kitchen stocks as well. The heartlessness of this action should leave us speechless for shame!

Interestingly, these aspects of the incident were not included in the report on the incident. The report only included the opinions of these self-righteous vigilantes. To that extent one wonders whether the sympathies of the reporter lay with these vigilantes. Good and sensitive reporting would have articulated a much larger picture, rather than merely present a small little snippet that seems to justify the action.

This column however, does not wish to dwell solely on this issue. Rather, it would like to relate the outcome when this report, and the outrage at this action, was shared with others on an internet forum. The first response to the sharing was a question “So do you favour the mushrooming of these structures?” This was a response designed to flummox. Surely this person realized that the issue being raised was not the validity of “these structures” but the problems with the process being used to resolve the matter?

The conversation continued, shifting wildly from the original suggestion that we ought to find this action unacceptable for the manner in which it effectively made a segment of our citizenry homeless, to what was effectively a plaint of middle-class persons against the awful manner in which they are being treated.  In the course of this discussion, it became increasingly clear, that it was not that this, and other, individuals did not want to distinguish between the harm that had been caused to the tent-dwellers and the harm that is being caused to the largely middle-class Goan folk on that internet forum. On the contrary, what became painfully obvious was that this person was UNABLE to distinguish between the two.

It is so much easier to condemn a person for failing to have a conscience, but what we often fail to realize is that having a conscience is often about being able to distinguish one situation from another. It calls for a complexity of vision, so that one can distinguish a cause and an effect, between an end and a process. Such a complexity of vision, it has to be recognized, doesn’t just spring in people automatically; it is cultivated, through observation, discussion. If one goes onto the internet, a space where so many Goans attempt to articulate and discuss their issues, one notices largely, the absence of any protocols of discussion, and the inability to entertain nuance. The situation is largely a case of with me or against me, and following that, the hurling of abuse.

This situation definitely does not augur well for us. Goan society is clearly in a state of flux, facing a great many challenges, and if the vast majority of our people are unable to see the nuance in debates that are being proposed, then we are done for. We are done for, because failing the development of this capacity to see nuance and be able to engage in discussion, we will largely continue to favour actions such as resulted in the demolition of the tents in Margão. As was suggested above, there is not much difference between the actions of groups like the Sri Ram Sene and the actions of these ‘NGOs’. They are both vigilantes committed to their idea of the truth and unable to tolerate the ‘Other’, both of them with scant respect for process. Process, at the end of the day, whether the legal concept of due process, that prevents us from taking the law into our hands; or the simple concept that privileges discussion, is critical to addressing the challenges we face.

The solution for Goa then, lies not merely in finding the solutions to the many problems we face, but in finding a manner in which we negotiate the process in which we arrive at the possibility of solutions.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times  on 7 July 2012)