Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Itinerant Mendicant: Rivers of Light

So you’ve seen the Taj Mahal right? Now the trick is that you aren’t really supposed to merely see it. As conceived originally, you are required to experience it in a manner where the Taj is still definitely the central focus of the park in which it sits, but nevertheless only one part of an entire ensemble. The idea was to pass through the great gateway of the garden in which the Taj has been placed, and traverse its fountain drenched gardens that gave you a glimpse of the gardens of paradise. These gardens were unlike the staid British-Raj planted gardens that sadly replace the Mughal gardens of yore.  These gardens of the Raj were planted to give an obscene full frontal view of the Taj, whereas the original gardens laid a play of light and shade, scent and sound, until finally, when bewildered and enchanted by this garden, you came upon, almost suddenly at close quarters, the great marble mausoleum, emphatic and ethereal, as if the very Throne of God.

The wonder of the Taj did not stop with the mausoleum itself, for the design audaciously drew the river itself into the arrangement of the great garden that was an integral design of the Mahal. Situated on the other side of the river, the Mahtab Bagh (translated literally, Moon Garden) provided the final boundary of the entire ensemble. The Mahtab Bagh suggests to us that the experiencing the whole arrangement was not intended merely by daylight, but also by the moonlight, when seated in the Moon Garden (of white flowers) one could view the white mausoleum by moonlight.

There was something of this experience of the Taj that structured a recent visit to Copenhagen. Returning from an excursion to the art galleries open later in the evening, thanks to the Copenhagen Gallery Night, I came upon one of Copenhagen’s landmarks, the Marmorkirken, or the Marble Church. Way past its visiting hours, the building was quite expectedly shut, its classical façade shrouded in darkness, providing only a silhouette. Perhaps it was for this reason of darkness, that my eye turned toward the Frederiksgade, that sprung from the centre of the bottom most steps of the church, leading the eye towards a huge crystal of light, the Copenhagen Opera House, at the other end of this avenue.

Abandoning earlier plans I stumbled down the Fredriksgade toward the Opera House. It was after all a fascinating sight, providing at that moment, echoes of the Sri Lankan Parliament designed by Geoffrey Bawa. This track proved to quite literally be a journey toward the light, for in the process of reaching the Opera House I had to cross the circular Amalienborg Slotsplads. The square of the Amalienborg Palace, the antique lamps on the square eschewed the commonplace florescent lamps that shine into the sky. On the contrary, placed in the head of the lamp post, they shone done, casting a soft yellow light around the base of the posts, creating a middle-space between the darkness of the Church and the light of the Opera House.

That moment in the Amalienborg Slotsplads was a very private moment, for unlike its day time persona, when it is flooded with noisy, image-hungry tourists, the space by night was deserted, marked only the presence of a couple of soldiers marching on guard watch, and an oddly indisciplined plastic bag, thumbing its nose at Scandinavian regimes of public order. That private moment in the chiaroscuro allowed for a languid contemplation of the darkness of the Marmorkirken the light-filled crystal cube of the Opera House. A return to the same space in the day-time revealed a completely different space, underscoring how special that nocturnal visit had been. What this latter visit revealed however, was a little sculptural map set in a wall, indicating that this ensemble of Chuch, avenue, palace and square had been planned by the original architect of the project, and indeed the later Opera House aligned to  add to the older vista.

As it turned out however, my intended progress to Opera House was blocked by the waters of a canal that stood between the palace and the Opera House. What I did realize however, was that, having traversed this 18th century ensemble of built form I was gazing at the Opera House from within a waterside garden. The intended journey may have been incomplete, and the location Scandinavia, but in that frustrated journey, there was a sense of a wholesome experience that the designers of the Taj intended.

(A version of this blogpost was first published in The Goan 30 Sept 2012)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Belling the Cat: On Special Status and Citizenship Rights

It has been the second case this year. A couple of days ago, a number of newspapers reported the fact that the MLA Mickky Pacheco had accused the Superintendent of Police, Mr. Allen D’Sa of being a Portuguese national. The earlier instance of such a case, was that of Ms. Valanka Alemão accusing her rival in the legislative assembly elections, MLA Caetano Silva, of being a Portuguese national, and hence incapable of representing the constituency of Benaulim.

On the face of it, it appears that both these accusations are unfortunate since what they are in effect doing is to ruin the public secret that is allowing a number of average (the popularly phrased aam aadmi) Goans to find jobs overseas, especially in Europe, and better their life chances and those of their children. By creating a public controversy about the possibility that these two men hold citizenship status in another State, what these two cases will effectively do, is draw the energies of the Indian State bureaucracy toward rooting out those Goans who hold dual citizenship. On second glance however, perhaps Ms. Alemão and Mr. Pacheco are doing the Goan population a favour since they are in effect creating the circumstances under which the Goan citizenry will have to sit up and take charge of the situation that is in effect a sword of Damocles that hangs over the heads of those who have reclaimed their Portuguese citizenship. It has been all very well that until now the enforcement by the authorities has been less than rigorous.  However, as Prabhakar Timble recently pointed out in his article in the Navhind Times, in addition to these two cases, there were also at least four cases where persons were debarred from participating in panchayat elections for reasons of holding Portuguese citizenship. The threat it seems, comes not from a possibly dispassionate citizenry, but from jealous neighbours, rivals in political contests or other familial or economic contests. We should not forget that the current legal regime not only prevents a foreign national from holding political office, but also prevents a foreign national from holding agricultural property, a situation that could possibly be used in the bitter inheritance battles that are such a marked feature of any reasonably landed family. There are good reasons necessitating therefore, a united popular response to this situation.

Fortunately for those interested in presenting a challenge to the legal regime concerning nationality, asserting their traditional and inheritable right to claim Portuguese citizenship, there already exits a somewhat active group that should logically support the right of the Goan to bear dual citizenship. For some years now, not merely citizen groups, but legislators and Members of Parliament have been demanding, through constitutional amendment, the grant of Special Status to Goa. One of the many arguments that have been marshaled for the demand of Special Status has been that this Special Status, where only Goans may purchase and trade in Goan land, is necessary to protect Goan identity. More recently, our Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, also raised a similar issue of restricting the entry of migrants into the State to protect the same threatened Goan identity.

Upon raising this issue, Mr. Parrikar drew flak from a number of locations, and was charged with being anti-national, and secessionist. To charge a member of the RSS, with being anti-national and secessionist is laughable. But perhaps these charges were required to demonstrate the manner in which all too often the anti-national argument is irresponsibly flung despite the indubitable patriotism of the individual, and the justice of their demand. The argument that is being made is not a secessionist demand, on the contrary, it is one that needs to understand a particular history. This history was reportedly often called upon by the late Mathany Saldanha in his own arguments for Special Status for Goa. The argument of activists such as him were to point out that given that Goa was integrated into the Indian Union only in 1961, there were no Goan representative in the Constituent Assembly to secure Goan interests. As we know, right from the inception of Goa’s identity as a part of the Indian State, there have been movements that have sought to protect the identity of Goa. As such, they argue, it is now time for us to obtain Special Status, just like other smaller and threatened parts of the Indian State, to protect Goan identity in the face of inundation by larger forces.

The argument made by this segment of those demanding Special Status for Goa, can also be used to accommodate the right of Goans to hold dual nationality. If they point out that there were no representatives in the Constituent Assembly to represent Goan interests at the time of the framing of the Constitution, then it should also be underlined that the integration Goa into the Indian Union was a largely unilateral act by the Union of India, that did not respect the specificity of Goa. Indeed, as if to underline this fact, despite Nehru’s assurances, the protection of the specificity of Goa has had to be fought for in pitched battles every twenty years; 1967, 19 86-7, and since 2006.

As the article by Prabhakar Timble pointed out, the right to citizenship that Goans (and other persons from former Portuguese territories in India) enjoy is not some post-Liberation gift granted to them by the Government of Portugal, but the continuation of their legal rights from prior to the Indian action in 1961. As Timble also pointed out, if a number of Goans are utilizing this option today, it is not necessarily out of any jealous love for Portugal, but to better their socio-economic prospects. Indeed, many of those utilizing the option to regain their Portuguese citizenship continue to invest in Goa, both economically as well as emotionally. The issue of Indian insecurity in the face of citizens with dual citizenship therefore, should hardly arise, at least not in the Indo-Portuguese case (for remember we are speaking of more than just the Goans in this case).

As regular readers of this column will recollect, I have not been a supporter of the move for Special Status forGoa. This objection has been based on the fact that there has been no clear articulation of what this Special Status would mean, and what it would contain. The only consistent demand has been to restrict the ownership of land to Goans alone. This one clause will benefit, as this column has argued before, only those who currently own vast tracts of land. It will not benefit the average Goan. On the contrary it would possibly worsen their situation. However, it is clear that there are significant segments of the Goan population that are determined to gain Special Status for Goa. In such a case then, it would make sense, in keeping with the strain of arguments referred to above, that they also take up the cause of the right of Goans to retaining Indian citizenship, while reclaiming their Portuguese citizenship. To do so, would ensure that the interests of a large segment of blue collar Goans would not lose out on their domestic interests while pursuing overseas their dreams for their family’s welfare.

(A version of this post first appeared on the Gomantak Times 26 Sept 2012)

Errata:  A paragraph above reads "We should not forget that the current legal regime not only prevents a foreign national from holding political office, but also prevents a foreign national from holding agricultural property, a situation that could possibly be used in the bitter inheritance battles that are such a marked feature of any reasonably landed family."

This is a mistaken representation. The regulations prevent a purchase of agricultural property by Persons of Indian Origin. Further, there may not be a sound basis to suggest that agricultural property cannot be inherited.

This mistake is regretted.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Letters from Portugal: In Hoc Est Caritas

This letter is not about Portugal, but about the actions of a Goan in Portugal. So striking were his actions however, and so profound the outcome, that they bear writing home about. 

Zé has been spending the summer month of August in Lisbon, and as summer drags on in this part of the world, so has Zé. A friend from school, it made sense that when he was not engaged in other diversions, the two of us spend time together. Part of his romance with Lisbon involved falling in love with the street cafes, where restaurants and cafes provide their services at the little tables they place on the pavements adjoining their establishments. Zé loves nothing more than grabbing a beer, coffee or lunch at these cafes, engaging in conversation, and people (and vehicle) watching.

It was in the course of a lunch such as this, that the incident I am about to report took place. Perhaps it was I who saw him first. An older man, bushy beard grey with age, skin tanned from being in the sun too long, there was something odd about him. His clothes were worn, but there was clearly an effort to look respectable, his shirt tucked into his trousers, holding a jacket over his arm. As he passed by our table, he stopped, and inquired of us, with the greatest of dignity, if we might possibly have a couple of coins to give him for a coffee. Zé is a good soul, and for this reason looked in his pockets and handed the stranger the seventy cents he found there; plenty money for a coffee that this man asked for. For some strange reason however, Zé felt this insufficient, and even as the man was moving on, called out to him, saying “would you like a beer?” Our elderly friend did not hesitate twice. “Yes!” he said. “Sit” responded Zé. And so this man sat himself down at our table.

This is not “normal” middle-class behavior in any part of the world. One does not do this in India, and one most certainly does not encounter this in Portugal, that has a caste and class system comparable with India’s (though perhaps this comparison definitely not apply to the humiliating manner in which we deal with Dalit groups). The extra-ordinariness of this situation was clear by the looks of the people around us, and by the question of the waiter, who asked of us when we requested a beer for the old man; “Is he with you gentlemen?”

Having indicated in the affirmative, the beer was brought for this man, and since one cannot have a person at one’s table and not speak with him, Zé proceeded to engage the man in conversation.  It turns out that he lived across the Tagus River. In his own home, he was careful to affirm, but being a bachelor, lived by himself, in one of the dormitory cities outside of Lisbon called Cruz de Pau. He had two brothers who lived close to him, in their own homes. He had come across the river, since he receives his pension on the tenth of every month, and as of now, there was “no food at home”. He was in Lisbon then, because he would be able to get both lunch and dinner at the free kitchen at the Church of Our Lady of Fatima near Campo Pequeno. Rather than return home, he would spend the night on the street somewhere, perhaps around the great rotunda of Marques Pombal, until the tenth.

At around the same time as this conversation was taking place, the food we had ordered arrived. Since one cannot eat in the presence of another without offering them food, Zé shared our stuffed squid with this man. In these actions, Zé flung open the doors of the meaning of caritas. The act of giving; was engaged in fully, with no concern for one’s station, the impressions of society. It was entirely the act of one human being with the capacity, reaching out to another in need, and in the process, treating the other not with condescension normally reserved for beggars, but with the dignity reserved for one’s intimates, social equals and superiors. Indeed, in doing more than just giving him some money, but stopping to hear his story, Zé opened up the space for this man to tell his story in dignity. By using the word ‘dignity’ I do not want to romanticize his poverty, but seek merely to highlight the manner in which he engaged with us, sharing a meal, sharing a story. Departing, after he shook our hands, he left me with one more insight into the many lives that a rapidly impoverishing Portugal lives. The insight, and the realization, that when you give, you also receive. It was because I consider myself blessed for having had the privilege of being at that table, learning a valuable lesson, that I report this incident.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on Sept 20 2012)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In my shoes: Contemplating Capital Punishment

Ever since the arrest of Ajmal Kasab, for his association with the horrific violence unleashed in the city of Bombay in November 2008, there has been a media-orchestrated, orgiastic baying of his blood from large sections of the Indian populace. So deep and profound has this orgy been, that subsequent to the confirmation by the Supreme Court of India, of the death penalty awarded to him, there have been demands that this execution be carried out in public. Buoyed by this energy, public spirited citizens have even come forth offering their services as the hangman.

Also present in this melee however, have been the voices of a stubborn minority that have argued their principled opposition to the death penalty and persistently argued against the penalty, be it for Ajmal Kasab or anyone else. The arguments against the death penalty are numerous; one of them being that it is not for the State (or anyone) to take human life. The theistic would add that life that has not been given by us, cannot be taken away by us. Further, is the more pragmatic argument, that given the possibilities of a variety of factors impacting on the trial and judgment, there is always the possibility of the wrong person being killed for a crime they did not commit.

To these arguments, the fierce response has been that there can be no doubt that Ajmal Kasab was involved in the violence in Bombay; and further, who are we to talk, given that we were not the ones to loose family and loved ones in those terrible days in November 2008. It is in face of the latter argument that I have invariably fallen silent, for truly, without being in that position, how do I know what my response would be in a similar situation? If it were my people that had been butchered, would I not, perhaps, also have joined in the demand for blood?

The judgment in the case of Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani in the Naroda Patiya massacre, associated with the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, seems to allow the space to finally provide an ethically honest response to this question that until now invariably silenced me. The Naroda Patiya massacre involved a mob of Hindu nationalists who mutilated and killed around 97 people. Leading this mob and encouraging them in acts of extreme violence, acts that included the disemboweling of a pregnant woman and the spearing of her foetus, were Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi.  A week ago, Ms. Kodnani was sentenced to 28 years in prison, while Babu Bajrangi was sentenced to life imprisonment. The death penalty was not awarded to either these two, or the others convicted along with them.

I have no blood-links with the people killed, maimed or dispossessed in the course of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. However, like many others, I have good reason to identify intimately with them. The 2002 pogrom was not merely a ‘warning’ to Muslims in India, but to all minority (not merely religious) groups, that this sort of violence could be visited upon them next. We have seen such violence in Orissa, in Assam, and more recently in South Kanara. Given that that some of my dearest relatives live in Mangalore, the violence in Gujarat is not an external event. It marks the approaching drum-beat of a savagery that could easily mar my own life. Those people in Gujarat could easily have been my very own. Also, just as the persons baying for Kasab’s blood are emotionally invested against him and all that he stands for, I too, am emotionally invested against Kodnani and Bajrangi. And yet, after careful thinking, I am convinced that I am not in anyway desirous of their blood. I do wish to see them jailed, and put away for a good period, but I do not wish to have their blood on my hands.

As many of us who have opposed the death penalty have often emphasized, the issue at stake in the opposition to the death penalty is not about what happens to persons who have committed a crime heinous enough for us to want their death. The point is what does instituting, and perpetuating the death penalty do to us as people, and as a polity. The impact it has should be obvious to even a casual observer of recent Indian politics, where the death penalty has become the penalty of choice for practically every offence, ranging from corrupt practices, to rape. To set ourselves on this path, is for us as a polity to lose the meaning of the value of human life and to persuade ourselves that killing is a valid answer for harms done to us. Supporting the death penalty does not close the cycle of deaths perhaps commenced by the criminals, it only perpetuates the cycle, trapping the living in a ceaseless cycle of death.

Before concluding, I would like to turn the issue around, and ask those in favour of the death penalty, why the same death penalty apparently justified in the case of Kasab, was not afforded to Kodnani and Bajrangi? On the face of the matter, there should be no doubt that Naroda Patiaya massacre constitutes a terrorist activity. Further, if one examines the case objectively, one realizes that the crimes committed by Kasab and his accomplices, and by Kodnani-Bajrangi, and theirs, in fact partake of a profound commonality. Both crimes, those in 2008, and those in 2002, were violent crimes against innocents, robbing them of their life. Furthermore, if one recognizes that sovereignty in India, as in other republics, stems from the collective of the people, any attack against the people, is an attack on the sovereignty of the State. Both crimes were by this logic, and as is popularly agreed in the case of Kasab, against the people of India, against the sovereignty of the State. In the Gujarati case, this attack on India’s sovereignty was because it willfully challenged, not just the rule of law and order of the Indian State, the host of fundamental rights it guarantees its citizens, but also the ethic of a secular system that the Indian Constitution is committed to. If Kasab is held worthy of the death penalty, why not Kodnani and Bajrangi? Do you see how the demand could go both ways?

The response against the death penalty was provided by the judge of the special court set up to try these cases, Jyotsna Yagnik. It is reported that she felt the death penalty “was against “human dignity.”” If then, the death penalty is against human dignity, and the crimes of Kodnani and Bajrangi rank on a similar conceptual scale to that of Kasab, should we not argue, using our principled opposition to the death penalty, that a similar clemency, and basic respect for a human being be shown to Kasab?

We would need to show this clemency for Kasab and others languishing on death row for crimes against the Indian State, because there is probably a very deep anti-Muslim bias (a bias that simultaneously operates against a number of similarly marginalized communities, and dissident groups in India) that is operating behind the sense of justice that accompanies the demand for capital punishment for them.

We should be grateful that Kodnani and Bajrangi were not awarded the death sentence, because it offers us the opportunity to halt the mindless cycle of eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth that India seems determined to get into. We need to begin this halt of life-taking somewhere, and it is best that this halt begin with us, those of us who are opposed to the death penalty, even as we know, that someday, we could be the victims of murderous violence, by people who quite firmly believe in the death penalty, for crimes real or imagined, judicially supervised or otherwise.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times on 5 Sept 2012)