Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Between Colonialism and Constitutionalism: Reflections on fifty odd years of being Indian - II

On the 19 of December this year, the anniversary of the successful completion of the Indian action to integrate Goa into the Indian Union, two status messages popped up on Facebook. The first read “61 Years of illegal occupation by rapist from Delhi. Some call it being liberated”; the second read, “The day Portuguese colonial rule was replaced by Indian colonial rule.”

Both of these messages demonstrate the unease felt by a segment of Goans (regardless of religious identity) with regard to the consequences of what the Indian nation-state calls “Liberation”. While somewhat uncomfortable with the first proposition, I was glad for the suggestion of the second message, because it put a good amount of the Indian nation-state’s relationship with Goa in context; that Goa, and Goans, were inducted into a colonial relationship with India from 19 December 1961. The sooner we begin to start seeing the relationship in this light, the sooner we will be able to remove ourselves from the sticky situation that the politics of “Special Status” will eventually take us.  I argue therefore, that counter-intuitively, confronting the colonial nature of the Indian relationship with Goa will save Goa from the disastrous politics contained within the Special Status move. To do this, I seek to make a distinction between the colonialism of the Indian nation, and the constitutionalism of the Indian state.
The first status message referred to above makes two points. The first proposes that Indian sovereignty over Goa is illegal, a possibly logical conclusion given that the Goan people were, never really asked what their options would be subsequent to this “Liberation” from Portuguese sovereignty. They were not asked in 1961, at the conclusion of the Indian action; and they were not asked in 1974 when the successors to Salazar’s Estado Novo conceded India’s claim’s over Goa. Problematising the legal status of India’s continuing claims on Goa should not however blind us to the fact, as it seems to have blinded the author of this status message, that the Indian action in Goa was in fact a liberation for a great segment of the Goan population. Once and for all, it broke the back of the native feudal structure that enjoyed a reciprocal relationship with Portuguese sovereignty. Portuguese sovereignty sustained this feudal structure, and the feudal structure sustained Portuguese sovereignty over Goa. It was the challenge to this feudal structure that enabled a great number of Goans to pursue careers and relish freedoms that they had till date not enjoyed.

There is a popular misconception that democracy was unknown in Goa until the Indians came and introduced Goans to this system of governance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Goans were familiar with democracy from the time Portugal, of which Goa was part, became a constitutional monarchy. This was a liberal democracy however, and its scope severely restricted. It was nevertheless a democracy, and this induction into democracy was only deepened as a result of the induction into the Indian Union that gave every adult the right to participate in electing the representatives of the state. It was this deeper democracy, enabled through the provisions of the Indian Constitution that broke back of Goan feudalism, and for this reason, the actions in 1961 were, as much as they enabled Indian colonialism, should also be seen as a liberation.

India then, comes to Goans as a double edged sword, liberative, and at the same time exploitative. The demands for Special Status, in its popular sense, seek to deal with the exploitative or the colonial manner of India’s relationship with Goa. This popular sentiment however, is being exploited by another understanding for Special Status, one discussed in the preceding column. This understanding, pushed by the political, economic and social elites of the State seeks greater autonomy to enable greater unaccountability of these elites. This latter demand for Special Status would set us against the liberative project of the Indian Constitution. Indeed, we should bear in mind, that a number of the demands that twine with Special Status today, are effectively demands that militate against the freedoms guaranteed as fundamental rights to the citizens of India. Presenting feudal pre-1961 as an ideal, they challenge the claims of “outsiders” to the gamut of rights enshrined in the Indian constitution.

One particular example is that where a number of pro-special status Goans exulted in the  destruction of the makeshift residences of waste-managers in Margão in the middle of the monsoon season. Challenging the accession of some people to basic rights today will ensure that the same rights are denied to those who now deny to outsiders tomorrow. The problem in Goa, especially vis-à-vis land, is that a power equation, in particular a colonial power equation, presided over by Delhi, that allows certain kinds of Goans, Indians and foreigners superiors powers over the common person is not being challenged. A Special Status agenda that limits ownership of land to Goans alone, will simply not resolve the problem that is rooted in the colonial nature of India’s relationship with Goa (and other peripheries of the Indian Union’s neo-colonial empire). A constitutional project however, is committed to see real equality, not merely procedural equality, realised, and would deal with this hitherto unchallenged power equation.

The response of the common person therefore, ought to be located in a commitment to the constitutional project. As suggested earlier, this constitutional project began in Goa in 1834, and it is necessary to recall this history if we are to simultaneously challenge the rhetoric of Indian nationalism while at the same time supporting a project of Indian constitutionalism. Such a project would see that there can be a concept of an India that is wedded not to national cohesion, and the suppression of rights that it is accompanied by; nor to a Goan nationalism, that is simultaneously based on suppressing discussion of local problems; but is wedded to an constitutional project, Indian or otherwise. Such a constitutional project would ensure that rights are taken seriously; as opposed to the current Indian national practice that does not take these rights seriously.  This is an Indian nation-state that does not respect the individual, whether it is the cases where women are denied the ability to lodge a complaint of rape and treated like it is their fault, where persons are routinely tortured, or people dispossessed to suit the developmental goals of its capitalist classes. Indeed, a movement on Special Status that is incapable of taking a nuanced position on the future of the mining industry in Goa is one that is not taking constitutional issues seriously.

In sum, the event in 1961 was not wholly without redemption. It was in fact genuinely liberative for a large segment of the Goan population, even as it trapped them within a colonial relationship of another, and continuing, kind. The response to this colonialism is emphatically not the current brand of demands for Special Status, but a commitment to the constitutional project that the Indian State promised, and any state should. It will eventually be a realisation of these constitutional ideals that will ensure that the future of Goa is a secure one.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 16 Jan 2013)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflections on fifty odd years of being Indian - I : On Special Status

Through this column and in a number of other locations as well, I have for a while, been making the argument that the demand for Special Status should not be seen as an isolated demand. Rather, this demand should be seen as merely the latest in a long series of demands that have been gradually been building up since the commencement of Goa’s tryst with the Indian nation-state. There was first the demand for separate administrative status, a demand addressed through the organization of the Opinion Poll. This demand was followed up around twenty years later with the demand for a separate State. In this case, the Konkani language was used to create an exclusive identity that stressed only one strand to a Goan identity. Subsequently, closer in time, and coincidentally after another twenty years, we have the demand for Special Status, that has grown on the back of the Save Goa movement. What unites all three of these demands is the demand to underline the exclusive nature of the Goan polity; difference from India. The demand for ‘Special Status’ I therefore argued, would not be the last of the political demands that emerges from Goa. On the contrary, we could very well see more radical demands for separation from the Indian Union in subsequent years.

Having made these predictions however, I began to worry if these projections were not the figments of my imagination. I was relieved however, when some days ago I espied the following post the wall of a prominent Goan academic on Facebook: “Following the integration of Goa into Indian Union, Goa has achieved statehood. Now there is interest on the part of some to demand Special Status, which is within the rights of the Indian Constitution.
I wish this discussion focused more on the definition of the "special status".
Is it only exclusive in nature? What if the same status is made universal for every Indian state? Should Goans dispersed throughout India be recalled? Will then there be more space for all in small Goa? I remember of the fable of the frog in the well.”

While this academic raises issues that I too have been raising with regard the odd silence regarding what this Special Status will contain, it is the first part of the post that I would like to focus on; “Following the integration of Goa into Indian Union, Goa has achieved statehood. Now there is interest on the part of some to demand Special Status, which is within the rights of the Indian Constitution.” What this academic does is, like I do, to place the demand for Special status within a longer historical perspective. While it is somewhat unclear whether he sees the problem as I do, what is clear enough is that he too has problems with regard to its articulation. In particular, he points out that the slogan is thus far fairly hollow. All that we have heard up until now, are merely one-line assurances that play more to the excitable gallery, rather than to the demands of rigorous analysis. The campaign to date has no substance and does not clearly indicate what the contents of this Special Status are, and how it will resolve the problems that Goans are facing.

But this lack of substance, and the fact that the demand for Special Status is merely playing the Goan masses for fools is not what this column would like to focus on. Rather, I would like to point out another disturbing trend that was made visible in a couple of articles in the year end edition of The Goan On Saturday. In this year end edition, there were at least three articles, written by persons who identify as non-Goans, who made rather disturbing points. The first argument was made by Praveen Agarwal, who spent time as Chairman of the Mormugao Port Trust. In his article he suggested that the local political parties have been actively creating an anti-Centre environment in the State. While Agarwal charged the Congress government for creating the situation, his argument is that the current BJP government is doing no better in trying to “not seeking cooperation and support of the central government.” While the tenor of Agarwal’s essay is condescending in the finest manner of the Indian administrative services, he makes interesting observations for those who are fearful that the slogans our native elites are now raising could spin crazily out of control.

Another argument that Agarwal raised was with regard to “senior cadre officers, and the standoff that occurs occasionally”. He sought to dispel the idea that bureaucrats were being sent to Goa by the centre based on the bureaucrats’ willingness to push forward the agenda of the party at the Centre. This tendency to view these officers as agents of an external agenda should however be read with the observations made by Aditya Arya, who was posted in Goa for a while at Joint Commissioner of Police. One of his damning observations was that the problem with Goa is that “Everybody knows everybody and in a situation like this, vested interests come in the way of effective policing at every stage.” Furthermore, and keeping in line with this desire to control the system to protect vested interests, “the political masters take decisions on practically every level of posting.” As a result, Arya argued, “Political interference and the lack of functional autonomy is the biggest bane of policing on Goa.”

In his report on the experience of the Institute of Road Traffic Education (IRTE) in Goa, and in particular their experience interacting with the Department of Transport, Dr. Rohit Baluja argued that it “clearly appeared that the Department was trying their best to ensure that the Delhi-wallahs’ return to the capital.” Baluja specifically placed the blame for the IRTE’s departure at the doorstep of the “lower bureaucracy” and in his conclusion observes that he has noticed a “noticed a vertical divide between the upper and lower bureaucracy.”

Taken together, these three opinions present an insight into the powers that are pushing for Special Status. These opinions identify the local politicians, local elites and the local bureaucracy as fomenting anti-centre sentiments with a view to increasing their own power over the way local resources are managed. Indeed, this demand for Special Status should be read as part of a longer project stretching back since integration into the Union, where the space for the autonomy of local elites, rather than the Goan people, has been systematically expanded. This desire for autonomy however, is rapacious and it is logical that it will not end with Special Status.

Before this column is read as a pro-centre, and pro-India argument however, I would hasten to point out that the concern of this column is with regard to the health of a possibly more-autonomous Goa. Until Goa (and Goans) are able to generate systems that will check the nepotism and the tight control that local elites have over the State, until they commit themselves to genuinely democratic politics, the demand for Special Status will fly against the interests of the masses that are today being riled up with cheap sloganeering. Increase autonomy yes, but only when the forces that desire this autonomy are able to be held accountable to the larger population that is now being mobilised to support this demand.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dated 12 Jan 2013)

Itinerant Mendicant: Learnings from Lanka

From around the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, members of the British aristocracy would travel to Southern Europe, and in particular Italy, on what was called the Grand Tour. The purpose of these tours was multiple, but at the root lay the belief that the well-rounded gentleman needed to gain familiarity with the culture of what was considered European antiquity. 

While there seems no particular concern among the nabobs of the subcontinent to transform themselves into well-rounded gentleman, should a Grand Tour be contemplated for denizens of the sub-continent, then Sri Lanka must definitely be listed as a must-do on this subcontinental tour. Travelling to Sri Lanka, engaging with its past, especially, but not only, its medieval and ancient past gives one a completely different perspective, not only on South Asia, but Asia as well. Situated at one end of this continental agglomeration, Sri Lanka affords one a vista of two rims of the Indian Ocean world, and perhaps their rather different dominant logics. To the left of the emerald isle lies the largely Islamicate world of the Arabian sea, and to the left, the Buddhic world of the Bay of Bengal.

Drunk on Hindu nationalist fantasies that are fed to us through the schooling system, most Indians carry with them the conceit that it was India that exported Buddhism and Hinduism to other parts of South Asia and South –East Asia. Travel to Sri Lanka however, and engage even superficially with Sri Lankan history and we are forced to reconsider this conceit. Poised on the emerald isle, one realises that the ancient kings of the island were not looking toward India solely for cultural imports. On the contrary, the peninsula of the sub-continent also presented possible areas for conquest. Rameshwaram, for example, was held under the sovereignty of Parakramabahu I, the powerful king of Polonnaruwa for at least about thirty years. Whether these conquests were permanent or not is irrelevant, given that the various Sinhalese kings definitely saw themselves as members of a circle of kings, some of which were in peninsular South-India, while others were dispersed in South East Asia and along the eastern coast of the sub-continent. India then, was not necessarily a centre, but merely contributed a number of points of exchange in Indian Ocean culture in which the kingdoms in Sri Lanka were also members.

But it is not just for ancient and medieval insights that Indian nationals should travel to Sri Lanka. On the contrary, it appears that the contemporary period can teach a good amount to the Indian. One is not ofcourse referring to the appalling manner in which the Sri Lankan State recently dealt with the LTTE challenge to its sovereignty, nor to the uncomfortable manner in which the Sinhalese elements of the Sri Lankan state continue to condescend to the Tamil population of the country. What the itinerant is referring to is the uncanny way in which the island seems to reproduce that old British idea of Sri Lanka, of India without its problems. At the risk of exoticising the country, it appears that the Lankans have an incredible sense of traffic discipline, providing indications when they overtake and return to their lane, the manner in which the horn is rarely used, and the manner in which vehicles actually stop at zebra-crossings to let pedestrians walk across calmly. One could go on and on about the radical difference the Lankans’ civic sense represents to the Indians, but that as Kipling would have said, is another story.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 12 Jan 2013)