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)

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