Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Battle of the Konkanis: Separating Wolves from the Lambs


In 1987 subsequent to mass demonstrations composed overwhelmingly of bahujan Catholics the legislature of the Union Territory of Goa, Daman and Diu recognised Konkani in the Nagari script as the official language of Goa. This recognition of script was used to privilege a brahmanical project of fixing the identity of Konkani in the Nagari script alone, sidelining in this process the more vibrant and older tradition of writing Konkani in the Roman script, and its largely Catholic users. Consequently, a movement for the official recognition of Konkani in the Roman script emerged as a result of a systematic campaign of suppression of cultural and literary productions in the Roman script. More recently, with the Kala Academy, the premier state-supported cultural body announcing awards for literature in the Roman script, it is being maintained by some that the Roman script may in fact destabilize the status-quo that favours the Nagari script (and therefore brahmanical hegemony), leading to a number of persons coming out seemingly making concessions to the Roman script. One such overture was made by Prabhakar Timble in The Navhind Times, Goa. Timble is a legal expert as well as the former State Election Commissioner of Goa. The following article is a response to Timble that was disallowed publication in The Navhind Times.
The recent statements of support in favour of the continuation of awards reinstituted by the Kala Academy for literary works in Roman script will possibly bring good cheer for the votaries of this script. However, it is important that these statements of support be examined for their logic, rather than the superficial support they seem to offer. In proposing this course of action, reference is particularly being made to the opinion piece, “Promoting Konkani Language Culture” by Prabhakar Timble in The Navhind Times dated 15 October, 2013.

While Timble seems to be supporting the recent decision of the Kala Academy to offer literary works in the Roman script to obtain awards, his real fear is that the status quo as regards the place of Konkani in the Nagari script will be upset if the demands of the Roman script activists is allowed to go further. This fear is clearly evident in his statement: “The official language accepted in Goa is Konkani in ‘Devanagiri’ script. This is a settled issue because of the sacrifice and enlightened minds of the leaders of all communities.” Indeed, the core of the demand of the Roman script is not that literary works in the Roman script get awards, but rather that Konkani in the Roman script be given its legitimate place in the Official Language Act (OLA). This demand has been made because even though this form of Konkani is an older version of Konkani, and continues a vibrant production of Konkani culture, it has been subjected to all kinds of abuse and suppression in the years since the OLA was enacted. Further, while Konkani alone may be recognised as the official language of the state, the fact is that the operation of the Act continues to give official language status to Marathi.  This has resulted in Goa having two official languages, de facto. The issue of the status of official language being awarded in favour of Konkani in the Nagari script is, therefore, by no means “settled”. Indeed, contrary to Timble’s suggestions, there are very large numbers of members of the bahujan samaj who refuse to acknowledge Nagari Konkani as a legitimate Goan language because they see it as a ploy to ensure brahmanical supremacy in Goa. Consequently, the lone Nagari Konkani newspaper that exists has one of the lowest figures of circulation, lower than Konkani newspapers in the Roman script, and many times lower than Marathi language newspapers. These bahujan samaj activists would possibly accept Romi Konkani as an authentic language, but continue to refuse to accept the Nagri version. It is in recognition of this reality of the operation of the OLA, and to ensure that Konkani in the Roman script also enjoys the status that these two other languages enjoy, that the activists for the Roman script have been agitating right from the days that the OLA came into effect.

Timble inserts a number of subtle arguments to ensure the exclusive privilege that Nagari Konkani activists seek to retain. Indeed, it is around such arguments that the votaries of both Marathi and Nagari Konkani have often ganged up against the proponents of Konkani in the Roman script. The first of these arguments is to suggest, as evidenced above, that the decision in favour of Nagari alone was made by “enlightened minds”. The suggestion, therefore, is that those who challenge this supremacy of Nagari are unenlightened “fanatics” who seek to sow the seeds of division. The problem, however, is, as Timble himself recognises, that the division already exists, perpetuated in large part by the suppression of non-Nagari Konkani by the votaries of Konkani in the Nagari script. This suppression involved state supported institutions like the Kala Academy and the Goa Konkani Akademi refusing to consider works written in the Roman script for state awards, the systematic disparagement of productions in the Roman script like the tiatr (a form of drama) and romans (novels or novellas) as lacking in standard. It needs to be recognised that the grant of awards is often not merely the establishment of a standard, but also a way for the state to extend financial support to the arts.

The other argument that Timble throws up, and one that must be subjected to greater scrutiny, is his suggestion that the “Romi script is an accident of history”. It was this very suggestion that formed the basis of excluding the Roman script from the OLA. The implications of this argument are extremely dangerous since it suggests that the people who spoke the Konkani language had a certain trajectory of cultural development already chalked when its fulfilment was interrupted. The interruption implied is clearly: the arrival of the Portuguese and the establishment of their rule in the subcontinent. If the arrival of the Portuguese is seen as the cause for this accident of history, then surely there are a number of other accidents that occurred. The most crucial of these is the conversion of a sizable portion of the Goan population to Christianity. Must this Christianity also be seen as an accident of history because its growth coincides with Portuguese rule? Timble may well suggest that this “accident” be accepted and understood, but it is because these historical facts are seen as accidents that the Roman script and its cultural productions have been consistently deprived their rightful place in officially recognised Goan culture. Even if the state celebrates aspects of Goan culture that result from Portuguese intervention in local society, these are seen as exceptions rather than the rule. Herein lies the problem where Catholics are regarded as outsiders and foreigners to the acceptable national community, and any assertion of their difference is construed as being unacceptable. This intolerance of difference is amply evident in Timble’s suggestion that “‘One language, One Script, One community’ is not a wrong dream. But, it is an ideal paradise whose time has still not arrived.” Like the other votaries of the hegemony of the Nagari script, Timble too clearly believes that difference is a problem that must ideally be erased. By this logic, one can imagine that in Timble’s paradise all persons will be Hindu as well.

In conclusion, the statements of support by persons such as Timble should be read with caution. These statements do not recognise the legitimacy of Konkani in the Roman script, nor the demand that the Roman script be given an official place in the OLA. The sole purpose of Timble’s statement of support is to ensure that the delicate balance of linguistic power that currently exists in favour of both Nagari Konkani and Marathi is not tilted towards Marathi and Konkani in the Roman script. The fact is that while Konkani in the Roman script continues to be patronised by its loyal supporters in Goa, Konkani in the Nagari script has failed to achieve this position largely because it is an artificial creation that has sought to suppress Konkani in the Roman script, and has failed to achieve the trust of the Hindu bahujan who continue to use Marathi as a weapon against this particular Konkani.

(Written along with Dale Luis Menezes this post was first published on Round Table India on 28 Oct 2013)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Itinerant: They Do It Differently

In 1953 L. P. Hartley began his novel The Go-Between with the words, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But it isn’t just the past that is a foreign country; the lifestyles of one’s next door neighbour may be so radically different as to ensure that every visit is a journey into the foreign.  There was occasion for just such a voyage of discovery while attending the lectures offered by ShubhaMudgal at the Goa University some weeks ago.

Trained in the Hindustani style of music Mudgal has also successfully ventured into what could be called pop demonstrating in this process a certain amount of fluidity. If this fluidity and willingness to engage with different concepts marked her lectures at the Goa University, it was the radical absence of these virtues that seemed to mark a good number of those who were casually attending the lectures. The questions posed to Mudgal demonstrated that some enthusiasts of Hindustani music are trapped within inter-twined layers of nationalism, racism, mysticism, and the anxieties that these produce. Take for example a question which inquired if Mudgal thought that persons from India or an Indian background were more adept than foreigners who might learn Hindustani music. Located at the core of this question was a belief that Indians are genetically equipped with the capacities to learn, appreciate and perform Hindustani music. To her credit Mudgal indicated her discomfort with such a suggestion, indicating that if a South-Asian was able to outperform someone from another continent, it was because the South Asian born and raised in the subcontinent had the added advantage of being introduced to the cultural codes within which cultural forms like Hindustani music are made sense of it. These skills had nothing to do with race.

Another innocent question from the audience was the predictable one: “we have heard that spiritually powerful were able to make it rain when they sang the Malhar. Why is it that we do not see such occurrences today? Is it because we are of a lesser spiritual stature than those from the past?” The question revealed the extent to which some regard Hindustani classical music as closely twined with magic. The debate that Mudgal initiated attempted to explain to the audience that these images of persons like Miyan Tansen causing it to rain were really metaphors that should not be taken literally. The discussion suggested that raag system of music existed within a larger cultural universe that determined when they were to be sung and when not to. Within this universe the forms of praise were often exaggerated, leading us, who live in another time, to take these literally.

A more bothersome question was the typically Indian nationalist one which lamented that the audience for Hindustani music was depleting especially among the youth. Mudgal initiated a discussion that was able to give an uncommon response suggesting that Hindustani music had always been music that was restricted to an elite segment of Indian society. A good amount of the oeuvre of Hindustani music emerged from out of the patronage of the Islamicate courts of the northern part of the subcontinent. If anything, this discussion suggested that through the influence of nationalism and the democratising impacts of music companies, the market for Hindustani music had in fact been expanded. What could be added to this discussion is that if Hindustani music is restricted, then it is probably because of the restrictions that Indian nationalism and the restrictions of the caste system impose on it. The votaries of Hindustani music often display a certain snobbery, as was demonstrated by the persons who posed the questions in the course of Mudgal’s lectures. They see Hindustani music as one that had to be fixed within certain ways of singing, ways of dressing, devoid of change, tied to Hinduism and its spiritual practices. These fixities are intimately tied to the upper-caste locations of these individuals; and caste based skills, as we know, are necessarily restrictive and exclusive. Within such a self-imposed restrictive environment that is further limited by a belief in racism and magic, it is natural that the perception that Hindustani music is dying would emerge.

 (A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 19 Oct 2013)

Common sense and Hindu nationalism – Why the Catholics in Goa are not Hindu

Can a Goan Catholic be Hindu? Can Catholics professing a tradition of Catholicism that is over five centuries old be considered Hindu in culture? This is what the Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, sought to suggest in a recent interview with Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi of the New York Times India blog India Ink, where he said:

"I am a perfect Hindu, but that is my personal faith, it has nothing to do with government. India is a Hindu nation in the cultural sense. A Catholic in Goa is also Hindu culturally, because his practices don’t match with Catholics in Brazil [a former Portuguese outpost like Goa]; except in the religious aspect, a Goan Catholic’s way of thinking and practice matches a Hindu’s. So Hindu for me is not a religious term, it is cultural. I am not the Hindu nationalist as understood by some TV media – not one who will take out a sword and kill a Muslim. According to me that is not Hindu behavior at all. Hindus don’t attack anyone, they only do so for self-defense – that is our history. But in the right sense of the term, I am a Hindu nationalist."

Parrikar’s bizarre statement was in response to the question of whether he saw himself as a Hindu nationalist. Of course, a quick and easy response to his statement would be to summarily dismiss it as expected rhetoric flowing from his saffron affiliations; yet, questions persist, not least because of the peculiar and oft-misrepresented Goan scenario.

More than meets the eye
Goan Catholics today find themselves in a strange situation. On the one hand they are summoned to maintain a distinct Goan identity which rests in large part on the Portuguese past of the territory. This distinct identity is called upon not merely by an officially approved tourism policy and practice, but also by local elites who use the claim of a distinct identity to cyclically generate local mass movements that help them maintain their dominance. On the other hand, as Victor Ferrão argues in his recent book Being a Goan Christian: The Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis (2011), there is a simultaneous suggestion that this Catholic ‘cultural’ element is not compatible with a Goan and Indian identity; this is precisely what Parrikar is proposing here. What he further does is to paint the community as a monolithic entity, despite a situation where large segments of the Catholics are being delegitimized by dominant-caste members of their own faith who participate in a Hindu nationalist reading of Goan history.  Parrikar’s statement also distorts history through a saffron lens, contributing to the further marginalization of not only Goan Catholics, but also Goan Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis.

Finally, when Parrikar says that his Hindu faith has nothing to do with governance, he is cleverly skirting the intimate connection that religion and caste ideologies, including the right-wing one he professes, have with state apparatuses in post-1947 India. In the political mobilizations of the dominant as well as the subaltern sections in India, religion has emerged as a potent and important factor. Our contention, not necessarily a new one, is this: that religion in post-1947 India is not a personal affair; it is deeply public and profoundly political, and has now become even more overtly so with the rise of the BJP.

Goa’s encounter with Christianity
This background of political machinations and mobilizations makes it even more necessary to unpack Parrikar’s statement against the actual historical context in which Goa and Goans encountered Christianity.
As has been pointed out by the historian R. E. Frykenberg in his book Christianity in India: From the Beginning to the Present (2008), despite appearances to the contrary, the transmission of Christianity from the proselytizer to the converted always involved shifts in practice. These shifts resulted in new and unique forms of Catholicism or Christianity as the converted took in the message of the faith and made it their own. Thus, when Parrikar views a Goan Catholic as different from “Catholics in Brazil”, he is right only to the extent that there would be some ethno-local differences, because the local culture of Goan Catholics is Goan culture in its multiple variations, including, but not limited to, Hindu culture. Further, just as there are many shades in Goan identity, as also with the universality of Catholicism, there are many identities of the Brazilian Catholic. So which Brazilian Catholic is Parrikar referring to? Or is this also part of the fascist project – to understand every community or region everywhere in terms of its majority or dominant group?
Pre-Portuguese Goa was not a Hindu Space.

When Parrikar suggests that the Catholic in Goa is culturally a Hindu, and that Hindus and Catholics in Goa match in their practices and ways of thinking, he lends weight to a particular assumption about pre-Portuguese Goa: that it was a Hindu space. The truth, however, is that the territories that became Goa following Portuguese conquest in 1510 were, if anything, Islamicate spaces. This means that, although the majority of the people were not Muslim, they were culturally influenced by the Persian, Arabic, and Turkic traditions of dominant Muslim groups. As Phillip Wagoner and other scholars of the Deccan have pointed out, the notion of kingship in the early modern Deccan was firmly fixed within Perso-Arabic, and Turko-Afghan traditions that had taken root among the elites of the peninsula. Even the ostensibly Hindu kings of Vijayanagara adopted a vast variety of Islamicate traditions, in addition to styling themselves as “Sultans among Hindu kings”. The control of pre-Portuguese Goa shuffled between the Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan Sultanates, and the Vijayanagar kingdom for close to two centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese. In turn, this laid the ground for an Islamicate culture in the territories. So, when Parrikar proposes that Goan Catholics are culturally Hindu, he effectively obliterates the vibrant erstwhile and contemporary manifestations of the Islamicate in Goa by suggesting that the state’s society is one of Hindus and Catholics 
(with putative Hindu pasts) alone.

Goa’s pre-Portuguese history prior to the Islamicate period similarly reflects a complex diversity. There were communities who followed indigenous belief systems which cannot be considered Hindu, and ruling classes that were only recently Hindu. There is strong evidence of Jain and Buddhist communities in the Goan region in the first millennium of the Common Era, communities who were wealthy enough and politically dominant enough to leave behind fairly substantial architectural remains. While there are those who would lump both Buddhist and Jain ideas into Hinduism today, the fact is that these faiths arose and developed in opposition to brahmanical ideas. Parrikar’s statement thus erases the complex cultural life of pre-Portuguese Goa, collapsing it all into ‘Hindu Culture’ even as Hindu “practices” become the benchmark of evaluating the Goanness and Indianness of a Goan Catholic.

Parrikar’s logic implies that Goan Catholics are lesser citizens

Parrikar’s assertion that Catholics are culturally Hindus has another insidious side to it, for it draws from the old accusation of Hindu nationalist historians that Christianity and Islam are foreign to India. While Parrikar may not have actually said that Christianity is foreign, his statement makes it foreign. The truth though is that just as the Christians of the subcontinent are not foreign, their practices embody the culture of the land too. To label such culture as Hindu is not just erroneous, but also pernicious. As a corollary question to Parrikar’s logic, are Hindus living in Christian-dominated countries ‘culturally Christians’?

As Victor Ferrão demonstrates in his book, assuming and asserting a Hindu or brahmanical character to pre-colonial Goa has another ramification. It brings into play the purity and pollution principle that structures caste life within the political realm. The colonial period, and the colonial introduction of Christianity, is seen as polluting the former purity of the Hindu body politic. Consequently, Catholics are placed outside the purview of legitimate citizenship in Goa and India, because the nation’s purity is predicated upon assumptions of its essential brahmanical Hinduness. In Ferrão’s words: “Being polluted by the colonial era, [the Catholics] are thought to have lost their ability to take Goa to the path of authentic progress”. The Catholics may remain in Goa, but every time they make a demand that challenges the assumptions of Hindu nationalism, they are charged as being anti-nationals. This can be seen in the response to the demands for the recognition of the Konkani language in the Roman script, as also the demand for state grants for primary education in English. Thus, even though Parrikar’s statement on the cultural essence of Goan Catholics may seem to embrace, it is in fact a reminder of the second class location of that community within the Goan polity.

Reinforcing clichés of the nationalist historiography of India
The assertion that the term ‘Hindu’ “is cultural” rather than “religious” privileges only a certain rigid notion of Hindu culture and way of life, while relegating anything that is not Hindu to a second class status; this of course also begs the questions as to which religion is not a prescription for a way of life? It also relegates everybody in India who is not of the ‘Semitic’ faiths into the category of ‘Hindu’ by default. Such co-option has been challenged in Jharkhand where a struggle is on to give official status to the local Sarna religion. Dr. Ram Dayal Munda, the former Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University, has written in detail about how the Sarna faith differs in cosmology, myths, deities, rituals, priesthood, and other details, from Hinduism. Yet for many like Parrikar, non-Christian and non-Muslim Adivasis are ‘automatically’ Hindu. Kancha Ilaiah also discusses similar processes in his path-breaking book Why I am not a Hindu (1996). Ilaiah points out that for many children of subaltern communities even in the 20th century, the introduction to Hindu deities, epics, rituals, and other traditions happened only when they joined school, and the novelty was on par with learning Christian faith traditions.

Parrikar’s assertion that Hindus do not attack except in self-defence, i.e. they are a peaceful and tolerant people, is another myth that has been successfully contested by historians as well as scholars of contemporary caste society. That the Hindu nationalists play the card of perpetual victimization, as Parrikar does, when in reality it is the Dalits, Adivasis and many minority groups who are violently oppressed and abused by the caste nature of South Asian society, a society whose ethos, traditions and survival are now championed by Hindutva politics, is an old irony. As for peacefulness, Parrikar may never take up a sword to kill, but he is already neck-deep in a discourse that is violently casteist, racist, and – not to forget – Islamophobic. Furthermore, he does not have to personally pick up a sword because the Hindu right-wing has set up several proxy organizations that do the job, while political leaders like him either plead helplessness or remonstrate that such violence is not ‘true’ Hinduism.

A ‘Universal’ Church divided in itself
What Parrikar and others who think like him should acknowledge is that many of the converts to Christianity were from the subaltern communities. But it is also necessary to acknowledge that the Church hierarchy in Goa is not only dominated by upper-caste Catholics, but displays a tendency to discriminate against the subalterns in a manner similar to that of Hindu caste society. There are many examples of this, as when the demand for the Roman script of the Konkani language to be given official recognition in the state, which was made by subaltern-caste and -class Catholics, was opposed by the sections of the Catholic clergy. Ironically, many of those clergy members themselves use the Roman script on a daily basis. The discrimination against the subaltern Catholic groups is intensified by the tendency of the Hindu Bahujan Samaj to ally with the Hindu dominant castes. This tendency is most evident in the way the Saraswat-led Konkani language establishment allied with the Hindu Bahujan leadership to ensure that English language education at the primary school level was denied state grants; a move that the Catholic hierarchy acquiesced to. Grants were thus reserved for schools offering education in Marathi or official (Nagri) Konkani, a move which seriously hurt only poorer (and subaltern-caste) Catholic families, the wealthy being able to shift their wards to private schools where they could continue with an education in English.

Summing up
Goan Catholics are not Hindu. Most never were. The reality and history of Goa militate against the simplistic concepts offered by Parrikar. His understanding of universal Hinduness deliberately excludes the minorities while at the same time strait-jacketing and leveling any differences from the point of view of the dominant sections of the majority community. Such notions may appear to unite communities but in reality foster discrimination.

 (This post was written along with Albertina Alemida, Amita Kanekar,
Dale Luis Menezes, and R. Benedito Ferrãoand was first published on kafila.org on 16 Sept 2013.)

(A Konkani version of this text is also available )