Friday, November 15, 2013

The Rot and Racism in Paradise

India seemed to have be taken aback when the murder of a Nigerian national in the Goan village of Parra, early on 31st October, led to a rabid outburst of racism in the state. There appears to have been a sense of shock and disbelief that such racism should rear its head in Goa, a place that if not actively seen as a paradise, is definitely seen as being “cosmopolitan”. But despite appearances, all is not well in the state of Goa and trouble has been brewing for some time now, the recent episode only a more dramatic evidence of the rot that has consumed the state.
While the murder in Parra had already raised tensions, the pot boiled over when a group of compatriots of the deceased decided to follow and intercept the police hearse carrying the corpse. They subsequently mounted a brief protest on the national highway, demanding that due process be carried out in the investigation of the murder of their fellow Nigerian. This situation had barely been resolved by the police when what seemed like a mob lynching of some Nigerians took place. In the course of the resultant violence, a couple of Nigerian nationals were beaten with sticks and iron rods within inches of their lives. In a bizarre twist this subsequent event became the focus of the local media where, rather than being portrayed as the victims, the Nigerians became the target for an all-out campaign of vilification. Thanks to the unorthodox manner of their protest the Nigerians were seen as having deserved the violence meted out to them. This was compounded by the fact that they were now projected as solely responsible for the vibrant drug trade, especially in the beach belt of the state. The manner in which the episode was reported and responded to, where reference was made to the physical attributes of the protesting Nigerians demonstrated quite clearly that the entire episode was being viewed through the lens of race. Take, for example, the manner in which reportage focused on the manner in which some of the protestors took off their shirts, or the statement attributed to the chief minister that, “some of them are seven feet tall. It would take at least 100 of our policemen to handle a crowd of 50 Nigerians”. As if to make things worse, now all Nigerians in Goa have come under the scanner where, in response to publically articulated demands that all Nigerians be deported from the country, the chief minister assured the populace that those Nigerians in the country without a visa would indeed be deported. In response to this demonization of the Nigerians, a number of Nigerians were asked by their landlords to leave the lodgings they had rented, even as the gram sabha of the village of Parra passed a resolution that requested villagers to desist from renting their properties to Nigerians.
Perhaps it was the eventual involvement of the Nigerian High Commission that converted what would otherwise have been a local issue into one of national interest. It was reported that an envoy of the High Commission suggested that “thousands of Indians living there will be thrown out on the streets if forcible eviction of Nigerians in Goa does not stop.” This seems to have further enraged not just persons in Goa, but Indians at large who responded in disbelief that an African nation was challenging them. These Indian responses were no less lacking in racist content given that they suggested that it was impossible that Indians were living in Nigeria illegally, and that Nigeria had better think twice since they needed India to purchase its crude oil, among other similar sentiments.  This response is not surprising given the media-led hyper-nationalism that seems to dominate the contemporary public sphere.
In a number of the debates that have ensued both in the print, as well as social media, Goans have protested loudly and vociferously that they are not racist. They have backed up this assertion by pointing to the fact that the Nigerians in question were in fact blocking a National Highway and that there are many Nigerians who are involved with the drug trade.  To their minds they are not unfairly focussing on the Nigerians. It is just that in this case the Nigerians have rightfully become the centre of state and public interrogation. While these excuses may not exculpate the vicious evidence of racism in Goa, it is true that this is not the first case of racialized responses to the social upsets in Goa.
While the Nigerians are being blamed for “spoiling our boys and girls” today, this cry has been echoing in Goa ever since the time this territory was opened up to tourism. When the British national Scarlett Keeling was found dead on a beach in 2008, there were similar outbursts of racist, and sexist, rhetoric, where the victim and her mother were blamed for their ‘loose’ lifestyles and the mother’s bad parenting. The focus on this mother and daughter allowed for gratuitous statements against ‘white trash’ and the undesirability of having such tourists in the state. In other words, though white, they were not white enough. If in the late 70s and early 80s it was the European and North American white hippies who were accused of immorality and drug abuse, in time that bias has shifted to include the Russians and the Israelis as well. These latter two groups have been identified not merely for drug use, but also for engaging in prostitution while also at the same time excluding Goans from those parts of the beach belt that the Israelis and Russians have reportedly staked out for their exclusive use. The case of the latter has been marked by an added fear that the Russian mafia has been buying up property in North Goa. And finally there is the response to Indian tourists, and those Indians who have second homes in Goa, who are disparaged for their arrogance, disrespect towards locals, and general lack of “civilised” behaviour.
This racism is not surprising given our caste culture, which nurtures a biased belief in hierarchy and discrimination, all of which is also tied to skin colour, so that it is very normal for black people to be treated worse than whites.  So much of the rhetoric in this case is uncannily similar to the experience of dalits in India, where as acts of violence against these communities are increased whenever they are seen to step out of line. One other way to explain these racialized responses would be to refer to the nature of the tourist industry and the peculiar manner in which it has incarnated itself in Goa. While appearing counter-intuitive, it may be precisely because Goa has been actively constructed as paradise that the kind of racism that has been manifest in its public spheres has emerged. From the time of its violent integration into the Indian Union in 1961 Goa has been distinguished, both in the Indian as well as in the international imagination, as a separate space, a Europe in India. Within this context Goans came to be articulated as a monolithic, almost European, community marked by a tendency toward fun and frolic. In the context the Goans are problematically related not just to blacks but persons who are not quite white as evidenced from the reference to the Keeling episode. This creation of a distinct identity as not quite Indian was encouraged by the state government in the interests of promoting tourism. Despite the manner in which this marketing generated revenues for the state, there was a negative spill-over with Goa being seen as a place where the rules that normally bind people can be cast off with impunity. Thus much to the chagrin of the locals, Goa is created as the apt location for a variety of activities including, but not limited to, binge drinking, drug consumption, or the wearing of clothes that one would not think of wearing at ‘home’. Even more galling is the fact that it is not just the tourists who act with impunity, but that the local dispensation casts aside all manner of rules to privilege the interests of non-local businesspersons. Thus, there has been growing resentment against the building boom and the resultant steep cost of real-estate that ensures that properties are now largely available only to moneyed non-Goans. There is also the case where both off-shore and on-shore casinos were set up in violation of regulations and despite active and continuing protests against the same. When the protests are lodged, the response of state authorities, often, is that the due process of law has been followed in obtaining permission for these businesses. The ferocity of the rhetoric against the Nigerians, the lack of sympathy for the murdered Nigerian national, and the explosion of support for the lynching of the others must be seen in the context the twining of the normalised disdain for Africans, the sense of exploitation, and the feeling that the due process of the law does not support the lives of locals. After all, popular justice is as a rule meted out not to the guilty, but to the weak who are scapegoated to regain a temporary sense of balance.
The lynching itself bears further scrutiny especially since it has been widely reported and hailed as an act of a long-suffering local population. As the drama of the moment passes and more facts come to light, it increasingly appears that the lynching was carried out by thugs who sought to use public outrage to settle scores with the Nigerians. The issue is clearly linked with the conflicts between the Nigerians and local gangs; where the murder of the Nigerian national on the 31st was merely a spike in a longer period of conflict between these two groups. Indeed, it should be highlighted that the lynching itself took place after the blockage of the national highway had been resolved by the police. The Nigerians who were lynched were not a part of the earlier demonstration but had only just arrived at the scene.
What this episode seems to have made glaringly obvious, even to the national media, is the manner in which the drug trade in Goa is sustained by a close nexus between segments of the police and politicians. Truly, it stands to reason that a group of foreigners would dare to challenge the state in the manner that these particular Nigerians attempted only if they had a history of knowing that the law would look the other way as they flexed their muscle. As the days have progressed, more and more local opinions have joined the initial lone voices to suggest that the Nigerians were in fact the red herring that had been thrown in and the focus of the debate really ought to be about the larger fish that continue to swim in the sea of Goa’s drug trade. These declarations have also inquired how it was that so many Nigerians seem to have been in Goa without valid documents. Surely this was the result of the authorities deliberately looking the other way. Despite these voices, however, the local attention continues to be focussed on the Nigerians, which is somewhat disappointing given that it ensures that the larger problems themselves will remain unresolved. As if to illustrate this sad fact, just prior to the eruption of the episode, the media in the state was following, with some interest, the conclusions of the legislative house committee led by legislator Francisco (Mickky) Pacheco that had been set up to report on the police-politico-mafia nexus associated with the drug trade in the state. In particular this committee was expected to report on the alleged involvement of Roy Naik, son of former Home Minister Ravi Naik, in the state’s drug trade. Unfortunately, just like the case involving the Nigerians, the report of the committee also seems to have been scarred by the partisanship that affects all debates within the state. Most credible sources seem to agree that regardless of party membership, the drug trade in the state is sustained by the patronage of MLAs.
In all of this, the constant ray of hope has been the Chief Minister’s affirmations that no matter what the provocation citizens cannot take the law into their own hands no matter what. Following this, and perhaps also because of the international attention that the case has attracted, the state machinery has followed up with its assertion that those guilty of murdering the deceased and lynching the other Nigerian nationals will be prosecuted. One person has already been arrested and others are said to be absconding. Sources in the police department indicate that there has been a temporary lull in the drug trade in the state thanks to the administration’s actions subsequent to these incidents. One can only hope that this temporary disruption of the drug trade in the state will create the space for a more substantial resolution of the drug problem in the state.
                There should be no doubt that there is serious trouble brewing in Goa. The corruption in the state runs deep where, since the past few decades, there has been a systematic attack on the accountability of institutions and the rule of law resulting in a profound sense of cynicism within the state. The racism that one witnesses in Goa subsequent to the 31st October is merely one more facet of this profound lack of confidence in the state and the belief that it is only through taking the law into their own hands that the citizenry will be able to address change. Simplistic logics, however, rarely resolve complex problems. They merely provide a false, and temporary sense of unity, and the fear is that where it was the Nigerians who were attacked in this instance, the day is not far when the social tensions that are being produced will result in locals setting themselves on each other. The day may not be far when Goa will be the classic example of paradise lost.

(A version of this post was first published in DNA on  9 Nov 2013)

No comments: