Friday, August 22, 2014

Sant Sohirobanath and secular death

I read with some concern the news that the Government of Goa is officially celebrating the tercentenary of the birth of Sant Sohirobanath Ambiye. Towards this end, the government has chosen to rename the Government College in Pernem Sant Sohirobanath Ambiye College of Art and Commerce, publish a compilation of his works, as well as establish a chair in his name at Goa University for research in Marathi language and Goan Marathi literature.

All of these actions are a matter of grave concern not only because they violate the constitutionally guaranteed secular character of the Indian state, but because it also represents the creeping manner in which recent times have seen a systematic saffronisation of cultural space within Goa.

While there are many understandings of what secularism constitutes, the common sense understanding within India is that the State will desist from promoting one religious tradition over others. In the case of renaming the college of Pernem, this understanding of secularism is exactly what the government of Goa has violated. This act of the state government has privileged a Hindu faith tradition over all other traditions within the State (and the country). It would be unthinkable that a Muslim or Christian saint would be honoured by the Indian or Goan state in this manner. To do so would raise cries of “pandering to minorities” and “pseudo-secularism”.  Given that similarity of treatment is fundamental to the practice of secularism, it seems that state government must necessarily change its decision regarding the renaming of the Government College in Pernem.

But this is not the first time that the state government has demonstrated its bias in promoting a particular brand of Hindu faith traditions. The choice of Sant Sohirobanath does not seem to be innocent, but part of a larger trend where members of the Saraswat caste have been held up as embodiments of Hindu culture, which is then passed off as Goan culture. Take, for example, the manner in which under the earlier tenure of Chief Minister Parrikar, in 2002, his government sought to commemorate the 125 birth centenary of Varde Valaukikar, also known as Shenoi Goembab, as Konkani Asmitai year. While Valaulikar has garnered some fame as a proponent of the Konkani language in the Nagri script, what has largely been suppressed is the fact that he was an activist for the Saraswat caste who sought to create a space for this caste group in the city of Bombay. This action was part of a larger movement that sought the creation of a homeland for the Saraswats in Goa, with the specific intent of allowing them to dominate it as their fiefdom.

There is also the choice of D.D. Kossambi whose name has been employed to distinguish the ‘Festival of Ideas’ that the state government has organised in Goa since 2008. In itself this particular action is innocuous, and yet when viewed with the other choices of the state government one begins to see a larger pattern through which Saraswat  patriarchal figures alone are identified as worthy of honour. There have been other men who have been honoured, but as in the case of the naming of the auditorium of the Ravindra Bhavan in Margão, this has often been after a bitter struggle for such recognition by bahujan groups.

More disturbing is the choice of the relatively unknown figure of Krishnadas Shama to identify Goa’s premier intellectual centre, the Central Library. Set up under the Portuguese rule, this institution benefitted tremendously from the efforts of a number of native sons, not least of whom was Ismael Gracias, a significant curator of this public institution. Given that secularism has often accompanied a republican culture that privileges persons who distinguish themselves in the realm of public service, it is a shame that individuals like Gracias were passed over in favour of Shama. In fact, not much is known about Shama except that he is the possible author of brahmanical texts, like the Mahabharata, in proto-Konkani. While Konkani nationalists have chosen to promote Shama as the father of the Konkani language, this is merely a dubious assertion given that Shama could have been associated with propagating brahamanical myths among a local population that was profoundly influenced by Jainism, Buddhism and Islam. To this extent, Shama too emerges not as a secular figure, but one aligned with promoting brahmanical hegemony. With this history in mind, it appears that this choice of Shama is in keeping with the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to brahmanise Hinduism, destroying all other forms of non-brahmanical Hinduism, and leaving brahmanical groups in complete control of this complex faith tradition.

Add to this the choice of the state government to name one of the stadia set up for the Lusophone games after Syama Prasad Mookherji, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and an associate of the RSS. 

The choice to name the college after this brahmin saint should also be seen in the manner in which the Parrikar-led government sought to hand over government schools to RSS-backed ‘educational’ institutions. Clearly, through these various choices in naming public institutions, the Parrikar-led BJP government is seeking to create a legitimacy for the RSS and its program of Hindutva.

Seen in light of these various facts, it becomes obvious that the celebration of the centenary of this largely 
anonymous Sant Sohirobanath, is a part of a larger programme to saffronise the Goan public sphere. In his defence of the state government’s decision to officially celebrate the centenary of this saint, Nandkumar Kamat has suggested that “Saints of all religions belong to the whole mankind [sic because their sainthood helps us all to be good human beings.” While this may be true in principle, under a secular regime the choice of integrating them into daily life is an option of individuals, not an obligation of the state. The government in this case is integrating this saint into the official culture of the territory.

Persons who would object to the protest we mount in this letter would no doubt point to continued state support for the exposition of the relics of St. Francis Xavier every decade. There is a difference, however, in that as far as my understanding goes, the exposition of Saint Xavier is organised by the church, and the state steps in largely to coordinate public order. The initiative rests largely with the Catholic Church which is the primary celebrant. In the case of Sant Sohirobanath on the other hand, it appears that it is not a civil society organisation that is seeking the support of the state, but the state that has taken it upon itself to celebrate the event officially. This is a crucial distinction and must be underscored.

The action of the state government is not merely a violation of the secular nature of the state, but tantamount to laying the grounds for communal conflict in Goa. With its choice of setting up a chair in the Goa University under the name of this saint for the study of Marathi literature in Goa, the state government is effectively further saffronising Marathi culture and literature in Goa. Most people will recollect the manner in which ever since the 1960s the Marathi language had been twined with Hindu nationalism in Goa. However, it should not be forgotten that while Marathi in Goa has a brahmanical heritage, it also was, and continues to be, the language of dalit-bahujan assertion against brahmanical hegemony in our state. To this extent, the Marathi language can also be the source of a profound commitment to a secular polity. To name a chair after a religious figure pollutes the secular aspects of the tradition of the Marathi language in Goa, and complicates the resolution of historical differences that since at least 1961 have deliberately sough to keep Hindu and Catholic bahujan suspicious of each other’s traditions.

The renaming and other celebrations of Sant Sohirobanath by the government of Goa must be protested vociferously, not merely because it violates the secular fabric of constitutional governance in the state, but also because it is part of a blatantly casteist agenda in Goa.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 22 Aug 2014)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Itinerant: Claiming the Indo-Portuguese for Goan museums

Every year the Portuguese Association of Antiquarians (APA) holds the Feira de Arte e Antiguidades de Lisboa, a fair that unites antiquarians from across Portugal for a week-long sale of antiques and other slightly aged objects d’art. 

It was at one such exhibition that I became overwhelmed with emotion on seeing an exhibit. The object of this emotional excess was a chest of drawers that formerly stood in the sacristy of the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça adjoining the Augustinian monastery in Old Goa. This chest screams out its Indo-Portuguese heritage, marked as it is by inlay work, elaborate handles and the Augustinian symbol of the double-headed eagle. A year later, at the subsequent Feira this chest was once again on sale. It had clearly not found a buyer the year before.

Caressing the chest on the second year a thought that first struck me the year before recurred, why should the state of Goa, through its State Museum, or Department of Archaeology, or indeed the Directorate of Art and Culture not purchase such a fine, and restored, work of art? The object started its life in Goa, and was clearly worked on by local artisans. In itself a fine piece, its provenance would add value not merely to the holdings of the State Museum but perhaps spur us on to rethink our own international location vis-à-vis the art form that is called “Indo-Portuguese”.

In the year 2013 a rather unique object was up for sale at an auction conducted by Sotheby’s. Titled Caquesseitao or 'ancestors of the devil', this object, said to have probably been modelled on a fruit bat, was a container made entirely of silver with bird-like feet, scale-chased body, dragon head, prominent tongue and hinged wings. While apparently a popular ornament in Indo-Portuguese art in the late 17th-early 18th century, there seem to be very few exemplars remaining. Because the Portuguese state did not have a representative of the ornament, Portugal’s National Museum of Antique Art (MNAA) was authorised to purchase the object in auction. The tale ended sadly, however, since the institution was authorised to procure it for a sum less than the 181,500 Euros for which it was eventually auctioned.

There are two points that I seek to make here. The first is that despite its bungling of the purchase, the Portuguese state was actively interested in acquiring the object, since it sees the Indo-Portuguese as a part of its own oeuvre. This is to say, we have the example of a state actively committed to spending large amounts of money to assemble a cache of wealth in the public interest. 

The second point that I seek to make is about ownership. Merely because the Portuguese claim this history as a part of their own does not mean that the contemporary state of Goa, once seat of the Indo-Portuguese world should wash its hand off of this heritage. On the contrary, the state of Goa, as a location that continues to enjoy international attention ought to make its own efforts to appropriate this history for itself. The history of Indo-Portuguese Empire is both Portuguese and Indo (i.e. South Asian). It was crafted by not only by different kinds of Portuguese, Europeans, and also by different kinds of Asians, South Asians and natives of Goa, all of who operated within a system that had its nerve centre in the city of Goa.

Born in the subcontinent, and with a specific location in Goa, both of the objects discussed in this column should rightly be the kinds of objects on the state government’s list of ideal acquisitions for the Goa State Museum. Despite the fact that the State Government seems to be contemplating putting its existing antiques away in storage, the fact is that the State government has, through the Directorate of Art and Culture, been spending a good amount of money in acquiring art works from Goan artists.

Extending its operation to acquiring, and displaying, these kinds of older art works would allow the state of Goa to achieve a number of goals. To begin with, it would allow us to claim ownership of art forms that emerged from the genius of artisans of the past, and would allow contemporary artists the stimulus for a more exuberant dialogue with the past. Secondly, the acquisition of history and artifacts is not merely the preoccupation of bored rich people. On the contrary, it is the basis for the generation of further and future wealth. For example, at an entirely superficial level, the aggressive acquisition of such artifacts makes eminent sense for a state that makes money off tourists as it would offer tourists to our state more options than the rather limited sun, surf, sand and gambling that is currently on offer. If we are keen on developing cultural tourism in Goa, then a museum with, a substantial permanent collection and a dynamic series of temporary exhibitions, is an absolute must. Indeed, one could make a substantial argument that Goa's failure to attract the "well-heeled" tourists that so many seem to crave rests squarely on the refusal to embrace the cultures that existed in Goa between 1510 and 1961, and a failure to integrate them into a sophisticated cultural programme.

In sum, rather than ignoring Goa’s antique heritage, the State government should actively be pursuing a policy that would highlight this past, and a critical part of this policy rests on re-reading the Indo-Portuguese to stress the fact that the South Asian element was critical to this art style.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 9 Aug 2014)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Rethinking Special Status - I

I laughed, long and hard, and then laughed out loud some more on reading the aghast responses to the denial of Goa’s request for Special Status. The laughter was not because the demand for Special Status is unjustified, but because the response was so obvious! Our hopes were pegged on the assurances of Chief Minister Parrikar, and the electoral promises of Prime Minister Modi. It should have been obvious at that time that the Goans interested in Special Status were being taken for a ride. There is no way that a government composed of the BJP, a party committed to the RSS vision of an undivided India, and the creation of the history of a Hindu(only) India, will ever concede to the recognition of special-ness for any part of India that does not rest on Hindu-ness.

The impossibility of a BJP government ever conceding to Special Status is not, however, what I would like to focus on in this column. Rather, I would like to suggest that the denial of Special Status by the Modi government should be looked upon as a blessing in disguise. This denial opens up for us the opportunity to rethink what it is that we are demanding under Special Status, and how we are making this demand. In other words, what exactly are the principles that underlie the demand for Special Status, and what are the implications of each principle; that is to say, who benefits from the choices made?

Thus far most demands for Special Status seem to revolve around the issue of special economic status, and constitutional clauses to ensure that only locals can own land in Goa. In other words, the demand has been restricted within the bounds of Article 371 of the Constitution. I have argued in earlier columns that such a phrasing of the demand for Special Status ensures that it is really the landed and business elites in Goa who stand to benefit from Special Status. The vast segment of former tenants really do not benefit from this form of Special Status given that local landlords can still get into partnerships with external capitalists to allow for highrise apartments and other developments to allow for more of the wild speculative ‘development’ that has characterised Goa in the recent past. Similarly, grants from the Centre would appeal to the business and industrial elites and wold not reach the common person except through possible increase in employment.

If they are intent on ensuring that they do not get cheated in the process of being mobilised to demand for Special Status then it is critical that Goans put aside an obsession with form and identify the problems they seek to address by gaining Special Status. Thus far the debate has been about saving land, identifying land sold to non-Goans as the reason for cultural peril. This argument also blames Goans for selling land in the first place.  This is a particularly unhappy argument since it ignores the fact that the non-landed Goans who are selling land are doing so because this is by and large the only way through which they can make money. The argument does not recognise that these Goans operate in a context where a system of power is in fact loaded against them.

Put simply, the system of power that I am referring to is one where Goa, its homes and its landscape are fetishized by a Indian elite. Armed with greater economic and political power thanks to the fact of a different political history under the British Raj, supported by a representational system that privileges Goan property but disregards the Goans, these elite consumers from India are able to skew the market such that it often makes more sense to sell a property, than to sustain the property. Add to this the almost non-existent support provided by the state government to maintain homes, or even diverse employment possibilities within the state, as well as a solid public infrastructure. All too often then, the Goan who sells one’s property is in fact operating against a system that is solidly weighed against them.

The Special Status we demand, therefore, must be about meaningful political equality within the country and the right to reforge the political relationship with the Indian state. Further, unless we recognise the powers that operate to cause the insecurity within Goa, any demand for Special Status result in the repetition of the history of the past fifty odd years of Goa’s presence within the Indian Union.

While making this argument I would like to especially underline the fact that almost every postcolonial popular movement to save Goan identity ranging from  the Opinion Poll, Language Issue, Statehood, to the Regional Plan, has rested on the shoulders of the bahujan Catholic men and women of Salcete. Each and every one of these movements has appealed to their insecurity and each time their aspirations have been frustrated, largely because the demand for protecting Goan identity has been couched within the language of Indian (i.e. Hindu) nationalism. These demands have failed to assert that cultural demands, where Catholics are cast as not-quite-Indian are only a part of the problem. The other problem rests in the fact that there has been no systematic development that can empower the Goan population to gather both economic as well as cultural capital.

The result has been that the Catholic bahujan of Salcete in particular have been converted into the oxen pulling the cart that fulfils the interests of Goa’s landed and business elites. These groups have always managed to use these movements to increase the scope for their autonomy. Any demand for Special Status therefore, must be one that recognises that there is a great socio-economic diversity among Goans. This demand must recognise that different kinds of Goans require different kinds of support under Special Status, and that local elites need to be restrained from exploiting the situation.

One could also make the argument, that the failure to effectively articulate issues of social and economic equality both within and outside of Goa has in fact resulted in the kind of communalisation of Goan society that we are witness to today. The interests that were served were invariably of the upper caste and business elites, but the movements were always misrepresented as Catholic. This has pitted the vast bahujan majority against the Catholic bahujan minority.

If the movement for Special Status is to provide genuine benefit to the people of Goa then it must necessarily assert that the basis for this demand lies in recognising the insecurity and marginalisation that the non-Hindu, and bahujan minorities in Goa have faced since 1961, as well as commit itself towards a vision for economic justice. Such a twining of agendas would allow for us to also address the increasing communalisation of the Goan polity. The Special Status movement would need to make alliances with the Hindu bahujan samaj, who at this moment, have been largely seduced by Hindu nationalism. Indeed, there is good reason for them to be seduced, given that it was Indian liberation that ensured that they could escape the clutches of their landlords. Additionally, this Indian liberation has also involved providing space for the Hindu bahujan through the marginalisation of the Catholic bahujan rather than opening up new avenues for all Goans. The Special Status movement needs to necessarily reach out to the Hindu segments of the bahujan samaj to ensure that Special Status will meet the aspirations of both the Catholic and Hindu segments, and that development in Goa will be egalitarian. Such a reaching out would only be possible once we start asking deeper questions about Special Status, not limit it to the issue of ownership of land, or grants and tax breaks from the Centre, and recognise that the negotations for Special Status need to be directed both towards the outside, i.e towards Indian state; as well as inside, within Goan society.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 8 Aug 2014)