Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pointing a finger at secularists: A response to Teotonio de Souza

It is always a tragedy when an argument is misunderstood. Something of the sort seems to have happened when Teotonio de Souza, in his op-ed column in this paper (2September, 2014), mounted a critique of my denunciation of the Goa Government’s Sant Sohirobanath project.  The immediate concern was the government’s decision to rename the Government College of Pernem after the Sant. 

According to de Souza, I drew up a comparison between Sant Sohirobanath and St Francis Xavier to argue that Sant Sohirobanath served the saffronisation of Goan culture by the State in violation of constitutionally guaranteed secularism, while suggesting that the state’s administrative assistance in the exposition of the relics of St. Francis Xavier was, “well within the bounds of secular ethics.” In reality, I said no such thing.

My effort was to distinguish between the manner the state has unilaterally taken it on itself to pluck the Sant out of relative obscurity, while in the case of the Exposition, there is a non-statal body that actively organises the event and receives the state’s support in organising it, post factum. As a student of the manner in which states across the world deal with the challenge of secularism, I am well aware of the delicate balance that is involved every time the state steps in to intervene in religious affairs. As such, my argument was much more cautious than de Souza makes it out to be.

de Souza suggests among other things that I was “misusing” the figure of St. Francis Xavier and crafting an imaginary scenario possibly with the intention of stoking communal tensions. The truth, however, is that I did not produce the comparison with St. Xavier out of thin air, but within the very real context of the position of secularism in India and Goa. Hindu nationalists have systematically raised the cry of “minority appeasement” in the context of state support of non-Hindu institutions or events. Their loud clamouring against this support is then used to justify further patronage to Hindu institutions and events. Perhaps de Souza would have preferred had I pointed out that the services that the state of Goa offers to the Exposition is similar to the kind of service that it offers to the zatras, especially the more important ones, across the state. Indeed, in retrospect, I realise that I ought to have included these examples as well.

Nevertheless, the very fact, that I may have needed to also talk about Hindu feasts to justify my argument and thus make it sound secular, is illustrative of the burden under which non-Hindu and non-upper castes persons in this country labour when trying to secure space in the public sphere. Indeed, whenever minoritised groups raise arguments critical to establishing an egalitarian system, they are accused of engaging in identitarian politics, or, as de Souza phrases it, “not more than politics of culture”. It needs to be pointed out that the so-called identity politics is not merely about identities alone but in fact fundamentally about distributive justice.

Even though de Souza would have readers believe that I think the state’s association with the Exposition is “well within the bounds of secular ethics” -- I am not entirely sure that it is. It was because of my doubts about the nature of this association that I was so restrained in presenting the Exposition as an example. In very many ways, the State not only offers assistance to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in the organisation of the event, but also uses the event in many ways. In addition to the symbology of being one of the more significant patrons, the state government also exploits the Exposition for its value to the tourist industry, just as it has now begun to milk the bigger Goan temples for their interest to tourists. To make this argument is not to necessarily or unilaterally condemn the practice, but to highlight something uncomfortable in this arrangement. As the work of scholars such as Talal Asad demonstrates, such discomfort is an integral part of the problem of secularism. Our job is to see how we can enable the possible resolutions of the dilemmas that inevitably present themselves in the operation of this imperfect system.

In addition to accusing me of attempting “to put a wedge that could promote conflict between the Hindu and the Catholic communities” de Souza also claims that I am trying to “divide the Hindu community by presenting Sant Sohirobanath as a symbol of high Marathi culture, and not representative of the Bahujan Samaj.” Once again, he misunderstands and misrepresents my argument. There are already historical and contemporary divisions among those who call themselves Hindu. Postcolonial Goan history is the history of the assertion of the Bahujan samaj in Goa against the dominance of the Saraswat Brahmins. Further, I was not presenting the Sant as a symbol of high Marathi culture, but rather pointing to the manner in which the Sant is being co-opted to aid Saraswat, and brahmanical, hegemony in Goa. I was trying to draw attention to the point that there is no single strand of Marathi culture in Goa, but multiple strands. To this extent my aim is to make explore the varied dimensions of Marathi culture in Goa. Too often this culture is presented as a monolithic monster that Goans, and especially Catholics in Goa, should be afraid of. To be sure, crafting monolithic identities of Catholic and Hindu (as he does) does more to fuel communal tensions. These monolithic identities occlude the similar interests that bahujan of both faith traditions and impoverish political imagination.

Having addressed most of de Souza’s specific comments, it is now time to reflect on the overall thrust of his article. It is significant that de Souza did not take any position vis-à-vis the project at the heart of my discussion, viz. the renaming of the college after Sant Sohirobanath. His silence seems to imply approval of the project. This position would not be surprising given that de Souza generally speaks in the voice of the upper-caste secular nationalist. This is a voice that would prefer that discussions of caste-based oppression not be spoken about, prefers identities to be national and sees the nation as composed of monolithic religious groups who are ideally represented by upper-caste members of that faith tradition. When voices do speak up against the upper-caste Hindu biases of state governance, Indian secular nationalism dismisses it as identity politics, just as de Souza does my arguments. This dismissal is effected not only by Hindu nationalists, but also the dominant elites within these minoritised groups; the latter fearful that their privileges as representatives of the faith tradition will be challenged.

With this understanding of the operation of Indian secularism, de Souza’s position is not surprising. Learning from the recent past indicates that contemporary Goa needs to negotiate different ways to secure a secular environment, one that is honest about the fractures and systemic injustices in our society. Simply sweeping them under the carpet and celebrating the largely upper-caste bonhomie across religions alone is not going to work.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 19 Sept 2014
I would like to acknowledge the useful comments of my colleagues in the Al Zulaij Collective. )

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