Friday, September 5, 2014

Rights trump culture: Lessons in fighting Hindutva

There was a significant amount of virtual rejoicing some weeks ago when the vice-president of the state BJP unit, Wilfred Mesquita, announced that "Prohibition cannot come to Goa... because Goa's culture is to drink." Mesquita’s statement came in the wake of a number of recent controversies involved with moral policing both within the country and also in Goa. Both Chief Minister Parrikar and his colleague Sudhin Dhavalikar had expressed opinions about the need to ban the consumption of alcohol in public. Given that the state government of Kerala had announced a decision to enforced a gradual prohibition of alcohol in that state, and the abandon with which the Hindu right has been going about its agenda of cultural rectification of the country the Dhavalikar-Parrikar comments understandably unnerved many in the state.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Mesquita for having had the moral courage and the good sense to point out that prohibition is out of the question when alcohol is a part of the social rituals among a good portion of the Goan public. May he live long and prosper.
As relieved as we may be by Misquita's statement, it needs to be pointed out that basing the decision to not ban the consumption of alcohol on the basis of its presence in “culture” is not a reassuring fact. Indeed, such a logic is problematic because it is still very much within the Hindutva realm of reasoning.

Hindu nationalism is a cultural nationalism. This is to say that it is a nationalism that privileges culture (as defined by Hindu nationalists) first. All else, including rights, comes after this definition of culture. The opposition to prohibiting an act on the basis of culture is to give primacy to culture, not to rights. Thus, what would happen if there was no culture of social drinking in Goa? Would it be ok to ban drinking then?

This question is important because it is at the root of determining the extent of the censorship powers of the State. The question is one of the extent of the powers of the state to curtail activities of persons, and of the recognition of right of the individual to choose. If I choose to drink, then regardless of whether it is a part of our culture or not, I should be able to drink, and have the right to purchase alcohol for consumption.

Phrasing the question in terms of alcohol, whose consumption is marred by instances of alcoholism, is not the best way to phrase a question of rights. Indeed, members of the right often use the most extreme example to make their case and carry through decisions. If we replaced alcohol with skirts, for example, we may see the dangers involved in invoking culture as the basis to allow, or prohibit an activity. If the wearing of skirts were not commonplace among women in Goa, would it be legitimate to ban the wearing of skirts? Of course not, because one would then be treading on the rights of women to wear skirts should they choose to do so. The law is known to place reasonable restrictions on the rights that citizens enjoy. Should one gravely inconvenience others provisions already exist to remand persons causing a nuisance through drunken behaviour. In the presence of this reasonable restriction the introduction of prohibition does nothing more than allow for the state to exercise unreasonable authority over the ordinary lives of people.

Problematising culture as a way to attack or defend culture also helps to make us aware how institutions that are today crying foul, have been a part of the gradual drift towards the right. Back in the 1980s, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Goa came out strongly against the celebration of Carnaval insisting that it was not a Catholic celebration. Indeed, it did so more recently, once again when Parrikar waded into debates on what is or is not appropriate local culture. In doing so the hierarchy sought to delegitimise Carnaval celebrations. In doing so they were committing a number of errors that haunt us today and will no doubt haunt us in the future. The hierarchy was effectively suggesting that only the religious lives of the Catholics in Goa was worthy of respect. The rest could be dismissed and done away with. They were also setting themselves up as the determiners of all cultural activities that persons who confess the Catholic faith engage in. This was, and continue to be a dangerous position. As much as the Catholic Church has a right to advise its members on the manner of their comportment, it cannot determine what is, or is not part, of the activity of Catholics in Goa. While the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Goa may not be fond of carnival, it ought to have taken a broader perspective and indicated that while Carnaval was not a Catholic religious feast, and the hierarchy had reservations with regard to some of the ways in which it is celebrated, it would not deny that Carnaval is a significant celebration with historical roots in Goa, and especially among Catholics in Goa. We live in a complex world and the only way in which we can prevent institutions, both statal and otherwise, from becoming autocratic monsters is by paying close attention to the rights of individuals.

Despite making culture the basis on which he dismissed the prohibition of alcohol, Mesquita also needs to be congratulated for not making the social consumption of alcohol a feature of Catholics alone. Almost all reports indicate that his statement was “Goans drink at wedding and parties. How can it be banned?” Thus, it was not Catholics drink at social events, but Goans.  This makes sense given that it is not merely Catholicism that determines whether people drink alcohol socially or not, since people were fermenting and producing alcohol long before both Europeans and Christians came to this territory. The European, and possibly Christian, origins of the consumption of alcohol is just one strand in the history of alcohol consumption in the territory.

To return to the thrust of my argument, making culture the basis on which decisions are made will also push us further into the ire of the Hindutva tiger. Given that it is the non-brahmanical culture of Goa that they see as a problem, decisions to protect certain social activities on the basis of culture will work to only strengthen the resolve of these groups to attack the cultural manifestations of Catholics, and other non-brahmanical groups, in Goa. We need to turn the tables on the forces of the right (which includes not merely the forces of Hindutva) and assert that rights are the basis of public policy.

Mesquita's statement may have won us the battle therefore, but will it win us the war?

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 5 Sept 2014)

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