Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Grinch who steals Christmas: Holidays and the Hindutva state

Original illustration by Angela Ferrao
We live in interesting times. Sometime around the middle of this month the press broke reports that the Union Government wanted to mark the twenty-fifth of December, birthdays of Hindu nationalist leaders Atal Behari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya, as ‘Good Governance’ day. Towards this end, the media informed us, schools would remain open, and students would be encouraged to participate in a national essay writing competition. Howls of protest rang out across the country, and the Ministry of Human Resource Development hurriedly rubbished these reports. There was no question of having schools open on Christmas Day, they assured the country and added that the competition was voluntary and entries could be submitted virtually.

For the moment then, the crisis seemed to have receded. Nevertheless, the episode refreshed my memory over two earlier episodes involving holidays. One is an event that lies within the public domain, the other a personal memory that I would like to share and reflect on.

The first episode dates back a number of years, when the government of the then Chief Minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, contemplated withdrawing the public holidays on the Good Friday and the feast of St. Francis Xavier. As can be expected, there was a hue and cry then too, until this controversial move was undone, with Parrikar later suggesting that the move had been an error.

The second episode dates from the time when I was working with an NGO in Hyderabad. I realised with some shock that this corporate-funded entity had not declared Eid (I forget which of the two Eids it was) a holiday. On the contrary, it was marked as an optional holiday. If one chose, for religious reasons, one could take the day off, but the rest of the office would continue working. I also recall being told that one could take the day off, but I would be merely eating into my own stock of optional holidays. I recollect sensing the suggestion of the threat that I would be compromising my days of Christian celebration were I to take the day off to commemorate the feast.

I was quite upset by this scenario. I had recently returned from Patna where I had a number of Muslim friends and had been sucked into a series of Eids, weddings, and other celebrations. Even though I was bereft of this network in Hyderabad, I could not contemplate an Eid that was to be spent working, instead of feasting with friends. It hurt, but rather than create trouble and stand up for a principle I was not yet sure of, I went to work that Eid day, mournfully walking past masses of men praying at the mosques along the route I took to work.

These memories were swirling around my head these past couple of days I realised that the issue of cancelling holidays, or restricting these holidays is much more important than showing disrespect or disregard for religious minorities. On the contrary, such governmental actions ensure that religious boundaries are hardened and religions are formed into water tight compartments. The learning from Hyderabad was just that, you can choose to be a Catholic and take your holiday, or you can choose to show solidarity with Muslims. We are not preventing you from celebrating Eid, but you need to make a choice. Similarly, had the feast of St. Francis Xavier continued to have lost its holiday, a great number of Catholics would have still taken the day off to visit Old Goa and venerate the relics of the saint. This option would perhaps not have been so definite for those Goans who are not practicing Catholics but still venerate St. Francis Xavier. It is possible that they would have continued with their daily routines. Similarly had the holiday on Good Friday been cancelled it would not only have complicated the possibility of having clear roads for the public processions that mark Good Friday, it would also have complicated the participation of non-Catholics, who light up the streets, and offer incense to perfume the funeral path of Christ. 

We must remember that we live in an environment where thanks to the threat of an aggressive Hindu nationalism, all religious groups have been hardening their identities and castigating what are called syncretic practices. When a government restricts a holiday, therefore, or fails to provide one, it is lending its own strength against these already existent social pressures. The issue of cancelling holidays therefore does not merely impact on the group for whom it is most significant. It impacts all, preventing communal celebrations, visits, exchange of sweets. It goes towards creating a fractured society.

It is in this context that we should evaluate the clarifications of Smriti Irani, Minister for Human Resources Development, on the issue of celebration of ‘Good Governance’ day, as well as the subsequent note from the Prime Minister’s Office that mandated various officers to mark ‘Good Governance’ day.  What is clear is that rather than let Christmas day be, the Central Government has identified the twenty-fifth of December as the day to commemorate ‘Good Governance’ day. The essay competition will continue apace even though the event will be restricted to submissions over the internet. Further, various officers of the Government were expected to attend and conduct commemorations linked to the theme of good governance.

What this effectively amounts to is providing an alternative to the celebrations of Christmas that have become a major feature across India. One does not need to be Christian, nor indeed have Christian friends to celebrate the day. Regardless of their religious persuasion, people engage in secular celebrations of this feast by organising Christmas parties, arranging visits from Santa Claus and the like. The fact is that thanks to a variety of factors, a number of Indians, and especially urban and upwardly mobile Indians are ‘culturally Christian’. They have imbibed many Christian and/or western cultural traditions and celebrate them as if these traditions are their own. That these aspects are not strictly religious is not important, it is in fact exactly the point, that the festival has ceased to be religious alone, but is a cross-communal secular festival. Indeed, if one is to take the historical novel, The Mirror of Beauty seriously, Christmas, or Bada Din was a significant festival in Delhi by the time of the last Mughal emperor, and avidly celebrated by the Mughal elites.

Given the kind of pressure that Indian society places on students to excel and gain laurels, one can imagine that children would be encouraged, if not pressured, to take part in a national competition that could get them national recognition. Remember we live in a country where even a certificate of participation is regarded as useful. As such, having a competition at the time of the Christmas holidays, with a submission on Christmas day, no matter that the submission can be made virtually, ensures that one has created a substantial diversion from the pleasures, and significance, of Christmas. In addition to these competitions, the low-key government commemorations of good governance  that continued even while the holiday was still officially on clearly indicate that the conspiracy to steal Christmas is, therefore, still on.

It should be noted, however, that it is not only the BJP government that is engaged in a project that dismisses Christmas. A variety of organisations in India, including academic and non-governmental, as well as those patronised by the nominally secular-liberals think nothing of hosting significant retreats immediately prior to, or soon after Christmas day. This scheduling ensures that very often Christians have to either opt out of Christmas, or the event, or spend a good part of Christmas day in travel. And, as I pointed out earlier, this callous scheduling does not impact Christians alone, but fractures the possibility of non-Christians in participating in what is a wonderful feast of familial gathering. The loss is communal.

We live in a country where the plethora of holidays we enjoy is often castigated. Over the year these holidays have been vilified merely as days free from work. What this vilification does not recognise is that holidays are a way for us to indicate that an event is important enough for us to take time off work and engage with each other. Even if we choose to not engage with other communities, the holiday continues to be a mark that this other community is important. It is this tradition of honouring those who are unlike us that is at stake when holidays are so callously countermanded.

Feliz Natal! Have a blessed and joyous Christmas season!

(A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo dated 26  Dec 2014)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Liberation and the English Language

The two lectures and accompanying discussions held in Goa recently under the aegis of the Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture Series provided much needed food for thought and discussion.  Organised to proffer Ambedkarite visions on issues that are of concern to the country, the lectures featured Dr. Varsha Ayyar from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay, and the acclaimed Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad.

Chandrabhan Prasad spoke on ‘Ambedkar’s India Project’ suggesting that Ambedkar had a definite vision for India, one that was not tied to any one dogma, but one that was committed to destroying the caste system and creating an Indian society that would be more respectful of all. A part of this project relied on the industrialisation and mechanisation of agriculture. Once people have access to machines, Prasad argued, all kind of jobs are open to people irrespective of caste. He provided the example of sanitation services in high-end hotels. Labelled more appealingly as “Housecleaning” and with provisions for gloves, uniforms and tools, these jobs that would normally be reserved for dalits had now seen the entry of dominant caste persons.
Prasad is perhaps more famous for his support of school education in English, going so far as to propose a temple for the goddess that is the English language, and the celebration of Macaulay’s birthday. Given that he did not touch directly on this more controversial topic, I ventured a question: In the context of Goa, where those who argue for English as a state-supported medium of instruction are berated as anti-national, denationalised and against Indian culture, what would your response be?

Prasad’s response was crystal clear. What is this Indian or vernacular culture that these anti-English educationists seek to promote? It is the very culture that oppresses Dalits and other marginalised communities in the country. This is a culture that embodies caste. If this culture will be destroyed in the process of education in English, then let it be destroyed.

Prasad’s logic recognises that language does not necessarily come alone, it is often accompanied by a culture. Prasad avers that the culture that comes along with English is largely an egalitarian culture and should be welcomed. This assertion is very true. Vernacular cultures in India are very often markers of caste location. Any person who speaks Konkani will know that to speak Konkani is to give away one’s caste. If one wants to speak the so-called ‘perfect Konkani’ one has to speak like a Saraswat brahmin. The problem is, given that Saraswat speech is the result of a complete immersion in a sub-culture, it is in fact difficult to speak this language. If one is able to master this caste dialect, then this is at the cost of giving up the Konkani of one’s home.  When one slips, the mask drops, and one is almost always embarrassed for it becomes obvious, one was performing the language rather than living it. In addition, there are numerous stories of households, both Hindu and Catholic where children correct both parents and grandparents, telling them, or worse laughing at them, saying “your Konkani is wrong.” Learning Konkani, is to also learn about caste, to be ashamed about one’s caste location, to try to imitate the dominant castes, and to fall short, as some applicants for government jobs have reported. The result is that the only group that is able to be proud of Konkani is that of the Saraswat Brahmins, because it is their Konkani alone that is held up as perfect.

A great part of the Goan population in fact understands this tricky situation vis-à-vis Konkani which is why they will speak it at home, but, if they are upwardly mobile, avoid it outside. They prefer to use English in public engagements outside those in the marketplace. Because, while English and its cultures may have class markings, they are both as yet largely free of markings of caste. It is for this reason that English is preferred by a large segment of our population.

The issue of culture also came up with Dr. Varsha Ayyar, the speaker who inaugurated the Ambedkar Memorial Lectures. Dalits do not celebrate their culture, she said. They seek to liberate themselves from the culture which traps them in a definite social location. But it is different with the bahujans and “their” culture. This fact was also observed by one of the participants in the discussions subsequent to the first lecture. A Dalit activist composed a question in the form of a Marathi poem, asking “In this country the Brahmin acknowledge that they are Brahmin, the Kshatriya that they are Kshatriya, even the Ati-Shudra that they are Ati-Shudra. In this country it is only the Shudra who refuse to acknowledge who they are. What do we do with the Shudra?”

What he meant was that rather than recognise that it is brahmanical culture that oppresses them and those below them, the Shudra embrace this culture that not only restricts their own mobility, but becomes the basis for the persecution of other marginalised groups in the country.

Listening to this poem and the discussion that ensued various pennies dropped in my head. To begin with, I realised with a start how the movement against English and in support of the Indian languages is led by those who see themselves as bahujan leaders in Goa. It also became clear why, so often, Hindu bahujan leaders who should reach out to their Catholic bahujan brethren often use Hindu nationalist imagery that pushes the Catholics away.

The problem is not only with the Hindu bahujan, however. The Catholic bahujan too fail to raise questions of caste, preferring to ignore the pink elephant in the room in the hope that it will go away. Rather than raise questions of caste and fracture the consensus that has caused so much misery in Goa since at least its integration into India, they grasp at straws. Therefore, rather than say that Devanagari currently operates as a tool of brahmanical domination in India, rather than say that state-supported Konkani is a tool of caste-based oppression they suggest that they are genetically unable to understand the script and dialect. In doing so, they aggravate the pro-Hindutva bahujan leaders, and also waltz straight into the arms of the upper-caste Catholic leaders who excel at playing second fiddle to the leaders among the Hindu upper-castes.

One strain of Dalit thought makes it very clear that if India is to emerge out of the morass of daily persecution that marks the lives of so many of the people in it, a good portion of Indian culture itself will have to be destroyed. There is no point being nostalgic about a poison that kills. English must be acclaimed because it is one way to check the caste logics that lurk so close to the surface of vernacular languages.

As a certain Jewish leader so many centuries ago once remarked, “Man was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man.” Thus, let Indians, and Goans, craft their own culture in new egalitarian forms, and not be enslaved to horrific forms of the past.

Viva Bhim!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 12 Dec 2014)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Itinerant: The coconut shell and the patron

The last couple of columns of the Itinerant have explored the meaning of the Indo-Portuguese and the significance of what is held under this term. These columns challenged the conception that Indo-Portuguese art should be seen as something from the past with nothing to offer us in the present or the future. On the contrary, a public collection of the art of the Indo-Portuguese stands to deepen the aesthetic vocabulary of both artists as well as lay individuals living in the state. It is this argument that this column will concern itself with.

If one walks into the shops and spaces that offer tourists souvenirs from Goa one realises that by and large these products fall into the category of what one would call folk art. Products made from shells, terracotta, coir, simple crochet, they are marked by a certain simplicity, not particularly nuanced in their artistic rendition, nor do they draw from a particularly deep cultural pool. One may be tempted to suggest that this is all one can produce with these materials, such as the coconut, but this is where I would like to differ and offer contrary examples.

In the course of my time in Lisbon, I had the opportunity to come across a couple of works of art made from the coconut shell. Both of these works are particularly vivid in my mind. One of these objects was a ciborium; that is the container that holds the consecrated communion wafers, while the other was a chalice. Both these objects often have a similar structure, consisting of a central bowl that is fitted to a footed stem. A ciborium normally contains a cover that fits tightly over the rim of the bowl. In both these cases the central bowl was made of the finely finished shell of the coconut. Both these bowls were fitted on the silver stands, and the ciborium had a smart silver cover. Additionally, the ciborium had four silver medallions spaced evenly along the outer diameter of the bowl.

When I first saw these works, I was completely awed by the manner in which the ‘humble’ coconut shell had been converted into a work of the high baroque and elevated into an object for the use of the Catholic cult. Given that I was able to encounter one of these pieces rather often, it soon became so commonplace for me to assume that combining a precious metal with coconut shell was a fairly obvious design possibility. Were one of the many museums in the state to decide to prosecute a project that would amass Indo-Portuguese art in all its variety, there would be without doubt a host of other such objects that would offer local artists, artisans patrons of art, a plethora of ideas in which to work with materials that are still commonly available. 

It is not merely artists and artisans who can benefit from such a deepening of their references, but indeed patrons of art as well. The success of most of the great movements of art benefitted substantially from the demands of a cultured network of patrons. Indeed, in the case of the Indo-Portuguese these patrons ranged not only from European nobility and men of wealth, but notables from all across the Indian ocean world. It was this patronage that made for the particularly interesting production of Indo-Portuguese art. In addition to the educational aspect that such a collection would have, it would also allow us to also host curators that would be able to encourage conversations between contemporary works with works from our past.

It seems obvious enough that a reclamation of the Indo-Portuguese should begin post-haste.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan dated  6 Sept 2014)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Rajdeep Sardesai, Caste and Secularism

Rather than presenting the news, Rajdeep Sardesai has very recently actually been in the news on two rather different occasions. The first occasion was when Sardesai got into a scuffle with some of Modi’s supporters when the Prime Minister was in New York. In the video war that followed, Sardesai was first seen as being beaten by the Hindu nationalist, then as having started the scuffle, and finally as having been forced to respond violently to the nationalist’s heckling. Regardless of the reasons for the scuffle, or its context, however, Sardesai almost instantly became the poster boy for Indian secular liberals across the world. Vociferous opponents of the BJP, Hindu nationalism and Modi, they cheered Sardesai and used the episode to reflect on the rowdy ways of Hindu nationalists.

The second occasion, however, saw the same Rajdeep Sardesai being booed for being casteist. His sin this time round was a tweet where he confessed to “Saraswat pride” at seeing two members of his Saraswat caste being included in the prime minister’s cabinet. In response to the outrage that rained on him, Sardesai sought to explain himself in an oped in the Hindustan Times, and subsequently in the Navhind Times. This only complicated matters further, since what could have been excused as a momentary lapse was now justified rather elaborately.

How does one explain this swing from being the archetypical secular liberal to unrepentant casteist in the space of a few months? The sad truth is that all too often what Sardesai demonstrated more recently is not an uncommon feature of the Indian secular liberal. 

Indian secular liberalism is based on caste and largely the ideological position of anglicised upper caste Indians. One need go no further to unearth this relationship between caste and secularism than to look at Nehru, the revered figure of Indian secularism. Often referred to as Pandit Nehru, where did this title of Pandit come from? Nehru was a graduate, but the title of Pandit came not from his graduation in Western education, nor from any knowledge of the Sanskrit texts. The title is one inherited from his caste location as a Kashmiri Pandit. Nehru may have been an unrepentant dismisser of Hindu religiosity, but that did not stop him from claiming his brahmin privilege and assume a right to leadership that supposedly came with his heritage.

Nehruvian secularism was the product not merely of one man, but a social milieu that gathered around Nehru and formed the core of the anti-imperial nationalist struggle. Referred to as the ‘nationalist class’ by Partha Chatterjee, this was a group that in some ways was secular. They were secular in the sense that they did not necessarily find their spouses within their natal caste groups, nor did they follow other traditional caste rules. They did not do so, largely because they did not have to. Theirs was an anglicised milieu and they had in fact formed a sub-caste, or jati, of their own. This was the group that controlled power in the Centre through the initial decades of Indian independence.

The fact of the matter is that group was composed of people like Pandit Nehru, anglicised segments of already dominant caste groups. The nationalist class was not averse to recruiting people and accommodating them in various governmental institutions. However, the route to this recruitment depended critically on the privileges available to dominant groups in India. This meant the ability to be educated in one of the “good” schools in India, gain a degree in Oxford, Cambridge, where one gained access to scions of these families. These options are technically open to all, and yet as is the reality of this country, were, and are available largely to privileged segments of dominant caste groups. Rajdeep Sardesai, with his dominant caste background, and his privileged education is a natural member of the nationalist class jati.

One would not appreciate how this nationalist class can be seen as a jati if one has the standard static notion of India and its culture. One has to recognise that like culture, caste is not static, but dynamic and constantly changing. Take, for example, the fact that the Gaud Saraswat caste that we today assume to be an ancient caste was in fact produced through a caste unity movement that commenced in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This caste movement gathered together various jati like Bardezkars, Bhanavlikars, Pednekars, Kudaldeshkars and Sasthikars on the one hand, and Smartha and Vaishnava sampraday on the other, to form one Gaud Saraswat caste. This movement took a good amount of effort and often ran counter to the wishes of the Swamis of the various sampraday, as well as orthodox elements within these jati

When upper castes like Sardesai refer to themselves as progressive, they are not necessarily referring to a tradition of egalitarianism, but rather to their caste histories where some radicals reading the need of the times stop following caste laws and began to westernise themselves. As Sardesai’s tweet and subsequent article demonstrate, none of this meant that they gave up caste. What happened was that caste was now masked under a superficial veneer of westernised behaviour, like eating meat, not fulfilling brahmanical Hindu religious rituals, crossing the waters. In other words, they merely produced new rules for their caste groups.

New jati, therefore, are constantly being born, and if the Gaud Saraswat caste was born in the context of creating opportunities in colonial Bombay, the nationalist class is a jati that was formed through the process of fighting off the British. The idea of a single nation was the idea of this jati and they had to fight off rival claims from the princes and other caste groups. These latter groups were more interested in maintaining spheres of influence. While the princes were dismissed through democratic rhetoric, the dominant castes from various regions were accommodated through the process of the linguistic reorganisation of States. This process allowed for the regional hegemony of these caste groups by recognising their dialects as the official languages of the states where they dominated, while the Nehruvian elite dominated the centre with their secular talk of “unity in diversity”.
Unity in Diversity, with Hinduism on top

The Indian nation is not an ancient primordial entity. It is a production of the Indian nationalists held together by the force of the post-colonial state of India and the logic of Hindutva. Given that the maintenance of the Indian nation was always under threat from the dominant castes of various regions, the nationalist class always existed in some tension with the regional dominant castes. As yet unfamiliar with the options that anglicisization could bring, these regional castes stuck to the regional identities that brought them power. If they cooperated together, it was because they recognised that Hindutva is what allows for dominant brahmanised castes to assert their dominance in the various Indian states. As such, as long as their assertions of caste, regional and religious identity did not challenge the integrity of the Indian state, these were always treated with some amount of condescension by the nationalist class. It was only if these regional groups got too strident in their assertions that the Indian state got nasty.

If one looks at the longer videos of Sardesai interviewing those who had come to support Modi in New York, one will recognise instantly the condescending manner in which Sardesai did not so much talk to these supporters, as much as he talked down to them. This is the condescension that the members of the nationalist class reserve for those that do not buy their version of secularism. Rather than see the assertions of caste, and religion as a way in which segments of the Indian population are trying to assert power, the secular liberal sees this as the product of dull minds who are unable to grasp the sublime truths and value of secularism. Indeed, Hindutva in its current form is  the political response of the non-anglicised regional dominant castes to the secularism of the largely Hindu Nehruvian elite. Had the Nehruvian secularists been honest about the fact that their version of secularism was itself limited by their social location, that it was also a casteist project, then perhaps the project of Indian secularism would have met with greater success.

The two episodes that got Rajdeep Sardesai in the news are not antithetical to each other. In fact, they are but two sides of the same coin.

(A Version of this post was first published in the O Herald on 2 Dec 2014)