Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unapologetic Christians: Slaves and the Freedom Project

In the context of this business of Ghar wapsi, and the recent release of the novel Swapna Saraswat, it appears that tales about the terrible destruction wrought by the Portuguese have received a renewed lease of life. We in Goa need to be concerned about the myths these kinds of fictional accounts spread largely because, as Victor Ferrao has pointed out in his book Being a Goan Christian: The Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis (2011), the contemporary Christian in Goa is seen as a clone of the Portuguese and made responsible for the deeds of the early modern Portuguese in Asia, as well as the Christian missionaries of the time.

But what is it exactly that the contemporary Christian needs to feel regret for? The popular answer is forced conversions and the fires of the Inquisition. While I will not engage in the issue of the Inquisition in this column, I will address the issue of forced conversions that is raised with annoying frequency.

The core question that needs to be asked when dealing with the issue of forced conversions was very neatly raised by Uma Chakravarti in her celebrated essay “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?Orientalism, Nationalism, and a Script for the Past” (1990). In this article Chakravati points out that the myth of a golden age of Indian womanhood as located in the Vedic period was constructed only in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, this myth was articulated by foregrounding the Aryan woman "as the only object of historical concern" (p. 28). Completely left out of the picture was the Vedic dasi, women who had been captured, subjugated and enslaved by the conquering Aryans. It is for this reason that she posed the question of her title “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?”

Chakravarti’s question makes us realise that pre-modern India was not a land of free people. On the contrary it was a land divided into masters, and slaves, with a large part of the population being held in servitude by a small segment of population that was free and slave-holding. The caste-system was an integral part of this system of slavery. When the Portuguese arrived in the city of Goa, Ilhas and subsequently in Salcette and Bardez, they would have found free castes like the Saraswat, Dessai, Chatim, ashraf Muslim and a few others. The rest of the population, the ancestors of today’s Bahujan and Dalit communities would have existed in varying degrees of serfdom; tied to the land, and to their masters.

Pre-modern Goa would not have been a pleasant place. It was a society marked by human sacrifice, both voluntary, as well as involuntary. Look closely at many of the rituals followed by contemporary Hindus, and one will see the past of human sacrifice. For example, the ugly dolls often strung on contemporary constructions are substitutes for the bodies of slaves who would have been sacrificed to protect the emerging building.

When the Christian missionaries came into the city of Goa and its surroundings, it was this blood thirsty culture that their Christian morality caused them to attack. Remember that Sati was one of the first abhorrent practices that Albuquerque banned on taking power. Should one be apologetic for this destruction of the local culture or celebrate this destruction?

Similarly the conversion of local populations was not effected entirely through force and cunning. Rather, as Angela Barreto Xavier points out in “Disquiet on the island:Conversion, conflicts and conformity in sixteenth-century Goa” (2007) marginalised caste groups were more amenable to conversion than the free, land-owning and dominant castes. This is not surprising given that Christian missionaries extended themselves to ensure material support to those that converted. In the case of the village of Chorão that Xavier studies this material support was a palm-grove to offer accommodation to the marginalized segments of the village. In Xavier’s words, “They [members of this marginalized caste] had good reason to expect a better living in a Christian order—and they actually had the best reasons to dissent against the old order (p. 281)”. That their conversion was in fact dissent is made powerfully clear by Xavier when she points out that after their baptism these local persons “dressed and ate forbidden food, and behaved differently. That is to say, they openly transgressed their old rules (p. 282).” In the sway of the propaganda by Hindu nationalist groups and Indian nationalism, we have come to believe that caste is merely about the community one is born into. The fact is that until the advent of Christianity and until freedom provided by the Dalit framer of the Constitution of India, caste, especially for the lower castes, meant the inability to wear certain clothes, eat certain foods, and behave in particular manners. The conversion to Christianity, therefore, was definitely a challenge to the power of upper caste groups.

In her book Globalising Goa (1660-1820) (2014) Ernestine Carriera points out that the Christian missionaries also ensured laws that would make it impossible for Christians to be slaves (pp. 392-393) and that this new scenario was opposed by local Muslim and caste Hindu slave owners. While most persons focus on episodes such as these to stress the strategies that were used by Christian missionaries, what often escapes attention is the fact that we are dealing with slavery here. If we place our sympathy with the slaves then we are able to read the story of Christianisation from quite a different light. From this perspective, the story of the Christianisation is a story of the liberation of depressed castes from the cruelty of their upper-caste owners. If these upper-caste tyrants were forced to flee because they refused to brook this new situation of freedom then we need have no sympathy for them at all.

If at all we have been thus far sympathetic to the fictional accounts like Swapna Saraswat, then it is because we have thus far been listening to the myths of local savarnas peddled largely through coffee-table books supported and authored by dominant castes (both Catholic and Hindu) rather than the histories of Bahujan and Dalit castes. If these latter castes, most of who are quite contently Catholic, have no memory of conversion trauma then it is because conversion would have provided a welcome release from the more horrific aspects of caste life.

The majoritarian Catholic presence in the Old Conquests also brought relief to the non-Catholic Bahujan populations once the New Conquests were integrated into the Estado. Once the dominant castes converted to Christianity, the social mobility available to middle-rung and marginalised castes decreased and caste reasserted itself once again. Nevertheless, the horrors of the pre-modern system were muted. As the centuries progressed the Old Conquests began to get depopulated due to service castes withdrawing their services from the Christian upper-castes and migrating to obtain labour that would not be couched in daily and ritual humiliation. In his essay titled “Humiliation in a Crematorium” Peter R. de Sousa points out that the vacated space came to be occupied by Dalit-Bahujan groups who migrated from the New Conquests fleeing from the “the pernicious laws of Manu...which operated in the Konkan socio-cultural landscape”. De Sousa might as well have included cruel landlords to the list of horrors that the Dalit-Bahujans were fleeing from. The religious freedom that the leaders of the New Conquests negotiated for themselves when these territories were added to the Estado merely meant continuing impunity to treat lower castes like chattel. De Sousa argues that this migration from New to Old Conquests gave the Dalit-Bahujan a chance to “reinvent themselves”. This reinvention he refers to is perhaps the manner in which depressed castes were able to represent themselves as members of the Bhandari caste, which would explain the preponderance of this caste in in contemporary Goa.

The rhetoric of the Hindu Right, and that of their Ghar Wapsi project, rests on the suggestion that pre-modern South Asia was a society of free individuals. The fact is that it was not, it was a land of widespread servitude and slavery. Colonial rule and Christianity came as a welcome relief to many of the people who converted. This is not to say that slavery disappeared altogether. It definitely did not. However, the presence of Christianity allowed for a variety of previously unavailable challenges to the caste order. Those who converted made as much use of Christianity and the missionaries as the Hindu Right imagines the missionaries made use of the marginalised castes.

The vision of the Hindu Right is the vision of a caste ordered past. The question we need to pose when faced with novels like Swapna Saraswat is whose stories are they telling, and whose stories are they actively erasing. In other words, what ever happened to the pre-modern das and dasi?

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 23 Jan 2015)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rome and Goa - at home and abroad

Hanging out with an Italian friend one evening some years ago I remarked on how there seemed to be an inordinate number of Italians in Goa those days. In response the Italian responded that it wasn’t that strange really, Goa reminded a number of Italians of how Italy used to be. Unfortunately, we never got down to exploring what he meant by that remark and I subsequently spent years trying to figure out what exactly he had meant by the similarity between the Italy of the old days and contemporary Goa.

I made some progress towards understanding what he had possibly meant when I was hosting a Portuguese friend in Goa a year ago. Once again, this friend commented on how while there was much of Goa that reminded him of Portugal, there was a lot in Goa that reminded him of Italy as well. It was then that the penny dropped for me and I was able to fathom what the Italian had probably meant.

There are a good many people who refer to the traditional architecture of Goa as Portuguese architecture. Slap the label Portuguese before a house and the house instantly commands a greater price on the real-estate market than it would without that label. The problem, however, lies in the fact that there is nothing exactly like a Goan house form in Portugal. There are elements that are similar, yes, but the form that houses in Goa take are quite substantially different from those that populate the Portuguese landscape.

The architectural historian Paulo Varela Gomes has an interesting argument that he makes in the context of churches in Goa, but could be well applied to houses in Goa too. In his book Whitewash, Red Stone Gomes argues that while many churches in Goa look Portuguese, they are in fact nothing of the sort; these churches are entirely Goan. These churches were designed by Goans, and the arrangement of their architectural elements, both within the church building and on its façade are peculiar to Goa. One does not find a similar arrangement anywhere in Europe. Calling these churches, Portuguese is to do a great injustice not only to these churches, but to the genius of the Goans who designed and erected them.

Just as with churches, so too with houses in Goa. The initial grand houses in the city of Goa may have stayed true to Portuguese forms, but the subsequent house forms in Goa are more than mere Portuguese copies, rather they are the result of an intelligent engagement with European forms and their rearticulation in the local context.

It was this engagement, not with Portugal alone, but with a larger European form that made my Portuguese friend recall Italy when he encountered the homes in Goa. He pointed out that even the most humble home in Goa had very noble proportions. While this friend may have been exaggerating slightly, since a number of the homes of poorer Goans were basic forms, there was an element of truth to his observation. Even when one is encountering the humbler forms of Goan houses, those that were built by not from rent from estates but from hard labour overseas, there is still an elegance of form. 

While still open to debate, it is my belief that these proportions come to us via the architectural forms articulated by imperial Rome, by such architects as Vitruvius. The Roman connection should not come to us as a surprise since so much of building form whether in Europe, or the city of Old Goa, took inspiration from Rome.  Just like Lisbon, the city of Goa, was designed to be another Rome. Rome’s importance lay in the fact that it was the seat of empire, and even subsequent to the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome remained a symbol for imperial power. It was not just the Portuguese João V who sought to model Lisbon on Rome, but the Russian emperor, the Ottoman sultan, who all strived to live up to the Roman model. In this sense then, long after the Empire disappeared, Mother Lupa continued to sustain and nourish her children across the globe.

It was this Roman form that Goans engaged with, either directly through imitation of extant buildings, or possibly through engagement with texts that rearticulated Roman forms. It is a common misconception that it was just Portuguese who established themselves in early modern Goa. While held under the sovereign power of the Portuguese crown, the city of Goa and the state around it played host to a wide variety of groups, some European, others not. What the native Goans engaged with, therefore, was not just Portuguese, but a number of cultural traditions. The most important architectural tradition of these was an imperial Roman tradition incarnated locally.  It is perhaps this Roman tradition that Italians probably cotton on to when they arrive in Goa. Or perhaps it could be the manic way in which life operates in Goa, a manic energy that, if one is to believe the stories, is not so different from that which animates the Italian peninsula.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 10 Jan 2015)

Rethinking Special Status 2: Origin Myths and Rights Claims

In our culture that is obsessed with symbols it is traditional that the first offerings in the new year contemplate the theme of freshness, new beginnings, and the like. And so it is that my first offering in the year 2015 will proffer some thoughts on the idea of origins.

Many years ago I had co-organised a reading group under the name Reading and Writing Goa. The idea of the group had been to think critically about the received wisdom about Goa and to rethink some of the intellectual frames through which Goa is thought about and represented. As a part of this exercise the group interacted with Gauda, Kunbi, Velip, and Dhangar activists from Goa who were asserting the rights of their communities within the state. In the course of our interactions one of the members of the group asked of these activists if they had any origins myths about Goa that would contest the more popular origin myth, that of Parashuram.

For those who are as yet unaware, the Parashuram myth suggests that the west coast of the peninsula of South Asia was created through the intervention of Parashuram, the sixth incarnation or avatar of the brahmanical deity Vishnu. There are a number of variations of this myth along the west coast, some suggesting that Parashuram threw the axe that he is named for into the sea, while others suggest that it was an arrow that he shot into the sea. In any case, all narratives are in agreement that having flung his weapon into the sea, the water receded to reveal landmass that was then used by Parashuramto settle brahmin communities. Given the penchant that Indians have for digging scientific facts out of  myth, this narrative has in recent times been interpreted to suggest that the story refers to the skills of the brahmin communities who were able to reclaim land from the tidal influenced rivers that mark the coastal territories of Goa. More suspect is the other use of this myth that suggests that since the lands were gifted to these brahmin communities by Parashuram, they may therefore operate as rulers of the territories created.

The visiting activists were flustered on being pressed for a Parashuram-like myth of origin for the territory. They could not offer a similar myth. What they could offer, however, is the narrative of their peoples that they had been systematically been cheated of their rights in the land. Where they were cosharers in the land, the brahmin and other dominant communities had ensured that the rights of the Adivasi groups were not recognised by law. In many cases the accounts the activists offered were more recent, from the time of the Portuguese administration where the dominant castes together with Portuguese administrators ensured that these already marginalised groups were further dispossessed.

Seeing the discomfort of the activists made me realise that an irrational demand that was being made of them. Despite the fact that they were offering a tangible fact, they were being forced to take their narrative of creation of land, possession and dispossession into a mythic past. Not every history needs to be ancient to have value. Histories can be recent, of only a few years and still be valid.

A recent column by Radharao Gracias in this newspaper offers a perfect example of how histories do not need to stretch back into myth or the ancient past. Intervening in the debate around the identity of Goans and the availing of the right to Portuguese citizenship, Gracias begins his discussion of the subject by referring to the Bahamani Sultanate. “Goans were the subjects of the Bahamani sultan, until the Portuguese defeated Adil Shah and replaced the Bahamanis” is the way Gracias phrases it.

I was delighted to see this framing of the debate because it seemed to meet my own views on the origin of Goa. While there are many who will read the history of our state into mythic times, the fact is Goa did not exist as a distinct nor legal entity prior to the Portuguese conquest of the city of Goa from the Bahamanis. Until the Portuguese crown gave it significance as a city state that annexed territory around it, Goa was just one more entity like the many port towns along the west coast of the peninsula. It was only after the territories around the city were ruled from this urban centre that it was possible to have a new and larger identity of Goa and consequently people called Goans. A Goan history, therefore, does not precede the conquest of the city in 1510. It was only after a combination of various factors, made possible by the assertion of the sovereignty of the Portuguese crown over the territory, the recognition of this sovereignty by local princes, and the vigorous socio-political environment that was jointly constructed by natives and colonials that Goa came into existence. This is not to say that the slate of history of the various territories that came to comprise Goa were blank before that. What I am suggesting is that a history of Goa as a distinct entity begins only from 1510. The histories of very many groups within contemporary Goa, as well as those outside of it, begin from 1510. There is no ancient history for these groups who were born subsequent to the birth of the city-state of Goa, and there is no reason for these groups to feel awkward about this apparent lack of history. The history that they do have is intense enough to provide reams of literature.

A shift in focus away from privileging a distant and mythic past allows us to shift attention to narratives that are based on rights and justice. Mythology, we must recognise, is not the realm of rights. It is only in more recent times that legal rights have been extended to all, and even today there are active impediments to ensure that these rights cannot be actively claimed. Furthermore, until recently it was only the dominant who could claim long recorded history. To privilege myth alone as the basis of history is to actively disempower persons and groups who cannot claim ancient myths of origin. Indeed, most Goans, who were born from the colonial encounter only claim histories that emerge from the colonial period.

Experience tells us that when ancient myths are recounted in the contemporary they work largely to bolster the image of, and invent a glorious history for groups that enjoy unfettered privilege. Another reason for recounting ancient myths is to dream up ancient and unsubstantiated wrongs that will be unfairly redressed in the present; but this is a different story. The contemplation of origins can be a cute exercise that may leave us feeling all warm and fuzzy, but it cannot be at the expense of compromising our commitment to the rights of marginalised groups.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo  dated 9 Jan 2015)