Sunday, March 29, 2015

Deepening Hindutva or citizenship? Julio Ribeiro and the choices before Indian Christians

Julio Ribeiro’s interventions in various national newspapers over the last few months have consistently made a case about the predicament of the Christian communities in India. However, no other article seems to have grabbed the attention of the national media than the one in which he asserted that he felt like a foreigner in his own country. Ribeiro’s assertion followed the increase in violent attacks against Christians, and their churches and saints across India. At a time of crisis, like the one India is facing at the current moment, it would be expected that those who face persecution from the Hindu Right would stick together. But, as much as we need to stick together to offer a common resistance, it is also important that we use this moment to engage in fruitful discussion so that we may work out the way forward. It is in this spirit that we offer this critical response to the recent op-ed authored by Ribeiro.

Following on the cliché of every crisis offering an opportunity, we suggest that rather than compromise with Hindu nationalism the present moment should be used as a moment to deepen the experience of Indian citizenship.  Hindu nationalism should be seen not as a sudden entrant into Indian politics, but a force that has frustrated the realisation of the constitutional promises of egalitarian citizenship since the very beginning of the Indian state.  Even as Ribeiro protests his current discomfort, his formulations unfortunately remain within the realm of Hindu nationalism and we propose to point a way out of the crisis, both for him and other embattled groups within the Republic.

Our primary difference with Ribeiro stems from the fact that we differ in chronology. He inquires whether it is “coincidence or a well-thought-out plan” that violence against Christians intensified after the BJP government came to power. While it is true that there has been an escalation of violence against Christians since the Modi-led Government came to power, the systematic targeting of Christians has been a part of the history of the Indian nation-state since Independence, and some would argue in the course of the national formation itself. We would like to draw attention to the Niyogi Committee Report published in 1956 that held activities of Christian missionaries and conversions to be a threat to the Indian state. The Niyogi Commission, it should be pointed out, was the product not of an openly Hindu Rightist political party, but the Congress Party. The Report was subsequently followed by the passage of multiple Freedom of Religion bills that seek to limit the right to conversion. Later, in the 1960s, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) faced a good amount of trouble when, in the words of Cardinal Simon Pimenta, foreign missionaries in India “had been asked by the government to leave the country – visas were not being renewed; no fresh visas were issued for others who had been detailed by their superiors for work in India”. Such instances indicate the persistent hostility with which Christian activity and groups have been viewed in India.

As many studies of the history of Christianity, and conversion movements in India have emphasised, Indian nationalism has seen the conversion to Christianity as the conversion to a ‘foreign’ religion, and thus an act violative of the very soul of the Indian nation. Further, conversion to a ‘foreign’ religion was viewed as a challenge to India’s spiritual self-sufficiency. The problem that Christians have had in India, therefore, clearly predates the current government, even though the arrival of the current government has seen a scary intensification of activities. In other words, the problem with Christianity could be said to be part of the national make-up, and not merely an agenda of the BJP and the Hindu Right alone. The recent intensification of violence against Christians can be seen as a culmination of decades of such suspicion and violence.

Contrary to Ribeiro’s suggestion that Hindutva violence emerged full-grown with the Modi Government, our argument is that the history of Indian nation-state has seen a steady deepening of Hindutva, rather than constitutional citizenship. Reviewing this longer history it becomes obvious that conversion to Christianity, or the threat of conversion, is a primary reason for the hostility of the Indian state and its elites to Christianity. As long as Christians do not rock the boat, it seems that they are tolerated. This has caused a number of Christians, Ribeiro included, to distance themselves from conversion. Ribeiro captured a common perception among some parts of Indian Christian society when he suggested in an interview to the Economic Times that “some fringe Christian groups convert people in large numbers but the government should find out who they are and take action against them. Mass conversions should be opposed as they create problems in society but it is a thing of the past”.

In making a case for the toleration of only stray and individual conversions to Christianity, and asking for governmental intervention in case of mass conversions, Ribeiro is merely toeing the problematic position of the Indian state. In addition to this, he is taking up a position that is marked by his upper-class and upper-caste location. Indeed, it would be our argument, that any resolution of the problem of Christian groups in India can be resolved only if we are able to address the caste and class issues head on.

Mass conversions, whether to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, have been measures of social protest against brahmanical violence that is daily visited upon marginalised social groups in the subcontinent. To ask for a halt on such conversions on the grounds that they cause problems in society is to not only miss the mark completely but to in fact articulate the Hindutva position! Rather than create problems in society, these conversions draw our attention to the problems that would fail to otherwise garner attention from the privileged segments of Indian society. More importantly, when they convert from Hinduism, these communities are not merely changing their religion, but in fact adopting a route toward the deepening of their citizenship experience. In casting off Hinduism, they are making an emphatic claim that they are ready for a new experience of life, hitherto unavailable under the contemporary political conditions of the Indian nation-state.

All too often rather than extend the protection of the law state functionaries stand by or participate in the persecution of Dalit groups, making mockery of the egalitarian constitutional provisions. To these groups, therefore, conversion is a critical part of realising Indian citizenship as promised by the Indian constitution. Hindutva’s problems with conversion stem precisely from the fact that these social processes challenge the upper-caste hegemony that Hindutva is based on. Indeed, early anti-caste mobilizations such as that of Mahatma Phule in Maharashtra, and E.V. Ramasamy in the Madras Presidency, drew actively from missionary rhetoric against caste, setting up an early confrontation between Christian proselytization and the upper-caste elites that have dominated the Indian national project.

Upper-caste and upper-class Christians deal with mass conversions, and seek to secure their comfort within the national narrative, by finding space for themselves within brahmanical mythologies, and associating themselves with brahmanical individuals and groups. Take, for example, Ribeiro’s employing the cliché “accident of history” that members of his social group, not excluding priests from this group, use to describe the process through which their ancestors converted to Christianity. It is as if they wish they had rather not been converted. There is a shame associated with their Christian present that they strive to wash off. A strategy often used by this group, is evidence in the manner in which Ribeiro brings his ancestors and the Parashurama myth into his complaint against Prime Minister Modi. He argues that his ancestors were possibly converted forcibly, in the kind of mass conversions that he would get banned. Ribeiro then suggests a brahmanical heritage for his ancestors, linking himself to the Saraswat brahmin Defence minister Manohar Parrikar. The journalist Rajdeep Sardesai recently drew a huge amount of flak for bragging about his Saraswat connections to two ministers in the national cabinet. If Sardesai was pilloried for his casteism, there is no reason why Ribeiro should be let off the hook either. After all, both Sardesai and Ribeiro are seeking different forms of security through their caste fraternity. To be fair to Ribeiro, he has been honest in an earlier article about his upper-caste location. The problem, however, is that he does not go far enough and his protest remains at a rhetorical level. Merely recognising one’s problematic location is not enough. This recognition needs to be translated into corrective action as well.

If one looks at conversion movements in India (whether in Islam, Christianity or Buddhism) outside the frame of Indian nationalism and upper-caste locations, the element of protest against casteism within those movements is glaringly obvious. A sensitivity to the caste question would also ensure that rather than feel obliged to answer for the crimes of the Inquisition, Christians in India would be able to question the reasons why this particular episode is being raised, and who is raising it. Although we do not wish to downplay the seriousness of the Inquisition, nonetheless, we are also against the charge that the Christians of India today need to solely bear the burden of these crimes. The fact is that Ribeiro and many upper-caste Christians along the Kanara and Malabar coast are uncomfortable with the history of Christianization in the sixteenth century and thus employ the cliché of this history being an “accident”. What such an understanding does is to paint all conversion to Christianity as “forced”, when in fact there is also evidence for voluntary conversions. The manner in which upper-caste Christians from Goa, the Kanara and Malabar coasts understand conversion and Christianization is not very different from the Indian nationalist position, and is de facto a Hindutva position.

While the existence of some amount of forced conversions cannot be denied, Ribeiro has very little evidence to show that his ancestors were forcibly converted. On the flip side, there is solid research to indicate that within the core territories of the Portuguese Estado da Índia, conversions were undertaken, among other reasons, because it was seen that the new religion offered ways in which people could escape their location within the local hierarchy. We would argue that it is important that the voices of brahmanical groups among Indian Christians not be privileged at this moment in Indian history. We make this argument largely because this leads to skewed understandings of the history of Christianization in India and its ramifications in contemporary times. Rather than forcing a challenge to the violence of the casteist order that is fundamental to the Indian state these voices often urge a negotiation and compromise with it. If the Christians in India are to wriggle out of the mess that they find themselves in then it is imperative that the challenge be directed not only at the BJP government and its masters in the Hindu Rightist organisations, but also at the language and logic of Indian nationalism.

The manner in which the compromise with Indian nationalism is effectuated is strikingly obvious in the manner in which Pakistan and Muslims are framed in Ribeiro’s recent interventions. In speaking on behalf of Christians to be left alone, Ribeiro indicates that Christians are a “peaceful people”. Ribeiro then contrast Christian peacefulness with Muslim belligerence when he suggests that if the Hindu “extremists later turn their attention to Muslims, which seems to be their goal, they will invite consequences that this writer dreads to imagine”. A similar statement was made in Delhi at the time of the attack on the church in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighbourhood. In that instance, the priest suggested that ‘“We are peace-loving people. If it had been another community, Muslims, khoon kharaba ho jaata” (Blood would have been shed)’.

This peaceful versus belligerent contrast seems to be a general malaise amongst Christians in India. As Nidhin Sobhana remarks, “Over the years, in several Christian gatherings, across caste groups, I have been a mute listener to thick accounts of the enemy. I know of Christians who refer to Muslims as ‘Anti-Christ’. For me, the single most important feature of these descriptions is their startling similarities to Caste Hindu descriptions of Muslims. It is as if they share a common word bank of epithets to describe Muslims. The image of the bearded enemy, walking down the street after his evening prayers is programmed in one’s mind. The scale of hatred may vary from indifference, antagonism to explicit acts of hostility. However, the image is fixed, unchanging”.

What Ribeiro and other Christian leaders do not seem to realise is that this trope of Muslim violence is not only one of the founding tropes of Indian nationalism, but also that it is born from the same logic that is now directing its ire against Christians.  As the scholar Rupa Viswanath has recently pointed out, Indian political history has been marked by the manner in which the political elites have sought to constitute majorities, and manage minorities. This may have been part of the logic that Ribeiro recounts where he was sent to Punjab to manage a separatist violence which was fuelled by a long-standing resentment towards Indian state repression. While the details of the separatist movement in Punjab are too complex to get into here, it needs to be pointed out that the Sikh militants were a creation of the postcolonial Indian state. They were born from the requirement, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, to win votes from an electorate swaying away from Indira Gandhi’s Congress after her widely criticised ‘emergency’. In other words, religious identities were used to manage complex political problems. This strategy was perpetuated by sending in a Christian, member of another minority group, to act as a moderator. This choice hid the fact that this Christian addressed the resolution of the conflict not from his faith tradition, nor from his marginalised location within the national body, but from the position as an empowered functionary of the Indian state.

What Viswanath means by constitution and management is very much in line with our use of the term minoritised, in preference to the more usual option of minorities. Both these perspectives suggest that ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ do not exist, rather they are actively produced. Crudely put Indian nationalism is a product of upper-caste, especially Hindu upper-caste, desires to control the destinies of the subcontinent. This process was managed largely through the constitution of a Hindu majority. A critical moment in the constitution of this majority was when Gandhi sought to prevent the assertion of Dalit difference from Hinduism, and through the Poona Pact ensured that they would be considered Hindus. It was this production of a Hindu majority that resulted in the creation not of equal citizens, but a variety of minority groups. As Ribeiro’s example demonstrates, rather than mobilize alongside other minoritised groups it was now left for the minorities to play the role of diligent pupils before a bad-tempered school-master, vying to outperform each other as the ideal minority. An excellent example of how this plays out is once again provided by Ribeiro when he indicates “it warmed the cockles of my heart that ordinary Hindus, not known to me, still thought well of me and would like to be friends 25 years after my retirement….” In other words, to prove his innocence Ribeiro insists that he has the goodwill of “ordinary Hindus”. In other words, play by Hindu rules, or suffer the consequences. Two groups, the Parsis, and western-educated Christians have fulfilled this role within the Indian nation-state, largely because led by upper-caste leaders they played by the casteist rules of the Indian nation-state.

One group that historically did not quite play by these rules were segments of the upper-caste Muslim elites of colonial India. H.M. Seervai, former Advocate General of Bombay, jurist and author, opines in Partition of India: Legend and Reality, that M.A. Jinnah’s object was not partition but ‘parity’. It was their failure to play along with caste Hindu majoritarianism that earned the various Muslim communities of India the wrath of the Indian nation-state. Rather than being recognised as victims of Indian nationalism, they have been unfairly cast as violent trouble-makers.

Ribeiro’s suggestion that the Modi-led government seeks to make “India a saffron Pakistan” are equally blemished. These comparisons, unfortunately, are driven by the Islamophobia that has been a foundational element of Indian nationalism. So enthralled have we been by this fear of Muslims that we have been blinded to the manner in which Hindutva was taking firmer root all around us. It is not that India has only now become saffron. It always was. On the contrary, as this text keeps emphasizing, the shade of saffron has merely become deeper in the past few months.

In sum, rather than cast ourselves against similarly beleaguered Muslim communities in India, it would make much more sense to challenge the narratives of Indian nationalism. This challenge to Indian nationalism would require that rather than seek to effectuate a temporary compromise with Indian nationalist logics, we should perhaps go back to the drawing board and rethink the way in which we would like to see the future of the India project.

The final argument that we would like to make involves reflecting on the irony that it has been Ribeiro, a former strong man of the Indian state, who has come out in anger against the Modi government, which celebrates precisely this kind of strong man politics. As Ribeiro has rightly pointed out, there are a number of Christians who have faithfully served the Indian state, often compromising their religious ethics in its service. Some would argue that Ribeiro’s own record in terms of human rights is not without blemish. This is not the point we would like to stress however. What we would like to point out is that despite his committed service to the Indian nation-state, the same state seems unwilling and unable to secure his safety, and that of his community. This should be a valuable lesson for the various minoritised groups who believe that they can use Hindutva to climb up the social ladder. Hindutva has been crafted to secure the hegemony of the upper-caste Hindu groups that dominate various parts of the Indian state. Non-Hindu upper castes groups, and Hindu bahujan groups may tussle for second place, and indeed individuals within these groups may ascend to power. However, Hindutva will not allow entire groups parity. Increasingly it appears that the destiny of these groups is second-class citizenship, or genocidal destruction. If we desire parity, then it is imperative that we recognise that the fault lies not in the Hindu Right alone, but in the structures of Indian nationalism.

While we sympathize and empathize with the insecurities faced by Julio Ribeiro and his need to speak out against the growing violence against Christians in the country, it is also important to highlight what we see as the conceptual flaws in his argument and the manner in which he positions himself as a Christian and as an Indian. There is an option that is opening up to various Christians as well as other minoritised groups in the country. We can continue to play by the rules of casteist India, or we can challenge the norms and rework the way in which the India project is run. 

(A version of this post was first published in the DNA India as a two-part article on 27 March 2015, and 28 March 2015

This post was written with Dale Luis Menezes).

Friday, March 20, 2015

Children, Adoption, and Catholic Morality

I awoke, some days ago, to a storm in the internet tea cup. Social media was awash with a poster featuring a phrase located over the image of a flask of Dolce & Gabbana perfume called “Homophobe”. The phrase read “When you just want to smell like a couple of assholes from Italy.”

Quickly captured, the story is that this image was a response following Elton John castigating the Italian designers Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) for their statements calling children conceived through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) “synthetic”. John’s response was “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’. And shame on you for wagging your judgemental little fingers at IVF - a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfil their dream of having children”.

This controversy should ideally have been ignored given that the fracas is between two sets of extremely privileged white men. The concerns of their universe are not necessarily those of the rest of the world. And yet, given the manner in which the issue has been turned into one of rights of people, gay and otherwise, to have children, there is sufficient reason to step in with an intervention.

My opinion in this column is not to undertake a defence of D&G. The statements attributed to them have been made via reports that refer to articles in Italian. Given my inability to directly access their statements, my attention is directed largely at John’s statement and the subsequent outrage peddled through the liberal propaganda machine. One of the locations through which I would like to critique this outrage is my understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

An appropriate place to begin the critique would be at the seed of this whole mess, the statement by D&G. While Catholic teaching holds the clear position that IVF is morally wrong, the same instruction of the Church is quite clear that children themselves, regardless of the manner of their birth, are to be treated with respect and love. In light of this teaching, calling children produced via IVF “synthetic” is not merely a case of unfortunate phrasing but morally wrong. Should D&G think that they were toeing a Catholic line this insight should caution Catholics that the teaching of the Church is full of nuances that ought to be appreciated before being used to mount interventions in the public sphere, and in our private lives.

This brings us to Elton John’s denunciation of the D&G. Leaving aside the matter about the morality of IVF facilitated conception, John’s statement borders on the excessive. IVF is definitely NOT an option available to legions of people primarily because it is an extremely expensive option. While estimates in the US put the cost at about $10,000 per attempt, in India, the costs are in the range of about Rs. 2, 50,000. These are not economic options for a good part of the population anywhere in the world. Add to this the manner in which surrogate motherhood often involves the dubious use of the bodies of women. This relationship is especially problematic if these women are from the global South and servicing the needs of prospective parents from the global North.

IVF has gained some popularity in the North, and especially found favour among certain segments of the gay populations. The technique has allowed these groups to have children that they have a biological link with. But it is precisely the celebration of this biological link that is extremely problematic. While Elton John suggests that it is IVF alone that allows people to enjoy the gift of children, he is ignoring the fact that it is also possible for people to adopt orphaned children. If John finds D&G’s statements offensive, I find it particularly offensive that people should suggest that it is the biological link alone that constitutes a tangible bond between parent and child. This is a kind of fetishisation of the genetic that borders on racism and needs to be called out.

While the Catholic Church has drawn much flack for its opposition to IVF, what is often not given much attention is the fact that it does recognise the possibility, and merit of adoption. As in the words of Saint Pope John Paul II, “Adopting children, regarding and treating them as one’s own children, means recognizing that the relationship between parents and children is not measured only by genetic standards. Procreative love is first and foremost a gift of self. There is a form of ‘procreation’ which occurs through acceptance, concern, and devotion. The resulting relationship is so intimate and enduring that it is in no way inferior to one based on a biological connection. When this is also juridically protected, as it is in adoption, in a family united by the stable bond of marriage, it assures the child that peaceful atmosphere and that paternal and maternal love which he needs for his full human development” [all emphasis in the original].

The more astute would have realised that John Paul II crafted his words carefully, limiting the scope for non-traditional families to adopt. I have yet to appreciate the reasons for the Catholic Church’s opposition to adoption by gay couples. Given my own belief that it is not just the parents who raise a child, but a larger society, and that while one’s role models are chosen from a larger network of family and friends, I find the Church’s current position difficult to defend. However, I would like to highlight the fact that while the Catholic Church may close the door on IVF, it also opens up the door for extending our reserves of love to those outside of our biological ambit. It is important to highlight this route precisely because it stands as a counter to the class-privilege and racism that is embedded in the kind of gay politics that people like Elton John represent. 

The politics of the gay rights movement led by the mainstream voices from the global North has long ceased to represent the values of justice and freedom. Instead, they often urge routes that lead to a consumeristic view of the human body and human relations. While it may be important to continue to challenge the Catholic Church to rethink its positions on homosexually inclined and gender non-normative persons, it is also important to call out the biases inherent in the voices that claim to speak for LGBTIQ persons.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 20 March 2015)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Consuming Poland

I visited Poland sometime in the spring of 2013. I had only a vague idea of the country, except for the fact that through the person of Karol Wotyla it had provided the Catholic world the first non-Italian Pope in centuries. I also knew that this Pole would subsequently be credited with doing much to combat Communism, both in Poland and throughout the lands behind the Iron Curtain. That the country is profoundly Catholic is a common assumption. Indeed, this is possibly true, but my own introduction to the country would take place through anthropologists of South Asia, who were anything but Catholic, some of who adopted pagan beliefs with an uncommon delight.

It was in the company of this merry band that I was introduced into insights into the Polish world.  Our meeting, and my introduction to a larger circle of friends, was to take place in a restaurant. I was insistent, that we meet in a Polish restaurant. I was not going to travel so far and not taste Polish food I had declaimed. Even as I was insistent on Polish food, however, I wondered what Polish food could possibly be like. Surely a lot of potatoes, I suggested to myself in an appalling display of ignorance. Conceding to my desire to quite literally consume Poland, dinner was scheduled at U Kucharzy.

For every traveller, there is a moment in the initial part of the journey when one experiences the place through conceptual frames that we already have in place. These frames could have come to us through prejudices we inherit from our social location, ideas picked up from books, or images from films we have viewed. It is an unreal moment when one feels that one is sucked into an unreal world, and one, ideally, tries hard to fight out of the preconceptions and try to figure out things as they are actually happening.

My experience in U Kucharzy was somewhat similar. On entering the space I felt I had been sucked into a time machine. While cloakrooms are not uncommon in Europe, there was something about the one at the restaurant that seemed to flick on a switch to time travel. The memories of the visit are too hazy to be definite but the entire experience, but one thing is sure, on entering U Kucharzy I felt that I was in the 1930s. There was a grand piano in the main hall of the restaurant and there was someone easing music out of it. The walls were covered halfway in tiles and there was definitely an old-world charm to the place. 

What was remarkable was the fact that some amount of the food was being produced before us. One of the foods we chose to eat was the restaurant’s renowned steak tartare. What made the experience especially surreal was that the tiny man with a chef’s hat mincing the meat for us did not seem too pleased to be there. Whispering amongst ourselves, we reckoned that it had to do with the ugly bruise that he had on his forearm, and the dressing down that he had just received in full view of half the establishment.

The food that appeared on our table with dizzying speed included a variety of the most delicious ways to eat beef and pork. We had sweet breads, hoof in jelly, and a variety of other foods whose exact description fail me now. As the evening progressed it was clear that even though we were stuffed, the food kept coming, and it was just so good that we kept stuffing it down our throats. All of this was aided by the nectar-like krupnik that the establishment had on offer. Produced from honey, with herbs that added to the flavour, this sweet liquer added some amount of fire to the evening. If you ever travel to Warsaw, then the one thing you must do is eat at U Kucharzy.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan dated 14 March 2015)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Interrogating the bhakti movement: The Sant Sohirobanath Project

Some months ago, the State government honoured the memory of Sant Sohirobanath by organising a book exhibition in tandem with a festival of devotional music. What a clever sleight of hand! Along with this column, there were other voices that protested the manner in which the state government is shamelessly promoting caste Hindu hegemony in Goa.

There were a number of arguments raised to defend the commemoration of the Sant when the government’s decision was revealed to the public. Of these, two were significant. The first suggested that the Sant was part of the bhakti tradition of the subcontinent and this was a good thing. The second suggested that it represented the validation of the spiritual in the face of the materialism that contemporary society seems to be mired in. This column will deal primarily with the suggestion that the bhakti tradition is an undeniably positive tradition.

The bhakti tradition has been much celebrated largely because it is seen as having challenged the hegemony of the brahmin and vedic priesthood over access to the deities. The bhakti movement is credited with enabling the common person, and especially lower caste persons, to have direct access to the deity and the salvation that this access promised.

There is indeed a robust anti-caste critique in the visions of those who are seen as a part of the bhakti movement. Gail Omvedt, a significant authority on dalit-bahujan assertion in the subcontinent, has penned a book titled Seeking Begumpura (2008) that references the utopia that animated the works of many dalit-bahujan sants and poets.

And yet, this is not sufficient reason for us to uncritically accept the bhakti movement as an unmitigated good. In her book Language, Politics, Elites and the Public Sphere (2001), Veena Naregal points out that the relations between the emerging dissenting devotional practices and the ruling elites is still not very well understood. She refers to the case of the celebrated bhakti poet Eknath to make her point. Naregal highlights that when castigated by his brahmin peers for writing in the vernacular languages, Eknath “claiming not to be a deviant, [he] justified his writing in the vernacular as a popularisation of the high religious texts” (p.15). Indeed, Naregal goes on to quote the celebrated scholar Sheldon Pollock, who argued that, “the work of vernacularisation was not necessarily a subaltern process, but actually represented attempts by political elites to re-articulate their authority in localised idioms” (p.15).

This insight can be further buttressed by the recognition of the fact that Eknath may not have been the only person of the period who was seeking to popularise brahmanical texts and create a political culture defined by Brahmanism. Naregal places Eknath within the period c. 1533-99. In her work on the politics around the Telugu language, Language, Emotion, Politics in South India: The Making of a Mother Tongue (2010), Lisa Mitchel makes a similar point about the eleventh century composition of the Mahabharata in Telugu by the poet Nannaya. Challenging the idea that fired with the love for his mother-tongue Nannaya was articulating a Telugu identity, Mitchell in fact argues that this composition of the Mahabharata can be seen “as an attempt to prevent the spread and expansion of already existing anti-brahmanical heterodox identity by expanding orthodox meanings and practices” (p. 50). By composing the Mahabharata in Telugu, Nannaya was actively countering an already established heterodox Jain identity that used Telugu as a medium for spreading itself. Looking at this history, she points out that the Telugu language was in fact a weapon, a medium and a tool for accomplishing a specific purpose, the expansion of elite culture and identity into new realms.

From his fieldwork in Karnataka, the eminent sociologist M. N. Srinivas also noted that the practice of Harikatha served to popularise a sanskritic theology among the non-brahmanical groups. Such Sanskritic practices exposed the populace to new ideas and values and hitherto unknown terms such Karma, dharma, papa, punya, maya, samsara and moksa which found frequent expression in the vast body of Sanskrit literature, sacred as well as secular.

Seen in this light the Bhakti tradition is not necessarily the innocent, liberating project that defenders of the Sohirobanath project make it out to be.

There is a strain of rhetoric in this country that resorts to challenging unpalatable research by claiming foreign bias. However, no less a person that the renowned Dalit-bahujan activist, Mahatma Phule was sceptical of the texts produced by the bhakti poets of Maharashtra. In his polemical tract Shetkarayacha Aasud (Cultivator's Whipcord, [1881] 2002) Phule suggests that the bhakti tradition emerged as an ideological response to the liberation that Islam was providing. “From amongst the bhat brahmans, Mukundaraja and Dnyanoba lifted some imaginary parts from the Bhagavat-bakhar, and wrote tactical books in Prakrit called Viveksindhu and Dnyaneshwari and crazed the ignorant farmer to such an extent that the farmers started to think of the Mohammedans as low, along with the Quran, and started hating them instead.” Bhakti, then, rather than uplifting the marginalised, befuddled their minds, made them hate their liberators and pushed them deeper into the hands of their brahmanical oppressors. We know enough about the nature of the Hindu Right’s vigorous assertions, both in Goa and India, to be aware that the sudden celebration of Sant Sohirobanath probably has nothing to do with any love for promoting universal brotherhood. On the contrary, it has probably more to do with snipping bahujan-dalit assertion in Goa, and casting non-Hindus as enemies.

Phule was in fact categorical on this point. In Ghulamgiri (Slavery, [1872] 2002), he asserts that “There were several brahman authors like Mukundaraj, Dnyaneshwar and Ramdasa, among the plenty that mushroomed all over, who wasted their talents in composing silly books. None of them dared to even touch the rope of bondage tied around the necks of the shudras. Obviously, they lacked the courage to renounce such wicked practices and deeds openly. So they made a distinction between ‘Karma Marga’ (the Path of Action) and ‘Dnyana Marga’ (the Path of Knowledge), assigning every wicked practice to the former and atheist opinion to the latter. Then they wrote heaps of hollow books like these and allowed their selfish brahman brothers to continue robbing the shudras.”

We would do well to learn from Phule that just as some of the bhakti poets were using vernacular languages to extend the reach of brahmanical power, contemporary Hindu nationalist associations, and the state itself, are using bhakti to sanskritise Dalit-Bahujan groups and convert them into brahmanised Hindus. This strategy would not have been problematic had it led to genuine empowerment of the Dalit-Bahujan groups. As noted by Ronki Ram, the problem with Sanskritisation is that this process reinforces the structural logic of Hinduism by asking Dalits to internalize the very same social system that they ought to contest in the first place. Sanskritisation forces Dalit-bahujans to imbibe outmoded cultural patterns of the upper castes without seeking any radical change in the hierarchical and oppressive structures of the brahmanical social order.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar minced no words about the regressive impact of a narrowly defined Bhakti. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November, 1949, he pointed out that “in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Seen in the light of scholarship and enlightened activism, the uncritical celebration of the Bhakti tradition through the symbol of Sant Sohirobanath does not bode well. It only presages the continued brahmanisation of Hindus of Goa, and worsens the shackling of the dalit-bahujan groups who are being directed to expend their energy on religion, rather than the assertion of the rights that are being denied them.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated  6 March 2014)