Friday, April 17, 2015

Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa

Some months ago, I recollected an incident where a group of Gauda, Kunbi, Velip, and Dhangar activists from Goa were asked if they had any origin myths about Goa that would contest the more popularized origin myth of Parashuram. As I recounted, these activists were unable to offer one. What they could offer, however, were narratives of their peoples being systematically cheated of their rights in the land. It was in this context that I suggested that not every history needs to be ancient to have value. Histories can be recent and still be valid.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when some weeks after writing that column, I came across a scholarly essay titled “Muharram Processions and the Ethicization of Hero Cults in the Premodern Deccan,” by Hugh van Skyhawk, which featured in the book South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora (2008). Discussing the manner in which various sacred traditions of the Deccan engaged with each other, Skyhawk recounted an oral text of Narayan Kondiba Mane, a Dhangar shepherd from the district of Kolhapur in Maharashtra. The reason for my surprise was that while this oral text that Skyhawk translated did not deal with an origin myth for the land that was, through Portuguese intervention, to become Goa, it did contain a narrative mentioning the familial interaction of a variety of pre-colonial deities in these territories.

The narrative is about the “Canarese” Goddess Yekva or Yellamma, and begins by underlining the fact that she was the youngest and most stubborn of seven sisters: “Yekva, Mhakva, Durgava, Durgva, Margva, Jakva, and Tukva.” This youngest sister was once separated from her siblings when she felt thirsty during a hunt. Though she was unable to find her sisters, she did eventually find water in Mahadev’s pond. While at the pond, her eyes fell on a chickpea plant, whose stem she felt compelled [by hunger no doubt] to pluck. As she leaned forward to do so, however, Mahadev cried out that should she carry out this action, “blame” would fall on her. But Yellamma was not one to listen. Oh no! She pulled a twig from the bush, and instantly, a burning blister formed on her palm.

Poor Yellamma, alone and frightened, ran in pain until she could bear the pain no longer. She pricked the blister, and found in it a lump of blood, and a radiant little baby was born. And who was that baby, born from the blister on Yallamma’s hand? Parasarama, or Parasurama!

It was after having birthed the baby Parasurama and traveling some more that Yellamma finally stumbled upon her sisters. When they saw her carrying the little baby, however, the sisters cried out, “Stay away! Don’t come closer! You have made us the relatives of a bastard! We don’t want to touch you! And we don’t want you in our group! As you have borne a bastard, go away from us! Don’t ever come to us!”

The stunned Yellamma had nowhere to go now, and after much wandering, she came upon “the Musalman brothers Asan [and] Usan,” that is, Hasan and Hussein. She requested, and received, shelter from them, and spent the night on the verandah of their home. In the morning, she requested a place to live. The brothers responded by placing a stone in a sling, flinging the stone in the air and indicating to Yellamma to follow the stone, for where it fell, that place would be hers. Yellamma did as requested and followed the stone, which had fallen on Saundatti hill by this time.

She reached the hill at sundown and encountered the home of one Jagul Satyava, whom she petitioned for shelter for the night. Satyava responded that he would have gladly given her a place to stay, “but mine is a Musalman house and there will be meat.” Yellamma would not take no for an answer, however, and persuaded Satyava to let her spend the night in the house. When Satyava’s sons, Bhram, Apa, Asan, and Usan, returned home with two wild goats, Yellamma called out, “Your maternal aunt has come! My boy should sit down with you. Let your sister join your dining row!” And so it was, the narrative tells us, that Yellamma, with the baby Parasuram on her lap, sat with the Muslim boys as they prepared to eat.

The narrative also informs us that “Yallamma sprinkled the nectar of immortality on all the meat they had there, and gave [the dead animals] their full life-force again. And Baby Parasarama was accepted in the circle of the Musalman boys, and in bliss did they eat together.” Subsequently, in the morning, the four brothers erected a temple to the virgin goddess on Saundatti hill, so that there would be space for all of them. The narrative concludes that “After they had built the temple the Canarese Yallava took Baby Parasarama and stayed in the temple on the hill.”

To those of us accustomed to the neat divisions between Hindu and Muslim, this narrative would present something of a shock. Indeed, the narrative seems to have all the makings of a contemporary soap opera. According to Skyhawk, it highlights the role of the Shia heroes, Hasan and Hussein, as protectors of helpless women and children in South Asia. From a Goan point of view, however, the narrative gives us a plethora of positions from which to think about Goa. Given that the territories that would go on to constitute Goa participated both in the Canara region and the Deccan, this narrative allows us to think of a pre-colonial Goa that was not entirely brahmanical. On the contrary, it was also a space where Islam, and especially Shia Islam, held sway. Further, this Shia Islam had rather intimate fraternal engagements with the non-brahmanical faiths in the region. One could also hazard a guess that these non-brahmanical and non-Muslim deities were in latter times Sanskritised to give us brahmanical deities—like the Parashurama we know today—who have completely different histories. Indeed, it appears that the two myths are speaking of two entirely different Parashuramas.

However, there is no need to rush into readings of this Dhangar myth at this time. For now, all that we need to do is know that there are other myths that would upset the certainty of the dominant discourse. And this, as most students of the social sciences would know can only be a good thing since it opens up space for more questions and new visions.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Herald on 17 April 2015)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Scoring Beef, Underscoring Banal Hindutva: The Limits of MTV’s activism

Recently, MTV India released a video that on the face of it is a statement of resistance to the ban on beef lately legislated in Maharashtra. While the video is well-intentioned, and adds another voice to the chorus of protests, rather than offering a radical resistance to the fascist moves of the Indian state, it merely re-inscribes the banal Hindutva of quotidian Indian life. By banal Hindutva I mean the kind of common sense that animates daily life and which, despite its serious implications, is seen as unproblematic. Further, rather than offering a politics that privileges livelihoods, the video restricts the frame of the debate to a politics of consumerism. This article will unpack the underlying assumptions of the video and point to its various problems.

The video commences with a scene in which a nervous young man makes a phone call to a “dealer.” The word he uses, maal (goods), suggests that he is speaking with a trafficker of hashish or marijuana. The dealer proposes a meeting, where the trade of maal for money will be made. Subsequent to the rendezvous and the successful transaction, the video returns us to the home of the boys to reveal that the trade was not of hashish, but beef.  The video ends with a scene of three young men savouring sandwiches that they have made with the clandestinely purchased beef kebabs. The video has become extremely popular, gaining 254,086 views and 6,787 shares via Facebook at the time when this article was written. The popularity of the video apparently lies in the manner in which the circumstances normal to a transaction for hashish, a prohibited narcotic, are superimposed on to what should be a regular transaction for purchasing food.

The video makes a smashing case of lampooning how the state of Maharashtra has criminalised what should be an unproblematic act of purchasing food. By having the young man asks for beef cooked in the manner as prevalent in Goa, Kashmir, Hyderabad, the video also does an excellent job of identifying the locations that present a challenge to the attempt to create India as a Hindu homeland. However, there is much more to the ban on beef in Maharashtra than the issue of consuming and enjoying beef. Indeed, the first problem with the video is that despite being conscious of the livelihood issues involved in the case of the ban, the producers reduce the issue to that of middle class consumption. In other words, the only right that the video celebrates is the right of the middle class to consumption and enjoyment. The issue therefore is not of the violation of citizenship rights, but a violation of the right to consume; a rather narrow neo-liberal frame.  All of this is very much in keeping with my casual observations of social media, where most of the outrage seems to have emerged from the fact that these upper class and upper caste consumers will not be able to enjoy their steak, privileging their gustatory pleasures rather than the livelihoods of those involved in the production of beef.

The video very clearly marks out the caste, class, and sectarian identities of the actors in the transaction. The boy who makes the call for beef is marked out by his wearing a kadaa –steel bangle- on his forearm. Another wears a sacred string on his wrist. These objects, along with the kind of Hindi they speak, identify them as Hindus from north Indian. The presence of posters of Che Guevara, Bob Marley and laptops, suggests that these young men are upper middle class students in the city of Bombay. It needs to be highlighted that the entire video is shot from the perspective of these young men, i.e. of upper middle class North Indian Hindus. One can understand that this choice was perhaps a deliberate design of the producers of the video, given that it makes the clear point that it is not just the minoritised groups of India (Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian) who eat beef but upper caste Hindus as well. In ensuring the centrality of these Hindu figures, however, what the video unwittingly does is efface these other groups and re-inscribe the centrality of the upper caste North Indian male in the India project.

In making this choice of protagonists, the video furthers the politics that privilege taste and consumerism alone. Given that the demand for beef emerges from young students living outside of parental supervision, what it does is reduce the case of the consumption of beef to one of taste, that too a possibly guilty pleasure. While many Hindus do consume beef, this consumption is often done surreptitiously, outside the home, and often as an act of rebellion against familial values. Indeed, such dominant caste Hindu consumers of beef are known to ensure that a ban on beef is enforced when marginalised groups demand space for beef in public kitchens. While these circumstances may mark Hindu upper caste life, this is not the case for all citizens of India. The demand for beef is not guided by the need for cheap protein alone; it is also guided by the fact that in addition to providing a cheap source of protein, this food type is a defining feature of the identity of many groups. For Catholics from Goa, Mangalore, or Kerala, for example, the various ways in beef can be cooked is a part of their identity. For these groups, beef is not a surreptitious food to be consumed outside of the home. On the contrary, it is linked to fond familial and communal memories. This right to identity has been neatly effaced in the video.

If one were to try to dismiss the proposed reading of the video, one could argue that the kadaa is not worn by Hindus but essentially by Sikhs, that the sacred string is also worn by visitors to Sufi shrines, and that the third man is unmarked by any religious symbol. However, as much scholarship has demonstrated, this is precisely the way in which the ideal urban upper caste North Indian Hindu is represented without any sectarian markings. This representation is possible because all other groups are invariably identified by their sectarian symbols. In the case of the video, this contrast is starkly effected by burdening the figure of the dealer in beef with multiple symbols of Indian Islam.

The video very clearly marks out the dealer as a working class Muslim. The young man making the call clearly identifies the dealer as Mustaq bhai. This Mustaq is shown wearing an amulet around his neck, sitting in front of a kitschy poster with various symbols of Islam common in many working class Muslim establishments. Further, his class location is marked by the way he touches and adjusts his genitalia in public upon arriving at the rendezvous. In marking this identity, the video clearly plays to the popular imagination of Muslims as producers of beef. Once again, the reality of the production of beef is much more complex. It is not just those who are denominationally classed as Muslim, but also those classified as Hindu, and others, who are involved in this production. In fact, the image of the Muslim as butcher and cow killer was one of the foundational symbols that allowed early upper caste nationalists to mobilize a Hindu community around the symbol of a sacralised cow as mother and deity.

Despite this complexity, the video chooses to represent a Muslim as the dealer in beef. In doing so, rather than contesting the politics of aggressive Hindutva embodied in the ban, the video underlines the banal Hindutva that sees Muslims as butchers. Further, in giving the character of Mustaq the title bhai, placing the Muslim in the role of the dealer of a prohibited substance, the video draws on a criminal history of Bombay; i.e. the presence of gang lords some of who, such as Dawood Ibrahim and Chotta Shakeel, happened to be Muslim. Bollywood played its role in convincing the Indian populace that such men are addressed as bhai. As a result of this link, the only representational space that is offered to Mustaq is that of someone who exists outside the law, not because he is forced to do so by the existence of a law, and state practice, but because this is the way that he prefers it. The video from MTV makes sense only because it employs these multiple notions of the Muslim as deviant, and disrespectful of the normative culture of the Indian state.

This nexus between deviance and anti-national behaviour is compounded by the fact that the video lingers on the fact that the kebabs are wrapped in an Urdu newspaper. There is a long history of strains of Indian nationalism projecting Urdu as a Muslim language. Once again, rather than challenge the problematic assumptions of banal Hindutva, the video only reinforces these assumptions that have led not only to the near-death of the Urdu language but the very real killing and brutalising of thousands of Muslims in the country.

Viewed in light of this discussion, it appears that contrary to appearances, the video seeks not so much to protest as to generate laughs. While humour can very often be an effective tool of resistance, perhaps the case of the banning of beef requires more than just the generation of laughs. Further, if we are to ensure that the foundational violence of our societies is not reproduced, the route through which humour is generated must also be given serious thought. No such awareness seems to feature in the video.

In choosing to make the transaction between a Hindu and a Muslim, the video follows the time-tested politics of Indian secularism, and communalism, where the central crisis of the country is seen as the need to manage relations between these two groups. These groups are presented as if they are without internal diversity, and as if other groups do not exist. Thus, if broken down to basics, in presenting urbanised upper caste North Indian as protagonists, the video effaces the presence of a variety of non-Hindu groups, and uses the figure of the Muslim only as a criminal making a quick buck. While there is no clear assertion of a revolutionary figure in the video, the mere fact that the plot follows the desires of these young men seems to suggest that in violating a bizarre law, they are the proto-revolutionaries of our age. This proto-revolutionary possibility is underlined by the overwhelming presence of images of Che Guevara and Bob Marley in their room. Once again, therefore, we are back in the realm of the Hindu upper caste subject as the revolutionary who leads India to justice. Banal Hindutva is never far from asserting the centrality of the Hindu to the Indian national project.

To wrap up this discussion, the video suggests that in the case of the ban on beef, livelihoods are not an issue; after all, the Muslim seems to take to operating in a black market in his stride and without any problem. Thus, the video perpetuates an idea of Muslim criminality. The emphasis is on the upper caste, class and Hindu enjoyment of the meat. While MTV probably thinks it is being radical in making a statement about Hindus wanting beef, it fails to realise that it is re-inscribing the centrality of the Hindu to the Indian state. In sum, what MTV offers is a politics of consumerism, rather than a politics of economic and cultural security.

Before I conclude there is one last argument that I would like to make. I received a number of responses to the initial critique of the video that I posted on Facebook. One response read, “You are over-thinking the issue! It is only a video from MTV!” I suspect that this article will now receive many similar responses. My argument should not be seen as a dismissal of the video, but an attempt to demonstrate the limits of neo liberal activism, and extant secular liberal politics in India. I would argue that it is precisely because the video is from MTV that it reveals to us the common sense of dominant segments of Indian society, i.e. urbanised, upper middle class and upper caste Indians. The howls of protest would also indicate that we live in a society that is not only incapable of appreciating, but opposed to, deep readings of narratives. We prefer to remain at the level of the immediate. I am not arguing that the reading that this article provides is the only possible interpretation of the video. On the contrary, a number of readings are possible. What bothers me is the response that seems to demand a simplistic take on life and suggests that there is nothing more to the video than what appears superficially. In other words, we are faced with the insistence that we dumb down the debate and prevent alternative readings. It is this popular demand for censorship that is most worrying and indeed provides the basis for the rise of fascism in contemporary India. At the end of the day, it is this refusal to develop complex readings of our society, history and politics that marks banal Hindutva, and is allowing for the contemporary emergence of aggressive Hindutva embodied in the ban on the production and sale of beef.

(A version of this post was first published in DNA India on 15 April 2015)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Learning from the Beef Ban

Ever since the government of Maharashtra imposed a complete ban on the slaughter of any kind of cattle there has been a huge hue and cry from diverse segments of the Indian population. Before we go any further, it needs to be pointed out that while the state of Maharashtra has gone a step further by banning the slaughter of any kind of cattle, there have been bans on the slaughter of cows in a variety of states, and in others there are restrictions and innocent looking regulations that make it difficult to slaughter cattle. If there is a problem, then the problem lies in the fact that rather than protesting the creeping Hindutva-isation of India, we have allowed matters to get to this state of affairs.

The first issue that we need to deal with is the issue of the sacrality of the body of the cow. Most people, upper-caste Hindu, or otherwise, offer up this belief as reason for the ban. ‘The cow is like a mother to us’, they argue. The standard response to this has been to suggest that while one is entitled to believe whatever one wishes, one does not have a right to impose this belief on the rest of the population.

In response to this argument some scholars have pointed out that this concern for the body of the cow is not some ancient belief, but in fact a belief that achieved prominence in the nineteenth century, in the course of nationalist mobilization.  While we are taught in school that the nationalist movement was a glorious struggle against British rule, more balanced historiography indicates to us that a good amount of the nationalist mobilization was in fact mobilization by upper-caste Hindus of lower-caste Hindus against non-Hindu religious groups, including the Muslims, Christians and Dalits.  

Christopher Pinney has done some really interesting work in demonstrating how the image of Durga as Mahishasuramardini, or the killer of the Asura Mahisha, manipulated what should have been a bull, into the image of a cow. Similarly, the image of the Asura, was made to look like that of Muslim or Dalit butchers, so as to appear as if they had killed the cow. He points out that even though the Asura and the Goddess are supposed to be in battle, there is blood only on the blade of the Asura. This allows for the interpretation that the Asura was in fact a butcher, had slaughtered a cow and that Durga was punishing them for this act of cow slaughter. In the discussion around this picture, we have a clear image of the politics of Hindutva: mobilize hatred against the Muslim, Dalit, or Christian, to ensure caste Hindu hegemony.

The hegemony works because the values that are being promoted are the values of the Hindu upper-caste. As so many works have already pointed out, the eating of beef was not anathema to a number of groups that would have identified themselves as Hindu. A number of middle, and lower caste groups would routinely eat beef, as it offers the cheapest source of protein to impoverished groups. What we see in the ban on the slaughter of cattle, therefore, is the extension of  State legality to caste-based legal principles. What we have is the rolling back of constitutional provisions of equality, to allow for the beliefs of dominant caste groups to rule the roost in India.

I bring up this aspect of extension of legality because another aspect of this ban on beef recently struck me. What the various states of India have ensured through this ban on beef also amounts to an infringement on the right to property. If one owns a cow, or breeds cows, either to feed oneself, or to gain profit through the sale of their meat, these laws are placing an unfair restriction on the practice of one’s business. Surely the sentiments of another, religious or otherwise, are no good reason to place a restriction on the business practice of another? The state of Maharashtra has gone a couple of steps further than most other states in India. By banning the slaughter of any kind of cattle, what they have done is effected what the legal system of the U.S. would call a taking. If one were to try to put this in terms of the Indian legal system, by preventing the logical use of one’s property, they have effectively acquired the same property. What they have done, is to make cattle wards of the state, and yet saddle the individual with the cost of maintaining this property. Given that the Modi regime has ridden to power on the basis of claiming to be pro-business, this scary way of disrespecting the right of private property is odd. However, given that the laws of Manu generally assert the right of upper-castes to the property of those beneath them, it appears that this ban on cattle slaughter is very much in keeping with the principles of Hindutva that guide the prime minister and the party he leads. In other words, the Modi regime’s suggestion of being business friendly is just a scam. It is nothing of the sort.

There is one last point that needs to be addressed before concluding this opinion. The Hindu Right has suggested that the slaughter of cattle is evidence of traits of cruelty in those who eat meat. This is a bizarre suggestion that must be actively contested. People who eat beef, do not do so because they are cruel. They do not slaughter animals for fun. They do so because they are in need of food. The need to feed oneself is a basic human need. Further, when people slaughter animals, they do not eat only the best portions of the meat. On the contrary, they have found ways to make sure every part of the animal’s body is used effectively, whether as food, or as some other product. What I found particularly interesting is that a good amount of the social media outrage was trained on the fact that they would not be able to enjoy a steak anymore. I found this outrage misplaced, and perhaps representative of elite tastes. My own experience of beef is of eating not just steak, but other parts of the animal, like the stomach, intestines, hoof, tongue, brain. There is a certain respect for the animal that is embodied in these practices consequent on slaughter. The suggestion that persons who eat meat gain pleasure from the slaughter of animals is a vicious lie that must be contested vigorously.

On the contrary, it can be suggested that if there is one group that is guilty of cruelty to animals, it is those who have urged this ban on cattle. In doing so, the Hindu Right has converted an animal that was slaughtered for food into a symbol of a culture war. Prior to the unreasonable drama that the Hindu Right has brought down upon us, the cow did not have any particular significance for those who eat beef. With this ban, however, groups are now encouraged to look at the cow as a route through which to express their disgust for the Hindu Right. This is a very cruel attention that they have brought upon this otherwise innocent animal. This just goes to show the depths of cruelty embodied in Hindutva.  Not only does it visit harm on human beings, and manipulate one group against the other, but it also draws innocent animals into its politics of hate.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 6 April 2015)