Friday, May 29, 2015

Leading development as if people mattered

We need to discuss this whole Golf course thing …Isn't it a good time to introduce high end tourism in Goa?
“Those people probably are squatters who have been there for a few generations. In the grand scheme they don't matter. As long as they are offered viable alternative places what does it matter J?”
Well, development must happen. It's inevitable….
These are extracts from a response I elicited after posting on Facebook the reflections of my colleague Albertina Almeida on the recent events in the village of Tiracol.

What shocked me, and hence forms the basis for this column, was the absolute disregard that these messages displayed to fellow human beings. However, I need to underline that the sentiments should not be construed as restricted to this one individual. Rather, they form part of the mindset of a good portion of middle-class Goans on what constitutes development, how it should be brought about, and what are the challenges to development in Goa. It is even more important to challenge this mind-set because this dismissal of the value of human beings is a part of the complex of ideas that contemporary Hindutva rides on.

There seems to be a wide consensus on the need for Goa to shift from the current mode of tourism. We are attracting the wrong kinds of tourists, goes this consensus, either charter tourists from Europe, or low-budget tourists from India. Instead, we are told, we should focus our energies on high-end and “well-heeled” tourists. The problem, however, is that no one really seems to know how to attract these high-end tourists. The state government has presented some options, such as an oceanarium, a ropeway across the Mandovi River and other such high-cost physical infrastructure. To that extent, the author of the messages at the start of this column seems to be of one mind with the state government.

The problem with such schemes, however, is that such methods often involve pushing people off the land that they occupy, or, as the Tiracol case clearly demonstrates, occupying the lands that the locals use to generate livelihoods. In addition, it also involves, as Vivek Menezes pointed out in a recent op-ed, the violation of a number of environmental norms. Both of these cause loud protests from concerned citizens concerned that, rather than development, these projects will result in economic and ecological impoverishment. This results in delays to the proposed projects. It is little wonder then that proponents of this kind of physical-infrastructure-heavy development see people as a threat that need to be removed.

But is this the only way in which we can generate a tourist economy that would attract these high-spending tourists? Could we not think of a tourist economy that relies on investment in people and social infrastructure instead?

The following anecdote could possibly answer this question. I was once outside the new building of the State Central Library in Patto, Panjim and the sun was beating down fiercely. In this merciless environment I was stopped by a group of Slavs (Russians, or Ukranians I could not tell), looking for directions to the State Museum. It was clear that they had walked all the way from either the bus-stand or Panjim. I felt pity for them, for given my familiarity with the lacklustre state of the Museum, I knew that theirs was to be a wasted trip. It was then that I realised how misplaced so much of our thinking about tourism is. Where we often badmouth the “Russians” who come to visit Goa, we are clueless to the fact that at least some of them would have been willing to engage more substantially with Goa, and Goans, if only state and society had provided them a means to do so.

An investment in culture, in the form of a museum and the training of curators and conservationists, in the form of a state orchestra, a dance company, an opera house would perhaps demand lower levels of investment from the state but would yield greater results because it would be invested in people. As Goa’s lively traditions in tiatr and music demonstrate there is already a base that would allow such investment to multiply rapidly. An exposure to international currents in the various fields would lay the foundations for more creative locals, and a more dynamic local culture that would bring in exactly the kind of tourists that we today seem to lack. But we could do this only if we took our own people seriously.

And then there is this matter of referring to the residents of Tiracol as “squatters”. This is not the first time that I have encountered persons who are lower on the socio-economic scale, and residing in potentially high-value property, being referred to as squatters. In her op-ed essay on the Santa Inez creek in Panjim, Amita Kanekar made observations pertinent to the case in Tiracol. The persons living along the banks of the creek are often referred to as squatters. Kanekar, however, observed that these residents were in fact long-time residents of the area, being mundkars of local bhatkars. “When the bhatkars sold their lands to real estate developers, the mundkars were promised permanent homes elsewhere but given temporary ones here on the creek’s edge”. She also pointed out that it now that the bhatkars sold these lands to developers, these onetime residents were being forced to leave. Calling these displaced tenants squatters, is just one way in which their social and legal legitimacy is robbed from them.

While one hopes that the residents of Tiracol are ensured justice and the damage done to the orchards they tend is made right, there is a need for a larger debate. There is a need for us to examine the manner in which our arguments about development privilege earlier feudal relations. Pre-colonial and colonial period land relations were not just. It is not just that one family should control hundreds, if not thousands, of acres, while others do not have access to a few square metres. While I am not making an argument for expropriation of lands from former landlords, I am arguing that we cannot dismiss former tenants merely as squatters. The fruits of their constant labour in tending to the orchards and fields are what made the landlords rich.  It is in recognition of these labours that the law as it stands today recognises these people as tenants, and recognises that they have certain rights. It behoves us to respect these laws and not skew the debate to privilege a dehumanised development.

The events in Tiracol also raise another issue of vital importance. Given that the issue involves the sale of bhatcarial rights and the question of the settlement of the rights of the tenants, there is a need for us to inquire if those who purchase bhatcarial rights do not also have to be held to a higher standard than someone who is merely purchasing a smaller parcel of property. Reports indicate that Leading Hotels, the new bhatcar of Tiracol, has sought to purchase the rights of the tenants in order to have unrestricted access to the area. The price of these rights has varied from Rs 120 per square metre, then Rs 200, and finally Rs 500 according to the capacities of the individual tenants.

It needs to be recognised that in such circumstances as in Tiracol, though this would also apply to such projects as Aldeia de Goa, the transaction is not a straightforward sale of property. The person making the sale is not necessarily the canny operator in a speculative market. Very often they are making what they see as the best of a situation. The fact, however, may be that the money they received is just not sufficient to take care of their future needs, largely because they failed to take into consideration the kind of unaccounted support that the land provided them. Some would argue that this is a private matter between two parties in a n open-market transaction. I would argue otherwise. This is not a private matter because very often the tenants are selling all they have, they may lack the skills to manage the receipts of the transaction and eventually land up in poverty. The creation of poverty is a public concern and impinges on our common dream of development. As such, there is a need for us to recognize the importance of articulating a rehabilitation policy where the interests of tenants in those properties where prospective bhatcars seek to create an unencumbered right to the property are taken care of.

There is one final argument that was made in the message that deserves to be commented on. The individual who sent me the message recognized that the residents of Tiracol need to be “offered viable alternative places”. In many ways this individual articulated the seed of an ideal rehabilitation policy. Indeed, land for land has been the claim of those articulating the interests of displaced persons. They argue that money alone cannot be a suitable compensation for displacement. Rather, suitable land must be provided for the land that has been lost. The challenge, however, is that such alternative land is very rarely, if ever, available. It is especially in recognition of this fact that we need to think more seriously, not merely of compensation, but rehabilitation, where the futures of these individuals, and a concern that they are not impoverished takes centre stage.

There is a reason why India has not developed the way people expect and hope it would. It has not because development has not as yet privileged people. Development will happen, and “well-heeled” tourists will flow in, when we take people seriously, and invest in these people, support their dreams and futures. Until then, we should not expect any “Acche din”.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 29 May 2015)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Yellamma vs. Renuka: Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa – III

The past couple of columns have dealt with a Dhangar myth around the birthing of Parashuram that is rather different from the standard Puranic story that we in Goa have come to accept as set in stone. This Dhangar myth links Parashuram to the goddess Yellamma, and suggests that both Parashuram and Yellamma established familial relations with the Shia heroes, the Imams Hassan and Hussein.

Those who are familiar with the popular myth of Parashuram will probably respond that there is nothing in the Dhangar myth that contradicts the accepted mythology around Parashuram. However, this is not true. The Dhangar myth crafts a radically different Parashuram than from the one we are used to.

In the Dhangar myth, or the fragment that I was able to access, both Yellamma and Parashuram are not the brahmanical figures that we are familiar with. To note the difference we will need to revisit the brahmanical myth that is often relied on. In the Puranic version, Parashuram is the youngest son of the sage, or rishi, Jamadagni, and Renuka. The story goes that suspecting Renuka of infidelity, Jamadagni commanded his elder sons to kill their mother. Sensibly, these young men refused to fulfil their father’s command, which only enraged him further. Turning to Parashuram, the youngest of his sons, he repeated his command, and Parashuram obediently took up his axe and beheaded his mother. 

Unfortunately, when he did so he also beheaded a lower-caste woman, who in various versions of the myth, was either Renuka’s attendant, or a kindly woman who sought to help the hapless wife of the sage. Jamadagni was delighted that he had one son who was obedient, and promised Parashuram anything he asked for.  Apparently as much a mama’s boy as he was daddy’s, Parashuram asked that his mother be brought to life. Jamadagni acquiesced, whereupon Parashuram quickly joined heads and bodies together, and stood aside for his father to work magic. On bringing the women back to life both men realised with horror that in his haste Parashuram had switched the heads, so that the upper-caste Renuka now had the body of a lower-caste woman Yellamma, and Yellamma’s head was on the body of the upper-caste Renuka. The situation was resolved by recognising the bodies as constitutive of identity. Given that Yellamma lower-caste body now had an upper-caste head, she was granted a divine status.

One can see that there are a number of embellishments in the brahmanical myth that are missing from the Dhangar myth. To begin with, there is no Jamadagni in it. Yellamma, is not married to anyone, and Parashuram is, perhaps like Christ, born of a virgin. Of course, one could argue that the Dhangar myth suggests Shiva as the paternal figure, but the fact remains that the myth makes no reference to a sexual act between Yellamma and Shiva.

However, despite the absence of patriarchal figures, I would not go so far as to read some kind of contemporary feminist statement into this myth. There is an element of transgression that is present in both myths, and in both of these myths, Yellamma is punished. While in the case of the brahmanical Renuka is punished for harbouring sexual thoughts about man who isn’t her husband, in the Dhagar myth, Yellamma is burdened with a child for plucking a ‘forbidden fruit’ in Mahadev’s sacred grove. If Reunka loses her head in the Puranic myth, Yellamma is cast out from the company of her virgin sisters as a result of her birthing of Parashuram.

Another significant difference between the two myths, is that the Dhangar myth has no reference to Renuka. The only mother Parashuram has is Yellamma. Nor is there any reference to Yellamma’s caste.  This is perhaps the wonderful feature of the Dhangar myth in that it seems to describe a world without caste.

A further observation that could be made is that with the absence of Vishnu, and given that Shiva is seen as a pre-Vedic, or non-Vedic deity, what we have is a complete absence of brahmanical deities. All we have is a myth that speaks of the relationship between non-brahmanical, and hence indigenous deities, i.e. Yellamma, her sisters, Mahadev, and the Shia Imams, Hassan and Hussein.

What can we make of these aspects of the myth? I would be loathe to suggest that because of the absence of brahmanical deities the Dhangar myth is the original version of the myth, and that the Puranic version is a latter interpolation by wicked Brahmins. While not averse to such a suggestion, it would be irresponsible to assert this claim without substantial research with the appropriate skills. What I would rather suggest is that given the Dhangar myth co-existed parallel to the brahmanical myth, at the very least it asserts the desire of the Dhangars to have a different world view. They imagine a world where people can eat together regardless of their faith practice and their caste location, and be as one family. The myth imagines a world where eating meat is not condemned. Yellamma insists that she and her son eat with the Shia Imams even though they are eating meat. Indeed, Yellamma’s adventure in the Dhangar myth begins when she and her sisters are out on a hunt, indicating that she and her sisters did eat meat. The Dhangar myth, therefore, is alive to the contradictions of the human condition; even though it involves the shedding of innocent blood, we hunt and eat meat, not merely for pleasure, but to sustain ourselves. Yellamma’s returning of the meat to life suggests the desire to return life to the animals we consume for food. Indeed, it is worth reflecting that while the Puranic version has Jamadagni bringing Renuka back to life, in the Dhangar myth it is Yellamma, as mother of the world, who has the power to bring innocents back to life.

With this interpretation before us, we can see that rather than the Puranic version which is filled with matricide, and intolerance, the Dhangar myth of Yellamma has more to offer Goans in terms of an origin myth that would add value to contemporary political life. 


(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 15 May 2015)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Yellamma and her Muslim family: Rethinking Origin Myths in Goa – II

Last fortnight I recounted a birthing myth about Parashuram that is rather different from the standard story that we in Goa have come to accept as set in stone. This Dhangar myth linked Parashuram to the goddess Yellamma, and suggested that both Parashuram and Yellamma established familial relations with the Shia heroes, the Imams Hassan and Hussein. 

There were a couple of interesting aspects to that myth that bear underlining. The narrative suggested that when Satyava’s sons, Bhram, Apa, Asan, and Usan, returned home with two wild goats, Yellamma called out, to them “Your maternal aunt has come! My boy should sit down with you. Let your sister join your dining row!” What is interesting about this part of the narrative is not that Yellamma referenced herself as maternal aunt or sister to the men, but that she demanded a right for herself, and the child she birthed, i.e. Parashurama, to be seated along with these men.

Those familiar with the dining habits in non-westernised parts of the subcontinent will know that the dining line (pangath or pankti) is a central marker, not merely of precedence, but also of familial and caste belonging. Who you eat with defines who you are, or how important you are. For example, a caste that considers itself superior will not sit next to those it considers inferior in the same pangath. Similarly, those who are more important, eat before those who are less so. Thus, the patriarch and those proximate to him eat before the younger, and men of lesser importance, with the women eating last of all

Dining in pre-colonial South Asia, an aspect that continues in some parts even today, was not a simple matter, but one that opened up space for ritual pollution. It was one of those rituals through which untouchability and inequality was, and is, perpetuated. It was for this reason that the Sikh langar (or common kitchen) stresses that everyone, regardless of caste or class, must sit together while eating. There was to be no toleration of caste and social difference within the Sikh community. It was also for this reason that so much of Indian secularism hinges on going to the homes of others and eating their food. Given that in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century people DID NOT eat with one another, something we consider so normal today, making people eat together, or eat the food of the other, was critical part of the nationalist agenda. The Indian nationalists could not imagine building a nation where people did not eat alongside with each other.

When Yellamma demands a space for herself, and Parashurama, in the dining line of the Shia heroes, therefore, she makes a number of claims. First, she recognises the validity of the Shia and Muslim men as dining partners. They are not untouchable others and inferiors, but someone she can validly eat with. Indeed, given the situation she found herself in, where she had been abandoned by her sisters, and punished by Mahadev, she was the inferior and was in fact requesting the Shia heroes to take her into their family. This equation underlines the role that the Imams Hassan and Hussein had, and continue to have, in the Deccan, that of the protectors of helpless women and children. This role for the Imams, is of course a natural consequence of their position in Shia Islam, where they are seen as defenders of justice, and partisans of truth.

Also critical to the narrative is that Yellamma and Parashurama sit down to a dinner whose main feature is the flesh of two wild goats. Yellamma, therefore, is not above eating with meat-eaters. She is willing to sit and eat with them, and integrate her child into the circle of these meat-eating men. It is another matter that she subsequently sprinkles the nectar of immortality on all the meat they had there, and gave [the dead animals] their full life-force again. However, rather than being read as evidence of Yellamma being vegetarian, it can be read as stressing her divinity, and her role as life-giving mother of all (in Kannada: Yella- everyone, Amma – mother).

This narrative of Yellamma’s relationship with the Shia Imam’s is not the only reference to her relationship with Muslims. She also has a curious relationship with a Sufi saint by the name of Khwajah Bar Shah Wali, or simply Bar Shah. This relationship has been highlighted through the work of the French anthropologist Jackie Assayag in his work At the Confluence of Two Rivers: Muslims and Hindus in South India (2004). In this book, Assayag recounts two myths about the establishment of the site in Saundatti as sacred. One of these tells of how the goddess, afflicted with leprosy by her vengeful husband, the ascetic Jamadagni, came upon Bar Shah, who took pity on her and cured her leprosy. In gratitude Yellamma served Bar Shah faithfully for twelve years, after which the saint granted her space to settle in Saundatti, where she had remained ever since.  As would be obvious, this myth credits Yellamma’s location in Saundatti not to the Imams but to a Sufi saint. Further, it brings in aspects of the brahmanical absent in the Dhangar myth. I will deal with the brahmanical aspects of the Yellamma myths in a later column.

There is a twist to the tale, however, since when Assayag recounted this narrative to some local devotees of Yellamma, belonging to the Banajiga caste, they denied any knowledge of it. On the contrary, they provided a different story which presented Bar Shah as constantly antagonizing Yellamma though his constant cursing of her. The Banajiga narrative informs that in response to these curses,  the goddess blinded the saint, who thereafter realized his mistake and began to dutifully worship the goddess. Through this constant devotion Bar Shah was able to regain his sight, and remained indebted and devoted to the goddess from then on. It should be noted that Bar Shah’s tomb is located within the space of the various shrines dominated by the temple of Yellamma in Saundatti.

In this latter myth, the equations of power between Islamic personages and Yellamma are reversed, with Yellamma being the more powerful. What is important, however, is that in the end peace is restored and the two figures live in amity. Once again, therefore, we are presented with myths that reference the complexity of religious life in the Deccan, and indicate that Islam, whether Shia or otherwise, was a critical part of this life. 

These myths are important for those of us in Goa who are interested in non-brahmanical myths of origin. They point to us that there is a mythical realm beyond the brahmanical and must necessarily take into consideration that the spaces that are today contained in Goa, were once in the shadow of the Shia Deccan. The influences of the Shia faith still mark aspect of life in Goa, not just what we consider Hindu, but possibly Catholic as well.


(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 1 May 2015)