Friday, September 18, 2015

Shades of casteism

It is often the case that when speaking about caste-related problems one is accused of being casteist.  This is also true in Goa, where any discussion about the realities of caste power evokes accusations of being motivated by a personal dislike for brahmin groups, or of constantly “targetting” brahmins, especially—so the argument goes—given that the Saraswats are but a minority community; so any polemical attack on them amounts to casteism or communalism.

 But it is not casteism to speak about the violence of unequal power relations engendered by the presence of the caste system and the identities of caste. Rather, the conspiracy of silence around unequal power relations and the dominance of a single group, or a couple of groups, through caste privilege is what constitutes casteism. There is generally a deep silence about the violence of caste, and casteism operates when those who seek to speak about this violence, and challenge it, are accused of being casteist.

Let us be clear that in Goa, the Saraswats may be a small community, but they are a powerful community who hold much social, cultural and economic capital, and whether consciously or unconsciously, they wield power to ensure their continued hegemony. They fulfill the sociological category of “the dominant caste” constructed by the famous sociologist M. N. Srinivas. To expose the manner in which this power is wielded is not, to my eyes casteism. 

There are often suggestions, that “to be proud of one’s origins is not casteism”. Rather, casteism is when one “belittle[s] the origins of others”. This is an ingenious strategy beloved of many supporters of the caste system.  These proponents of the caste system fail to recognise that any identity of the self is invariably linked to identities of others. Thus, one can be brahmin only because others are not. Further, as a result of the operation of history, the brahmin identity is not an innocent identity. It is invariably the identity of oppressors. This is more so the case in Goa, where groups that claim a Saraswat identity, whether Catholic or Hindu, have controlled property, people tied to those properties, and attempted to control the rest of society too. There is not the space here to demonstrate fully how the assertion of a brahmin identity in Goa is invariably at the cost of demeaning a non-brahmin one, but any honest look at our society and history will bear this out.

It needs to be stated clearly, however, that the problem in Goa is not just with brahmins alone. There are other upper-caste groups, like the Chardos and the Desais, who despite their limited size similarly exert power owing to the manner in which they not just control landed property, but enjoy social privilege. Indeed, as the case of the Konkani Bhasha Mandal (KBM) will demonstrate, it is possible for Chardos to operate with the brahmanical matrix that the KBM embodies. As friend once commented, “for the Chardos, to be anti-brahmin is to be anti-caste”. What they all too often ignore is that they are a part of the problem, along with the brahmins.

It is this limited anti-brahmin agenda, instead of an agenda of anti-brahmanism that has ensured that the bahujan movement in Goa has missed a historical opportunity to forge a democratic polity. Instead, they have slipped into Hindu nationalism, precisely because the brahmanical logic of Indian nationalism have not been challenged. Take the constitution of the Bharatiya Bhasha Surkasha Manch (BBSM), which includes not just brahmins like Bhembre, but leaders of the bahujan castes, like Shashikala Kakodkar and Vishnu Wagh. Once again though, it is impossible to have Brahmanism, without the body of the brahmin, and it is precisely through the presence of brahmins in the BBSM that it gathers its symbolic strength. This is so because historically, it has been dominant caste groups, and especially brahmins that have set themselves up as arbiters of style and standard.

The power that Bhembre, Bhatikar, and other brahmins, Hindu or otherwise, claim to determine “standard”, whether of Konkani or otherwise, flow from the way in which upper caste individuals asserted their claim over languages in the late nineteenth century. In this context I would like to refer attention to the work of Veena Naregal in Language, Politics, Elites and the Public Sphere (2001) where she points out  that

“By the later decades of the nineteenth century, drawing on philological beliefs about the essentially interrelated genealogy of the Indian vernaculars and their common descent from the immaculate purity of the great and ancient Sanskrit language, English-educated individuals in different parts of the subcontinent could claim to constitute a transregional kinship with an immaculate high' cultural pedigree. An important part of this elite self-image was their shared status as custodians of 'correct' cultural practices. Thus, when giving the Wilson philological lectures in 1877, claiming descent from the noble brahmins of the 'ancient aryavarta' was, for the well-known orientalist scholar Bhandarkar, clearly, a way of enlarging through their dominance over the regional vernacular spheres”(p. 48).

It has been suggested that Uday Bhembre and Arvind Bhatikar are ‘good’ persons who have “the highest respect” for the Christian community in Goa. If they do, they have a very strange way of showing it, given that they have been suggesting Goan Catholics are anti-national merely for asserting their right to educate their children in the same English language that Bhembre and Bhatikar’s families are being educated. One wonders if these good persons have directed similarly vituperative language at the members of their own families. In any case, the assertion of the patriarchal right to dictate to other local communities is very much a part of brahmanical arrogance. An ideal way to show respect for the Christians in Goa would be for Bhatikar and Bhembre to cease their frightening hate-speech and support the right of these communities to determine the path of their own future.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 18 Sept 2015)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Brahmin Double in Goan history

In his article, “The Brahmin double: the Brahminical construction of anti-Brahminism and anti-caste sentiment in the religious cultures of precolonial Maharashtra” ([2012] 2014), Christian Lee Novetzke discusses the cases of the Marathi bhakti poets Jnaneshwar and Eknath. Novetzke’s argument is that the image of Brahmin reformers is not as cut and dry as it is made out to be. Rather, he argues that these reformers were embodiments of what he calls “the brahmin double”. The brahmin double is the strategy through which a brahmin pokes fun of, or critiques other brahmins who are cast as bad, evil, or bigoted. In doing so, the brahmin operating as the good part of the double “provides one important way to separate Brahminism and Brahmins”. That is, the audience fails to see that the problem is not with individual brahmins alone, but also with Brahmanism. By deflecting critique toward individual brahmin figures, and not the system that produces brahmins and brahmanical structures, the good brahmin ensures that Brahmanism continues its grip over Indian society. Novetzke points out that a classic feature of the Brahmin double is that it always offers reform of Brahmanism, and never radical critique. Thus the Brahmin double ensures that there are superficial changes, even as the status quo is maintained.

Reading this argument, it occurred to me that recent Goan history offers great examples of the “brahmin double” over various generations. A previous column discussed Varde Valaulikar’s response to Raghunath Talwadkar. Valaulikar’s proposed that the Saraswat caste embrace the Konkani language as their mother-tongue while Talwadkar opposed this proposal pointing to the language’s association with lower classes, and castes, and with “defiled” Christians such as José Gerson da Cunha. As pointed out in that column, Valaulikar’s response was not to condemn Talwadkar’s blatant casteism. Rather, he offered the suggestion that in fact the Catholic missionaries had learned Konkani from brahmins, and that da Cunha himself was a brahmin. In this equation, Talwadkar gets castigated as the bad brahmin, and Valaulikar effects the “brahmin double” move by ensuring that brahmin hegemony is not challenged, but rather paves the way for the Saraswat caste and associated caste groups to assert their claim over the Konkani language.

Another argument that I made in the earlier column was to point to the fact that Valaulikar’s project was carried forward by men like Uday Bhembre. To this extent, Uday Bhembre, and his associates, are contemporary embodiments of Valaulikar. Bhembre was a hero of the Konkani language agitation, a legend of his time. He was lionized as the man who went into the meetings of pro-Marathi activists and shouted out loud that Konkani, not Marathi was his mother tongue, at certain risk to his bodily integrity. The more important legend for my argument is his response when asked by pro-Marathi activists; “How can you claim Konkani as your mother tongue when your father claims Marathi as his mother tongue?” Bhembre’s famous response was “But don’t you know that my mother and my father’s mother are not the same person?” In the course of the Konkani language agitation, Bhembre was playing the Brahmin double, and his father, Laxmikant Bhembre, and other brahmins, were cast as the bad brahmins, who could not see that Konkani was the mother tongue of Goa. Through his actions Bhembre junior ensured that he deflected attention away from the fact that the Konkani that he and his companions were pushing was in fact not a Konkani of the bahujan masses, but the Antruzi dialect and the Nagri script, both associated with Valaulikar’s project of brahmin hegemony in Goa.

Today, with the kind of association that Bhembre is making with the RSS against the demands for the recognition of English as a state supported medium of instruction, you have younger Saraswat men who are effecting the strategy of the Brahmin double. Responding with horror to Bhembre’s suggestion, they point out that there are more Hindus than Catholics studying in diocesan schools that have switched from Konkani to English medium. What is interesting is that these arguments do not fracture the meaningless labels of “Christian community” and “Hindu community” invoked by Bhembre and others. This is not surprising given that this group is actively engaged in Hindu reform, a process which neuters dalit-bahujan assertions, and consolidates disparate caste groups into a single Hindu community usually under brahmin leadership or direction. Their rhetoric and activism is never really one of a radical rejection of caste hegemony, but of managing the anger against their caste group and its leadership of the political community Goa.

Another touchstone to use for evaluation would be their response to the demand that the Roman script be recognised on par with Nagari Konkani. These secular Saraswat will agree that there is a need for a more “bahujanised” Konkani, but will not budge when it comes to giving equal rights to the Roman script. Thus, what they are doing is trying to make Nagari Konkani, the vehicle of Saraswat hegemony in Goa, more palatable to the bahujans, even while they completely ignore the real issue of Romi Konkani.

It is important to underline that it is not my argument that these men are performing the strategy of the brahmin double deliberately. Very often our actions are determined not by our conscious selves but determined by the milieu in which we are raised. The response, therefore, is not to necessarily condemn these men. Our response ought to be to always be aware of the manner in which the social structure asserts itself, and thus question brahmin saviours, and make these saviours aware of the pernicious politics that they reproduce.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 4 Sept 2015)