Friday, April 29, 2016

AAP: A Clear and Present Danger?

With the elections to the state legislature in the not so distant future the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Goa has begun its campaigning in earnest. As is well known, AAP has been projecting itself as a credible choice on the basis of its promise to deliver good, i.e. corruption free, governance. The question, however, is whether the AAP should be judged merely by its rhetoric, or should it be examined against a broader canvas?

Recent history demonstrates that electoral decisions determined solely by the theme of corruption have ensured that we have moved from the frying pan into the fire largely because we have failed to examine the politics that these electoral options practice. Take the example of the Modi government now wreaking havoc across India. Modi was elected into power because so many people, rightly fed up with the Congress, decided that the man was a good administrator and deserved a right to govern the country. Closer home in Goa, fatigue of the never-ending corruption scandals presided over by the Congress enabled the BJP to come to power.

We now realize that in addition to merely continuing the corrupt practices of the Congress, the BJP is also committed to a kind of fascist agenda that is difficult to undo even after they have been removed from power. This is a kind of moral corruption that is difficult to undo largely because, as I will go on to show, Hindu nationalism itself is never challenged. As such, when evaluating AAP in Goa it is imperative that their proximity to the agents and logics of Hindu nationalism must be strictly evaluated.

An evaluation of the AAP along this axis must begin with a statement by Dr. Dattaram Desai, the AAP candidate for North Goa in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 2014. At that time, Desai indicated in a local newspaper along the lines that he saw no problem with the RSS and that it was just another nationalist organization. When Desai was confronted on this matter at a public meeting conducted by the AAP he denied that he was a part of the RSS, and denounced the RSS as a communal organization. However, it seemed that he did so largely because he had been hounded into that position after being asked a series of leading questions. Desai had been asked at that meeting to issue a public statement to the effect that he did not approve of the RSS, something he agreed to, but one that, to the best of my knowledge, was not issued. Desai continues to be a leading member of AAP in Goa, and in light of his past comments, this fact should be a cause for concern.

At the above mentioned meeting Dr. Oscar Rebello, also a prominent member of the AAP in Goa, sought to clarify issues regarding the links between the RSS and AAP. Using characteristically simplistic logic, Rebello pointed out that he had friends in the RSS, but that did not necessarily make him a member of the RSS. Rebello’s logic may be simplistic, but it is often winning in its presentation. Of course one cannot, especially in a small place like Goa, deny people entry into a party because they were once members of the BJP. Perhaps they may have, as is suggested in the case of Desai, realized that the BJP will not deliver.  But the problem with the RSS, and more importantly Hindu nationalism, lies in the logics that we internalize owing to a lifetime of being immersed in it. If these logics are not actively challenged we too become part of the Hindutva machine.

In this context, the decision of the AAP in Goa to name its outreach program the Goa Jodo campaign is quite disturbing. Why privilege Hindi in a state with no lack of local languages? Because a non-Hindi Goan-ness is suspect? How is this position different from that of most Hindu nationalists and the implicit understanding that it is primarily Hindi and Hindu culture that defines Indian nationalism? One should bear in mind that Hindi nationalism, as one can surmise from the old slogan “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” has never been far away from Hindu nationalism. This desire to run with the Hindi-wallas can also be seen  in the video of Desai’s response discussed earlier, where it appears that Rebello refers to Desai as Dr. Desaiji. Now one is entirely at liberty to add honorifics to people’s name. The problem emerges when one realizes that the ji has become popular in Goa with the rise of Hindu nationalism in the past couple of years. The question emerges therefore, can we rely on such a group to assert the rights of Goans which necessarily runs against Hindi and Hindu nationalism, such as the demand of Special Status, and assert our right to be different within India?

But it is not merely the local AAP that has disturbing connections with the RSS or is blasé about Hindu nationalism. Pamela D’Mello writing for an on-line magazine pointed to the disturbing relationship of Dinesh Waghela to Hindu rightist outfits. Waghela was charged with setting up AAP in Goa, and at that point just like Desai went on record, to suggest that he did not see what was wrong with people from the RSS joining the party.

What also needs to be pointed out is that AAP’s insistence on its promised good-governance as a central reason for being a choice in the upcoming elections partakes in the Hindu Right’s pushing of strong administrators, whether Modi or our very own Parrikar. This is not to suggest that good governance is not an important issue. It is. However, we need to recognize that a limited understanding of corruption, and governance emerges from the very upper-caste and middle-class reasonings that have generated the Hindutva upsurge in the country. It is this kind of unthinking of, and challenge to Hindutva logics that is critical and necessary if AAP in Goa should emerge as a safer option than it currently seems to be.

Most disturbing of all, however, are the actions of the party supremo, Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal has had no problem in the past drawing such Hindu spiritual leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev into his movement. Right from the get go therefore, Kejriwal has violated secularism by mingling the Hindu religion with his politics. More recently, despite the livelihood and environmental violations involved in setting up the venue for the World Culture Festival on the banks of the river Yamuna, and in contravention of his own position on corruption, Kejriwal saw it fit to attend the event, and kowtow before Ravi Shankar.  As distasteful as this may be to some, it is not necessarily out of character for unprincipled political leaders who need to engage in populist measures if they are to stay in power. It is, therefore, precisely because AAP Goa will have to play by established rules of the game once it is in power, that we need to evaluate them stringently before they get into power. In light of this, AAP Goa’s connections to soft Hindu nationalism present a clear and present danger.

(A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo dated 29 April 2016)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Goan Waltz around Postcolonial Dogmas

Some days ago I found myself invited to a ball in Lisbon hosted by the Austrian embassy in Portugal. Revived after more than a decade, the current initiative was conceived of a way to generate funds for deserving causes. In this inaugural year, funds were raised in support of A Orquestra Geração, which is the Portuguese application of the El Sistema method created in Venezuela. Another objective was to introduce Portuguese society to aspects of Austrian, and in particular Viennese, culture.

It was because the event was billed as a Viennese ball that I have to confess being somewhat concerned about the protocol at the event. For example, would there be dance cards? It was when I actually got immersed into the ball, however, that I realized that I was not in foreign territory at all. The ball followed a pattern not merely of contemporary wedding receptions and dances in Goa, but also approximated quite well the manners that had been drilled into me as a young boy, when first introduced by my parents to ballroom dancing. One requested a lady – any lady – to dance, accompanied her on to the floor, and at the end of the dance, one thanked her, applauded the orchestra or band, and returned one’s companion to her seat. In other words, there was, structurally, not much at this ball that I, as a Goan male, had not already been exposed to.

This encounter made me realize once again, the validity of the argument that my colleagues at the Al-Zulaij Collective and I have been making for a while now; that Goans, or at least those familiar with the Goan Catholic milieu, are in fact also European. Given the fact that Goans participate in European culture, and have been doing so for some centuries now, denying this European-ness would imply falling prey to racialised thinking that assumes that only white persons born in the continent of Europe, are European.

To make this argument is not the result of a desperate desire to be seen as European, but to assert a fact. One also needs to make this assertion if one is to move out of the racialised imaginations that we have inherited since at least the eighteenth century. It is necessary to indicate that European-ness is not a culture limited to a definite group, but like other cultures, is a model of behavior, in which one can choose to participate in. And one chooses to participate in this cultural model because the fact is that, whether we like it or not, this is the dominant cultural model in the world. The choice then is not determined by a belief in the model’s inherent superiority, it is simply a matter of pragmatic politics.

Some days before the ball, I intimated a continental Portuguese friend about this upcoming event, and the fact that I was on the lookout for a place I could rent a tailcoat from. She sneered. The suggestion in the sneer was, why do you have to become someone you are not. One should remain true to one’s culture, and not try to engage in the culture of others, or in other words, not engage in social climbing. The response was upsetting, but not particularly out of the ordinary. This is, in fact, a standard response, one that derives directly from our racialised imaginations. There is this misplaced idea that when we participate in one cultural model, say the European, one is abandoning other cultural models, and, more importantly, that non-whites would always be on the back foot when faced with European culture. A look at the cultural practices of Goan Catholics, however, will demonstrate the ridiculousness of the proposition.

Goan Catholics have not only taken up Western European cultural forms, but in fact excelled at them. In doing so, they have not abandoned other cultural models, particularly the local, but in fact rearticulated both these models at the same time. One has to merely listen to the older Cantaram (Concani language music) regularly played by the All India Radio station in Goa, to realize the truth of this assertion. Take the delightful song “Piti Piti Mog”, crafted by the genius Chris Perry and Ophelia, for example. Set to a waltz, the song talks of the desires and sexuality of a Goan woman. The emotions are honest to her social location. There is no betrayal of the local here, even as Perry articulates it within an international idiom. Indeed, one wonders if there is much of a difference between this song, and the soprano aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß”. From the opera Giuditta, and featured at the Viennese Ball, this aria also sings of the sexuality of a young woman in her prime.

There are some who would argue that what has been described above is not participation in a cultural model, but in fact mere mimicry, or at best syncretism or hybridity. To put it bluntly, Goans are mere copycats, there is nothing original in what they do. Indeed, a good portion of the post-colonial academy would describe the examples I proffer as syncretism or mimicry. To such critics my question is this, were the young Portuguese women and men, making their social debut in the ball, not also participating in an etiquette that is not quite Portuguese? The waltz itself, that great institution of the Viennese balls, originated in Central Europe. Does their participation pertain to the category of mimicry, and syncretism, or is it somehow an authentic performance? To suggest that it is, would be to fall right into the racist paradigm where things European appropriately belong to whites, and the rest are merely engaging in impotent mimicry. The anti-racialist argument would recognize that all of these groups, whether continental Portuguese, or Goans (indeed also Portuguese by right), are participating equally in a common cultural model, each of them giving a peculiar twist to the model in their performance, all of them authentic.

Another challenge to my argument would perhaps emerge from Indian nationalists. If no one culture is authentic, and one merely choses to participate in random cultural models, why privilege the European? Why not join in the Indian cultural model? In the words of a passionate young man from the Goan village of Cuncolim I once interacted with, why not prefer your own people over foreigners? At that interaction I pointed out that crafting the choice in terms of Us Indians, versus Them Europeans, and stressing a biological or genetic proximity was falling back into the very racist equation we should be trying to be exit.

To begin with, this construction of the Indians, versus Portuguese works only because like most Indian nationalists he privileges the terrestrial contiguity of Goa to the subcontinent. The art critic Ranjit Hoskote phrased a succinct response to this claim in the curatorial essay for the exhibition Aparanta (2007) when he argued “Geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning”. In highlighting Goa’s Lusitanian links, Hoskote rightly pointed out that the seas were not a barrier to conversation but a link, and maritime connections are no less powerful than the terrestrial. Indeed, while connected to Europe, Goa has been an equal part of the Indian Ocean world, often sharing as much, if not more, with the East coast of Africa than with the Gangetic plains; that privileged location of Indian-ness. Terrestrial contiguity apart, this nationalist argument also succeeds because it willfully ignores a legal history, of Goans being Portuguese citizens, and hence European, in favour of a biased construction of cultural history. 

The most important support to nationalism, of course, comes from the racism inherent in the post-colonial order which is built on recognizing cultural difference managed by nationalist elites rather than stressing continuing connections. Indeed, as I go on to elaborate below, to some extent everybody participates in the European model in today’s world – in clothes and speech and education and science, and so forth. But the control of nationalist elites over the national space, and the international post-colonial order itself, would be threatened by such recognition. It is therefore necessary that while quotidian affairs run along European lines, the extraordinary is sanctified by the irruption of the national. Thus, while Indians wear pants and shirts every day, they believe that special days call for traditional garb, like kurtas. The Goan bucks this trend by privileging special moments with a lounge suit. In other words, Goan culture celebrates what is overtly European, which is what the Indians don’t like as its wrecks the nationalist posturing of not participating in European culture.

To those who would simply ask, why not exert a choice in favour of the Indian, the answer is two-fold. The first, is that there are many Goans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who are in fact choosing the Indian model. They do so because they see that this is where local power lies. Behaving like Indians, they believe that they can make their way better in the Indian world. Others, however, recognize the limitations of the Indian model. It can take you only so far. Upwardly mobile Indians themselves recognize that they have to perform by different rules when they emigrate. Worse, the captains of industry will tell you that they have to perform by European rules whenever they meet with their compatriots from other parts of the world. As indicated before, where the European cultural model dominates the world, it is merely pragmatic politics to follow that model. Finally, it is precisely the lack of social mobility that makes many wisely avoid the Indian cultural model. The very attraction of the European model is that practically any person can learn to perform in it and be accepted as authentic. Indian models are so limited to Hinduism and caste that one cannot hope to make this parochial model work as a tool of social mobility. Indeed, one could ask whether there in an Indian cultural model at all, and if it is not just a savarna/brahmanical model?

This lack of social mobility is best illustrated by an example from Goa, where the Saraswats are a dominant caste. Speaking with a Saraswat gentleman at a Nagari Konkani event, he indicated to me how pleased he was with the response to the elocution competitions organized by the Nagari Konkani groups. Many a times the winners were Catholic girls. “But their accent is so good”, he shared with me, “one cannot even tell that they are Catholics!” Where Nagari Konkani is largely based on the speech of the Saraswat caste, one is forever trapped into behaving like a Saraswat, and distancing oneself from one’s natal behaviours. One can never be Saraswat unless one is born into the caste. A good part of the Indian model is similarly pegged according to the behavior of the dominant castes of various regions. This model has been created not necessarily to enable a democratic project, but to ensure their continued dominance within post-colonial India. As such, they will put a person in their place when a person from a non-dominant caste performs effectively. The adoption of the European model, however, is not restricted to birth precisely because it has been adopted so universally. The adoption and occupation of this model by diverse groups has thus ensured that its very form now allows for local variation. Indeed, it needs to be pointed out that the model is very dynamic. Let us not forget that at one point of time one was expected to speak Queen’s English on the BBC, but the same platform, at least in its local transmission, has now made space for a variety of accents.

The policing of cultural boundaries is one of the silent ways through which racism continues to flourish. It is in partly in the breaching of cultural boundaries that racism can be broken. Further, it is in operating within the idiom of power, and then filling the forms of power with differing contents, that negotiation with power operates and one moves from the margins of power towards the centre. In this project, Goans are past masters. Viva Goa!

(A version of this text was first published in Raiot on 26 April 2016)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Divining reasons for the state of traffic

Last Christmas season my family and I fled tourist-invaded Goa for some peace and quiet. Little did we realize, despite friendly advice, that our destination, Sri Lanka, was also one of those holiday favourites that gets flooded at Christmas time. Along the five days that we were on the island, in addition to experiencing the incredible beauty of the country, we were also forced to spend much of our time in traffic jams, whether in the capital city Colombo, in Kandy, home of the famous Temple of the Tooth, or on the roads between these two cities.

I had been to the island-state some years prior to this family holiday, and I am sure that the country I witnessed was entirely different in terms of the amount of traffic that one experienced. If anything, my journeys then were experiences of smooth flows from one destination to another. It appears that the end of the decades-long civil war may have released extra income into the economy creating the kind of spurt in traffic that one witnessed on my last trip.

Yet, despite the fact that we spent a good amount of time in traffic jams our experience of traffic in Sri Lanka was not the same as that in India, and/or Goa. A traffic jam in India is an occasion for tons of honking and attempts by individuals to cut through the traffic jam by getting onto the opposite lane and charging to the head of the line. Others follow the lead of the first offender which ensures that within a matter of minutes the jam has been complicated beyond imagining and that instead of two lanes, one has multiple lanes, tempers rise and what could have been resolved within a shorter time takes forever to be repaired. 

In the course of the short stay in Sri Lanka my experiences of traffic jams were anything but similar. To begin with traffic jams were the result not of indiscipline, but because of the usual reason for the phenomena, too much traffic on small lanes. Rather than cut across lanes and try to short circuit the system people waited patiently for the traffic to move. It took us a couple of minutes to realize that our experience of the first jam in Sri Lanka was different from what we encountered in India. There was no honking! So strange was the situation that we could just not contain ourselves, and kept repeating this fact, over and over again, to ourselves, and then when we returned home to every one we met.

How can this difference between the road experience in India and Sri Lanka be explained? While in Sri Lanka I did notice that there were clear signs, at least in Colombo, indicating that lane discipline had to be maintained at all time, and the presence of traffic police at regular intervals. Speaking with the driver of the cab we employed we got the sense that the police are invariably on hand to take any offender to task. Responding to our queries he also suggested that it was unlikely that the police would accept bribes from offenders.

In the course of our journey, as we grew close to our driver, he shared much with us about his country. What I would like to focus on, as I try and resolve this question of the traffic discipline in Sri Lanka, is his narratives about the State. He spoke about the health care system that offered free, reliable and dependable service to all Sri Lankans. Trying to build a pattern from all that I had heard from him, I realized that in Sri Lanka the people were assured of an ever present state that was reliable, and dependable. I doubt that the same could be said about India. 

In India, one knows that one cannot rely on the state to maintain the law. The infrastructure of the state is invariably seen as tools to enrich those who gain access to public office. The enforcement of the law is not uniform. Any one in Goa will acknowledge that if one has connections to the officer’s superiors one can get away not only without a fine, but after having insulted the traffic officer. In other words, in India one knows that the state will not look after you, nor will it work to create a level playing ground. You have to look out for yourself in a dog eat dog world. In other words, it is not rules that help you get ahead in India, but the violation of rules, and muscling in on a scene gives you more than waiting patiently in line. The absence of a traffic etiquette in India is therefore the result of a failed state.

In sum, it seems that if there is a difference between traffic behavior in Sri Lanka and India, the reason can be pinned down to the fact that at least at the level of the average citizen, the Sri Lankan state is seen to be a neutral arbiter of rules that are taken seriously, while in India, one knows that the state has abandoned its role and made way for the so-called laws of the jungle to take root.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan, on 10 April 2016)

Friday, April 1, 2016

Conflicts, Ideals, and Idols

The conflict in the temple of Navadurga in Marcaim has begun to attract some amount of attention. A superficial understanding suggests that the conflict revolves around the question of the future of the deity currently worshipped in the temple. It appears that the mahajans of the temple wish to replace the deity because it has developed cracks. They argue that this is standard ritual practice and it is hence not an unusual decision. The villagers of Marcaim, however, will have none of it. They argue that they are attached to the idol, that She has been worshipped for generations in the temple, and they do not wish to see the idol replaced.

There are a number of other issues as well, especially that of who owns the temples, but this is not a question that I would like to go into in this piece. Rather, I would like to reflect on the implications of the arguments involving ritual propriety that the mahajans have put forward.

Those familiar with the ritual prescriptions in the dharmasastras will agree that when they make their argument the mahajans of the temple are on firm ground. According to brahmanical ritual, an idol is representative of a deity only when it has the prescribed iconography, and after the ritual ceremony of the pranaprathistha, or life infusing. Once resident within the image, great care is normally to be taken of the image, such that it may come to no harm. Further, this image is not moved, for this too is believed to displace the spirit of the deity. The moment harm comes to the idol, it is incumbent that the idol be disposed of, normally through immersion in a body of water, a new idol prepared, and the pranaprathistha carried out once again. This is orthodox brahmanical practice and if one follows the letter of these laws, the demands of the villagers of Marcaim are on very unshaky ground.

Indeed, it is this practice that has ensured that all across the subcontinent one frequently comes across images that seem to have been desecrated and immersed in wells, or sometimes buried. These discoveries are often credited to the acts of violence of Indian nationalism’s standard scapegoat, the Muslim ‘invaders’. Fearing desecration by the Muslims, the story goes, the priests hid the idols so that they may not come to harm. Taking the mahajan’s argument about temple ritual seriously results in a new understanding; that these deities probably reached these resting places thanks to the dictats of regular brahmanical ritual, not because of alleged Muslim violence. A recognition of this practice would go to buttress the arguments made by scholars such as Richard Eaton, that the desecration of temples and idols by the Turko-Afghan warriors in the medieval period has been grossly over-estimated. When temples were destroyed, he argues, this was done largely because the deity in the temple had a political significance. This is to say that the deity represented a ruling dynasty.

Taking the argument of the mahajans seriously also leads to the undoing of a much cherished historical myth in Goa. If one cannot in fact worship an idol that has been desecrated, or damaged, how is it that idols from temples destroyed by the Portuguese in the 1500s were transported to their current locations in todays New Conquests? If we take this argument seriously, then it must be that the idols from the Old Conquest villages were not in fact rescued, nor moved to new locations. It follows that the deities currently worshipped in the New Conquests are not in fact from the Old Conquest, but were already present in the villages. In fact, this is what a small segment of bahujans claim. They allege that the deities now claimed as family deities of certain caste groups were always present in their current locales and that the temples were actually usurped by ancestors of the current day mahajans, and given an invented history. That histories were invented is not improbable. As I have demonstrated in the case of the temple of Damodar in Zambaulim, a rigorous examination of the origin myths of these temples reveal many inconsistencies.

There is another option, however. One can assume that the shastric regulations were not taken seriously in the sixteenth century, and despite being damaged, were rescued and lovingly reinstated in new locations. Making this argument would save the currently popular history of the migration of the deities from their homes in the Old Conquests. However, if this hypothesis is taken as fact, then it works to undermine the argument that the mahajans of the Navadurga temple are forwarding today: that a damaged idol must be demolished, and that affection for an idol is irrelevant in the matter since these rules are time-honoured aspects of the dharmasastras. This would result in a win for the villagers of Marcaim.

As it turns out, therefore, upholding the shastric argument ensures that the mahajans’ argument in the Navadurga temple case is on a much stronger ground. But the implications of this argument is that it displaces many of the cherished beliefs of Goan history, including the fact that the temples in the New Conquests are family deities displaced from the Old Conquests, and therefore the very claim of the mahajans to hold that title.

To quote Alice, as she lost her way in Wonderland, it gets “Curiouser and curiouser!”

(A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo on 1 April 2016 )