Friday, August 19, 2016

The Goan language problem and its resolution

There were a wide variety of responses to the State Legislative Assembly’s resolution on the twelfth of this month to grant official language status to Marathi. As can be imagined, in addition to the delight of Marathi language activists, for whom the explicit status of official language for Marathi has been a matter of principle, there were loud cries of dismay and protest from those for whom Konkani is the only vernacular tongue they consider their own.

In their anger these self-confessed Konkani lovers rejected the idea that Marathi has any Goan history while claiming that Konkani alone is the language of Goa, and that Marathi has ample opportunity to be patronized in Maharashtra.

I believe that this position is a grievous mistake. The fact is that Marathi has a long and legitimate Goan history.  Marathi was an official language when the Portuguese were around. In his book Goan Society in Transition (1975) Bento Graciano D’Souza haw drawn attention to the fact that the Boletim do Governo do Estado da India, i.e. the Gazette of the Portuguese State, used Marathi to communicate with its citizens since the late 1800s. It is also a fact that Marathi was used by the Adil Shahi sultanate, whose territories eventually came to comprise parts of the New Conquests. In Primary Education in Portuguese Goa (2013), Ricardo Cabral highlights that the Portuguese State also backed Marathi-medium government schools in Goa. Scope for the first Marathi Primary school in Panjim was established through a Portaria dated 8 Aug 1843, and by 1847-48 there were five schools in the Marathi language.
Marathi, therefore, does have a historic presence in Goa, and it would be silly to discount patent historical facts. If these Marathi language schools were able to ensure the education of the dominant castes in the New Conquests, it also ensured the education of the upper ranks of the bahujan groups. These bahujan groups deepened their emotional bond with Marathi when they used this language to counter the hegemony that the Saraswat Brahmins attempted to assert, in both late colonial and especially post-colonial Goa, through Nagari Konkani. It is in part this more recent history that has resulted in the insistence that Marathi be officially recognized as an official language, despite the fact that it has effectively been an official language since the enforcement of the Official Language Act, 1987.

However, it should be stressed that these angry responses are not without reason. No matter the history, the recognition of Marathi as an official language will not be without consequence. In the course of my doctoral research a couple of Romi Konkani activists explained to me that the recognition of Marathi as official language would impact on government recruitment. While knowledge of Konkani is today essential for recruitment to a Government post, they explained, Marathi is optional. A recognition of Marathi as an official language would require the knowledge of both Marathi and Konkani, or ensure that those with knowledge of both languages would be preferred for governmental positions. What this means is that Catholic aspirants will essentially lose out in the recruitment process, further marginalizing Catholic groups, and especially the bahujans among these groups.

Seen in this light, the opposition to Marathi is not necessarily a blind opposition but largely the response from marginalized groups fearful for their continued existence. One way to redress this fear would have been along the lines articulated by Dale Luis Menezes in a recent post on social media. As he said, “if justice has to be done, it is not by recognizing Marathi as official but Romi as official first. This is not to say that Marathi shouldn't be recognized, but first it has to be Romi Konkani. Otherwise the Marathi movement, which had anti-caste [and] pro-Bahujan leanings at its start [but] has since now been increasingly reproducing Hindu majoritarian politics, through Marathi mobilization will only lead to more Hindutva.” In formulating the argument in this manner, Menezes hits the nail on the head. As much as Marathi has been associated with bahujan politics, it has, and is, also associated with Hindutva politics. What should also be noted is that with the full recognition of Marathi, we would have a situation where the high (Marathi) and low (Konkani) languages of Hindus in the state are recognized, but those of Catholics and other groups are not. As such, only a simultaneous recognition of Romi Konkani along with Marathi would ensure a state in which justice is meted out to the various groups that call the territory its home.

However, there is also a need to point out the ridiculousness of the propositions that are determining this entire politics. No territory is the home to just one language. Such formulations emerged from antiquated ideas of the Romantic movement and have led to way too many wars and conflicts to be the basis for serious state building. The linguistic reorganization of states of the young state of India in 1956 drew from these problematic and racist politics. What we need is a politics that moves outside of the faulty frame of linguistic homelands and recognizes that the duty of the state is to speak to all of its citizens, in the languages they understand. After all, if the much criticized, if unfairly so, Portuguese state way back in the XIX century could speak to its citizens in languages other than Portuguese, what prevents the Indian state in Goa from doing so in the XXI century with all the technological capacities at its disposal?

Speaking of Portuguese, Pratapsingh Rane, the elder statesperson of the territory, made an interesting intervention in the ongoing debate on languages in our territory.  He is reported to have stated in the assembly that “We should have no problem with any language. I learnt Portuguese because our own documents are in Portuguese,” further adding a critical point that I too made some years ago, “If you want to know the history of what happened in past, you should know this language also.” Indeed, in the coming years the failure to inculcate a knowledge of the Portuguese language in a broader segment of the Goan population will lead to a crisis in both historiography and legal interpretation.

In the recent past there has been much talk about cross-religious bahujan unity. In the spirit of such unity we should welcome the recognition of Marathi as a language. However, such calls for unity cannot be a one-way street. As such, the failure of pro-Marathi activists to also demand the inclusion of Romi Konkani is rightly seen as pushing a Hindutva agenda. It would be useful if we moved away from these narrow linguistic politics to push for an agenda where the State recognizes as official all of the languages that have had a presence in Goa’s recent history.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 19 Aug 2016)