Monday, October 24, 2016

The idyll that never was: Goa and the Indian elites

It was with anger and disbelief that I read Deepti Kapoor’s recent article in The Guardian titled “An idyll no more: why I’m leaving Goa”. While there is no denying that Goa is in fact facing a looming ecological and political crisis, what is galling is that Kapoor does not acknowledge her own role in the mess that Goans find themselves in. Kapoor is silent about the privilege that she enjoys – the privilege of the (largely North) Indian elites, who dominated British India, led the anti-colonial nationalist movement, and who now operate as the embodiment of colonial power in places like Goa. This is precisely the relationship that is to blame for the many ills that Kapoor documents, and that allows Kapoor to escape Goa with relatively no loss, while Goans are left not only with a ruined ecology and social fabric but a continuing brutal colonial relationship with India.

The relationship of the Indian elites to Goa is by no means innocent. For that matter, neither is the relationship of India to Goa. Rather, these relationships are built on the willful ignoring of history, to enable Indians to create Goa and Goans not only as property of the Indian empire but as a pleasure park where they can imagine themselves to be in their own little part of Europe. Take, for example, the way in which Kapoor chooses to label older houses in Goa “Portuguese villas” despite the fact that many Goans, including scholars, have pointed out that there is nothing Portuguese to these homes. Except for the fact that they were built by Goans, who were Portuguese citizens at the time, these were, and are, Goan homes. The reason for this stubborn insistence is linked to the fact that these houses are in high demand by the Indian elites who choose to own second homes in Goa. It is precisely in calling the built forms “Portuguese” that Goa and Goans are transformed into props that allow for the territory to be read as Europe in South Asia, as a seaside Riviera where Indian elites can play out their European fantasies.

This colonial relationship, it should be pointed out, is not unique to the relationship between Goa and India. In fact, it follows a longer colonial relationship enjoyed by the Northern European, and principally British elites, with the European South – namely, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. It was to these historically Catholic locations that the largely Protestant elites of the North fled to enjoy not just the sun but the pleasures of the flesh. The European South, and by extension the overseas colonies of these countries, were marked out as spaces for frolic and relaxation, and fabulous lifestyles afforded as a result of the poorer economies of the host locations. Additionally, these locations were identified as places for inspiration for artistes and writers. In post-colonial times, the elite British Indian has actively taken on the gaze and privilege of the British overlord, and looks at Goa precisely through the lenses that the British used to view the European South.  No wonder then that Kapoor, author of the novel A Bad Character (2014), also chose Goa as a place for future writing projects.

The continuation of this imperial gaze is also deeply rooted in colonial politics. As Sukanya Banerjee demonstrates in her book Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire (2010), the end of empire and the creation of an independent nation-state was not the goal envisaged by early Indian nationalists. On the contrary, South Asian dominant caste elites were stakeholders in the empire rather than its opponents. Given this proximity to the imperial project, what they deeply desired was the status of Imperial British citizen and equality with the British overlord. Banerjee also demonstrates the way that Gandhi himself was invested in the pursuit of this status. The figure of Gandhi is critical here, because it was he who effectively created a mass movement by recruiting subaltern groups to make what had earlier been a largely elitist cause. This mass recruitment was necessary for the elites to be taken seriously by the British Crown. The Crown was convinced that while the Indians merited the status of subjects, they could not be imperial citizens and thereby claim equality with the British. The rallying of the masses forced a change in the nature of the movement to assume the character of a nationalist anti-colonial project. Independence was now the only answer.

Thus, the objective of the nationalist elites was, rather, parity with the British and participation in the imperial project. The continued desire for imperial prominence that motivated these caste elites ensured a number of features that have marked post-colonial India. By exerting various pressures on the princely states and acquiring, forcefully if necessary, the territories of other colonial powers, the nationalist elites put together an Indian empire that even the British Raj had not managed to. This new post-colonial empire was held in place by retaining most of the colonial laws, and an imperial perspective guided the relationship with the territories and peoples that were assimilated into post-colonial India. Thus, along with Goan houses being labeled “Portuguese”, Goans have been marked out as fun-loving, relaxed, and laid back, just as the southern Europeans and Latins. Further, just as the British elites travelled to the European South for sensorial excess, so too has Goa been marked out as a place for excess. Note that Kapoor’s narrative suggests that her brother had his mind blown – normally a reference to the effect of psychotropic drugs – when he saw his first nudist in Goa. The Kapoor family’s relationship with Goa seems to be marked by an excess that is unavailable in India. As R. Benedito Ferrão points out, Kapoor suggests her own sensorial relationship with Goa through the excessive exclamation marks that she uses when listing the things that brought her to Goa: “The beaches! The restaurants! The music, and the people!” Further, as if to prove the point of a continuity between the imperial British and the contemporary imperial Indian elite, Kapoor states that she has decided “to look toward Europe or Latin America” in her search for a new place to live. It should be obvious that Latin America is placed along the same continuum as Goa in terms of being the place of Iberian influenced tropical languor and excess. Therefore, Kapoor will merely shift from Goa to another location that offers a similar southern European backdrop for the party.

Interestingly, the insistence of Indians, such as Kapoor, on labeling the built landscape in Goa as different from India reveals a disinclination to be attentive to the historical and legal differences of this former Portuguese territory. Unlike the legal scenario that unfolded in British India, Goans were constitutionally recognized as Portuguese citizens as far back as the early 1800s. This resulted in a restricted segment of the population being entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. And vote they did. Goan elites regularly sent voluble representatives to Lisbon, who established the legal and social parity of Goans with metropolitan Portuguese. This situation was temporarily suspended in the years when Goa, like the rest of Portugal, suffered an authoritarian regime from the 1930s until 1974. It was in this situation that India sent troops in to militarily wrest Goa from the Portuguese. Rather than engage with the political agency that was being expressed within and outside of the territory, India simply asserted sovereignty over the territory and extended citizenship to persons residing in the territory. Given the right of colonized peoples to self-determination, this was an act for which there was no legal precedent, but was based on the assertion of a dubious argument of cultural homogeneity.

With the normalization of relations between Portugal and India in 1975, Portugal recognized the continuing right of citizenship of residents of its former territories in India. As consciousness of this continuing right percolates through Portuguese Indian society, many have chosen to access and assert this right. The Indian state, and consequently most Indians, however, fail to see this as a resumption of an existing right. They see it instead, as the acquisition of dual citizenship, which some argue is prohibited by the Indian legal system. This places Portuguese Indians – in this case, Goans – in an awkward situation, where they have to give up political engagement with Goa, and a host of other rights, if they choose to assert their right to Portuguese citizenship. Like most Indians, Kapoor seems to fail to recognize this complexity and naively suggests that Goans are leaving, or, as she puts it, “looking elsewhere”. As I articulated in an essay some time ago, Goans are not leaving; they are merely employing one more way to maintain their historical connections and pursue livelihood options. It is only in the face of an Indian state that refuses to recognize the complexity of Portuguese Indian history, and prevents this movement, that Goans are, in fact, being forced to leave.

At the end of the day, it is the refusal to recognize this most basic of rights, that of citizenship pre-existing the Indian takeover of Goa that complicates the relationship of India, and Indians, with Goa, and Goans. The refusal to recognize a pre-existing constitutional right of citizenship transforms the Indian presence in Goa into one of occupation and not post-colonial liberation.

The colonial nature of India’s presence in Goa is perhaps best captured in the way the territory has been actively converted into India’s pleasure periphery. In his book, Refiguring Goa (2015), Raghuraman S. Trichur points out that “it was only after the state sponsored development of tourism in the 1980s (more than two decades after Goa's liberation/occupation in 1961), was Goa effectively integrated into the Indian nation-state” (p. 13). This is to say that the integration of this former Portuguese territory, which ought to have been given the right to self-determination, was ensured through the process of articulating Goa’s “otherness” or cultural distancing, as evidenced by the social practices and performances that constitute the tourism destination in Goa. Thus, Trichur argues, Goa’s emergence as a tourism destination is more than the fortuitous agent of economic growth: “it is also an arena, a discursive frame where the Indian State intersects with Goan society” (p. 16). Tourism, then, is precisely the way through which Indian colonialism is exercised in Goa. Indeed, the usage of “Portuguese” houses, in reference to the homes of Goans, suggests homes not continually inhabited by Goans but open for occupation by the “helpful” outsiders that come to renew Goan life.

While Kapoor correctly lists the many problems that are cropping up in Goa as a result of a tourist industry gone wild, she seems to place the responsibility for the looming ecological and social disaster primarily in Goan hands. One reads in Kapoor’s narrative the usual suggestion that it is the greedy Goans who are selling agricultural land and pulling down ancestral homes, and that the local government has no vision. What escapes her is that Goans are all too often subject to forces not within their control. Goans are trapped in an economy that, rather than working on producing more varied opportunities for the locals, has for decades now relied exclusively on tapping the extractive industries of either tourism or mining, or on overseas remittances. While the tourist economy has produced huge profits for some, incomes have not risen to keep pace with the increased cost of living. In such a context, there are two options that will assure people without the material resources or skill sets to fuel social mobility of persons who cannot achieve betterment in Goa. The first is the sale of land to persons in search of the fabled Goan lifestyle. The second is migration in search of gainful and respectable employment. The irony is that the critique of the Portuguese presence in Goa was that they failed to develop a viable economy, which required people to migrate to earn a living that would assure them and their families of a higher standard of living. Indeed, for the vast majority of the population life under Portuguese rule was experienced more as life under landlord rule. And this Goan lifestyle was no idyll. It was only through migration that they could economically emancipate themselves. It was only with the economic liberation possible through migration that Goa, now a place to return for the summers, was constructed as an idyll. As it turns out, the transition to Indian rule has not changed much, as many Goans are still forced to migrate.

Yet it is not economics alone that Goans are trapped by but, the political system itself. There is a clear understanding among the many groups in the territory that this system is not delivering good governance and that there is a need for dramatic change. In their imitation of Britain, British Indians adopted the unsophisticated first-past-the-post system of determining political representatives. As Dr. Ambedkar pointed out, the ills of the system are such that it does not allow for marginalized groups to find a voice in the legislature. Even though there are moves to shift to a system of proportional representation, it seems unlikely that there will be a change anytime soon. Thus, Goans are chained to a political structure that they had no say in determining, and that clearly does not work for their territory, given that it reproduces persons who represent majoritarian politics. One wonders whether Goan politics may not have been dramatically different if the people of the territory were allowed to innovate with a proportional representation system followed in Portugal.

But Kapoor’s text is not merely illustrative of the problem that Goans have with the Indian elites. Rather, it exposes the colonial relationship of these elites with marginalized Indian populations. The trouble with the Indian elites is that they do not see themselves as a part of the political processes of the subcontinent, believing themselves too good for the rest of the citizens of India. Indeed, this is part of their adoption of the colonial gaze. These elites see the residents of the rest of the continent as a strange race that requires firm governance. The review of Kapoor’s book by Prashansa Taneja makes this quite obvious when she reports, “more often than not, she gives into the temptation to exoticise Delhi, and India, for the reader. Many Indian women cover their heads on a daily basis, but when Idha [the character in Kapoor’s book] does so at a Sufi shrine, she feels she becomes ‘Persian, dark-eyed, pious and transformed’.” One could argue that she succumbs to the use of clichés precisely because like other members of her class, Kapoor looks at the people in the city of Delhi, through a gaze adopted from the Raj.

Goa and Goans are locked in an unequal and unfair colonial relationship with India. Until and unless this inequality and injustice are resolved, and the relationship is made more equal – indeed, until the colonial equation at the heart of the imperial Indian project is resolved – Goa and Goans may be doomed to destruction. Kapoor’s text is offensive precisely because she is blind to these facts, and while also being blind to her own privilege is completely oblivious to the extent to which her article is a gripe about the loss of her own privileges. Kapoor’s problem seems to lie in the fact that with other Indians, and not just other elites but all sorts, coming to play with her toy, the party has been ruined. While Kapoor may be able to trip off to some other island paradise and live the life of the wandering elite, where, pray, will the Goans go?

(A version of this post was first published in Raiot webzine on 17 Oct 2016)

Friday, October 14, 2016

Exploring the Iconography of "Retelling"

The works that one encounters in Retelling, the exhibition of the recent productions of Karishma D’Souza, should be seen as more than works of art. They are in fact icons from a contemporary mystic, and could be put to good use not only by other mystics but by a wider population. Contrary to popular understanding, icons are more than objects of ritual adoration and worship. They are in fact bridges that span the gap between a textual tradition and practice. One can look at Christian practice, for example. The image of a saint is linked not only to the hagiography of the saint but to the Biblical narrative. The use of iconography encodes a complex story into a single image for the viewer. Subsequent to contemplation of the image, the viewer can hope to imitate the life of the saint, who attempted to imitate the life of Christ. The iconographer is often familiar with this wider textual tradition, and through the use of charged symbols, communicates meaning to a practicant of a tradition. They offer crunched lessons for contemplation with the idea that these will then be put into practice.

In many ways, Karishma D’Souza is an iconographer for our times. Unlike conventional iconographers, however, Karishma does not stick within a single tradition. She is rather like the mystic, who is never conventional but always transcends boundaries to plumb unexpected depths and return with powerful insights for contemplation. Thus, Karishma draws inspiration from the mystical poems of such figures as Sant Kabirdas, and the Kashmiri poet Lal Dedh. Her references range from the Jataka tales and the lives of the Bodhisatvas and the Buddha, the brahmanical Puranas, to more contemporary issues of violence of the Indian state against the populations of Kashmir, Dalits and tribals.

Karishma also works in the tradition of the iconographers through the symbolic charge that she presses onto the colours on the canvas. Take, for example, the use of gold for the ears of the sleeping Buddha in the work titled “Burma Buddha”. Karishma would have the golden ears bear three meanings. The first refers to the most common understanding of gold, as precious; thus, the gold ears designate that to hear or listen is what is most important. The second offers a more anti-materialist, and perhaps iconoclastic, suggestion, that gold is an inert metal, and the golden ears are dead objects incapable of hearing the pleas and prayers of supplicants. The third reading that she offers is where the similarity of gold with yellow is played on to suggest that the city in the background painted in yellow appears golden only in the distance; closer inspection reveals that the yellow emerges from sand, not gold, and hence is liable to disintegrate at any moment.

Blue is another colour that runs through the works in Retelling. Once again, we could commence with the signification of blue through reference to its location in “Burma Buddha”. Blue is used in this canvas to represent what the artist calls “peaceful, expanding space”. Karishma is also aware, however, that blue is the colour associated with the Ambedkarite movement and hence with Dalit pride. Given the manner in which the caste-critical poet Kabir is taken up by some Ambedkarite groups, it is no wonder that “Sand Castles” is marked by a plethora of blue circles. Each of these circles is a reference to a couplet of Kabir

from the Bijak of Kabir (compiled and translated by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh).

Take, for instance, the circle on the top left of the canvas that refers to the following:

A raft of tied together snakes
In the world-ocean.
Let go, and you’ll drown.
Grasp, and they’ll bite your arm.

Or the second circle in the bottom row that features a tear within a millstone that illustrates the following:

seeing the mill turn
brings tears to the eyes.
No one who falls between the stones
Comes out unbroken.

If blue is symbolically charged in Karishma’s works, then so is water, once again signified, as is common, by blue. Water bodies, and especially rivers, are present in almost every image on display. Unsurprisingly inspired by the verses of Kabir, who seems to be critical in this phase of her work, the river is linked with the idea of overcoming:

Use the strength of your own arm,
Stop putting hope in others.
When the river flows through your own yard,
How can you die of thirst?

The river is present not only in “Wastelands: dead pasts”, but also in “Chembur”. The foreground of “Chembur”, alive with indoor plants, references the home of her grandparents in the suburb of Bombay that Karishma remembers as one of the first “very nurturing” spaces she encountered. Outside the home lies an empty and terrifying landscape snaked through by a river that represents the limits that must be overcome on the journey towards adulthood. Given the title of this canvas one can’t help but imagine that despite the emptiness the view outside her grandparent’s house is actually suggestive of an urban landscape. Urban landscapes in Karishma’s earlier works are often either empty of people suggesting the anomie and isolation that marks contemporary cities.

The water bodies in “Guarded city: unseeing” reference a poem from the Kashmiri poet Lal Ded, from the compilations in the book I Lalla (selected and translated by Ranjit Hoskote):

Three times I saw a lake overflowing a lake.
Once I saw a lake mirrored in the sky.
Once I saw a lake that bridged
north and south. Mount Haramukh and Lake Kausar.
Seven times I saw a lake shaping itself into emptiness.
Emptiness is also the theme of “Guarded city: unseeing”. While gated communities represent security from the population outside the grounds of expensive residential colonies, Karishma inquires whether this shutting off does not create an anomic sense of isolation. With curtains drawn over windows, represented here by the thick black lines in the centre of the canvas, no one looks in, and no one looks out either. The choice of exclusive surroundings ensures that the very environs become frightening. This image also makes reference to the political situation in Kashmir with the island in the top background represented by an island with chinar. Reading deeper into the canvas, the gated community could also refer to the Kashmiri people forced into house arrest. The chinar of Kashmir stand mute in testimony to the violence forced on these people, who are encircled by orange red-hued hills on all sides.
Similar hues are also present in “Himalayan landscape: unseeing”, where the orange tents represent Hindutva and the red on the horizon, blood. 
As if in response to the violence represented by walls is the image “Lal Ded”. In this case, the wall, a symbol of violence, is also marked by the hues of orange and red, but it is split apart by the ever present river and calls to mind the verses from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall”:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Perhaps this splitting of the metaphoric wall through persistence, in this case of aquatic force, is the resilience that is referred to in the poem from Lal Ded that has influenced many of the works in this collection:
Resilience: to stand in the path of lightening.
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon.
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill.
Resilience will come to you.
While many of these canvases make visible reference to places that Karishma has visited, the image that relates most to the Goan context is “Wastelands: dead pasts”. In this image, the blue neck of the figure emerging from the water is a reference to the Puranic myth of Shiva Neelakanta. In this myth, Shiva’s neck turned blue when he consumed the poison that emerged from the fabled churning of the ocean of milk. In this image, the neck is part of a larger feminine figure that could be construed as a reference to the idol of Gauri, worshipped in some traditions a day before her son Ganesh. The present day Gauri is, of course, the brahmanical usurpation of the vernacular mother goddess Santeri, who is worshipped by the marginalized communities of Goa in her self-embodied form of the anthill. In this case, Santeri emerges from a wasteland that has been created thanks to the effects of the mining industry.
The state of affairs that Karishma depicts in this canvas need not necessarily be read as an impotent lament for our future. Rather, there is a peculiar Christian imagery that can also be read into this image through a reference to the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel. The Old Testament records the Prophet Ezekiel as having a vision of a valley filled with very dry bones. In this vision, Ezekiel is commanded by God to prophesy and put flesh on the bones and subsequently restore the bones to life. The vision, therefore, is one that promises hope – that even in the darkest of hours, a return to values can in fact bring redemption. This, I believe, is one of the messages that one can take away from this icon. 

In The Death of the Author (1967), French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes argued against the need to incorporate the biographical context of the author or the meanings intended into the reading of the text. Instead, he argued in favour of the independence of the artistic production of the author. The moment the work was produced and subject to the gaze of the audience, the author was dead, and the work had a life of its own, gaining multiple readings based on the gazes of infinite numbers of individual readers. A great liberation is made possible through such a position, allowing for the proverbial thousand flowers to bloom. Given that each person is now enabled to bring their own experiences to the reading of the text or image, this diversity allows for an expansion of formal political democracy into the realm of the social. 

To adopt Barthes’ method while viewing the works of Karishma D’Souza, however, would leave us that much poorer. For Karishma’s works have the potential to be more than just objects of art. Even though many of Karishma’s offerings in this exhibition focus on what could be seen as hopeless situations, I believe that these icons are in fact tools through which we can refocus our attention on issues of concern, issues that scream out for justice to be done, and work towards resolving them. They have the potential to shake off the illusion that we are captive and focus on what really matters.

To understand these icons, though, requires that we enter into the textual world that Karishma has created. The possible problem that we encounter, however, is that this textual world is rather dense, given that each canvas is often inspired by more than one text. While this makes for a particularly rich canvas, it also points to the flip side – to the liberation that Barthes inaugurated. That is, with the absolute liberty to bring one’s own reading to a text, there is often a cacophony of voices and little space for understanding. If everyone’s personal reading is valid, and there is no fundamental base, how does one make conversation and move forward towards building a space of consensus? Perhaps the answer lies in the manner in which we twine engagement with the images and the producer of the images. It is towards this end that I urge that the works be seen as icons to be appreciated alongside the many texts that inspired them.

(Essay for the exhibition of Karishma D'Souza's works in Retelling,  hosted by the Fundação Oriente, Goa from 13 Oct -9 Nov 2016)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Portuguese citizenship and the debugging of Indian imaginations

I read with interest the recent opinion piece “The Portuguese nationality bug”  on the vexed issue of the rights of Portuguese Indians to Portuguese citizenship and was disappointed by the author’s refusal to see the larger picture. I suspect that this is because the author seeks to resolve the question within the narrow frames of Indian nationalism. As a result, the argument forwarded in the op-ed seems to buttress the rights of the state over those of citizens. Such legality will only strengthen the growing authoritarianism of the Indian state over subjects who, while formally citizens, increasingly lack the space to realize this condition.

In the opinion piece citizenship is presented as a status that is conferred by a state. This is not only a peculiarly lawyerly perspective but also a dated idea. Unsurprisingly, the argument refers to a judgment of the US Supreme Court from 1875. The wider field of contemporary citizenship theory recognizes that citizenship is more than a status, rather a condition to be realized. In these more recent understandings, as evidenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) for example, rights are not conferred by a state, but inhere in the individual. Even the Indian Constitution recognizes that it is the people who constitute the state as evidenced in the famous lines of the preamble “We the People of India….” Thus, a post-colonial political theory recognizes that states are actually constituted by the people, which formally recognize the rights of people. With the passage of time as our appreciation of the depths of rights grows, states are required to recognize these evolving rights. Indeed, this was very much the case with India as well when from about the 1950s the existing fundamental rights were dramatically expanded through the interpretations offered by the Supreme Court.

Of the many rights that inhere in individuals, surely the right of citizenship is the most fundamental.If there was one single right that the anti-colonial nationalist movements fought for, it was the right of citizenship. As in the case of British India, the initial demand was for the right to imperial citizenship, and it was only because the British, hobbled by a racist imagination, failed to recognize this right, that the Indian nationalists pressed forward for a national citizenship.

Citizenship must necessarily be distinguished from nationality. These are two distinct concepts and must theoretically be kept separate. While citizenship involves a gamut of rights that allow one to be a political subject, nationality is the status of belonging that the nation confers on some individuals, and restricts from others. This is to say, the first deals with rights, while the second is the realm of cultural belonging. One of the reasons why the debate on the Portuguese Indian rights to Portuguese citizenship is so vexed is because the various parties fail to recognize the fundamental differences between these two concepts. This is obvious even in the opinion piece where there is a constant switch between the terms nationality and citizenship as if they were the same.

This failure is not surprising given that the nation-state form that has been taken up across the world purposely seeks to conflate the concept of the state and the nation. The famous philosopher Hannah Arendt refers to this as “the transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation”. Taking up this idea, other scholars have pointed out that “It was this conquest that defined citizens of the state as nationals whether defined racially, ethically, culturally or even religiously”. There is, in fact, no good reason for the two concepts to be conflated. A state can compromise multiple nations, while nations need not have a state. Take the case of Belgium, which is composed of people that identify with two different nationalities, the Flemish and the Walloon. Or take India, which can be said to comprise different nationalities, but refuses to recognize, and in principle rightly so, that each of these nations needs its own state. Indeed, the foundation of the contemporary international order as an association of nation-states can be traced back precisely to the racist imaginations of the colonial order. To this extent, the assertions of Portuguese Indians to retaining their Portuguese citizenship while also accepting that of India stands to offer the world a model in terms of post-colonial citizenship precisely because it is born of an early modern experience that differs dramatically from the colonial experience rooted in late-modernity.

What does come out in striking clarity from the argument in the opinion piece referred to above is the legal position of the former citizens of Portuguese India in the Indian republic. In addition to the legal formulation that the argument the op-ed relies on, and the military action of 1961, this population is not a liberated population able to act on equal footing with other individuals from British India, but in fact a subjugated population whose “rights” depend on what the State of India grants them. The noted philosopher Partha Chatterjee has recently articulated a concept of political society that addresses precisely this point. He argues that not all who are formally recognized as citizens enjoy rights. Chatterjee suggests that these people are members not of civil society, but political society. Members of political society do not enjoy rights, which are permanent and inhere in the individual; they are merely extended temporary concessions when these excluded groups challenge the status quo. Once the status quo is secure these concessions can and often are revoked.

Reading the argument in “The Portuguese nationality bug” in the context of this framework, given that the citizenship rights of Portuguese Indians seem to depend on the whims of the Indian state, one can see that what the Portuguese Indians enjoy are not rights that inhere in the individual and are not granted by the state, but merely temporary privileges that can be, and are, rolled back when the State feels like. The privilege of Indian nationality was extended to these groups when the Indian state needed to consolidate its hold over the newly conquered territories creating the mirage of extension of citizenship when in fact the recognition of their pre-existing rights is what would have constituted acceptance into Indian civil society.  It needs to be noted that this is not the position of the Portuguese state that recognizes the continuing rights of citizens in territories over which it formerly claimed sovereignty.

The argument also fails to appreciate the federal nature of the Indian Union, a vision that is embodied in the Constitution. The Indian constitution patently allows for a diversity of legal regimes within the Indian Union. Take, for instance, Art. 370 of the Constitution that allows for Kashmir to have its own constitution. This particular article is the subject of much vituperation but the fact is that such resentment against Art. 370 has been the result of Hindu nationalist opposition. Ironically it is Hindu nationalism which is contrary to the constitutional mandate. Art. 370 must therefore be seen as embodying the basic structure of the Indian constitution that makes space for a federal structure that incorporates widely different polities within a single structure. Consider also the fact that Buddhist monks and nuns in Sikkim get a double vote to ensure the representative of the Sangha in the legislature. This argument for legal pluralism can also be buttressed by reference to the reports on the conclusion of the Indian state’s negotiations with the Naga activists. Though the terms of the agreement are still secret, if a dubious news report is to be believed it appears that the Indian state, under Prime Minister Modi, has agreed to the Naga demand for a separate Constitution, as well as a separate flag. Such an agreement, if true, would testify to the capacity of the Indian Union to accommodate legal difference within a single federal structure.

A resolution of the question of the Portuguese citizenship of denizens of the former Portuguese India could contribute to the failing health of the Indian Union. It would allow an assertion of the dignity of the rights-bearing individual in opposition to asserting the right of a potentially tyrannical Indian state. It would contribute to the constitutional imagination of a federal India, an imagination that has unfortunately been undermined by the desires of Hindu nationalists and successive central governments.

For too long a time the question regarding the legitimacy of Portuguese Indians holding on to both Portuguese and Indian citizenship is being debated in a dry and inspired manner. Given that the question is admittedly complex, the resolution cannot be obtained through a niggardly attention to the letter of the law. Rather, what is required is a reference not merely to the spirit that animates laws, but to the larger questions of postcolonial justice and the rights of individuals, this is to say a reference to political theory and the philosophy of law. What is required is not a debugging of Portuguese nationality, but Indian imaginations.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 4 Oct 2016)