Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Cure for Foolishness

When I first encountered this work by Navelcar I knew, because of earlier conversations with the artist, that these two lines of calligraphy were not some orientalist scribbling. The artist had shared with me that, as a boy, he had learned to read and write Urdu from a Catholic teacher in the neighbouring village of Aldona. Given my own inability to read Urdu, I turned the image over to friends on social media who revealed that the script was, in fact, Arabic. At this point differences emerged in interpretation. One friend argued that it looked like the work of someone practicing to write in Arabic, with the first line marked by errors and the second correcting those errors. This explanation made sense, since the artist has eschewed a title for this piece. A second appraisal of the text suggested that both lines were actually the same, just written in slightly different styles. “The difference lies in a slight variation in the cursive ‘h’, the ‘lā’ and the hamza...,” my friend offered. Both assessments were clear in their estimation, however, that the text before us captures the Arabic proverb “Alhamaq da' la dawa' lahu.” This translates to: “Foolishness/stupidity is a disease that has no cure/treatment.” The language and the choice of proverb with which to practice his calligraphic skills reveal interesting dimensions of the artist’s personality. 

Asked to write a curatorial essay for an exhibition in Hyderabad of the works of Goan artists in 2015, I encountered the sheer diversity of global experiences that animate their works. Taking cue from the erstwhile authoritarian Estado Novo’s proclamation: “Portugal não é um país pequeno” (Portugal is not a small country), and choosing to subvert it, my essay notes that “Goa is not a small country.” Having lived through the Estado Novo and traversed the pluri-continental Portuguese world, it is my suspicion that Navelcar, whose art bears the influence of these experiences, would agree with my reframing of the Salazarist claim.

Subsequent to Goa’s legal disconnection from the Portuguese world due to the annexation of the territory by the Indian Union in 1961, Goan identity has been reformulated by Indian nationalists to reflect a narrower character. Following the national lead, itself obsessed with brahmanical origins, Goan elites have crafted a local identity that is focussed on an imagined Sanskritic past, when in fact Goan culture is knit from heterogeneous strands. Navelcar’s efforts in this untitled piece counter this Indian nationalist tendency, demonstrating instead the centuries-old, and continuing, connections between Goans and the larger Indian Ocean world within which they are situated.

The ties between Goans and Arabs predate the migration of the former to the Gulf states as a result of the economic boom of the 1950s. The eastern coastline of the Arabian Sea was frequented by Arab traders even prior to the latter’s conversion to Islam. For example, the myths associated with the figure of Cheraman Perumal, the Chera ruler of the territories  that now constitute contemporary Kerala, evidence this ancient proximity. In one myth, the ruler, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed, witnessed the splitting of the moon. On learning from visiting Arab traders of a similar event involving the Prophet, Perumal is reported to have renounced his kingdom, travelled to Mecca, and converted to Islam. In the context of such exchange, one could enquire whether Navelcar’s present work operates as a suggestion of the “stupidity” or “foolishness” of contemporary identity-framers who tether Goan identity to a Sanskritic one alone, while obscuring the various pluri-continental strands that have and continue to constitute Goan identities.

Further, Arabic is not a language internal to Goan heritage alone. It is also inherent to the other spaces through which this exhibition tracks the journey of Navelcar: Portugal and Mozambique. Arabic was an Iberian language prior to the establishment of the Frankish kingdom of Portugal. As such, a reconnection with the language is critical to the future of Portugal if it is to move away from those historiographies of the country that are racialized and parochial. Being part of the Swahili coast, Arabic similarly maintains a visceral presence in parts of Mozambique. It turns out, therefore, that Arabic is not as alien to Navelcar’s world as it might first appear. Thereupon, his artistic practice could be viewed as a challenge to the postcolonial nationalisms that besiege the various locations in his world: Goa, Portugal, and Mozambique.

If such is the artist’s intent, then Navelcar’s choice of idiom, and his practice at perfecting his Arabic calligraphic skill, suggest that there is in fact a cure for foolishness. The remedy lies in the opening of one’s self to the larger world. Foolishness, after all, is not so much a naturally existing state, but a stubborn refusal to see the world as it is.

(A version of this text was first published in the catalogue organised by R. Benedito Ferrao that accompanies the exhibition 'Goa / Portugal / Mozambique - The Many Lives of Vamona Navelcar' organised by the Al-Zulaij Collective, at the Fundação Oriente India from 12 Dec 2017 - 12 Jan 2018.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Of Catholics in Goa, Germany, and Fascisms

Two recent statements, one by BJP’s Goa spokesperson Nilesh Cabral, and the other by the IT Minister Rohan Khaunte, should chill Goans concerned about the health of the Goan polity. This is because it signals that critique of the government will not be tolerated by the present establishment, neither by the ruling party, nor by those supporting it. The suppression, or lack of tolerance for dissent, is the sure sign of a polity well on the road to fascism.
Khaunte’s argument was that Goans abroad seemed to have more to say about the dismal state of Goan politics than persons in the state. He subsequently clarified that his reproach to Goans criticising the Government was limited to those “who have given up Indian citizenship and have lost their love for Goa”. As I have elaborated out elsewhere, it should be noted that Goans who have given up Indian citizenship have not done so voluntarily. Rather, they have been forced to do so by the Indian state which fails to recognise that Goans have a long history of Portuguese citizenship, and refuses to allow them to enjoy these older rights without giving up Indian citizenship. A concern for nuance and truth backed by a modicum of basic historical awareness is not, however, something that seems to bother these elected representatives.

This fact was amply demonstrated in Nilesh Cabral’s ridiculous suggestions when responding to the article published in the Renovacão prior to the by-elections in Pangim and Valpoi.  Cabral is reported to have suggested that Nazi-era Germany was 90 to 100 per cent Catholic, and that Nazism was supported by the Catholic Church. In a stronger democracy, where the statements of elected representatives are held to account, Cabral would have been laughed out of the room, and even probably asked to resign his position not only for misrepresentation, but for statements intended to provoke mischief. But then India has long stopped being a democracy one can take seriously.

St. Maximilian Kolbe,
martyred by the Nazi regime
A basic familiarity with the history of Christianity will demonstrate that the territories that would eventually come together as Germany have had a problematic relationship with Catholicism. It was in Wittenberg, now in Germany but then within the ambit of the Holy Roman Empire, that Martin Luther, at the time also a Catholic, commenced his critique of the Catholic Church. This act led to a series of incidents culminating with warfare within the Empire. The consequent Peace of Augsburg (1555) made peace between Catholic and Protestant princes, compelling subjects to follow the faith of the ruler. The Empire was no longer a single Catholic bloc.

A united Germany was only formed in 1871 when Otto von Bismarck, the Minister President of the kingdom of Prussia, declared King Wilhelm I of Prussia also King of Germany. Bismarck, who was Chancellor of this new German empire, had a relationship with the Catholic Church which was far from amicable. Politicians like Bismarck, who sought to build strong nation-states with power over all society, saw the assertions of the Catholic Church, which not only raised moral objections to the claims of the nation-states but also offered alternative ways in which to view the world and create socio-political communities, as a hindrance to their plans. It should be pointed out that, just as in Goa, Catholics formed a small (approximately 35 %) but dominant minority within the German empire. Bismarck thus, aided the Kulturkampf (1871–78), an attack on the Catholic Church and community in Germany, which presented German Catholics as the internal enemy to the incipient German nation.

It is in the context of the Kulturkampf, and the manner in which the state asserted a right to control education, that a Concordat was signed between the Vatican, represented by Cardinal Pacelli (later to be
Pope Pius XII) and the Nazi regime in 1933. The Concordat which demarcated the rights and powers between the two entities allowed for the Catholic Church to have control over the management of the affairs of the church. It is largely this Concordat that lies at the heart of accusations that the Catholic Church supported the Nazi regime. 

While not excusing the manner in which many groups (Catholic and Protestant) that offered resistance to the Nazi regime were effectively abandoned by the Vatican’s policy to obtain the Concordat, one needs to recognise that the Vatican does not represent the entirety of the Catholic community in any region. This community includes the Catholic hierarchy in the region, the clergy, religious groups, and various communities and groups of individuals who confess Catholicism. The Catholics in any one territory, therefore, are composed of multiple groups and it is this complexity that one needs to recognise when making charges against “Catholics”. Shifting our understanding of the term “Catholics” from a monolithically represented community and recognising the diversity within this group allows us to see that, while there were Catholic supporters of the Nazi regime, both clerical and lay, the hierarchy of bishops in Germany were not only wary but also offered resistance to the regime, as did many other Catholics, both as individuals and groups. The Vatican itself, notably through the voice of Pius XI in his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937), raised concerns about the manner in which the Nazi regime was violating the Concordat, as well as raised moral objections to the regime’s discourse and practice. The Nazi regime itself continued the earlier German state’s hostility to the Catholic Church.

To accuse the Catholic Church, and Catholics, of supporting Nazism in such a context is to make a statement that is irresponsible and
erroneous. In many ways, the article in the Renovacão, as well as the decision by its editorial body to print the article, is similar to the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy and laity to German fascism. For this heroism in continuing to speak truth to power, Catholics and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Goa need to be commended and one hopes that they will continue this opposition by coupling it with deeper philosophical and historical insight.

This insight may also point out the ecclesiastical errors committed in Nazi Germany that could be avoided here. More recently the Archbishop Patriarch of Goa is alleged to have acknowledged that the role of the ecclesiastical authorities dealing with the contested sales of various properties, especially that on the island of Vanxim, while morally wrong, was legally correct. Such a response smacks of the same kind of positivist and legalistic thinking that guided the Curia and Cardinal Pacelli in the conclusion of the Concordat with Germany. It also runs counter to the ideal leadership that has systematically been demonstrated by Pope Francis in recent times. All too often, the Catholic faithful are reminded that we must be careful in our critiques of members and leaders of the Catholic community because it only strengthens the hands of the enemy. This is true. As such, it is doubly binding on the leadership to examine their own behaviour, even as they continue to be the voice of truth in a polluted polity.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 19 Sep 2017)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On Vandalizations and the Rule of Law

Through the month of July, Catholics in Goa were under considerable distress following a spate of vandalizations both of crosses as well as grave stones. For a while the state seemed unable to address the situation until the police identified one Francis Pereira as the perpetrator of these acts. However, if the state authorities were under the impression that this arrest would satisfy civil society in Goa, then they were sadly mistaken. Incredulous that a fifty-year-old man could single-handedly engage in so much destruction, the arrest has become the butt of jokes and caustic comment from Goan citizens.

While the state may continue to protest its bona fides and swear that they have gotten the right man, it would do well for the authorities to take stock of the situation they find themselves in where the citizenry is deeply suspicious of them. This is at least the second instance where the citizenry have refused to accept the police’s version of events. The other incident that I refer to is that of the nature of Fr. Bismarque Dias’s mysterious death. The state authorities should realise that if this popular disregard of their findings becomes a systematic pattern, then not only will they lose the confidence of the people but it will seriously impact the law and order situation in the state. Indeed, if there is one single fear that we can take away from the grave vandalization case it is of the manner in which law and order has declined in Goa. Last month, this column reflected on the instance in the village of Mercês where rather than complain to the police, locals had taken it on themselves to avenge their abuse by rowdy tourists.

The Government on the other hand seems to not take this situation where the authorities are being increasingly disregarded seriously enough. As with most things the authorities seem to have grasped the wrong end of the stick with what law and order means. While the state should be concerned with preventing crimes like the vandalization of graves, they are instead busy building up a police, or surveillance state. Thus, rather than work to ensure that the peace of society is not disturbed, they sit back and allow for provocative rhetoric to fill the air – as in the case of the recently-concluded All India Hindu Convention. Once violence erupts, the authorities delightedly step in to augment the existence of a state with greater police surveillance. Civil society should take note that a greater police presence in the state is not a panacea. Rather, the biased way in which police can function, especially when the state is under the control of problematic forces should give one pause when considering, or demanding, greater police presence on the streets. Take, for example, the actions of police forces where they have stood by silently, or joined in the violence when Muslims are attacked by Hindu mobs. This was the case not just in Gujarat in 2002, but in various cases across India. Indeed, one was witness to such a scenario in Goa itself when I 2002 police stood by while property in Fontainhas was vandalised by Hindu right wing groups.  

There is another question that emerges when civil society considers the question of the vandalizations.  In addition to demanding that the state ensure better security, another response has been to blame Hindu nationalist groups, in particular the forces behind the All India Hindu Convention. While there is no doubt that greater state scrutiny is required of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, one should be careful to not blame the group for the violence without investigation. There are a plethora of Hindu nationalist groups, and not all of them are necessarily working with each other, even though they may all be working towards a common goal of a Hindu state. These groups are also working to undermine the strength of groups they see as being too soft, some groups demand deference because they have been around for longer are more established, and led by upper caste leaders. Thus, what is required is that, rather than wild allegations, we demand that a serious investigation be carried out by the state authorities and appropriate actions be taken. In this context, it falls on political parties that do not have representation in the legislature, but have ambitions of getting there, to take leadership. Political parties like the AAP or the Communists have funds and personnel and they ideally ought to direct these funds and personnel towards ensuring that the procedures and rule of law are followed. They should hire lawyers, and other professionals as needed, and ensure that there is a systematic follow-up. What I am arguing for, is that especially at a time when the rule of law, and the institutions that secure it, are collapsing we need to work harder to ensure that procedures are followed, and there is a firm focus on institution building.

What would be the appropriate response to these vandalizations? Catholics, and others concerned, should also be aware that these acts are possibly being carried out to gauge the responses of the public. If such is the case, responding with vigilante action would be devastating. Concerned groups need to do all they can to avoid emotional responses and insist that the state do its job. What we need at this point in time, where the state is actively abandoning its role as the upholder of law is to commit ourselves to a greater investment in institution building. What needs to be understood is that the Hindu right thrives precisely on the collapse of the secular state. We need to stem this collapse by a commitment to institution building and a respect for the due process of law.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 25 July 2017)