Friday, July 20, 2007

Open Sesame: Acknowledging Caste in the Public Sphere

One of the speakers at the recently concluded Convention of the Goan Diaspora held in Lisbon chose to dwell on, among other matters in his address, on the pernicious evil of the caste system that continued to dwell in the midst of what was otherwise a relatively enlightened community. He was moved no doubt, by his observation of the social events that transpired prior to the commencement of the day-long deliberations of the Convention. To illustrate, almost every introduction at the Convention was quickly followed with the question, “and where in Goa are you from?” Now all of us Goans know that this is no innocent question. One asks this question primarily to assert the other’s caste, and then go on to place them in the appropriate social category. This placement may not necessarily be derogatory, but it will nevertheless factor caste into the decision. Who knows, but it is possible that this question is one that is possibly asked only by the upper-caste person, for surely, it is only when you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of that one really inquires into the caste of the other. But be this as it may, the fact is, that as a community, we were chided for still pandering to this pernicious and outdated evil.

This laudable concern was picked up by a member of the audience who then went on to argue, that indeed, we must ignore caste altogether, we must never acknowledge it. To acknowledge it is to continue this evil. It must be as if it never exists, quoth he. It is at this point that I began to get a little uncomfortable, and my discomfort was proved justified in the course of my conversation with this gentleman at the coffee-break that followed.

I don’t for a minute support discrimination based on caste, and yet I believe I am honest enough to acknowledge that it plays a part in the moulding of my predelictions, tastes and concerns. A member of the Catholic upper-castes, my very being is defined by the privileges that my caste-membership has ensured to me. And in the end, sophisticated and high-class markers are identified according to their proximity to upper-caste notions of appropriateness. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Konkani our state supports. Which caste speaks this state version as if it were the Konkani spoken within the confines of their home? Yep, you got the answer. To get back to the point though, if one has acknowledged that one’s caste is significant in giving one the privilege that one enjoys, then to deny the existence of this privilege is to deceive the public. One is pretending to be equal, when in fact one is not. On the contrary, as compared to the individual who does not have that upper caste heritage, the upper-caste person has a decided advantage. Political correctness, and social justice concerns therefore, would demand a declaration in public debates of our caste background. This may sound ridiculous but if you give me a moment you will perhaps see my point. My argument is that when making claims in the public sphere, to elide the fact of caste would be to pretend that it does not exist, when in fact, it does. It operates even when we consciously seek to work against it. It is for this reason then, to encourage our audience to contemplate the role of caste and privilege in our claims and positions that I advocate the public acknowledgement of caste. Not a triumphal proclamation though, and not a mea culpa either, but definitely a statement of fact, to enable our accountability to the public.

To return to my gentleman friend though, it appears that his claim to ignore caste was motivated more by the anger that persons of lower caste were getting what he thought an unfair advantage in admissions to such institutions as the GMC. Given that the entire matter of reservations is too complex for the confines of this column I will leave this matter here. I will however use it to highlight once more the possibility that when we talk of erasing reference to caste, all too often what we are proposing is that we ignore the privilege it grants us and let it operate in secret.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 18th july 2007)

Monday, July 9, 2007

On why incorporating Karwar into Goa is not a good idea

I had written this piece for the Gomantak a number of months ago, indicating the problems with the apparently innocent claim for the inclusion of the Konkani speaking portions of Karwar. This demand has now received support from the Konkani Ekikaran Manch (Konkani Unification Front) of Goa, restating the same old arguments I had dealt with in that early piece. As such, I think I could restate my case against this inclusion.

“Imagine a situation where Goa has 13 talukas, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects, two major ports and an added coastline. This is not wishful thinking or an academic debate, but a social movement in operation for nearly 15 years.” This extract is from a report that appeared in the Herald a few days ago. A report informing us of the existence of a movement in Karnataka’s Karwar district which seeks to merge with Goa. The reasons they give are that they do not wish to exist as a part of Karnataka, since the Karnataka government has ignored the development of Karwar. Also, they argue that around 60% of the people of Karwar speak Konkani, and it is only natural that they should be part of a Konkani speaking State. Finally, there are religious links between the people of Karwar and Goa, with family deities on both sides of the current border.

The tenor of the report seemed to suggest that this movement was something that we should be glad for and welcome with open arms, since it would create a larger Goa with more economic opportunity and secondly it would buttress the claim of Konkani within Goa. However, I am not so sure that for these reasons we should automatically support this claim. On the contrary it is exactly this sort of a promise that we should be wary of since there is more than meets the eye in this case.

The mere support for Konkani does not translate into the support for what the Language Agitation and the struggle against merger with Maharashtra was all about. Both movements sought to protect a Goan identity and local concerns that were only superficially connected with the names we have given to these movements. What was the issue of merger with Maharashtra all about? On the one hand the Catholics very rightly did not want to get swamped in a Hindu Maharashtra, the Saraswats did not want to loose dominant status in a Maratha Maharashtra, and the Goan bahujan samaj wanted to escape Brahmin domination by creating an option in a Maratha Maharashtra. Similar the support for and against Konkani was on similar lines, the Catholics wished to secure their identity, and the pro-Marathi lobby by and large identified the Konkani movement with their greatest fear, Brahmin dominance in Goa.

Perhaps the Bahujan samaj in Goa were the most far-sighted of us all who saw in the pro-Konkani movement, the contours of a design to ensure Brahmanical and Hindutva dominance. The Catholics woke up a little late in the day and realized that in supporting Konkani without securing the protection of the script that guarantees their uniqueness, they laid the foundations for their own demise from cultural and political life.

To put things in context now, let us recollect that it was in Karwar, in 1939 that a decision was taken to recognize Devnagari as the natural – and hence only- script for Konkani. A reading of Indian history will point us toward the fact the recognition of Devanagari as the natural Indian script was the tool used by Hindu right wing groups to cast India as essentially Hindu. This recognition refuses to recognize the multiple strands that have played their part in constituting India, and delegitimizes them. Similar to the manner in which Romi, the only script that supports a living and vibrant Konkani, is currently being delegitimized. That the mention of family deities comes up when there is talk of incorporating Karwar into Goa should instantly alert us to the fact that the argument is also playing to a Hindutva lobby which would seek to create a Goa on the basis of religious markers.

We need to develop a politically savvy understanding of what exactly is afoot here. The mere reference to Konkani and a greater Goa does not work to the advantage of Goa, Konkani or the communities that speak Konkani or live in Goa. Let us once again refer to modern Indian history to understand that what appears to be progressive may in fact not be so. Rightist forces have always managed to secure their agenda by riding piggy back on overtly secular and progressive agendas. Until the 80’s the women’s movement protesting obscenity found support from the BJP, until the Fire episode when it realized that what the BJP was supporting was the suppression of female sexuality in the name of Indian values. Similarly the women’s movement did not realize that the BJP’s support for a Uniform Civil Code was not their pro-women stance, but an anti-Muslim stance.

Currently as the protagonists of the Romi script seek to secure allies, there seems to be opposition to recognize the claim of Marathi as an official language in Goa. We need to figure out where this demand for Marathi is coming from. It is the demand of a minority that fears domination. A fear similar to what the protagonists of Romi experience. They seek recognition of Marathi in its Goan form, and as a Goan language, as an alternative to the brahmanical hegemony that will persecute both Catholics and the Bahujan samaj. The threat of Maharashtra is now dead. A new threat has emerged now, the threat of a brahmanical Hindutva, and it seeks to use Konkani and the idea of a larger Goa to get its way. We need to realize this. The addition of Karwar to Goa is not in Goa or Konkani’s larger interests. On the contrary, acknowledging Marathi as a Goan language may do more to further the interests of Goans in Goa. But more about this some other time…