Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Of Goan negativity, Crab mentality and the fight for equality

How entirely predictable are the ways of the world. For the longest time the Goan print media was controlled by the Big Business interests of Goa and any form of social dissent firmly muzzled. This began to change as external business muscled its way into Goa and challenged the supremacy of Goan business over the creation of Goan news. Technology came to the support of the Goan Big Business however; and the Goan TV channels saw the light of day. Through this media once more the stage is open for Goan big business (namely mining) to mask the real issues and divert us to debating non-issues.

One such classic example is the debate organized by Prudent Media (funded and supported by the Fomento Mines) around the response of Goans to Mega-projects. The theme of the debate was presented as “Is Goa becoming eco-conscious or negative?” If you didn’t read the statement of its editor-in-chief, you might be under the impression that this was intended to be a serious debate. But regard his statements for just a moment; “Goans are presently in a mood to oppose everything, may it be the Regional Plan, SEZs, housing projects, garbage plants and even mobile towers. The Maha Sangram will debate upon whether this is eco-consciousness or a negative attitude that is growing among Goans.”

The mood of the editor-in-chief of Prudent media is clearly evident, this is not really eco-consciousness that we are witnessing in Goa; it is negativity. The idea of the debate on Prudent Media is thus to label the activism in Goa as negativity and discredit it. And discredit it not once, but twice over, through repeated telecasts of what is a clever industry strategy to ensure that voices of dissent are discredited and concerns muzzled.

Let us explore this idea of Goan negativity though, since it is one of the most common myths about the Goan attitude, and forms the basis of the current industry attack against Goan activism. One of the foundations for this “Goan negativity” lies in the story of the crab mentality of the Goan. The story goes that a basket can be filled to the brim with crabs and yet needs no cover to prevent them spilling out. This is because each crab will not let another rise above the other, and will promptly pull the other down. With the crabs behaving so, the basket needs no cover.

When analyzing this metaphor, the first point we need to remember is that that the crab mentality is attributed to almost every closely-knit community. We will return to this universality of the metaphor, but only after we contemplate the condition of those poor crabs in the basket. What is significant I believe, is that the crabs have been pulled out of their natural habitat, been stuffed into a basket, and are slated for slaughter. It is this physical condition of discomfort and destruction that should necessarily be read into the metaphor to obtain a more sensitive understanding of the ‘crab-like’ Goan.

Let us first begin by acknowledging that for the most part, Goan society is composed not of the rich, but a peasant population that has struggled to enter into a middle class position; a good amount of them still struggling to enter that category and bracket. The story of the migrant Goan is also the story of the tyranny of the landlord. The history of the Goan has therefore until recently been one of discomfort and destruction, similar to the crabs in our metaphor. Unlike the crabs however, the oppressed Goan has also risen to the occasion and created environments of solidarity and help for each other. The kudds (clubs) of Bombay and Karachi are classic examples of this solidarity. The clubs catered to Goans newly arrived from the motherland in the strange environs of British-India and provided them a familiar and reassuring environment. The club then is a lasting example of the networks of solidarity that the Goan is capable of providing to another Goan.

The fragile world of the migrant, the oppressed and the poor (as many Goans in fact were – and still are) relies to a large extent on solidarity. Solidarity demands that we all rise or fall together. As such, if there is one person that seeks to rise quickly, without sharing the benefits of his or her rise with all, then this person is a threat to the solidarity of the group, its continued existence and must be brought back into place. It is this need for solidarity that forms the basis of the so-called crab mentality of the Goan and no doubt informs the accusation of ‘negativity’ that the captains of industry have been leveling against the Goan people’s movement.

This history of the Goan, and this understanding of the ‘crab-mentality’ underlines an important fact. That human society has a tendency towards equality rather than inequality. In the face of aggression of any sort, the need for equality is asserted, and aggressively so if necessary. This is exactly what is occurring in Goa today. The Goans find themselves assaulted by forces of inequality that are determined to milk the environment dry and generate obscene levels of profit for the few, rather than for all Goans. In the face of such a proposition, what other option does the Goan, rooted in a communitarian tradition that stresses solidarity, have exactly? When faced with a State that pretends to listen to their voices, but deceitfully pushes through plans that are consistently against the people, what else can they do but violently and consistently protest every action that the Government engages in?

The so-called negativity of the Goan people is not negativity in the least, but a demand for equality. It is a demand for a model of development that generates profits all around, and not only for the captains of industry and their henchmen in cushy positions of profit and power. The systematic exploitation of the Goan has gone on so long, that the Goan public has been pushed into a corner and it is from this corner that they are fighting back. Rather than recognize this fact, the Government has chosen to side with the forces of inequality that threaten to push the Goan back into the basket of poverty that they have helped each other get out off. This is the reason for the vociferous opposition to the Government and the captains of industry.

(Published as Goan negativity, mentality and equality : The average Goan having been exploited, is now fighting back
Gomantak Times, Oct 1, 2008)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Notes from after the Rally

The response at the rally held at the Azad Maidan last week, to protest the communal violence toward Christian minorities, was overwhelming. Yet, one can’t help feeling (to use a phrase from chemistry) that the equation was somewhat unbalanced. The incompleteness of that demonstrative moment we could attribute to matters both said and unsaid.

Of what was said at the rally, perhaps the most disturbing was the statement that we are members of the nation first and then members of our religious communities. Fact is, it is this insistence on the primacy of the nation is exactly the reason why we are in the mess we are contemplating today. The Indian nation was constructed on a curious mix of the Anglicized culture of the upper castes of India and technology. For those who had the necessary social capital, namely possession of the English language (and the associated culture), an upper caste history or identity, and an ability to engage in the technological ministrations of the nation-state, this national identity worked very well indeed. For those who did not posses these markers, and whose social capital rested either on a lower caste identity, or a religious or other identity, or indeed participation in a different economic and technological world, the nation-state’s primacy meant only slow and certain death. The rise of lower caste groups and religious communities protesting this upper caste control of the state was a natural outcome of this insistence on the nation-state before other identities. The demand of these groups was simple, do not ask us to be something that we are not. Accept us the way we are and let us be. The response of the nation-state in its turn was the saffron terror that is increasingly being unleashed to retain the hold of those upper castes in control of the state.

The argument being forwarded here is not to insist that we should necessarily place our religious identities prior to the State. On the contrary, the question being asked is; what happens to those people for whom this national culture – itself cast in the cultural language of certain (predominantly Hindu upper caste) groups – does not make sense at all? Thus as a Muslim, or indeed as a Goan who prefers my Konkani in the Roman script and the lilting phrases of Sashti Konkani, this primacy of a nation, that does not recognize my needs or mocks my existence does not make sense at all. Clearly the way out of the conundrum we are in lies in getting out of the nationalist rhetoric, and recognizing that we are individuals and communities that have a right to continuing our way of life, without having the nation-state or its extra-legal demon armies breathing down our backs.

Moving on, they say that you can always fight a known enemy. It is when the enemy is unknown that you have no clue as to what strategy to employ. And indeed, it was the issues left unsaid at the rally, that are the most troubling and disturbing. The rally was called by Catholics, to protest violence against Christians in various parts of the country and spoke of the need to end the madness. Through this framing of the issue, the Catholics came out looking like lambs bathed in wool, perpetual victims at the altar of communal frenzy. This may be the partial truth in other parts of the country, but it definitely does not hold good for Goa. In Goa, it is the Catholic who is part perpetrator and part silent accomplice to the systematic campaign of hatred against the Muslim. It is because of the knowledge of large-scale Catholic participation in this Muslim persecution, that it was possible for that Saffron activist to make a public call to Catholics and Hindus to unite and send them packing out of Goa. The laudable ethical position to take at the rally- one drawing from the laudable Christian tradition of confession - would have been to openly speak about this persecution that the Goan Catholic is actively engaged in. Unfortunately, no one spoke about the real issue, preferring to bury these real issues, under the outdated, sickly sweet talk of Indian secularism, where are all bhai-bhai. In the end problems are resolved only by speaking about them, not by ignoring their existence.

In this sense the rally was a total failure, because we failed to make use of a literally God-given opportunity to preach to the flock who had gathered entirely unconscious of their own bloody hand in the carnage that goes on around us.

The large presence of Catholics at the meeting however, was problematic at another level.

The manner in which we use our religious identity can be distinguished between two forms; religion as ideology, and religion as faith. In the first a religious identity is mobilized to create a universal identity that is primarily political in nature. This process erases internal differences to create an artificial and monolithic community. Like in an army, one responds to the call of the bugle, and does not, or cannot question why one is being summoned, or the cause one is being asked to lend one’s support for. On the other hand, one has religion as faith, where one contributes to a cause prompted by one’s belief in the ethics preached by religion. On what basis did the many participants attend the rally at Azad Maidan? Did they attend as members of a political identity responding to a call, or as members of a faith community protesting the perpetration of violence? To mobilize Christians primarily on the basis of ideology would leave us open to perpetuating the very violence we seek to protest. It is precisely religion as ideology that is relied on by both Islamic fundamentalists and the Hindu right wing to draw members to its causes. As Christians in India are drawn into this fire-storm, it would be useful to keep in mind, that there is a way out of the trap. This way (for the Indian and Goan Christian) would draw from Christian ethics, and protest violence regardless of the identity of the oppressed. When necessary it would be fully conscious and cognizant of our own contributions to persecution and violence. To be fair to the Catholic Church in Goa, it has since the time Archbishop Rev Filipe Neri Ferrao has taken over, initiated a variety of steps to bridge the gap between the Catholic and those of other faiths, including the Muslims. It is unfortunate though, that these necessary overtures by the Archbishop have not been welcomed by some within the body of the Church.

Despite this raising of the dilemmas arising from the rally held on the 16th of this month, the fact that the rally was held was in itself useful. It should be seen as a necessary first step towards combating the rightist take over of the Indian state. What we should keep in mind however is that the solution is not going to come through heightened nationalism, but heightened respect for the differences of other groups. And secondly that if the Goan Catholic is truly desirous of peace in Goa, it must first make the overture of peace toward the Muslim community it has by and large been sinning against.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 24 September 2008 as "Azad Maidan Rally: Combating the rightist takeover)

[The Council for Social Justice and Peace, a forum of the Archdiocese of Goa, and the Inter-Religious Dialogue for Life, organised together a rally to protest the atrocities against Christian minorities in Orissa. Subsequent to the announcement to hold the rally, violence against the Christian groups in Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka broke out, allowing the rally to doubly express the concern of concerned groups, not just Christian. Helping out at the rally to collect signatures, I collected a small amount of Muslim signatures as well. The overwhelming presence of people attending was Catholic however. This rally was one of the larger rallies that Goa had seen, with the central square in Panjim literally engulfed by a sea of humanity.]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Strange Tales from the Indian Republic: The Police and the Innocent

A strange Kafkaesque scenario grips the Indian republic. In the course of the pogrom in Gujarat, victims testified that the police either didn’t land up on time, stood silently by while the mob did their job, or fired upon the victims rather than the aggressors. In Fontainhas when a right-wing mob attacked road signs, the police stood by and looked on. Subsequently this has happened again, a few weeks ago, when a Hindu nationalist group sought to violently take over the open space of a housing colony in Porvorim. The police reportedly stood by and watched as the Hindutva brigade attacked the members of the Housing colony. In Mangalore, as saffron groups go on rampage, attacking one Christian institution after another, reports are coming in that the terrified Christians are obtaining practically no support from the police. On the contrary, angry Christian youth who gather to protect churches and prayer halls are being rounded up and sent to the lock up. In Quepem recently, the local Hindutva brigade threatened to create trouble if the local Muslims were allowed to offer namaz in a space rented for that purpose. As a result the police suggested that it was the prayers of the Muslims that should not be allowed since it would create a law and order situation. More recently the Taleigao Bachao Abhiyan was not given permission to announce its public meeting via a loudspeaker attached to a vehicle, because it could possibly pose a problem for the maintenance of law and order.

In every one of these cases we see the innocent being punished by the police as a result of the acts of an aggressor. The police in many of these cases pleads its inability to deal with any breakdown of law and order and thus muffles the voices of the protesting innocent. How does one make sense of these repeated occurrences; of police silence in the face of aggression against minorities of various sorts in our country?

The most common response from civil society is to label such actions as a failure of the police to follow the law. In this event, the police are seen as aberrant in the moment and needing disciplinary action to bring them back to the straight and true path of the law. This perspective I believe misses the point. The police are the arm of the State established precisely to ensure the operation of the law of the State. If it fails in this primary action, there would be serious talk about its dissolution and reconstitution. As we would know, there is no such talk about the police system in the country. On the contrary there seems to be a trend toward increasing the arbitrary and detentive powers of the police in the country. As such it appears that to think about these actions of the police as being random mistakes by compromised officials does not in fact hold good and we need to look for another way to understand this situation.

As an integral arm of the State in maintaining law and order, the police should necessarily be seen as the perfect weather-vane to fathom the State’s current understanding of the law. Through this logic, the police should be seen as necessarily embodying the practice of the law, as sanctioned by the State.

It is possible that the initial response to this argument would be derision. However, think again; and you will realize that in fact, it is merely our expectation that the law of the land will be just. This expectation from the law is derived in part from the assurance of the state that it will provide justice. This assurance and consequent expectation from the law is a necessary requisite for the existence of a liberal state. As history will show us however, there have been umpteen times when people have been forced to violently overthrow the law in operation in a state, precisely because it is not just.

The justice of the law is not to be presumed, it must be evidenced from its actual operation. In large part, the State defines the law and all too often, if it serves its interest, the law as actually defined by the State need not be just and fair to the segments of the population. Fact is the State holds an ambiguous relationship to the law, where it claims to be bound by law as much as the people are, but very often slips outside of the control of the law. A wonderful example really of this escaping from the law, as the amendments to sections 16 and 16 A of the Town and Country Planning Act, where the State is effectively excused from following a Regional Plan. It can make amendments to this plan and not be bound by democratic norms of transparency and accountability. This is a classic case of the law being used to excuse the State from being bound by law

Clearly then, in a situation where the reality of the law is often not what it is claimed to be, we need instruments that will decipher to us what exactly the contents of the law really are. In such a situation, the operation of the police becomes a perfect indicator to understand these contents of the law.

If this way of understanding the actions of the police holds good, then their actions which could be systematically documented would indicate to us that the content of law in the republic is by and large no longer justice to all. The law has been perverted to such an extent that the right of people to riot and hold the democratic practice to ransom is being considered the norm, and those who suffer are held to be violative of public order for protesting against this violence.

To be fair, the Indian state has been founded on violence. Ever since the days of its founding, the Indian state has employed force, particularly against those on the margins of our society – dalits, tribals and the poor, as it force-led the nation toward ‘development’. As local business interests have flourished and India emerged supremely self-confident into the global market, this violence has however increased. The violence we see today, being directed toward religious and caste groups is but a logical progression of this perversion of the Indian state.

This comment on the police and law should not be read as a call to boycott or stop reliance on the police of the State and country. On the contrary, our calls on the police must continue if only to persist in demonstrating the manner in which they flout norms of justice, fairness and equality. Our continued calls will also hopefully serve the purpose of exposing the contradiction to such an extent that reform in the entire system will become a necessary option. And at the end of the day, we must not forget to salute those within the police and the State who continue to uphold a notion of justice that is sensitive to those on the margins and in vulnerable positions.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 19th Sept 2008)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Patna 2008 to Goa 2011: Drawing the links between Patna today and Goa tomorrow

Spending the latter half of last week in Patna drove home the truth of a saying prevalent in the city. “Hell is prohibited for those who spend ten whole years in Patna”. The flood of the Kosi may not have impacted Patna, but it does not need a flood to complicate daily life in this once proud city. It has to rain hard for just a half hour before the roads get flooded. Things are made worse by roads that have collapsed into the sewers below. In other places the man-holes seem to have floated away, in both cases providing invitation for the unsuspecting to fall into them. In many places there are no roads, only craters filled with dark slush, forcing the already chaotic traffic to find place on the roadway that remains. On the sides of the roads huge mounds of garbage and slush rise, flowing into the craters when the rains descend. Even more reason to avoid the potholes. That is not all though. Ever since the monsoons began, 12 people have been electrocuted to death thanks to live wires finding contact with pools of water. Over the weekend, my own colleague felt a surge of current as he sought to open a metal gate and let our car through. Truly this weekend, I passed through the gates of hell, and felt relief when finally reaching Goa.

And yet, the misery that inhabits the city has not prevented the seductive bounties of consumerism from establishing themselves prominently in the city. Old buildings are pulled down, and high-rise buildings reach into the sky and malls draw you into them with the false promise of decent public space. These buildings exist merely as islands in the sea of wretchedness that is the fate of most of the numbed citizens. Step outside your high-rise where you can create your own little private paradise, and you are back into the urban collapse of Patna 2008. Indeed, as the urban anthropologist Rahul Srivastava points out, such islands of precarious luxury are possible in India, only because of the poverty that is the norm in the rest of the city.

How did this city get this way? Patna’s urban woes can be said to have begun with the attachment of the estates of Bihar’s feudal elite. Left without the rental income from their agricultural properties, the one way they could make money was to sell off their urban properties, in many cases the land around their homes, and raise high-rise buildings. The result was the chewing up of Patna’s urban fabric. Goa’s rural-urban fabric is being torn up today for similar reasons. Goans are waking up to the fact that the State has not really invested in making Goa productive for its citizens. The result of this lack of investment is that the land they own, is the only resource that Goans possess, which must be sold if they are to make a transition into the global economy. If there was no creative solution to the crisis that the abolition of the zamindaris threw up, there is no serious response to this lack of investment by the Goan state. Captured as it is by politicians playing the role of middlemen, the sale of land and conversion into housing developments continues unabated. The result as many of us in Goa have rightly foreseen, is an urban disaster scenario not unlike the one that Patna is witness to today.

The high-rises and malls that emerge in Patna, are also based on another principle, one being assiduously followed in Goa. The right to profit of a real-estate developer is to be secured at all cost; regardless of the costs to the environment, or the general public. As such, if one has money, and sees a business opportunity, one could take an old house, or an orchard, and convert it into a high-rise building complex. It matters not whether the city (or the village) has the capacity to deal with the sewage and solid waste that this complex will generate. It matters little if this will result in a quantum leap in the amount of vehicles on the roads. It matters little what the impact will be on the electricity and water requirements of the people. Based on the land-use rules created by a blinkered bureaucracy the buildings come up, and (quite literally) pave the way for urban disaster. Clearly then, what emerges is the need for something that is being followed neither in Patna, nor in Goa; coherent socio-economic planning that is he basis for sustainable land-use planning.

The GCCI and various professional groups recently paid a visit to the Chief Minister protesting the setbacks to business in the state that the sustained public movement in Goa is allegedly creating. It’s a pity they didn’t make a case for rigorous socio-economic planning that would result in a hassle-free environment and a stage for sustainable development. But then, as in the atomized society that Patna plays host to, it appears that these groups are really after immediate personal profits rather than the sustained generation of profit for an entire society.

It is an atomized society that creates the peculiar environment that Patna is witness to. It creates enclaves of difference, in a sea of normality. Thus you have little islands of upper and middle class existence co-existing side-by-side with absolute and shocking poverty and degraded conditions of living. The lives lived inside the malls and the high-rises are not normal, they are an aberration. The normal condition is the condition that one finds spread out across the city, between islands of high-rise. In the course of my stay in Patna, I stayed in a compound located within a working-classs Muslim neighbourhood. The compound hosted around five high-rise buildings, all of which were populated by middle-class Muslims. In this situation too we have the playing out of difference and normality. What is being created, through the creation of an environment of fear in the city, are Muslim ghettos, where Muslims are forced to huddle together for security. The perverseness of the situation is such though, that even within their ghetto, society creates conditions where the oppressed cannot find solidarity amongst each other. And so it is, that within the larger ghetto, a smaller ghetto is created of middle-class Muslims, pitched against their working class brethren.

Xenophobic Goans love to project Goa as radically different from Bihar, blaming the (Bihari) migrant for our problems. The sad truth however is that we are not very different from Bihar. On the contrary, we are actively creating Patna-like situations in Goa. Give us a few years and we may not have to live in Patna for ten whole years to find ourselves a place in heaven. Hell will exist right in our own Goan backyard.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 10th September 2008)

Offerings of Silence

The events of the past one week have been extremely disturbing. For at least a week now, Christians in Orissa have been the target for groups of extremists who have been doing to these Christians in Orissa what was done, not so long ago, to the Muslims of Gujarat. From news reports we hear that while the Government is able to contain violence in urban areas, in the villages it is a free-for-all as Christian villagers flee to the jungle at sunset to save their lives from their hunters. The only crime of these Oriyas is that they are Christian and according to the supporters of the slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the killers of the Swami were Christian.

Meanwhile in Mangalore a venerable healing institution, Fr Muller’s Hospital was attacked by a mob with alleged links to Hindu extremist organizations. The reason for this attack? A girl who attempted suicide was brought in, and owing to the refusal of her family to shift her to the ICU succumbed to her attempt to end her life. This provided the mob with reason to vandalize the premises of the hospital claiming negligence of the doctors.

In Goa, trouble has been brewing in Porvorim since Janmashtami where, once again, a bunch of Hindu nationalists have violently usurped the open space of a housing colony and established a shrine there. According to reports, rather than prevent the clash between these nationalists and the residents of the colony who were out to protect their open space, the police stood by as mute spectators.

In another incident that occurred only the day before yesterday, the Muslims of Quepem were prevented from praying namaz in a building that they had taken on hire. It is the month of Ramazan and a time for more frequent offering of prayers. Objection was brought to this hiring of the hall, and the Muslims compelled by the local authorities to give up the use of the hall and congregate in a household instead. Further more, they were told to pray in congregation not five times a day, but two times a day. The authorities were no doubt acting in the ‘public interest’ attempting to ensure that there was no ‘provocation’ and invitation for communal conflagration. But what sort of justice is this? A group goes about obtaining permissions and meekly hires a hall (rather than take over public space) to offer prayers in the course of the most spiritually intense month in their calendar. A known troublemaker in the area objects to this. And so, it is the law-abiding citizen, who in the public interest is prevented from exercising his right to freedom of religion, so that the fascist element at large is able to enjoy free rein?

There are two elements that unite these four episodes. The first is that there is no logical or justifiable reason for provocation of violent attack on the minorities in this country. That you are minority is enough and even the whisper of a rumour is justification for violent action. The other element is the inability or the unwillingness of the State to take any action that will set matters right. Porvorim is not the only place where police have reportedly remained as mute spectators to communal violence. This happened in Gujarat, and this happened in Fontainhas, Panjim. These two elements combine to confirm to us the steady rise of the Hindu right in this country as it bullies not just non-Hindu minorities, but even those Hindus who chose to differ in opinion and practice from these extremists. We are seeing a consistent pattern where the law is being used to silence the oppressed rather than control the aggressor.

In the face of this bleak scenario therefore I can offer you this week only silence. The silent sorrow that mourns lives lost, the silence of betrayal when faced with a State that seems unwilling to protect, the silence of shock when one realizes that one’s very existence is unwelcome.

"Sometimes the silence can be like thunder" - Bob Dylan

(Published in the Gomantak Times 3rd September 2008)