Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Racist? In Australia? Of Indian Racism and International Ambitions

The Indian electronic media it appears, is doing its best to convince its audiences that ‘Indians’ in Australia are becoming the target of ‘racist attacks’. In this attempt, it has been highlighting episodes, a number from the city of Melbourne to justify this argument. While there can be no doubt that a number of persons of Indian nationality have been the target of physical assault, especially in the tragic case of Nitin Garg, these incidents do not necessarily add up to a case of ‘racist attacks on Indians’. On the contrary, if we read closely, what we see is evidence of an Indian racism, and its desire to be a globally recognized super power.

Go beyond the hype that prevents a rational analysis of the events and one realizes that the ‘racist attacks’ in Australia are a result of dishonest and partial representation of facts by the Indian media. Indian audiences have not been presented details of the larger crime levels and patterns involved in the cases where Indians have been attacked. If one reads the attacks on Indians within this larger framework, one realizes that the Indians are merely a part of a much larger collection of crime statistics. Further, in many of these cases, the attackers have invariably not been identified, especially in the case of Nitin Garg who died after being stabbed repeatedly. Read closely, and from within Indian reporting itself, and one sees that the possible explanations for his death include revenge killing, either for loans not repaid, or for not supporting this crazy campaign of racist attacks.

When one does not know the identity (racial or otherwise) or motivations of these attackers, or the larger context within which these attacks occur, it seems a little premature to brand these attacks racist. However, if one knows the psyche of Indian nationalists, one begins to gain a glimmer into what exactly is going on.

Let us preface this attempt to figure out what is going on by referring to an observation of the rather noted postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarthy. Chakarbarthy observes that, “Within India, …racism is thought of as something that the white people do to us”. With this observation before us we begin to see the various components of the equation. There are two actors in this equation, the white person, and the Indian. Read history into this equation and more is revealed. The Indian obsession with the white person and their racist behaviour towards ‘us’ stems from the colonial experience when the British-Indian elite desperately desired (as they were entitled to) Imperial citizen status. Unfortunately for them, this status was denied them, reducing them to equality with other Imperial subjects like the black African. Realizing at some point that they would never achieve this coveted status, they began the demand for independence. As should be clear for any keen observer of international affairs however, this desire for recognition by the ‘white’ person did not go away with Independence, it persists. The Indian elite are persistent with their demand for equal status with the ‘white man’. It is not a mere coincidence that the country we today call India bears this name. India was the creation of the British Raj, and each segment that resulted from its liberation gained different names, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bharat (that is India). The name India was retained for Bharat (a distasteful Hindu rightwing name in any case) so as to appear to the world as the successor state to the British Raj. The imperial and global desires of India’s elite should be clear from this choice.

Even in the reporting on the Australian incidents, what is interesting to note is that all of the episodes involve Indian nationals or those with Indian origin. What of the others with South Asian origins in Australia? Are they being attacked too? If not, then the implication is that there is a hunt-down-and-destroy Indians operation on in Australia. Since this is clearly too bizarre a possibility to be believed, we would have to fall back to the proposition being suggested here, that the incidents are the product of Indian racism and the international ambitions of its elite.

To cast the Australian episodes as racist attacks on Indians reduces Australia to a country with two racial players, the ‘Indian’ and the ‘white’. This equation erases the various other actors from multiple ‘racial’ types that could attack ‘Indians’. The equation also constructs Indian nationals as being of the Indian race, and it erases other South Asians in Australia, who if the reporting is true, are also being attacked but are not being given any coverage. This erasure is typical of the elite Indian world-view, obsessed with gaining the respect of the white man. However there is another angle to this, which is the continuation of imperial ambitions by the elite Indian.

By casting the Australian episodes as ‘racist attacks’ on Indians, and through their shrill reporting and demands, the electronic media is forcing the Indian government to react and respond. While it is only natural that a Government should be concerned if its nationals are the butt of attacks in a foreign country, the media seems to be demanding more than this. They are demanding action. This form of action is one that has been made familiar by superpowers, notably America, and popularized by Hollywood. These are the marks of a globally recognized superpower, an international player, and this is exactly what the Indian state is being maneuvered to doing.

One could perhaps justify action and response by a State if its nationals are being attacked, but what the media is demanding and laying the groundwork for goes beyond this. With this creation of the Indian ‘race’, and some sort of legal framework for this, though the constitution of the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) status, and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI), what is being prepared is for an Indian state response whenever the interests from this racial category are threatened or challenged. This kind of global leadership based on championing an essentially racially based, and exclusive cause, seems terribly regressive, if not downright scary!

The ‘Indian’ seems congenitally blinded to its own racism and the Australian episodes are a perfect example of this racism. This is not to suggest that Australia is not a highly racialized society. It is, but that should not blind us from seeing the racism that continually operates within Indian minds, and that seems to be at the basis, or is a tool at any rate, for its elites’ international ambitions.

(Scheduled for publication in the Gomantak Times, 27 Jan 2010)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Faith, Hindus, Christians and Cynics: A Letter to Sudin

Dear Sudin,

A couple of weeks ago, I read a letter to the editor in one of our local newspapers. Written by a Hindu gentleman who had visited a temple dedicated to Shantadurga, the letter does not indicate to us why he went there. One presumes however, that he was there to perform a ritual. While at the temple, he came across a farmer who was there to beg the intercession of the Goddess. He had suffered rodent damage to his crop, and was convinced, or so the narrator of this letter tells us, that sprinkling the teertha (holy water) in the fields would save him and his crop. This simple (and perhaps naïve) faith of the farmer proved too much for our gentleman narrator, and in his letter to the editor, exhorts that we must cease such practices of blind superstition and adopt scientific principles and rationality.

I have to confess on reading this letter I was most upset. While I might join the narrator in thinking the farmer’s practices naïve, surely they are just as naïve as the reasons that the narrator was in the temple in the first place? For what was our narrator doing in the temple? Was it not to honour a deity of graven stone?

You will realize that I am not rubbishing the practice of the worship of the Goddess. I am merely challenging the supercilious attitude of our narrator, asking him to indicate where blind superstitious faith ends, and rational belief begins! While the formulation above was clear to my mind, I nevertheless felt that I was missing something in my analysis of the issue.

A few days ago, in the course of a virtual chat, I was eager to impress you that I speak about the importance of faith in public life, not in religion. You retorted, indicating that perhaps this ‘faith’ was something you (Christians) have, whereas we (Hindus) don’t need it, it is enough that ‘we’ perform the ritual. No sooner had you made this suggestion, did I realize what was bothering me about this letter I have just elaborated on above. My response will deal with two issues; the first the whole idea that the Hindu/ Indian is alien to faith (this being a Christian/ Western innovation) and second the implications of this faithless religion.

In its attempt to dominate the world, colonialism set up certain binaries of virtues. Thus if the colonizer was material, the colonized was spiritual. If the colonizer intelligent, the colonized innocent. In these binaries, the colonized always landed up with the least flattering, as the colonizer was cast as the mature and pragmatic sibling in the relationship. These binaries were wildly popular during the halcyon days of nationalism. In the attempt to give the colonized a voice, rather than challenge these binaries, these binaries were valorized and made the basis of the colonized’s challenge. While we don’t engage in such childishly embarrassing binaries today, the tendency remains. There is an attempt at shallow sophistication. Thus colonialism is now tied to Christianity, and this faith-tradition is counterposed to the native traditions, and differences trotted out. Christianity has a text, Hinduism does not. Christianity has faith, Hinduism does not, and so forth. The idea is to cast colonialism as bringing modernity, and in face of the problems and violences of modernity, to suggest that the non, and pre-modern can provide a useful platform for a challenge to our modern mess. This is the intellectual origin of the suggestion that the Hindu has no need for faith.

Surely the encounter in the temple narrated above should convince you that the ‘pagan’ native is capable of and not innocent to faith. Empirically therefore, your argument should fall flat on its face. It is possible that you would choose to argue that this native has learned faith from the Christian. I trust you will not go down this embarrassing path and deny the bliss of faith to the native. Should you choose to do so however, what you are effectively doing is to suggest that Christianity is forever alien to native soil (a preposterous position for reasons beyond my being a South-Asian Christian). Secondly, you would be suggesting that the native faith traditions have somehow emerged fully formed, without any evolution, or that any evolution has been entirely indigenous.

In response to your argument however, I will not deny that there are Hindus who operate without faith. This is not however, exclusively a Hindu domain, since this dubious facility is shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews as well. These people fulfill their religious obligations, but do so recognizing that these are religious rituals that must be performed for the social sanction they obtain. Thus John Fernandes will take his children to mass, and introduce them to First Holy Communion, even though he thinks the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection to be ‘scientifically impossible’ and thus akin to our farmer’s use of teertha.

In these days of religious revivalism, fundamentalism et al, it is not the faithful that I fear. It is the religious. That is, those who operate in the field of religion without faith. It is true that the fields of faith and religion intersect so often that it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. The faithful can be gullible, but it is the cynical, those who perform religious ritual, without a belief in its spiritual merit, that are perhaps more to be feared.

In the course of my itinerations round Goa, I have seen the cynics that populate the temples, obsessed more with using the Goddess as a tool to power, rather than falling prostrate at Her feet. The narrator of the letter, I would wager is one of them. The product of his cynicism, is that not only is there a failure to grow in the virtues of trust and mutual dependence that faith brings, but it brings also, as was so obvious from the letter to the editor, a certain disdain for those of the lower order. These ‘superstitious’ are seen as in- need-of-education, and at the end of the day, merely tools for us to reach the paradise that we have deemed fit for creation. Indeed, as the good Pope Benedict XVI repeats constantly, contemporary man, having displaced God, arrogates unto himself the power of God, but in the process renders fellow humans less than human. Setting out to create paradise, he invariably produces the hell of contemporary existence.

To these ramblings, I would welcome your comments.

(Sudin, is the pseudonym for a Goan (Hindu) currently engaged in a PhD in the UK. While Sudin is a pseudonym, all other references are entirely factual.)

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 13 Jan 2010)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Gift of the Magi: The Goan Catholic, Romi Konkani and the Edge of Faith

On the second of January, Literati a rather charming bookstore in Candolim hosted the release of ‘Edge of Faith’. A collection of photographic images by the eminent fashion photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, ‘Edge of Faith’ captures images from the lives of Goan Catholics. He photographs them in their drawing rooms, their inner chambers, at church, their homes and their shrines. While some of the photographs in the compilation speak to the continuing vitality of the Goan Catholic, the work and the artist are both troubled by the specter of the impending, and slowly unfolding, disappearance into history of the Goan Catholic.

If the overwhelming sense at the release of ‘Edge of Faith’ was that the requiem was being sung for the Goan Catholic, there was another event where the sense could not have been more different. Earlier that same evening, the Black Box in the Kala Academy hosted the commemoration of the birth of Lucasinho Ribeiro. It was the result of Lucasinho’s innovations in Bombay in 1892, that resulted in the Tiatr, a dramatic art form that would (and continues to, if we look at the Dogui Bodmas Colva episode!) shake the Goan cultural world.

Organized by the newly formed Tiatr Academy of Goa, this event was perhaps the first official commemoration of Lucasinho’s birthday by a government-sponsored body. This commemoration should be seen as a part of a series of events that have been organized by a group of activists, led by the redoubtable Tomazinho Cardozo, to gain official recognition and respect for what is called Romi-Konkani and the literary and cultural forms it has produced.

Since at least the year 2005, this group of cultural activists has been demanding that the official recognition of Konkani be extended to that written in the Roman script, and not restricted Konkani written in the Nagari script alone. It has been their argument that with the official recognition of the Devanagari script alone, the cultural productions that stem from those who write Konkani in the Roman script; Cantar, Tiatr, the novels written in Roman script, have been actively spurned by the State. Since 2005 this movement has gone from strength to strength. It has managed to rally a constituency for this variant of Konkani and secured official recognition for its art forms.

Despite the charge of deliberate erasure that this linguistic group asserts, almost every event they organize is marked by a huge amount of vitality and determination. They recognise that they are being kicked while they are down, and yet convinced of the vibrancy of their cultural productions, are willing to fight it out, and garner the recognition they believe they deserve. The commemoration of the birth anniversary of Lucasinho Ribeiro was no different. It was filled with the piquancy of political satire, of the joy that comes from cultural creativity, and the recognition of the continuing relevance of cultural traditions.

If both these events stem from the cultural experience of the Goan Catholic, and both recognize a threat to cultural existence, how do we make sense of the radical difference in the emotional states of the two gatherings?

Perhaps the key to unlocking this mystery lies in the explorations of connections. In the first case, it appears as if the people that Prabuddha photographed saw themselves as objects produced solely by colonialism, unconnected to the land, and with colonialism’s demise, dying a slow death. In the face of the suffocating embrace of Indian nationalism, and bereft of a vibrant argument, they must necessarily wait for their time in the sun to pass. This seems absolutely not the case with the Romi activists. While largely Catholic, these activists, refuse to have their movement labeled as that of Goan Catholics alone, their alliance composed of Hindus and Muslims. Their argument is that what they have to offer is a popular culture that can, and is in fact embraced by all Goans.

Rather than stress separateness, the Romi activist stresses connection. In the course of their activism the Romi activists are forging a new public culture. It is contemporary, it is political, and it exudes the aroma of a living Goa. It is not one that excludes all of the established practices of new-Goan culture established by the post-integration State. It adopts these and adds to it; continuing practices, manners and language that may have been abolished by State practices, but otherwise resonates with the people. There is the recognition of threat here, but no fear of death, there is hope and there is faith.

Interestingly enough, it was faith that was on

display at both the events that evening. At the chronologically prior Tiatr Academy event, faith (as opposed to religion) was unselfconsciously introduced to popular culture in the manner in which God was invoked to shower blessings on the audience that had gathered as one family. This faith was made manifest in the example of conduct of right action that the Cantarists sang about as they critiqued contemporary society and politics. In the images that Prabuddha displayed later that evening, once more it was faith that came shining through. And this was not because a number of his images are located within the precincts of churches. The subjects of the images exuded a quiet determination that Prabuddha remarked on. There was a sense that ‘this too shall pass’.

The image that closed the display of Prabuddha’s photographs that evening was of a freshly white-washed cross, somewhere in the Goan country, emerging, from a pile of roughly hewn stones, almost swayambhu from the ground. The image is polyphonic. One can read it as a symbol of the foreign, or one can see it as a faith, rooted solidly in home-soil. There are those among the Goan Catholics, who see Christianity, not primarily as faith, but as religion. With this materialist understanding, they see a foreign history, unconnected to the soil and are unable to reconcile that with the present. For these people, it is true, the final pages of the Goan Catholic are being written. For others however, this faith, is an unselfconscious part of their being. It is not merely an identity. For these people, rooted solidly to the ground, the past is a rock on which they stand in the present, and from which they look toward their future. For these people, the story of their evolution is only now being written, and there is a lot more to look forward to!

(First published in the Gomantak Times, 6 Jan 2009)