Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Playing with the Past: Reparations, Positive discrimination and Democracy

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to listen in on a discussion on the issue of reparations demanded by African-Americans for the sufferings endured by that social-group in the USA. The presenter was rather emphatic that while one could morally sympathize with the demand, it was a political non-starter. Rather than look at the issue from the issue of success or failure however, it would perhaps make sense to explore the implications of the political demand for reparations. Such a discussion of reparations makes sense for us in Goa, for a couple of reasons. First, because the idea of reparations requires the identification of a definite group that would then receive presumably regular installments of money, it is similar to the Indian system of reservations. True, reservations is not about the provision of an income but it does involve similar bureaucratic processes of identification and subsequent support of entitled populations. A discussion on reparations could thus twine with a larger debate on the much-loathed reservation system. Secondly, it could also respond to the suggestion that was cursorily made, a couple of years ago, of reparations to be made to those who suffered the brunt of the early misadventures of Portuguese colonialism in the territory.

A useful entry point into this contemplation of the idea of reparations would be to try and locate it within a broader context. Can reparations be seen as a part of positive discrimination? Reparations seems like it could be a part of positive discrimination, since it seeks to redress the wrongs of people who we see (for the Afro-Americans in the US context, and the Dalits in the Indian) as having suffered historical wrongs, and hence are at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder today. But to see positive discrimination in this light would be quite a mistake, since it pushes positive discrimination into the trap of humanitarian aid; rather than an exercise in egalitarianism that it ought to be.

In a discussion that inspired this column, political scientist Neera Chandhoke makes a crystal-clear distinction between the two. She points out that humanitarianism is concerned not with closing the gap that perpetuates inequalities, but with transferring some of the benefits from the well-off to those in dire straits. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is a relational concept that focuses on lessening the gap. When incorporated into law or a justice system, humanitarianism endorses the handing out of favours that flow from good intentions. Egalitarianism on the other hand would result in a justice system that prevents the systemic production of the inequalities that it encounters, that may or may not be a result of historical wrongs.

Reparations therefore, cannot be a part of a system of positive discrimination. A system of egalitarian justice is not going to dole out money to you, merely because your ancestors arguably suffered some terrible injustice in the past. If your present socio-economic condition is seriously hampered as opposed to other groups alone, can one think of a system of incentives through which the gap of inequality is bridged.

The argument for reparations however, achieves another, perhaps more pernicious goal. It mobilizes people under the banner of a single community, erasing the class (and other) differences that may exist among them. The goal of this group is to continue receiving what are now perceived as benefits, rather than rights to enjoy equality. Within India we know of such groups as ‘vote banks’. These vote banks emerge however not because those who are seeking reparations, or reservations for that matter, are sly comfort-seekers. On the contrary, that they operate in this way is an outcome of the manner in which democracy is understood. Thus Chandhoke observes that in the Indian context, ‘social justice as a component of egalitarianism, which ideally should include land reform, income generation policies, redressal of inequality and securing the well being of the disprivileged, has been collapsed into reservations in educational institutions and in government jobs. Reservations, which should have formed one component of social justice, have come to substitute for social justice'.

Once cast in this manner, those who are at the receiving end of the stick, have little option but to work within the rules of the game. As she observes ‘reservations in effect have proved a soft option for political elites, who are reluctant to carry out deep-rooted changes in society’. The failure to carry out deep-rooted changes means that while superficially a person may benefit from reservation, in a good number of cases, the stigma of being a Scheduled caste continues to stick. Similarly for the Africa-American person in America, who may be successful, but often-time may have to deal with a social stigma that is hard to erase.

Indeed, by virtue of making reservations the only option for the Indian dalit, reservations have ritualized caste humiliation in the public sphere, and also ensured that caste will never go away. Anti-reservationists may see reservations as a free lunch ticket, but in fact the process through which one has to identify oneself as Scheduled Caste, and then carry that label through one’s educational life, is a terribly humiliating experience. Speaking as it does to a humanitarian justice system, reparations reinforce the roles of the elite and the subaltern, the eternally damned and the eternally superior. The demand for reparations therefore indicates a deeper malaise with the kind of political systems we have. While democratic in form, they are not dynamic polities that move forward, but are polities caught within a vicious cycle that repeat the past in differing forms.

The demand for reparations then is not the sign of a healthy democracy. In some contexts it could be the ploy of social elites attempting to create political capital by creating a community that has allegedly been harmed in the past. This lays a wonderful foundation for fascism. In other cases, it is a revelation of the manner in which democracy rather than fulfilling a egalitarian function, serves merely a humanitarian one.

Positive discrimination is a good idea, and one that involves a wide variety of measures, that also takes into consideration the baggage of the past. Reparations on the other hand are just a bad, bad idea!

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times, 31 March 2010)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Benedictus, Qui Venit: When a letter speaks to more than the immediate…

It seems rather appropriate that Pope Benedict XVI released his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland on the feast day of St. Joseph, the Catholic model for fatherhood. The Letter is directed toward resolving the controversy around Child sexual abuse that has erupted in Ireland. Right at the very outset, at para 4 of the letter, the Pope indicates that the crisis has its roots in the “the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society” a transformation that he argues impacted on the religious no less than it did on the lay. Also, he argues, “The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted” resulting in a certain laxity in following both tradition and canon law. This larger context was compounded by “inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person”.

In identifying the problem in this way, the Pope continues his critique of the problems that secularization, in the sense of a divorcing of spirituality from our lives, has brought to our world. In identifying the problem in this manner, without explicitly saying so, he sharply disagrees with secular critiques of the problem. He does not say that these cases of sexual abuse are the result of the requirement of celibacy by Catholic religious. The problem he argues is the result of spiritual and moral laxity. This logic seems to be in keeping with the larger position of the Church with regard to human sexuality; the human being is not only about physical desires. The human being is much more than his or her physical desires, and has to necessarily restrain oneself from what is known to be wrong.

There is another side to his analysis of the problem. The Pope rather appropriately points out, that “that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church”. However when saying this, he does not shy away from the fact that there has been something amiss within the Church. Where the tendency towards sexual abuse is open to all human beings, once it has occurred, the question is how we deal with it. The letter is clear that the problem lies in the manner in which these cases of child abuse have been dealt with. The letter is clear that the manner in which the local Church sought to deal with the testimonies of those abused, and with the guilty, was definitely gravely lacking.

It has been observed that given the rash of abuse controversies that seem to be hitting the Catholic Church, spreading from the initial and highly-publicized scandals in the US, this pastoral letter of the Pope will be read for direction and guidance all over the world. While this may be so, we may find that given the manner in which he has located the problem, the letter may be, and indeed, MUST be read by local Churches, for an insight into issues beyond sexual abuse.

The manner in which the testimonies of the abused in Ireland, and the guilty in those cases, were dealt with may sound familiar, in entirely different contexts, to those living in Goa. Time and again parishioners from various parts of the territory allege that when they wish to highlight the misdemeanors of errant priests, they are faced with a silent and sullen community, both religious AND lay. Appeals to the office of the Archbishop go unanswered. When responded to, it appears that the manner of the response, where one is confronted with a committee, rather than the paternal and pastoral figure of the Bishop, leaves complainants feeling let down. Where religious have been caught with their hands in the till, the response apparently is to transfer them to another post, rather than take strict, canonically sanctioned penal action against them. At times in the face of a clear violation of canon law, one is presented with the blithe response that a waiver for the operation of this particular aspect of the law has been sanctioned. This column does not wish to provide the stamp of truth to these allegations. Nevertheless, a personal experience leads me to believe that the Catholic Church in Goa; hierarchy, religious and laity, would do well, especially given our presence in the season of Lent, to reflect on this letter and engage in some serious soul searching.

Toward this end, let us redirect our attention once more on the extract already referred to above. “…inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person”.

This extract seems to ring particularly true in the context of the continuing accusations that the hierarchy and clergy of the Church (through errant members) have participated in the destruction of the Goan environment, and the embarrassment that was the official response of the Archbishopric to the Dogui Bodmas incident.

When speaking of our ‘misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal’ the Pope seems to suggest our attention in the direction of the image of the pilgrim church. The Church is a human institution struggling to follow in the footsteps of its founder. The hierarchy should not loose sight of this fact, and open itself to suffer scandal and ensuing persecution, especially if it is for the larger goal of safeguarding ‘the dignity of every person’. We should not forget that it is these persons, in the singular and the collective, who make up the body of the Church. The infringement of their dignity leaves the body of the Church itself, wounded.

For the Goan Catholic, as with Catholics across the world, the Big Boss has spoken. His letter while focused firmly on the sin of sexual abuse, speaks to contexts beyond sexual abuse. Do we hear it speaking to us?

(A version of this article was first published in the Gomantak Times, 24 March 2010)


The title of this blog has been taken from the title of a post on the blog titled Whispers in the Loggia. The phrase is an extract from the larger Latin phrase 'Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini' that translates to 'Blessed who comes in the name of the Lord'.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

O Que É O Racismo, Afinal?: What Exactly Is Racism At The End Of The Day?

Perhaps you have shared this experience when visiting the ‘western world’? The persons of South Asian descent there have an uncanny way of locating you in the crowd and staring, if even for a moment, at you. Finding these looks rather disconcerting, I complained to a friend some time ago that I had no idea how to respond to these, at times searching, glances. I had no idea what these glances were supposed to mean. How was I to respond to them?

The route to response was suggested sometime yesterday at a seminar that bore the title of this column. Speaking at the seminar, Brackette Williams, an anthropologist based in the United States, drawing from the experience of coloured persons in the United States, suggested that those glances were in fact glances looking for acknowledgement. A racist society, or a society that discriminates against certain kinds of persons, has the effect of negating the existence of that person. Perhaps this society doesn’t even have to be consciously discriminatory. The mere fact of being a minority results in a situation where one does not feel that one’s being, one’s existence is acknowledged sufficiently. When one coloured person looks at another, especially in contexts where they are the minority, these glances then, are glances that are looking for acknowledgement. To not acknowledge these glances, Williams elaborated, was to participate in racism. Williams pushed the concept a little further, when she argued that it didn’t matter if we were too busy thinking about our failing finances, if we were lost in our own world. When we failed to acknowledge that glance, we were engaging in racist behaviour.

Sitting in the audience, recognizing the truth of Williams' observation, I sank somewhat into my seat, feeling like Judas at the Last Supper. When we do see those glances and choose to look away, or not acknowledge them, what we are doing is refusing to acknowledge a relationship between ourselves and that person. What we are trying to do is to distance ourselves from ‘those people’. We can justify this distancing to ourselves. Invariably, it is one created by or justified by class. And yet, after Williams' observation, how can we not acknowledge that at the end of the day, it is about race?

Williams' observations, forced a recollection of Kiran Desai’s observations in her book The Inheritance of Loss. Observing on the antics of South Asians as they queue up before the U.S. Embassy, to apply for a visa, she points out how those from the upper rungs of this society, distinguish themselves from the socio-economic ‘lower orders’ of their society. This distinguishing is achieved through the looks of scorn for the ‘lower orders’ lack of English, manners or some other civilizing feature. It is achieved through our dress, or it is achieved best of all, through the rich, cultivated tones of our ‘posh’ accents. Desai perhaps captures it best in the phrase where she describes how Biju struggles to get a visa to the U.S. After successfully pushing himself forward “he dusted himself off, presenting himself with the exquisite manners of a cat. I'm civilized, sir, ready for the U.S., I'm civilized, ma’am. Biju noticed that his eyes, so alive to the foreigners, looked back at his own countrymen and women, immediately glazed over, and went dead”.

Class is such a cunning way in which we mask our own racism. And we often do not have to traverse to foreign climes to practice this racism. Read Rochelle Pinto’s book, Between Empires for a discussion on how the nineteenth century elite Goans in Bombay sought to distinguish themselves from their more vernacular brethren who populated the Coors in that city. These elite Goans, westernized to an extent of being able to justifiably see themselves as ‘European’, marked themselves out from the other Goans in the city. We continue those inherited practices today, when we turn our nose up at the Tiatr, at the language and the literature produced by those who write Konkani in the Roman script, and when we shut our ears to Cantaram.

Social scientists claim that Racism is a particularly difficult concept to elaborate because one can never pin it down. This is perhaps because race and racism is one of the foundational concepts of the international order that structures our national and local existence as well. It is the systemic logic that manifests itself in even the smallest actions we undertake. These contemplations apart however, we do now have an explanation for the, until yesterday inexplicable, glances shared between coloured persons as they pass each other in the streets of the ‘western’world.

Therefore, for the times that we have erred in not acknowledging our brethren in the street; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times on March 10 2010)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Recovering the Republic – II: A Dalit epistemology

It is only recently that I have managed to understand the term ‘epistemology’. Simply but not particularly helpfully put, epistemology is the knowledge or science (logos) of knowledge (episteme). In my own befuddled way therefore, allow me to suggest that epistemology is concerned with interrogating the ways in which we construct our knowledge of the world. What are the bases, the places from which we derive our knowledge? Marginalized groups across the world will assert that the fonts of knowledge are invariably the experiences of dominant groups, not the experiences of the marginalized. Indeed, a popular phrase pertinent to our discussion is that ‘History is always written by the victors’. In fact, it is because the victors define knowledge based from their experiences that they invariably continue to remain dominant and victorious. A part of the project of any marginalized group therefore, is to ensure that fields of study, and knowledge itself, incorporate subaltern experiences giving them validity as the basis of scientific inquiry and knowledge systems.

This column is the second of a two-part response to the critiques of my earlier column that called for a commemoration of the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic. The column was built on the assertion of a Goan Bahujan activist, who claimed that he first received freedom with the declaration of the Portuguese republic in 1910. Citing historical fact, that the Portuguese republic did not intend to reform feudal Goan society, or that the Portuguese republic paved the way for harsh colonial regimes, a friend suggested that perhaps this Bahujan activist was mistaken.

This suggestion is a precise and wonderful example of how the experiences and assertions of the marginalized are held to be incapable of being the basis for any serious intellectual thought. In the south-Asian continent, we have our own peculiar way of ensuring marginalization through the caste system. Interestingly and not unsurprisingly, in the course of the session where our Bahujan activist made this link between his freedom experience and the Portuguese Republic, a prominent Goan freedom-fighter, stood up, livid with rage and shouted in that public assembly ‘Arrey makdan, thum amkam ved shikoitai?’ (You damn monkey, are you trying to teach us the Vedas?) It is not coincidental that this activist was referred to as a monkey. An animal, the monkey is commonly understood to be able to only imitate humans, but is incapable of knowing why he does so. Even if it does, it is unable take the intellectual impulse further. That it was a freedom-fighter, a nationalist who shouted out this slur is also a pertinent fact. Bahujan and Dalit assertions invariably stand against nationalist assertions, particularly in the Indian context, where Indian national values are formulated on the basis of upper-caste (whether Hindu or otherwise) experiences and interests.

Indian nationalist constructions of Goan socio-cultural and legal history seek a pre-Portuguese past, and then a post-61 total liberation. The colonial period is presented as one long dark nightmare, particularly harsh for the Hindus of this realm. Our Bahujan activist in hailing the declaration of the Portuguese republic was casting a spanner into this carefully constructed history. Like other Dalit activists, for him, colonialism is not an unmitigated evil. On the contrary, colonialism allowed the Dalit to find liberation from upper-caste oppression through the introduction of modern values, such as a legal regime based on equality. For these internally oppressed, colonialism was not experienced as the humiliation that the upper-caste felt colonialism to be. There is no need for them to reject blindly the entire colonial experience, for they can see it brought hope along with trial.

What this Bahujan activist was doing was to open our eyes to places where our caste and nationalist influenced sight would not go. He was not mistaken, he was not misinformed; his assertion was a conscious and deliberate claim. It is a claim that those of us who claim sympathy for the Bahujan-Dalit cause must take up. This claim stands between two strands of popular Goan historiography. One that sees the colonial period as a dark interlude, and the other that sees it as a lost period we must now lament. Unconcerned with these two largely upper-caste positions, he takes from this period what is necessary for the egalitarian project and moves on. For those who charged me with nostalgia for the colonial era, know that this activist’s position is where my sympathies lie. They lie neither with nationalist Portugal, nor with nationalist India, neither for pre-61 nor post-61. They lie in picking up from our history those threads that will allow us to highlight the struggles towards greater equality. If this means having to smash large portions of the nationalist history of Goa, then so be it.

To buttress the claims of both myself and this Bahujan activist whose claims I seek to amplify, I would like to extract from an essay written by our very own Peter Ronald deSouza. The essay, that follows the conflict around a crematorium a few years ago, is published in the same set of essays on humiliation edited by Gopal Guru that I referred to in part-I of this two-part response. In the course of the essay deSouza observes that ‘the Dalits of the village are relatively new residents, having come to this Old Conquest area during the late colonial period about seventy to eighty years ago, from areas in the New Conquests....These Old Conquests, unlike the New Conquests that came under colonialism during a later phase, suffered the Inquisition, faced the brutalities of the early phase of colonialism, and had to endure and adapt to the Portuguese policies of making Goa a cultural place in the image of Portugal. These dark episodes of history however have a positive underside. It gave the Dalits a chance to escape from the pernicious laws of Manu...which operated in the Konkan socio-cultural landscape, since they now became equal subjects of a European king who did not recognize caste distinctions as valid legal distinctions, and also since it gave them a chance, through migration between the two conquest areas, to reinvent themselves’.

Colonial intervention, for all the problems associated with its, has also enabled, as deSouza points out, the possibility of liberation of the Goan Dalit from caste and feudal oppression. It is only when Dalit experience informs our knowledge, that this fact becomes crystal clear. Incorporating the Dalit experience, allows us to develop a more balanced approach to pre-colonial and colonial Goa, and allows us also, to rescue the Portuguese republic, for all its faults, from the nationalism that suffocates its larger significance.

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times 4 March 2010)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Recovering the Republic - I : Recovering Power from a cynical use of the Law

The column a couple of weeks ago asserting that the centenary of the declaration of the Portuguese Republic was also a Goan event, received a few responses that convinced me of the need to follow that argument with an explanation of some sort. These responses were shocked by the connection made between Dalit and Bahujan consciousness in Goa and the declaration of the Portuguese Republic. The Portuguese Republic, they were at pains to explain, was not an angelic affair committed to equality throughout the Portuguese empire. It had dictatorial tendencies, was entirely concerned with issues in the metropole (that is continental Portugal) and in fact laid the foundations for the persecutions of the Estado Novo under Salazar.

To be fair to these responses, I must admit that they were rightly triggered by my use of the word ‘celebration’ in the context of the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic. Celebration suggests an uncritical appreciation of an event. Commemoration would be a more appropriate term, given that it requires solemn stock-taking of an event, weighing both pros and cons.

Having acknowledged the error in choice of words, I believe that I have gone some distance toward assuaging the outrage of my interlocutors. However, I would now like to address the question that they put to me, whether one can be justified in laying claim to an event that did not have the liberation of the Goan Bahujan in mind. Surely, one critic suggested, this Bahujan activist was mistaken?

The original column that sparked off this response, indicated rather clearly the two edged, cynical use of ideas of liberty and equality that marked the inauguration of the European republics. The bourgeois classes that spearheaded these revolutions made a cynical use of these ideas, largely to ensure a larger support base as they attacked the feudal regime. However, having done so, they were now hostage to the idea that was then implemented by the masses in the slow progress of democracy. Suhas Palshikar, in his essay in the must-read book titled ‘Humiliation: Claims and Context’, edited by Gopal Guru sums it up rather aptly. ‘Democracy’ he says, ‘even only a very formal democracy - cannot be stopped from infusing some amount of democratization’. The moment the bourgeoisie introduced the rather novel idea of ‘power to the people’ they were inviting a group, hitherto outside of the frame of power politics, into its very heart. Once invoked and legitimized in the course of the French Revolution, the roll of democracy was unstoppable, as formerly disenfranchised masses seized the opportunity to rid themselves of inequality.

To understand the complex and cynical politics of Republicanism, have a look at the history of Haiti. The French Revolution was marked by the slogan of equality for all, a slogan taken seriously by the black slaves in Haiti, who declared their freedom and independence. This was, to be sure, hardly the intention of forces dominating the Revolution. The resistance of the French to this declaration led to the Haitian Revolution that eventually saw the declaration of independence of this territory. Equality in republican Europe, was not intended for people of colour, nor for the colonies. Not in France, nor in Portugal. But this should not blind us to the fact that the mere declaration did in fact result in a legal change that allowed people to assert claims that could never be legitimately made until then.

Palshikar extends this logic to nationalist struggles in colonial settings as well. He points out, no doubt referring to the nationalist history of British-India, that ‘similarly, the moment the nationalists in colonial societies departed from exclusively conspiratorial and secret methods and waged ‘people’s struggles’, they were running the risk of their nations being claimed by ordinary people’. Large portions of the Indian elite were not comfortable with the idea of the unwashed masses gaining a say in the governance of the country. This discomfort continues today in such assertions as made by the ‘Friends of the BJP’ when they stress that we as educated know better than the rest of the ‘illiterate’ population.

Clearly then, once the democratic idea is invoked, it fundamentally changes the rules of the game. People who formerly could not even imagine themselves as equal, now begin to hear the powerful voice of the law tell them that they are equal. This powerful voice may be cynical, not meaning what it says, but having uttered these magical words, is now powerless against the influence of its own logic.

A legal history of the territory of Goa would have to necessarily recognize that the Declaration of the Portuguese Republic, that extended equality to all citizens, as a significant moment in this history. To argue that the Portuguese never intended Goans to be equal, is to raise silly nationalist arguments that seek to begin a history of this territory post-1961, or prior to the start of the colonial period. Its purpose is precisely to obscure the fact that this declaration had profound impacts on a far away territory, and was a significant moment in its legal history. A legal history is built on recognition of legal pronouncements, and the job of a legal historian is to probe the impacts that this law has had on different segments of the subject population. In such a history, while we highlight the intention of the law, we also inquire into its consequences intended or otherwise. When we commemorate the events marked out in such a legal history, it is necessary for us to dwell on all facets of this moment.

In the companion piece to this column, I would like to argue, why it is not nostalgia of the Portuguese that motivates the commemoration of the declaration of the Portuguese Republic, but in fact a more domestic agenda of Dalit empowerment. This agenda is least concerned with the predilections of other segments of Goan society. These segments wish to either brand the colonial period as one long, dark, nightmare, without any redeeming feature; or on the other hand, as a glorious dazzling history that sadly ended in 1961. This agenda is interested in unshackling Goa’s colonial history from the shackles that these two groups have placed on it and open up new and democratic ways in which we can imagine and empower ourselves.

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times 3 March 2010)