Friday, April 27, 2018

Interview with Matters India


On 27 April Matters India a news website run by Catholic journalists in India published the transcript of my opinion on challenges in India and the Catholic Church in India. What follows is the full text of that interview.

Jason Keith Fernandes
is an anthropologist from Goa. Currently, he is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research in Anthropology at the University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal. After completing a bachelor’s degree in law at the National Law School of India, Bangalore, he obtained a master’s degree in the sociology of law at the IISL in Spain, and went on to achieve a doctorate in anthropology at the University Institute of Lisbon for his research on the citizenship experience of Goan Catholics. He has also worked in the environmental and developmental sector. Dr. Fernandes has written many journal articles on issues that affect Goa and India, which have appeared in national and international publications. His writings can be accessed at www.dervishnotes.blogspot.com.

Santosh Digal of Matters India spoke to him about some current socio-cultural, political and anthropological issues.
1.       Given your varied academic training, tell us how you would look at the current socio-cultural and political state of contemporary India.
I believe that India is passing through a moment of crisis, the tension of which has been building up for some decades now, as the dreams and promises that animated and underlay its establishment in 1947 have not been realized in these many decades. As time has passed, we can see that of the many possibilities that the nascent Indian state held, the most virulent has come to dominate – namely, India as a Hindu nation. Given that Hinduism is based on caste, what we can see, therefore, is the systematic persecution of those who are not Hindu savarna. What sustains this project of persecution is that it is often joined by those savarna from non-Hindu religions as well – I can specifically think of Muslim dominant castes and Christian dominant castes. But, as Dr. Ambedkar ably demonstrated years ago, this is part of a caste polity. In other words, what we have in contemporary India is a caste polity. Recollect also the political scientist Rajni Kothari’s description of the ‘Congress system’, which was the alliance built up by the leaders in the centre, with dominant castes in the varied regions within the Indian state. In other words, caste was always central to the Indian polity.
I would like to point out that I use the word polity, and not society, deliberately. This is to suggest, as I hope I will be able to elaborate later, that it is not merely a case of caste in the social structure but rather that caste has become a part of the state as well. So, both state and society – i.e. the polity – operate according to the logic of caste.
Speaking more specifically about the present, it seems to me that all too often, Prime Minister Modi is presented as the cause of the crisis. I choose to disagree with this proposition. Modi is merely a manifestation of the larger crisis that I have just discussed. In fact, I was struck by the flurry of activity organized by his government the moment he came to power: the attention to his dress, the various programs to renew the nation. These were not novel interventions. India had seen them before, though not crammed so intensely in such a short period, during the decades of Nehru-Gandhi dominance. What the BJP was doing was recognizing India’s existential crisis and going back to established principles to reinvent the nation. If it was not Modi, it would have been someone else. Had it not been the BJP, then we would have seen another party – perhaps a faction within the Congress disposition. Indeed, let us not forget that the Congress has contributed in no small way to the establishment of Hindu nationalist rhetoric and practice within India. The BJP, no doubt, is accentuating it manifold.
What gives hope, however, is the fact that there is so much resistance to this project. The Indian caste polity is being opposed by a variety of groups that are challenging the hegemony of the dominant castes, and this also explains the widespread violence across contemporary India. The trouble with this opposition, however, is that all too often, it gets co-opted into the language of Hindu nationalism or remains within the logic of the caste polity – i.e. the idea is merely to displace the dominant, not to change the logic of the system.
2.       Despite rapid progress in technology and scientific achievements, the resurgence of primordial sentiments and obscurantist ideas, sectarian animosities and communal belligerence are tearing asunder our heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist social fabric.
Actually, I think that it is the presence of technology and the increased access to it that has created the rise of these tensions that you mention. We need to remember that this expansion of the market has happened not out of love for the population but to meet the needs of national and international capital. The problem, however, is that this expansion of capitalism has encountered opposition in the caste polity. Once again, remember that a caste system rests on the fact that those lower in the hierarchy do not have access to the privileges that are restricted to a few. As such, when one is in an economy where persons from marginalised castes and communities now have access to the same goods and privileges as those from dominant communities, it is expected that members of these dominant groups who are not reconciled with an egalitarian polity will seek to suppress this access. Let us also not forget that the caste system does not operate by itself; it is able to function only because of the constant enforcement of its exclusions through violence. As such, the increased expansion of the market and access to technologies, and the assertion of these marginalized groups, is met with the violence that we are witnessing.
I would also like to point out that what we are witness to is not the resurgence of primordial sentiments. Just as caste is not something in the past but is also something that exists in the present, and in fact finds new ways of asserting dominant caste privilege, so too these so-called primordial sentiments are new ways of creating communities that can oppose the assertions of marginalized communities. For example, today we see the attempt to actively craft a Hindu India. But we need to remember that for the longest time, until the nineteenth century, a number of groups being welcomed as Hindu today were, in fact, not seen as Hindu. This was a term reserved for dominant caste groups. So, not only do we see new groups being recognized as Hindu but the groups themselves are newly recognizing (or inventing – to use the concept introduced by E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger in their book Invented Traditions [1983]) themselves as Hindu. No, these are most certainly not primordial sentiments.
Further, I don’t think that we should automatically buy into the nationalist imagination of India’s ‘heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist social fabric’. Doing this masks the fact that heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist India was a dream – it was a promise. There was an attempt – and I stress attempt – to create a polity that would have these features and characteristics. Recollect, once again, that Dr. Ambedkar pointed out to the Constituent Assembly in 1949 that ‘On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality’. This social equality was such that, as Soumyabrata Choudhury has recently reminded us, Ambedkar suggested that what manifested in India was not the logic of a society; rather, it was the logic of gangs. There was, therefore, no Indian society. Further, it also needs to be pointed out that the idea of India itself is an invention. The idea of India was invented in the course of the nineteenth century, precisely as part of the nationalist mobilization against the British. Prior to this, there was a sub-continent called India by those who came from outside the subcontinent, but there was a great political diversity within the subcontinent. The Indian national project was an attempt to capture this heterogeneity within one polity and allow for pluralism and diversity. The past 70 years have shown us that this has not come to pass, and we now need to start thinking about the problem differently. 

3.       Political authorities at the helm of affairs and responsible for implementing the provisions of Indian Constitution have failed Babasaheb and his erudite co-framers. Their partial, non-judicious implementation of Constitutional provisions, especially those pertaining to Dalit and Tribal empowerment, have created deep-seated chasms between communities. How does one address this concern?
As I have already indicated, I believe that the best way to address this concern is to continue opposing the attempt to entrench the caste polity in India. And perhaps the single most effective way is to continuously underline the Constitutional values, as is increasingly being done.
But there is another route that we must take, still very much within the spirit of the Constitutional values, but perhaps one that has not been taken too seriously: that would be the project of federalism. Thus far, too much of the thinking within India has been contained within a national model. I believe that we need to take up Hannah Arendt’s idea and distinguish between the nation (which is an imagined community) and the state (an entity dedicated to the rule of law). De-emphasizing India as a nation and stressing its quality as a state would allow us to recognize that the only reason we are together is to work for the benefit of every group and the most marginalized person. Stressing the nation often ensures that centralization is privileged, and questions of diversity are pushed under the carpet. It is when we move out of the nationalist framework that I believe we can move out of the presumption of Hinduism as something that links all Indians and begin to seriously think of a federal relationship where each region works not only for its own best interests – i.e. of the people and communities that constitute it – but to augment the relationship with the federating partners. It is not that this federal arrangement does not already exist in the Constitution, but I don’t believe that this arrangement has effectively been supported, given the emphasis on nationalist rhetoric.
I should add that this federalist imagination needs to be carried forward right down to the lowest administrative level with the effective devolution of power to local governments. Too often, following a casteist model, the MLA is seen as a strong man (remember that violence is at the heart of caste), a little king, the dispenser of favours, rather than as someone who can effectively communicate the concerns of the constituency and contribute to the deliberations in the legislature. This impedes the emergence of a strong local government which can articulate issues of common interest. So, clearly, attacking caste, or the unabashed exercise of illegitimate violence, is important. This is all the more important because, despite the rhetoric in favour of village governance, villages are also spaces where there is the most vicious suppression of marginalized communities. Thus, I would not like to romanticize local governance, even though I argue that power must be devolved through the lower level of the body politic. Note that I do not use panchayati raj deliberately, because this term effectively romanticizes the panchayat – a vicious, casteist institution.
4.       Despite the existence of a Constitutional Right to Religion, this right has effectively been frustrated – especially through the restrictions on the propagation of religion, the denial of reservations to Dalit Muslims and Christians. On the other hand, a number of offensive practices, such as that of untouchability, in the name of religion have been allowed to continue despite their incongruity with ‘public order and morality’ so long as they fitted into the electoral considerations of the political elite. Your comments.
A number of these problems are the result of the nationalist imagination which saw, and sees, the ideal Indian as the dominant caste, North Indian, Hindu male (see, for example, Tharu and Niranjana 1996). I have referred to Dr. Ambedkar several times already, and I would like to refer to one more incident from his life – that of the Poona Pact, which he agreed to in 1932 under duress from Gandhi. Where Dr. Ambedkar had been insisting that the Dalits have the right to a separate electorate, Gandhi feared that this move would render caste Hindus a minority and insisted, taking recourse to a fast unto death, that Dalits be included in an electorate with Hindus. This action is one of the bases of the Hindu majoritarianism that stalks India today. Wanting to preserve Hindus as a dominant community in India underlies this action, as much as the refusal to extend rights to reservation to Dalit Muslims and Christians did (and does).
Indeed, one can take the proposal of federalism that I suggested earlier even further by proposing separate electorates in India. This would not be out of place with Ambedkar’s vision. In fact, Ambedkar warned that the system of general electorates would ensure that the interests of marginalized groups would never be represented. He further suggested that even reserved constituencies, where only members of marginalized groups could stand as representatives, but be elected by all members of the electorate, would ensure that the representatives, despite being from marginalized communities, would be forced to appeal to the good will of the dominant groups. Time has proved him correct and, as you have so correctly observed, political projects now correspond to the electoral considerations of the political elites.
In your question, you have suggested that a number of offensive practices are allowed to exist, and I would add thrive, despite their incongruity with ‘public order and morality’. Continuing with my initial suggestion of India having incarnated a caste polity, I would argue that, in fact, these practices exist because they are congruous with the notion of public order and morality proper to a caste polity. In such a polity that justifies ‘graded inequality’ (another concept proposed by Dr. Ambedkar), it is seen as right and proper that some persons have rights and others not. Based on my doctoral research on Konkani language politics in Goa, I have been arguing that when the language of a brahmanical group is recognized as the official language of a state, one is effectively rooting brahmanical casteism into the heart of the polity. Thus, those who do not speak brahmanised versions of the language are automatically considered lesser citizens and reap the implications of this fact, being marginalized further and further. And this is not the case only in Goa; brahmanical languages have been recognized as official languages of most states in the Union, and brahmanical culture is often given pride of place in the official cultural offerings of the state. This only ensures that despite the lofty rhetoric of the law in the books, the law in practice is that of the caste system.
I would like to point out that this problem is not limited to the secular public. Rather, this policy is continued by the Catholic Church as well. What form of languages has the Bible been translated into? What form of languages are Masses held in? What model do projects of inculturation follow? The Church in India needs to do some serious introspection to enquire into the way in which we contribute to the creation and maintenance of these caste hegemonies and the nativism that is at the heart of the Hindu nationalist project. We, as members of the Church, cannot let national ambitions come in the way of our higher calling, which is to work towards the realization of the kingdom marked by universal fraternity.
5.       Leaders make a mockery of democracy when they insist that the cultural norms of the majority community are to be equated to that of the entire nation. Or similarly when they allow archaic, illiberal, gendered practices to continue out of anxiety of losing the votes of a minority community, minority appeasement in other words, thereby ignoring the wishes and sentiments of sane members of all communities and playing into the hands of the most radical, regressive sections of society. Your views.
I think you are quite right when you say that a mockery is being made of democracy. It is tragic that democracy has come to be understood as the rule of the majority. This is far from a healthy or historically accurate understanding of the concept. Briefly put, modern democracy emerged in the context of a demand for representation against autocratic rulers. Another critical understanding of democracy was that it was a rule against the tyranny of the majority, and hence hinges on securing the rights of minority groups. As such, democracy is about the representation of interests and the protection of rights.
I’m also delighted that you bring up the issue of ‘minority appeasement’. I think we need to reflect on minority appeasement and ask who exactly within the so-called minority is being served through this appeasement. Those who work within the Muslim communities in India will point out that it is segments among the dominant caste Muslims who benefit from what has been called ‘minority appeasement’. I have no doubt that something similar works among Christians in India. Minority appeasement, in fact, works to the benefit of elites, who then are able to suppress questions of internal justice within the community and present themselves as leaders of the monolithically constructed community.
But there are other interesting issues in your formulation of this question, and if you will allow me, I’d like to use this question to highlight these issues.
To begin with, we need to stop using the terms ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ community. The fact is that majorities and minorities do not naturally exist; they are produced. I also pointed out earlier that the Hindu (dominant-caste) majority was actively produced by Gandhi, and this dominance has been maintained through various measures, such as the controversial Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 which prohibits Muslims and Christians who are Dalit from accessing the constitutional rights granted to Dalits. The language that we use must always attempt to demonstrate the social processes that are ongoing. As such, I prefer to always use the word ‘minoritized’ instead of ‘minority’.
Second, we need to be more cautious in the way we use the word ‘liberal’, or its opposite, ‘illiberal’. Whereas liberal has come to mean open and allowing for a variety of lifestyles, in fact, liberalism has been at the root of much of modern violence. By liberalism, I mean the product of the revolutionary ferment of late eighteenth century Europe which stresses the independence of the individual and the creation of such binaries as the public and private, secular and sacred. These claims were not selfless political ideals but were aimed at suppressing, or destroying, existing social institutions that claimed the allegiance of the population. Historically speaking, liberal secular nationalism has engaged in warfare with these other institutions. Take the early history of liberalism in Europe or the United States, for example, where the Catholic Church, which presented a holistic worldview was attacked, often brutally (Hamburger 2002). Liberal nationalism can also be credited with creating internal enemies of the state. In Europe, after the Catholic Church, it was the Jews, and more recently, Muslims (Joskowicz 2013). There is, therefore, something deeply illiberal about liberalism itself. It is not a perfect system and is, in fact, at the root of much modern violence.

6.       More than ever before, we need to cling to the magnificent ideas of secularism, equality, justice, fraternity and social democracy embedded in our Constitution, all of which can coalesce into making India a country which values religion but doesn’t propagate infallibility of religion, which progressively treats religion as a matter of private faith rather than public posturing, which is free from exploitation and discrimination, which prioritises rationality and social harmony. Your comments.

I’d say that I am in general agreement with you, when you speak of supporting the constitutional ideas of secularism, equality, justice, fraternity and social democracy. But I would hesitate with the latter part of your suggestion, which seems like a classic liberal formulation. The problem in India is not that faith is coming into the public arena. The problem is that only one faith – the Hindu faith – is being imposed on the arena, and other faiths are being suppressed. Indeed, one could argue that it is not even Hindu faiths (since there is really no single Hinduism, but many Hinduisms) that are being allowed space in the public domain. Rather, we are witness to the instrumental utilization of a Hindu identity for the purpose of capturing the state. And this is not restricted to Hindus in India; this is being done by some Muslims and Christians even, who, rather than submitting to the obligations of their faith tradition, instead mobilize it primarily as a political identity. I think that this is where the problem lies.
We are used to Hindu nationalists of all shades suggesting that Hindusim is not a religion but a way of life. But the same could be claimed by members of any faith tradition! Islam and Christianity don’t have prescriptions only for the private sphere; they instruct us on how we should live each and every aspect of our lives.

This idea that the public presence of faith creates a problem for the life of the polity is a peculiarly liberal idea and is ahistorical. When one religion is imposed on others, there is clearly a problem, but historically, there have been several societies where multiple faith traditions have lived side by side and interacted with each other – even learned from each other! This is not to suggest that they were equal, and that one was not privileged over the others. But this did not necessarily lead to persecution or public violence. Liberalism proffers this idea of intolerant religions largely because it seeks to dominate the public sphere with no challenge from any other ideology (or theology).

What makes this whole scenario slightly more perverse is that given that liberal nation-states are actually trying to forge a single community, creating minoritized groups in the process, they invariably latch on to a religious identity to structure the community. In the process, just as in India – but one can also look at Talal Asad’s work on the operation of secularism in France for another example – they define, or more appropriately re-define, the faith practice and convert it to an identitarian framework (Asad 2006). As I have tried to point out in the course of our discussion, the problem of Hindutva in India is not disconnected from the current nature of the Indian state.
7.       One final question. What, in your opinion, could be the role of the Catholic Church in dealing with the crisis in India?
I believe that the Catholic Church needs to recognize that saving the nation is not its mission. Its mission is a universal one that goes above and below the nation. All too often, the projects of the Catholic Church, meant to be witness to Christ, participate in nation building. Our institutions – i.e. schools, colleges, hospitals – have become little cogs in the vast machine of governance. It would not be wrong to say that the dignity of the individual is often undermined in our institutions. I believe that individually, and institutionally, we need to re-examine the extent to which we participate in this nationalist project and then turn away from it. Indeed, I think that the individual acting in concert with a larger group is where the change should begin. Remember that the Church is not just the hierarchy; it includes all of us.
The opening verse for Ash Wednesday from the Prophet Joel (2:12–13) offers us a clue as to our options: ‘“Yet even now”, says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments”.’ What would returning to Him mean? It means recognizing that we are contaminated by our participation in the Indian nationalist project, which privileges the logic of caste so disrespectful of human dignity. Note that I am not making a liberal distinction between politics and religion. Rather, setting ourselves on a track against nationalist politics and turning towards actions that respect the dignity of the individual would support a project that builds a strong state based on the rule of law – so lacking today. And finally, our goal ought to be not social justice but the self-emptying love that embraces the apparent foolishness of the cross. Such a project is best begun at the individual level, such that it builds up and eventually makes the tasks of the hierarchy, who are today faced with making difficult decisions of safeguarding the flock, easier.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

More Indian or more Christian?


Not unlike the Muslim communities in India, Christians in the country are also victim to a persistent questioning of their patriotism. While this suspicion of Christian groups has been a fact since the formation of the Indian state in 1947, this issue has gained in dimension with the election to power of the Modi government which has not only emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to dismiss all actions and ideas that fail to conform to the aims of Hindu nationalist groups as unpatriotic but has in fact led to increasing anti-Catholic violence perpetrated by these groups in various parts of India, but especially in Central India. It seems that this crisis facing Christians in India was very much on the mind of Cardinal Oswald Gracias when speaking at the conference of Latin rite bishops held in Bangalore in February this year, he reportedly said, “The Catholic Church needs our nation, and India needs the Church. We will be discussing our role as Indian Christians and asking our people, [sic] also to become better Indian Christians. This is the call of today to be fully Indian fully Christian”.

While appreciative of the delicate position that the Catholic hierarchy in India finds itself in, the Cardinal’s position will only drag us in deeper into the mess that contemporary India is devolving into. In making statements such as that of the Cardinal, the bishops are making a profound analytical mistake, not dissimilar to that made by the European Jews from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Assuming that it was their external difference from Christian Europeans that was the reason for anti-semitic hostility, sections of the Jews began to give up their distinctive dress, customs, and sometimes religion, to try and fit, or assimilate, into the mainstream. As the tragic consequences of the World War II demonstrate, this did not stop them from being demonized across Europe, and eventually meeting their end largely through the efforts of Nazi Germany. A similar mistake by the Catholic leadership in India could have serious consequences for Christians across the country.

The call to “be fully Indian fully Christian” offers two suggestions. First, that Indian Christians are not as yet fully Indian, and secondly, that it is possible to identify what it means to be fully Indian, and then meet those goals. The first suggestion in fact plays directly into the hands of Hindu nationalists of all shades, who suggest either explicitly or subtly that, given Christianity’s foreign origins, Christians in India are not authentically Indian. That this claim is recognized by Christians themselves can be seen in a variety of cultural interventions that purport to be forms of inculturation. In this context it is worth bearing in mind that the attempt to become "Hindu-Christian" by some theologians, is in fact identical to the requirement that the RSS places on all Muslims and Christians in India - that they be Hindu-Muslims and Hindu-Christians, positing Hinduism (understood exclusively in its upper-caste brahmanical forms) as the base culture of India.

It is the second suggestion that requires more work to deal with. The recommendation that Catholics in India should be more Indian and more Christian, seems to suggest that Indian-ness is capable of being objectively determined. This is not a sound appreciation of reality. There is a mountain of scientific research that points to the fact that the unspoken ideal subject of Indian nationalism is the upper-caste (North) Indian Hindu male. Such research points out how even Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings demonstrate an unconscious bias of Hindu-ness as the underlying theme of Indian-ness.  It is these men, regardless of whether they are Hindu nationalists, or secular Hindus, who define, and have been defining, what Indian-ness means. Bluntly put, given that Christians in India are not in the position of defining what Indian-ness means, there is simply no way in which we will ever be able to approximate the ideals of Indian-ness set by Indian nationalists of any hue.

What killed the Jews of Europe is similar to what threatens all non-Hindu communities in India today, the growth of nationalism. The problem with most popular analyses of nationalism is that they do not recognize the difference between the concepts of the nation, and the state. These are two distinct concepts that have been clubbed together. The distinction between the two is perhaps best captured in Hannah Arendt’s pithy observation of “the conquest of the state by the nation”.  In her perspective nationalism transformed the modern state, from an organ which would execute the rule of law for all its citizens and residents, into the nation-state, an instrument of the nation alone. Modern nationalism is inherently a divisive force, identifying religion, ethnicity, or language as the basis of the nation, and in this process inevitably excluding groups within the state, or creating hatred of those without. In this context it is worth noting that social groups do not naturally exist as minorities; they are actively created, or minoritized through conscious exclusion. That this exclusion is an inevitable aspect of nationalism is made obvious in the fact that the only way secular liberal nationalisms across the world can think of the relationship with minority groups is that of “tolerance”. Not love, but tolerance.

In many ways, nationalism is a theology, which articulates a mystical relationship between the national-citizen and the nation constructed as deity. It is when we recognize the theological nature of modern nationalism, and the nation-state that perhaps we will become aware that there cannot be a compromise between nationalism and the Christian calling. In this context, Archbishop Macwan was right in the phrasing of the pastoral letter for which he was pilloried. Catholics have a religious obligation to ensure that nationalists do not take over the state. 

Fortunately Catholics in India are not called to make a dramatic choice. The Christian call to universalism, one that recognizes neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28), can ensure that Christians are more than able to participate to the benefit of the state, but refuse to cooperate in the sectarian projects of contemporary nationalism. There is of course no need for Catholic leadership in India to actively proclaim a refusal to participate in nationalist projects, this would be a fool-hardy venture in the current climate. But there is similarly no need for us to contribute to nationalist rhetoric by asking that we become “more Indian”. Our call is to be more Christian, loving all without distinction.

(A version of this post was first published on UCA News on 13 Apr 2018)





Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Os perigos de abraçar a Índia


Desde a visita do primeiro-ministro António Costa à Índia, em Janeiro de 2017, e da recente vinda do primeiro-ministro indiano Narendra Modi a Lisboa, têm surgido vários discursos celebratórios sobre a efetiva aproximação entre os dois países.

À superfície, estes discursos parecem trazer consigo a promessa de fortes e mutuamente respeitosas relações pós-coloniais. A realidade, porém, é bem mais inquietante. As novas relações que Portugal está a forjar com esta potência regional demonstram um profundo desconhecimento da natureza do Estado indiano. A antropóloga Shalini Randeria cunhou o termo ‘cunning state’ [Estado astuto] para definir a natureza da Índia, ou seja, a de um Estado que utiliza acontecimentos internacionais para fortalecer o seu poder tanto interna como externamente. De facto, a Índia, enquanto Estado astuto, manipulou Portugal e o seu primeiro-ministro, afirmando uma duvidosa e racializada leitura da história do subcontinente asiático, estrategicamente pensada para abrir caminho a uma nova ordem internacional — de carácter neo-colonial — que a Índia espera impor.

O desejo de se afirmar no plano global é uma ação legítima por parte de qualquer Estado. Mas a forma como a Índia opera é, por várias razões, altamente problemática. Uma análise cuidada da concessão do estatuto de Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) — Cidadão Ultramarino da Índia, um estatuto em princípio aberto a todos os estrangeiros com antepassados dentro das fronteiras da India actual — ilustra bem esta questão.
 
De facto, uma das principais razões para a recente visita de Costa à Índia foi este presidir ao 14.º Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Dia do Indiano no Exterior). Portugal cometeu o enorme equivoco de tratar este convite como uma oportunidade para obter acesso ao tão desejado mercado indiano. Muito pelo contrário, este convite foi um cavalo de Tróia deixado pela Índia em Portugal.  

O aspeto que deveria ter agitado o establishment diplomático português ao permitir que o primeiro-ministro português seja reconhecido como OCI é deixar a Índia determinar a natureza das relações diplomáticas entre os dois países. A Índia reivindicou Costa, um homem que se tornou primeiro-ministro sem qualquer apoio do Estado Indiano, e desta maneira definiu a identidade do mais alto representante de um Estado estrangeiro.

É óbvio que a Índia atingiu este objectivo em parte devido ao apoio das estruturas racializadas que continuam a dominar a cena internacional e onde Portugal, apesar de ser um membro da UE, continua a ser um país semi-periférico. Por estas razões, a relação entre os dois países está longe de ser uma interacção entre iguais, tendo a Índia uma larga vantagem. É compreensível que num contexto de dificuldades económicas graves os empresários portugueses lutem por acesso ao mercado indiano. Porém, o Governo português deveria ponderar se para isto valerá a pena comprometer a dignidade do Estado e, mais importante ainda, os direitos dos seus cidadãos.

A comprovar a astúcia do Estado Indiano, o estatuto de OCI não concede quaisquer direitos de cidadania de facto; trata-se, apenas, de um visto permanente. Na realidade, apesar de as únicas restrições conhecidas aos OCIs serem apenas as proibições de votar e a compra de propriedade agrícola, vários incidentes demonstram que existem diversas outras restrições ocultas, apenas referidas quando da conveniência do Estado indiano. O maior problema, contudo, reside no facto de o regime de OCI se basear em preconceitos raciais e sectários. (Sendo racismo a identificação de grupos de indivíduos como uma raça, grupo étnico ou religioso e a atribuição de características indeléveis a estes mesmos grupos). Desde logo, porque reforça o preconceito anti-muçulmano do Estado indiano, visto que o OCI não é extensível a pessoas com ligações familiares ao Paquistão e ao Bangladesh. Mais, com a actual política de OCI, a Índia define efectivamente os seus cidadãos através de uma perspectiva étnico-racial em vez de uma perspectiva legal. Por exemplo, os antepassados de Costa nunca foram indianos. Eram cidadãos portugueses e goeses, sendo que o Estado indiano só emergiu em 1947. Identificar os antepassados de Costa como indianos seria classifica-los do ponto de vista racial. Desta forma, o Estado indiano pretende revindicar como indiano qualquer pessoa que provenha do subcontinente em qualquer altura da história, apagando desta maneira todas as especificidades das diversas identidades sul-asiáticas e agrupando-as numa homogénea e racializada “identidade Indiana”. Isto ao mesmo tempo que pretende consolidar um nacionalismo cultural bramânico que exclui indivíduos que não pertencem às castas dominantes hindus e ignorando deliberadamente os direitos políticos de uma grande parte da população e de uma forma profundamente sectária.

Assim, quando Costa se afirma orgulhoso da sua identidade indiana, o que está efectivamente a fazer é ser cúmplice de um regime racialista e neo-colonial. Uma acção que tem consequências múltiplas, não só na Índia, mas também em Portugal.

Desde logo, esta postura do Governo de Portugal compromete a identidade dos seus cidadãos com ligações ao Sul da Ásia que se ressentem ao ser identificados como “indianos”. Este rótulo opera efectivamente de forma racialista, pois não só nega a esses cidadãos a sua identidade portuguesa como também ignora as especificidades das suas múltiplas identidades sociais. Esse é o caso dos vários grupos cujos antepassados deixaram o Gujarate e se estabeleceram na África portuguesa durante gerações, chegando a Portugal como retornados e portugueses. A mesma questão se coloca com os goeses, damanenses e diuenses. Para estas pessoas seria crucial poderem ser reconhecidas socialmente como portugueses — embora distinguindo as suas identidades sociais específicas — em vez de serem agrupados indiferenciadamente numa categoria racial única. Esperava-se que o corpo diplomático português que aconselha o primeiro-ministro tivesse sido capaz de tomar devida nota destas nuances sociais.

Mas a natureza racializada das relações luso-indianas não termina com a manipulação da identidade de Costa por parte da Índia. Portugal tem tido também um papel ativo neste jogo, perpetuando uma tradição colonial e luso-tropicalista, ao oferecer o seu “privilegiado entendimento” de África aos seus potenciais parceiros indianos, sabendo que a presença indiana em África tem dimensões neo-coloniais.

A escolha de um modus operandi mais ético na sua relação com a Índia, ao mesmo tempo enfrentando os complexos problemas que ensombram esta relação, daria a Portugal base para um entendimento mais honesto e possivelmente mais duradouro entre os dois países.

Um dos obstáculos a uma feliz convivência entre os dois países é sem dúvida a relação de Portugal com os seus antigos territórios no subcontinente, especialmente Goa. Esta difícil relação deve-se em grande parte aos distúrbios criados por parte de nacionalistas hindus ativos em Goa. É frequente ouvir-se os diplomatas portugueses na Índia mencionarem em privado que historicamente a razão para a ineficácia das relações entre Portugal e a Índia se deve ao Governo de Goa e a certos segmentos da sociedade local. Segundo os mesmos, as relações com o governo central são, pelo contrário, de grande cordialidade. Esta lógica poderá ter sido uma das razões que levou a diplomacia portuguesa a querer fundar uma nova relação com a Índia, pondo de lado as raízes do passado. Operando como Estado astuto, o governo central indiano reivindica completa impotência perante eventos “anti-portugueses” em Goa, precisamente por não ter nenhum interesse em pôr fim a este tipo de manifestações naquele território. Isto porque a retórica dos nacionalistas hindus em Goa não é mais do que uma extensão lógica do nacionalismo cultural através do qual a Índia continua a impor uma certa identidade nacional.

Pelo facto de assentar num nacionalismo cultural, em lugar de num nacionalismo político, a construção da identidade nacional indiana sempre foi marcada por ideias de inimigos externos e internos. Por esta razão, também, a presença portuguesa será sempre vista com suspeita, e a história portuguesa no subcontinente sempre disponível para ser recordada de acordo com a conveniência dos interlocutores e a obvia desvantagem dos investidores portugueses na Índia. Dado o poder que o governo central indiano tem sobre os seus estados, especialmente quando o mesmo partido governa tanto a nível nacional como regional, a invariável alegação de impotência para intervir na situação de Goa deve ser vista com grande cepticismo. Desempenhando o papel de Estado astuto, a Índia permite e incentiva o florescimento de alguma instabilidade regional, porque a mesma lhe traz vantagens na sua estratégia geo-política mais alargada.

Uma política externa que reconheça a natureza do Estado indiano permitiria a Portugal perceber que abandonar o passado português no subcontinente nunca poderá gerar uma relação madura e equitativa com a Índia. Na verdade, é no confronto das questões relacionadas com o fim do Estado da Índia Portuguesa, como a maneira em que o Estado indiano nega aos residentes destes antigos territórios a dupla nacionalidade, que Portugal poderá construir uma relação honesta com a Índia, cumprir com as suas obrigações enquanto descolonizador, confrontar os seus desejos neo-colonialistas que ensombram a sua relação com os PALOP e, ao mesmo tempo, enfrentar os complexos desafios raciais que estão longe de estar resolvidos em Portugal.

(Este post foi publicado como Opinião no Publico no 5 Jan 2018)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Cure for Foolishness




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

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

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

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

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

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

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