Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Mercês, stereotypes and the broken system

A violent altercation in the village of Mercês between a busload of tourists from Maharashtra and about four residents of the village caused a stir across Goa.

There were a number of reasons why this incident garnered the attention it did. First was that the incident involved the use not merely of brute force, but of weapons including a sword, chopper and a club. Then there was the scale of the violence. The bus utilized by the tourists was also set upon by this group resulting in smashed windows and the like. And finally, as reported by the press, was the fact that it was not just men who were attacked but women and children as well.

What is interesting is that the site of the incident was considered a significant detail in the debates within Goa. As was obvious in discussions on social media, the residents of Mercês and the surrounding villages are said to be known for their violent behavior and their “goondaism”. In other words, the location was a confirmation of the guilt of the accused and the innocence of the tourists. Initial reports suggested that the four residents attacked the group of tourists over a petty incident. As it turns out, however, the tourists may not have been particularly innocent given that CCTV footage from the restaurant suggest that it was the tourists who began the altercation.

The focus on the residential identity of the perpetrators of this crime, and the manner in which the tourists were presented as innocent, demonstrates the processes of political injustice in our state. The people of Mercês and surrounding villages, just as the people of Salcete, are routinely held up as examples of rowdy and violent political behavior. Echoing the arguments of Vivek Dhareshwar and R. Srivatsan in their essay on the ‘rowdy-sheeter’, I would like to point out that the identification of the residents of these areas as rowdy elements is not innocent. Rather, it is deeply rooted in their caste, class, and religious identity. The residents of these villages tend to Catholics, not from brahmanised Catholic caste groups, former tenants of large landlords, and members of the working class. The tension in Goan politics since at least the ‘80s has been to harness the energy of these groups and make them serve the agendas of the elites, as in the case of the pro-Nagari Konkani language movement. The moment they disagree with elite opinions and seek to assert themselves, they are branded as rowdy.

The systematic and persistent denial of a voice in the formal institutions of democracy, and by extension a denigration of the rule of law ensures a rise in violent forms of protest and vigilante justice. Indeed, the incident in Mercês also assumes significance because vigilante (in)justice has come to dominate the Indian political scene. Whether it is lynching persons who are presumed to be transporting cows for slaughter, or persons who are innocent bystanders, vigilante actions seem to be a rising trend in the country.

Whether in the case of the incident in Mercês, or instances across India, vigilante actions can be traced to the fact that there is in fact a systematic destruction of institutions of law and order in the country. While the silence of the Prime Minister, and the active choices that the BJP seems to be making in nominating leaders definitely seems to have opened the flood gates of unlawful violence, it needs to be emphasized that the undermining of the institutions of justice delivery has been ongoing for decades. For example, had there been a firm commitment to the rule of law in our state, the initial altercation begun by the tourists would have been reported to the police. The locals would not have been toughs, and nor would they have taken the law into their own hands. People are encouraged to take the law into their own hands primarily because they see the organs of the state as unreliable in resolving violence, or complicit in violence.

My argument is buttressed by the fact that our Chief Minister has himself pointed to the possibility of a police-goonda nexus in the Mercês incident, only underlining the fact that the police are seen as an ineffective organ of justice delivery.Left unarticulated, however, is that the intervention of elected representatives in the functioning of the police systemis another one of the reasons for this perceived ineffectiveness. In addition to the possible police-goonda nexus, one also has the police-politician nexus, as suspected in so many cases, not least that of the rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling.

But it is not just politicians who are to blame; as many have remarked Goan society suffers from a profound lack of morality. Thus, whether politicians are the cause or the effect, the fact is that Goan society shamelessly indulges in immorality. Take, for example, the fact that a response of many Goans to the incident was that this incident would give a “further beating” to “Goa’s reputation as a tourist-friendly State”. If on the one hand the tourist in Goa is seen as an object to be used for the generation of money alone; on the other hand, under the guise of ensuring law and order the tourist is also often used as a way to destroy the guarantee of legal rights. Take, for instance, the way in which rather than address the larger issue with regard to public transport in the state, civil society groups seek to crush the taxi driver unions using the tired argument of the damage to the tourist trade. One is not concerned about rights, neither of the local, nor of the tourist. At the end of the day this cynical use of tourism only serves to further hollow out societal morality.

In various interventions in the press I have consistently pointed out that rather than being merely one way through which Goans earn money, tourism has become the raison d’etre of our existence. It is as if we exist, and Goa exists, merely to service tourists. Rather than addressing the question of rights, the issue becomes one of the impact on tourism. Even the issue of beef ban evokes responses that claim that the tourism industry will be affected. Rarely are the rights of locals to choose their diet, mentioned when criticizing the ban. The incident in Mercês should concern us not because the victims in this case were tourists, but because this incident is a demonstration of a breakdown of law and order, where both state and society systematically ignore the question of rights and justice, and people believe it is acceptable to take law into their own hands.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 27 June 2017)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Ambiguous Aid of the Goan Taxista

Ever so often public ire in Goa turns against the Goan taxi-drivers who are seen, at least by certain dominant sections, as the single group that is upsetting the order in Goa. The taxistas, and in particular the taxistas of Salcete, have been accused of refusing to accede to a regime of digital meters and proper fare charts, charging exorbitant amounts in the absence of these standards. Additionally, if the clients ask for details of the fare calculation, they are allegedly often abused or threatened. These men are seen as uncouth, unreasonable, prone to violent protest.  A number of concerned voices were recently raised when the taxi drivers blocked the entry of the transportation network companies, like Uber and Ola, into the local market. These voices pointed out that such behaviour was in fact enforcing a monopoly, and thanks to the uncouth and violent behaviour of the taxistas would in fact result that a tourist’s first impression of Goa was a negative one. This could only result in the decline of tourists to Goa and the killing of one of the most lucrative industries that the state enjoys.

In this column I will not justify as much as frame their actions in a different light. First, I will try to suggest that their actions are not, in fact, different from many players in the Goan economy, and secondly, that their actions may in fact be beneficial to our larger interests.

In economics and in public-choice theory, the kind of behaviour ascribed to the taxistas is described as ‘rent-seeking’; which involves seeking to increase one's share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. To understand this term we need to distinguish it from the understanding of profit-seeking behaviour. Profit results from the extraction of value when two parties engaging in mutually beneficial transactions. While the party paying the profit may grumble about the price for the commodity, s/he still engages in the transaction because the gain is still more than the value extracted as profit by the vendor. In the case of rent-seeking behaviour, however, one is manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than creating new wealth. A classic example provided for rent-seeking behaviour is that of the feudal lord who installs a chain across a river and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector. The lord has made no improvements to the river and is helping nobody in any way, directly or indirectly, except himself. All he is doing is finding a way to make money from something that used to be free. Another example of rent-seeking behaviour, and this one would be closer to what the taxistas of Goa are engaging in, is to gain a coercive monopoly to enjoy advantages in the market while imposing disadvantages on other competitors. Rent-seeking results imperils the economy because it results in reduced economic efficiency through poor allocation of resources, reduced actual wealth creation, lost government revenue, increased income inequality, thus potential all-round decline of the economy.

As upsetting as the taxistas actions may be, are they the only sector of the Goan economy who behave in this way? Critics of the mining sector in Goa would argue that mining in Goa is also based on rent-seeking. The miners are known to cheat on the payment of taxes, depriving the exchequer valuable funds through which income could be invested in public infrastructure. This critique is most strongly made by the members of the Goenchi Mati Movement, who now demand changes in the way that mining in Goa is run so that rent-seeking behaviour can shift to profit-seeking behaviour, and the profit can be spread more equitably across society and across generations.

A similar inquiry could also be levelled against the tourism industry; are the many shacks, hotels, and more recently casinos, engaging in value addition, or are they merely skimming of the natural beauty of Goa, and the captive markets that they have thus far enjoyed? The behaviour of political leaders who allegedly use their office as a way to extract money from the entire system is similarly rent-seeking. It is reported that for a sum, politicians intervene to give people jobs. They are also known to use their location to ensure kickbacks and gain huge profits, which are then invested in real estate – which is in fact a destruction of productive fields, and a destruction of the ecological order. Indeed, the rent-seeking nature of the actors in the Goan economy is pretty much the focus of Raghuraman Trichur’s book Refiguring Goa.

If rent-seeking is a feature of practically the entire Goan economy, why is it that it is only the taxistas who bear the brunt of seemingly unanimous condemnation? Is it because they are largely former tenants who in earlier times would bear the brunt of the rent-seeking behaviour of their landlords? Indeed, one could argue that the violent responses of the taxistas of Salcete is the result of the centuries of brutally unequal relations that have marked that territory.

But it is not like the taxistas of Goa are the only ones protesting the transportation network companies. Since at least 2014 taxi drivers across Europe have protested against the entry of the global transportation network company Uber. They make valid claims that companies like Uber make money out of the fact that there is as yet no regulation covering them, while the taxi drivers are covered by a variety of legislation. Transportation network companies are in this respect not dissimilar to the plethora of other companies, for example, online marketplace and hospitality services like Airbnb, who also operate without the burden of the regulations that govern the hospitality industry.

While these new age companies operate under the façade of such terms as “shared economy”, in truth they are the vanguard of the neo-liberal economy that thrives on destroying public infrastructure and institutions, and then extracting rent from the helpless consumer. One need only look at the surge pricing that transportation network companies extract. While these companies initially enter the market with lower prices, and undercut regular taxi services, when there is an increased demand they jack up their prices astronomically.  All of this while the company does not provide security to the drivers who associate with the company. This is, to be sure, the future of transportation network companies. They are not here to help, there are here to exploit.

To this extent, as much as the actions of the Goan taxistas are problematic, they are no different from the actions of the rest of the economy. Further, to the extent that they have blocked some neo-liberal players from entering the economy, they may in fact be doing us a service in that they are delaying the final assault of neo-liberalism on our economies.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Media and Vigilantism

Could there be a sinister aspect to commonplace grumblings on social media? I recently came across a complaint on social media by a person who claimed that a young man on a bike had assaulted him and threatened him. The complaint which included a photo and a caption ended with the complainant asking the readers of his post “What should be done about such goondagiri [sic] where a law-abiding citizen has to face such humiliation that too by people who have shamelessly broken the law?”

Judging by the fact that the photograph was shared close to one hundred and ninety three times on social media the question was obviously rhetorical. The post was shared precisely to offer up the biker to public justice and ensure that he be shamed, ostracized or punished by other means. But this is precisely where we have to pause and take stock of our actions because these kinds of complaints and appeals to public justice are in fact calls to vigilante justice.

Vigilantes are groups of citizens who take it on themselves to undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. Because vigilantism is often associated with mob justice we associate the term with howling mobs and violent action. However, the roots of vigilante actions lie well beyond these dramatic acts. Vigilantism does not begin with a lynching. Lynching is merely the highpoint of vigilante action.  Vigilantism begins when individuals abandon the state’s justice delivery system, prefer a kangaroo court of public opinion, and take it upon themselves to administer justice. When this happens what we have is the jettisoning of the system of due process through which facts can be established and a fairly objective decision can be reached.

What is particularly scary is that it is not just in the realm of social media that one can see appeals to vigilante justice. Indeed, one sees the mass media, whether print or audiovisual, also engaging in setting up popular courts, presuming guilt before a person is held guilty by the judicial system, and condemning these people in very forceful terms. These are in fact terrifying signs because it signals that we are increasingly moving towards a breakdown of a system of a rule of law, and due process, two concepts that ensure that justice is done.

Let us mine the post that inspired this column for examples. In this particular instance the complainant alleged that the biker rode on the sidewalk and responded violently to the polite request to follow the law and get off the sidewalk. If we rely entirely on the account on social media we have only one side of the story. What we do not have is the biker’s account. It is possible that the biker’s version may be radically different. He might argue that he recognizes that the bike should not be on the sidewalk but there were extenuating circumstances for the violation. He might also argue that while acknowledging his fault the complainant was not particularly polite but in fact aggressive. It is because there are always at least two versions to a conflict that one needs a judicial system manned by an impartial third party. Without an objective system of justice delivery we have no way to determine whether the photographer was in fact telling the truth. One would recognize that a social media complaint does not provide such a dialogical approach to conflict resolution but only presents one version that we often take as the gospel truth.

Central to a justice delivery system is the requirement of being dispassionate. In the post that I refer to, the complainant indicated that after being assaulted and threatened he approached the police who did not act on his complaint. It was the failure to get support from the logical agents of law and order enforcement that he turned to social media. As such, it turns out that the police were also responsible for the disaffection that drove the complainant to social media. If this was the case, why not post images of the allegedly errant police persons as well? Indeed, in the post I refer to the complaint ended the caption with statement indicating Please note that I don't intent [sic] to target any politician or policeman. My grouch is purely against such law-breakers who are full to the brim with arrogance.”

One of the significant features of vigilante justice is that the vigilantes very often attack the weak. Further, it is not the structure that is attacked, but individual manifestations of a larger, social problem. For example, we know that the sidewalk is hardly respected in our country. Sidewalks are often in a bad state of disrepair, and when available are routinely used to park vehicles. In such a situation it is little wonder that when people are rebuked for using their vehicles on the sidewalk they respond aggressively wondering why they are the only ones to be pulled up and not the others.

Interventions in social media are not innocent. They can often be the apparently innocent appeals that will eventually end in violent vigilante justice. It is imperative, therefore, that we resist the temptation to invite social ire against individuals on social media. To redress this problem what we need to do is to hold the state and its agencies responsible for their primary task; the upholding of a system of due process and the rule of law. It is no use utilizing social media as an alternative to the state system precisely because such a process is not only capricious but it threatens to empty the state of its responsibilities leaving behind a state only interested in asserting its powers. Neither of these situations is an ideal one.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on  10 Jan 2017)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How the Archbishop should have turned the other cheek

Not too long ago, the décor of a recently-opened pub caused a ruckus in the city of Bombay. Styled “Goregaon Social”, the interiors of the pub made plentiful references to the Gothic aesthetic that marked a significant phase of Western European Christianity, and the neo-Gothic which has an intimate history with the city of Bombay. They included stained glass panels with the figures of Catholic saints, Gothic-styled pews for clients to sit on, and a variety of other paraphernalia that clearly references Catholic worship.

Arguing that the establishment’s decor was blasphemous, a group of Catholics, calling themselves The Watchdog Foundation, filed a police complaint against the owner of the pub. Simultaneously, the Archdiocese of Bombay released a statement charging that the décor of the pub was blasphemous and a deliberate attempt to insult Christians. Therefore, they demanded the closure of the pub with immediate effect, and a cancellation of various permits and licenses until the décor was changed.

While the responses of both the lay Christians and the clerical hierarchy are problematic, I would like to focus on the response of the hierarchy because as leaders of the Catholic community they seem to have not only made a grievous error, but also lost a significant teaching moment.

At the very outset it needs to be stated that one can understand the reasons for the response. Along with other minoritised groups in the country, Christians too have increasingly experienced a shrinking of socio-political space along with simultaneous attacks on their places of worship and property. These attacks have particularly perplexed some Christians in India who play along with the whole rhetoric of Indian nationalism and cherish a deep-seated idea that they are an ideal minority.

On the other hand there has also been a parallel move to appropriate Christian lifestyles for the purposes of entertainment. The case of the interiors of Goregaon Social are but one example of a trend that is also evident in the way in which the settlements of Catholics, whether that of Bandra in Bombay, or villages in Goa, are being occupied while the residents who created these settlements and ensured its character are pushed out. Added to this is the simultaneous disparaging of these populations visible in the way Hindi films represent the Catholics of the west coast as a sexually promiscuous, alcohol-imbibing community given to song and dance.

In such a context of appropriation and attack, it is not surprising that Catholics should try to respond by asserting ownership over markers of a community lifestyle, nor that they should petition the state to redress their hurt religious sentiments. Unfortunately, rather than innovatively engage with Catholic tradition, these responses have played directly into the hands of the Hindu nationalists, as well as strengthened the growing tendencies towards authoritarianism.

The Archbishop’s argument of hurt religious sentiments merely follows political trends that have been crafted to favour the establishment of a Hindu rashtra. While it is true that the cries for the redress of hurt religious sentiments come not only from Hindu nationalist groups, but other minoritized groups as well, the fact is that the complaints of these groups are usually heeded only when they formulate their complaints along theocratic lines, not otherwise. But if one can ban images in a pub, or a film because it is blasphemous and offends Catholic sensibilities, it follows that one must also ban the slaughter of cattle because it offends brahmanical sensibilities. In other words, it is the upper caste Hindu nationalist groups that benefit once hurt religious sentiments are recognized as a legitimate basis to quash actions.

Phrasing appeals for state attention on the basis of religious sentiments also occludes the real issues at stake, the systemic inequality of power between the groups that comprise the country. To put it in the still relevant words of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, “The Indian Christians need two things. The first thing they want is the safeguarding of their civil liberties. The second thing they want is ways and means for their economic uplift.” This agenda is more crucial than the mistaken imitation of identitarian politics that the Archbishop seems to have lent support to.

The Archbishop’s statement opens up dangers beyond the possibly identitarian problem of living in a Hindu state; that of authoritarianism and populism. What is evident in the statement is that there is an appeal to a state that does not follow the due process of law. In the Goregaon Social case one has a situation where a group of citizens that claims to speak for all Catholics have determined that they are upset by an activity and demand summary redress by the state in the form of a ban. The group demanding the ban does not want the complaint to be evaluated by a dispassionate judicial system and the issue treated through appropriate channels. What we witness in this case is a complete violation of the very due process that ensures the equanimity of the law. One wonders if the church hierarchy contemplated that, given the balance of power in the country, this same strategy of demanding immediate action and dispensing with the due process of law could easily be used against Christians in India?

This situation reveals the manner in which Hindu nationalist authoritarianism does not spring merely from the actions of upper-caste Hindu nationalists. Rather, it is sustained through the authoritarian tendencies that lie within minoritized groups in India, and especially in fonts of authority in these groups. In this context the Catholic Church has much introspection to do. Despite the winds of change in terms of leadership style that Pope Francis has brought to the church, the Church has had a long history of clericalism and authoritarian leadership that is often confused with respect for a healthy system of hierarchy.

Considering the delicate nature of politics in India, and the bitter reality that one cannot rely on the neutrality of the state, the Archdiocese of Bombay ought to have considered a more nuanced response to the provocation that the décor of Goregaon Social allegedly represented. At a time when the law has been reduced to cynical interpretations of codes to secure the interests of the hegemonic, the Archbishop could have used this opportunity to deepen our ethical appreciation of the problem that the décor of Goregaon Social represented. In this way he would have also fulfilled the prophetic role that is the true calling of the Church.

Rather than insist on a parochial assertion of ownership, and a consequent banning of the imagery, a deeper exploration of the use of the symbols in Goregaon Social would have demonstrated a surprising possibility. In statements published on social media, the management of the pub indicated that they saw the space as “the church of anti-consumerism” or the “Cathedral of anti-consumerism”.  In other words, the owners of the pub were attempting to set up an alternative to consumerism and recognising that this alternative might be present in a Christian, if not Christianized, lifestyle. In many ways Christianity is fundamental to modernity not in an abstract and discursive way alone, but very materially; with a liberative lifestyle associated with Christians. Christians, and especially those one finds in Portuguese-influenced areas like Bombay, enjoy a lifestyle that is largely unmarked by brahmanical taboos. Catholics enjoy a material lifestyle that does not place taboos on the consumption of meat, approves of social drinking, and allows for a respectful approximation of the sexes; social features largely absent in brahmanical cultures of dominant castes but crucial for claiming modernity. Indeed, one could inquire if the name of this pub does not take inspiration from the ‘socials’ that are a feature of the convent schools. In these socials, in the presence of chaperones and other adults, youngsters could learn the skills of not only drinking in moderation, but also to woo members of the opposite sex, dance with them, developing in this process skills of respectful sociality.

In this context the Archbishop could pointed out to a basic fact that many in India do not seem to have sufficiently appreciated, that however attractive it may appear, the Christian lifestyle is empty without a real encounter with Christ and Christian values. The Archbishop could have pointed out that a substantial alternative to consumerism was available through deepening the encounter with the person of Christ mediated through the Catholic Church. Such a response would not only have countered the appropriation that the décor of the pub represented, but also the empty promises of the prophets of consumerism, not to mention the anti-Christian rhetoric of the Hindu nationalistic forces, especially the voices in favour of the forced conversions of gharwapasi.

In sum, by following the dominant logics of Indian politics rather than cleaving to its prophetic tradition, the Catholic hierarchy has done more damage than it can imagine, not only to the community it leads, but other minoritized groups as well.
(A version of this text was first published in The Wire on 18 Nov 2016)