Cantaram as political dissent


Earlier this month, Goa Government’s Department of Information and Publicity held a ‘Konkani Kantaram Utsav’, a cantaram singing competition in which the participants were asked to sing about the achievements of the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This competition attracted a lot of criticism, noticeably from the tiatr community, questioning the government’s intentions behind organizing such a competition. Cantaram competitions are usually held without any pre-decided themes and certainly not with a rule that prohibits participants from criticizing the government. On the contrary, one of the several requirements of a cantar and cantorist is that of political sharpness. Cantorists ranging from Conception-Nelson-Anthony (famously known as the Trio kings) and William de Curtorim in the past, to the current sensation Francis de Tuem, have been famous for their radical political positions. Cantaram carry a huge affective magnitude for the Goan Catholic communities and it has played a key role in influencing public opinion at various historical junctures in post-colonial Goa.  The concerned department, in its official press release, stated that “[s]ong and drama is one of the medium used to propagating various policies, programmes and the schemes of the Government [sic]”. While using traditional cultural practices to propagate government schemes is not unheard of, there is more to the said cantaram competition than meets the eye.

11754510_905717512811034_6447163134040975280_oCantaram are an indispensable part of the tiatr, a theatre form that is popular largely among the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa. Audio CDs of cantars have brisk sales across Goa and is one of the most consumed form of Konkani music. In digital space too, a cantar shared on YouTube would have an average of 25,000-30,000 hits, a popularity that no other Goan cultural form enjoys. But the potency of cantar form lies in how, over the years, it has become a medium of formulating a discourse about the Catholic communities in Goa, wherein they retain their own agency. Cantaram, beyond its appeal as a form of entertainment, are employed to narrate and remember Goa’s history from the perspective of bahujan Goan Catholics. For instance, it would be helpful to look at two Goan political leaders, Dr. Jack Sequeira and Dayanand Bandodkar and their respective portrayal in cantaram and popular history. The popular narrative of Goan history escalates Bandodkar as a leader of masses while Sequeira’s role in Goan politics is inadequately discussed. But in cantaram, one finds an inversion of this narrative where Sequeira is celebrated for his definitive role during the Opinion Poll in 1967 while Bandodkar is subjected to sharp criticism for wanting to merge Goa with Maharashtra.

Such popular commentary on the state of Goa, emerging from a marginalized community poses a significant discursive threat to the regimes in power. Almost a year ago, the current BJP led government was exploring possibilities of setting up a censor board on tiatrs. However, the popularity that tiatr enjoys in Goa is far too powerful for the censors. Following a backlash over this move, the BJP government had to retract its decision. Having burnt their fingers once, this time the BJP led government saw it fit to organize a cantaram competition, with a clause that no adverse remarks could be made on the government, effectively imposing the censorship.

While the BJP draws its support largely from its anti-minority rhetoric in rest of the India, such stance hasn’t proven to be a success in Goa. In fact, any political outfit in Goa cannot afford to neglect the bahujan Catholic voters that until recently, could make or break governments. This is not to reduce the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa merely to a vote bank but to point to their acute political awareness, which marks them distinctly from the rest of the Goan population. The manner in which the Indian state has been rendering the Goan Catholic communities as dispossessed citizens, for example, by the denial of official recognition to Romi Konkani or the recent uproar over state grants to English medium primary school, makes them confront the state machinery in a manner which often proves to be litmus tests of Indian democracy in Goa. Cantaram and tiatr are central to the production and distribution of the discourse that makes this political awareness among the bahujan Catholic communities possible. By organizing the Cantaram Utsav, the BJP government precisely wanted to seek control of that discourse.

However, the tiatr community almost boycotted this event as a mark of protest. A collective that identifies itself as “Musical Warriors” gave a clarion call to Tiatrist and cantorists to gather outside the competition venue for a parallel cantar singing competition. This competition aimed at bringing forth the truth about the last four years of BJP governance and their anti-people policies and schemes. Singers Francis de Tuem, Lawry Travasso, Marcus Vaz among others, gathered outside the competition venue and singing critiques of the BJP-led Goa government in a sharply satirical cantar titled ‘Acche Din Aane Waale Hai’. This performative protest was sheer brilliance on the part of these singers to indicate that they will not compromise their political position for state patronage. While one fears that cantaram would lose its radical potential owing to attempts of appropriation by the state such as the said Kantaram Utsav, the tiatr community, through this protest kept alive the tradition of political dissent.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 21 March, 2016 )


The Bahujan Challenge to Goa’s Brahmanical Shrines


dsc05647Goa’s old temples need change, but they also need to be protected from change. There is no contradiction here: the change – or even revolution – they urgently need is in the realm of the social, political and economic; but connected to this is the issue of their unique Portuguese-era art and architecture, which needs protection. And the solution to both problems might be the same: the bahujan take-over of these currently savarna establishments, as is being attempted with the Navdurga temple at Marcaim.

Looking at the second problem first, there is no knowing what to expect at any of Goa’s old brahmanical shrines nowadays. A recent visit to the Mangueshi temple at Priol is an example. It was part of a trip to show some visiting students the syncreticism of Goa’s early modern architecture, which included visits to Old Goa and Ponda’s Safa Masjid. At Mangueshi, however, we found that the old Mulkeshwar temple had been completely rebuilt. The new temple is certainly grander (though somewhat like an upmarket Udipi restaurant), but is that a good reason to demolish an old structure, along with all the local history it contained?

But this is what is happening to old temples across Goa. What comes up in their stead are forms like those of the brahmanical temples in India, described by laypeople as ‘more Hindu’. This is precisely the reason for the replacement, although the official one is usually the need for expansion. Goan temple forms are indeed not Hindu, or rather brahminical, enough; they are brilliant examples of the European-Islamicate encounter. They often also show some pre-brahmin roots; Mulkeshwar, also known as Rakhandar, is supposed to be a non-brahmin or bahujan diety.

These temples thus can tell much about Goa’s rich cultural past, which however does not sit well with brahmin nationalism. Replacing them is good business of course; it provides the chance to create larger and grander Indian-style temples which attract the moneyed Hindu tourist eager to ‘consume’ religion (Meera Nanda, 2010). But replacing them also serves a political purpose: to erase Goa’s Portuguese, Islamicate, and bahujan past, along with its syncretic architecture and working traditions (Catholic artisans are supposed to have built these temples). And thus to invent a Goa that was always brahmanically Hindu.

It was just such an attempt, to change the old idol at the Navdurga temple, Marcaim, which has now blown up into a struggle demanding a different kind of change. Because the temple managements, so eager to demolish old architecture, art and icons, are the opposite when it comes to their own social, economic, and political privileges. For example, even today, none but the ‘mahajan’ families – all savarna — are allowed within the sanctum sanctorums of these temples. Prohibited from entry are even those members of the bahujan communities who work for the temple, doing everything from daily maintenance to playing the music during rituals; they are treated as ‘temple servants’. The same brahmanism prevails in rituals outside the sanctum. Along with this, menstruating women are denied entry anywhere inside the temple, as were foreigners some time ago. When questioned about all this, the temple managements claim that the temples are privately owned and thus free to limit public access.

But savarna hegemony over temples is not just an issue of religion. Some of these old temples are also landowners (bhatkars) who control vast immovable property as well as the lives of those who live and work there. Many of the latter have been unable to get their land deeds in their name to this day, with the result that they can be pressurised to continue with their humiliating ‘temple servant’ roles, using the threat of eviction.

Bahujan communities in Goa are unwilling to accept all this any more. The villagers of Marcaim have demanded that the Goa government intervene to ensure that the old idol is not replaced. They also want to know, they say, why the temples in Goa are considered the private property of savarnas, when temples in India are public temples. Their demand is that all who work for and worship at the temple should enjoy exactly the same rights and access.

This will not be an easy struggle, given the brahmanical nature of the Goan and Indian authorities. For example, the Supreme Court of India recently overturned the policy introduced by Tamil Nadu’s former DMK government to allow persons from any caste to apply for employment as priests. The court ruled that appointments should be according to the old ‘Agama Shastras’. With the brahmin-composed Agamas not surprisingly preferring brahmins, the ruling will preserve a brahmin monopolisation of this job. Would this court support a bahujan takeover of brahminical temples?

The other question though is, even if the savarna mahajans are defeated, will these temples really change into non-hierarchical and completely public spaces? Or will the only change be the replacement of savarnas by the more powerful among the bahujans? Let us not forget that Dalits are still barred from many of the ‘public’ temples in Maharashtra; people have even been murdered for entering. It was not for nothing that Dr Ambedkar advocated leaving Hinduism altogether; that is what some dalit-bahujan communities in Goa and India still opt for today.

For the moment, though, a good struggle is on, and one can only wish it well.

(With thanks to Ashwinkumar Naik for information on the Marcaim struggle.)

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 10 March, 2016)

Opinion Poll: Choice or Compromise?


A series of events are being planned to commemorate the historic Opinion Poll whose  50th anniversary was marked last week on 16th January. Second to the territory’s merger into the Indian Union, the Opinion Poll is perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of post-colonial Goa. The Opinion Poll was a referendum held to decide whether to retain the Union territory status of Goa or merge it with the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The majority of Goans voted against the merger and thus Goa retained its status as a Union territory, putting an end to any possibility of the merger with Maharashtra.

Goa-Opinion-Poll-ballot-paperCurrent tellings of the history of the Opinion Poll are centered around two prominent figures, Dayanand Bandodkar, the then chief minister, and Dr. Jack de Sequeira, the leader of opposition. While on the one hand it was Bandodkar’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) that rooted for the merger with Maharashtra in post-colonial Goa, on the other it was Dr. Sequeira and the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) who mobilized the anti-merger sentiments successfully. But such a reductive understanding of a complex historical moment ensures that the grey areas that marked Goa’s history and the reasons which prompted as well as averted the possibilities of merger are obscured. Recent historical analysis, such as that contained in Parag Parobo’s book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), hint  that Bandodkar was not keen on merger after he tasted political success. Also, the initial demand for merger dates back to late 40s, much before Bandodkar came onto the political scene. Hence to nuance our understanding of the Opinion Poll, we need to shift away from the sources that only emphasize Bandodkar and Sequeira, and write a history from below.

I was recently recounted an anecdote of a volunteer conducting the proceedings of Opinion Poll in Curtorim. After the polling ended in the evening, the said volunteer visited a nearby cafe where he overheard a conversation between two Catholic gentlemen. One of them reportedly proclaimed that “if Goa gets merged with Maharashtra, I will not stay in Goa anymore. I will move to Bombay”.

It might seem ironic that, in order to escape the threatened merger with Maharashtra, he wanted to escape to a city that was now claimed to be an integral part of Maharashtra. The city of Bombay had become the capital of the newly formed state of Maharashtra in 1960. However, if we assume that it was not so much the merger with Maharashtra that the gentlemen wanted to escape, but the possibility of further marginalization in a Hindu dominated polity his claim begins to make more sense. For him, the cosmopolitan big city would have perhaps offered hope to escape Hindu dominance. But since the late ’60s, spurred by the logic of linguistic nationalism that organized Maharasthra as a Marathi state, cosmopolitan Bombay was also transforming to become the migrant hating ‘Mumbai’ claimed by the far right Hindu outfit Shiv Sena.

This situation illustrates how marginalized groups are compelled to compromise in order to negotiate their existence with a larger dominant community. Such compromises often come in the guise of political choices wherein, despite making a choice, the marginalized is destined to suffer. The Opinion Poll was one such compromise disguised as a ‘choice’. Whether to merge with Maharashtra or to remain as a Union territory were restricting choices. The Indian union never offered Goan citizens the possibilities of self determination. Instead, it obliged them to negotiate their political future within the narrow frames of Indian nationalism. This nationalism, which in hindsight has revealed itself as, in fact, Hindu nationalism has steadily led to the disenfranchisement of Goan Catholics as legitimate subjects of the republic. The recent berating of Catholics as lacking in Indianness due to their leadership of the demand for grants to English medium schools is evidence of such disenfranchisement

If the Goan Catholics wanted to escape Hindu majoritarianism by voting against the merger, the Hindu bahujans wanted to escape Brahminical dominance by opting for the merger. In retrospect we realize that just as evading merger wasn’t a remedy to escape Hindu majoritarianism, merging with Maharashtra wasn’t a solution to escape the Brahminical dominance. To escape either of these evils, one must challenge the dominant discourse of Indian nationalism which is inherently infused with Brahminical Hindu notions.

It is only in hindsight that one can feel relieved that Goa did not merge with Maharashtra and was saved from being party to the hyper-masculine Maratha nationalism. However, Goa is far from escaping the ills of Hindu majoritarianism and has seen several native forms of Hindu majoritarianism breeding in the state. One can cite the movement for the official recognition of Konkani wherein the cultural legitimacy of Romi Konkani and the Catholic communities which utilized this script were systematically marginalized as lacking in Indianness as an instance of Hindu majoritarianism at work.

The Opinion Poll could be seen as a mixed blessing; a choice for freedom and independence that was structured upon narrow linguistic nationalism – thus restricting the very freedom and independence that it promised. While we celebrate Opinion poll as a triumph, we should also be aware that it restricted the lives of many Goans.

(First published in The Goan Everday, dt: 19 January, 2016)

A response to ‘Archbishopancha Sermao’


The Catholic communities in Goa have been at the receiving end of a vicious hate campaign spearheaded by the Bhartiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch (BBSM). BBSM’s vocal activist Naguesh Karmali recently made a statement saying that the ‘Church is worse than the Portuguese’, while Uday Bhembre urged the ‘75% majority population of Goa to rise up against the domination of 25% minority’. Reflecting on this hate campaign against the Catholic communities, Archbishop of Goa, at the annual Christmas civic reception held at his palace, remarked that newer forms of intolerance can be seen in the state today which are polarizing the majority against the minorities. In response to this speech by the Archbishop, the resident editor of Marathi Daily Lokmat, Raju Nayak, wrote a special editorial titled ‘Archbishopancha Sermao’ (Archbishop’s Sermon dt. 30th Dec. 2015) which claimed to analyze the Archbishop’s speech as well as the Church’s role in the crafting of Goa’s secular fabric.

Nayak’s first complaint was over the Archbishop choosing to address the gathering in English. Nayak writes that there was no need for the Archbishop to speak in English as, except for the Governor Mridula Sinha, the rest of the guests at the reception were Goans. Thus, Nayak feels that the Archbishop could have spoken in an Indian language or Konkani [sic] as it would validate the ‘Indian’ness of the Church in Goa. Nayak is implying that English isn’t Indian, a position that largely stems from the Hindu majoritarian discourse that accepts only upper-caste Hindu cultural forms as Indian, and regards the rest as foreign. Such parochialism slyly suggests that the Church (and hence Goan Catholics) are lesser Indians for not abiding by the expectations set by the Hindu majoritarian discourse.

Nayak claims that the Goan Catholics have been abandoning Konkani from their households. He alleges that the Archdiocese and the Diocesan Society were never in favor of imparting education in Konkani. They were instead compelled to convert their schools to Konkani medium as a result of the uncompromising position taken by the then Education minister Shashikala Kakodkar on giving grants only to primary schools with vernacular languages as the Medium of Instruction; and adds that schools run by Diocesan society and Archdiocese have killed Konkani education [sic]. But Nayak must remember that the Goan Catholic communities were jn the forefront of the people’s struggle during the official language movement. That were it not for the support of the Catholic clergy, right from the 1960s, the very idea of Konkani education would have been a dream. Despite all of this, the demand of the Catholics for granting of official status to Romi Konkani has not yet been realised. If the Hindu Brahminical leadership within the Konkani camp hasn’t been receptive to this demand of Goan Catholics, why should the Catholics now feel any commitment towards shouldering the burden of ‘safeguarding’ an Antruzi and Nagari-scripted Konkani that is in fact foreign to them? Rather, the existent pro-Nagri Konkani groups should be left on their own to safeguard the language which they concocted up for their own benefit.

Nayak further exposes his communal biases by arguing that the queues to avail Portuguese citizenship would compel anyone to conclude that English education is not only inadequate to create ideal citizens, but is also responsible for the sin [sic] of creating a generation of selfish and narrow minded individuals who have no sense of belonging towards the [Indian] nation. By Nayak’s logic, all English-learning Indian citizens will be regarded as anti-nationals. Why single out the Goan Catholics? Nayak further adds that the Goan Catholics are ‘disrespecting the core values that define Goa and are turning their back on the Indian nation’. According to a recent report published in (dt 28th Dec 2015), 65% of individuals who availed Portuguese citizenship were Catholics while 25% were Muslims and 10% were Hindus. These statistics show that though the majority of those opting for Portuguese citizenship are Goan Catholics, a significant number of Muslisms and Hindus too are availing the Portuguese citizenship. Moreover, the queues to obtain Portuguese citizenship are not Church-sponsored initiatives as Nayak seems to suggest, but are surely a product of the dominant Hindu nationalist discourse. If members of a particular community are surrendering their Indian citizenship at an average rate of 6 persons per day, accusing the entire community of turning their back towards the nation is not going to resolve the situation. Instead, one must also assess the implications of Hindu nationalism which treats non-Hindus as misfits within the Indian nation.

In essence, Nayak’s article suggests that to fashion oneself as Indian, one must abide by the diktats set by the Hindu majoritarian discourse. Such positions are not very different from the hardline Hindutva professed by far right groups such as RSS and VHP. Such a stance not only subjects the minorities under constant validation against the majoritarian standards, it also denies the minorities the agency to make their own life choices. Nayak also expresses his concern over religious organisations posing a threat to Goa’s plural character. But by espousing the lines of soft Hindutva, Nayak seems to contradict with his concerns for plurality. Instead of berating Goan Catholics as unpatriotic, perhaps we need to broaden the definition of ‘Indian’ness to encompass cultures that are not necessarily Hindu.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 5 January, 2016)

Selected Passages from “Archbishopancha Sermao” by Raju Nayak (Translation by Kaustubh Naik)

Why did archbishop speak in English? Except the Governor Mridula Sinha, rest of the attendees at the gathering were Goans. Had the Archbishop addressed the gathering in an Indian language or in Konkani, it would’ve suited the occasion. Also, it would have validated the ‘Indian’ness of the Church. The reason why BBSM members are dissatisfied with the Church is due to the attitude of distancing itself away from Indianness exhibited by the Church. Church’s support to English medium schools as well as disregard towards local languages and cultures are results of such attitude. If the Catholic community had taught their kids in English medium schools and taught them Konkani or Indian languages at home, it would’ve been fine but the Catholics have been systematically erasing Konkani from their households.

Goan Church organizations say that this [support to English medium] is not related to the Higher orders of Church but we are merely under the pressure of Catholics as well Hindu majority for the same. But there is no iota of truth in such position taken by the Church. The truth is that the Diocesan and Archdiocese were demanding for English education since beginning. The decision to give grants to regional languages was taken under Shashikala government but these two organisations created many hurdles for the said policy. Finally, when they could not do anything to influence this grant policy, they obliged to run their schools in Konkani medium. However, they never implemented the Konkani medium and these institutions literally killed Konkani education. This wasn’t only a disrespect towards Konkani but contempt of the Indian constitution and a government decision. That parents want English education for their wards is a myth and it is only the senior priests and leaders within the Church who chiefly arguing for English education. As a result of this, we know what kind of citizens the church has created. If one sees the queues to avail Portuguese passport and citizenship, one can conclude that the English education is not only inadequate to create ideal citizens and skilled service class, but also responsible for the sin creating a generation of selfish, narrow minded individuals who have no sense of belonging towards the nation. Cunha referred to this attitude as ‘denationalisation’ because the Church strengthened the colonial power in Goa and continued a colonial legacy after that. Portuguese and other such religious groups not only robbed Goans of their ways of being but uprooted them completely. After Goa’s liberation, several cultural revivalist movements were taking shape that helped blooming of Goan identity but sadly, that too has been stifled and religious groups have been active in spewing venom. This is alarming and especially, church’s involvement in education is unpardonable. It has never so happened that the Archbishop has pulled the ears of his children who are planning to leave the country.

We have always respected the ‘Goemkar’ feeling that the Catholics have nurtured all these years. We have undoubtedly asserted that the Catholics are on forefront to safeguard Goa. When the Gram Sabhas have called out for ‘Saving Goa’, we have always championed their cause. But on the other hand, when the Catholic community is disrespecting the core values of Goa and turns its back towards the nation, we are deeply saddened and our heart mourns. This saddening should’ve been reflected in Archbhisop’s address who took the BBSM head on. Naguesh Karmali often become over-extremist. His nationalism is so narrow that it seems vicious and a hurdle to our plurality. But forces that hamper Goa’s vivid and plural character must be condemned. We can’t have second thoughts about it and Lokmat too has respected this need to condemn. BBSM’s agenda is political. Some interpret their ‘Bhartiya’ as only limited to Hindus but no one should doubt their commitment to safeguard Indian languages. In the wake of the sad state of political parties, minority appeasement and the overall depressive state of the society, must we sit quiet and witness Indian languages being sacrificed? Actually, even the Church should participate in this movement of shaping human beings. The Church is supporting the English medium schools whose agenda is to burry regional languages, especially Konkani, and this is known to everyone. Church shouldn’t forget this.

(First published on 30 December, 2015 in Lokmat (Goa Edition))

Destabilising the idea of India


Following the abominable lynching of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the beef bans, and the overall rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP’s rise to power in India, many are worried about the perceived threat to the ‘Idea of India’. The ‘India as a Hindu Rashtra’ rhetoric propagated by RSS is at loggerheads with the Nehruvian idea of secular, liberal and modern India. These are disturbing, but nonetheless interesting, times where these two imaginations of India, both originating from elite upper caste positions, are fighting for their supremacy. However, it is important to note that both these imaginations have failed to cater to the assertions of marginalized and subaltern communities in India.

A deeper probing into history would tell us that this Secular vs Communal, attributed to Congress and BJP respectively, is a false binary that the marginalized communities are forced to choose from. Both these political parties have operated largely to serve and safeguard elite interests in this country. While both the Congress and BJP have often tried to project a liberal image, their history tells otherwise. To believe that one of them is secular than the other would mean to live in a fool’s paradise. In such scenario, one can conclude that if we are to think of a political discourse focused around emancipating the marginalized communities, neither Congress nor BJP can be our best bet. The reason for this, as noted by the late historian Prof. MSS Pandian in an essay he wrote in the year 2000, is that both these groups populated by the modernizing elite cutting across the ideological divide of communal and secular, have a deep-rooted feeling against the Indian democracy.

Pandian provides examples of how the modernizing elites have repeatedly exhibited their contempt towards values of democracy. According to Pandian, the implementation of Mandal commission report by the United Front Government in 1990 that extended reservations in government jobs and educational institutes to non-creamy layer OBCs along with SC and ST communities, was a moment of deepening of democracy in India. While the so called secularist Congress government did not implement the recommendations of Mandal report for a decade, the opposition to the implementation originated from the modernizing elites of India across party lines. This is indicative of the fact that the then political establishment in India was united across false divisions to oppose a democratic decision. If one were to look within Goa, the denial of official language status to Roman Konkani and opposition to the state grants for English medium primary schools would be fitting examples to explain the contempt harbored by elites towards values of democracy.

Pandian further illustrates the anti-democratic urge of elites by drawing the reader’s attention to the attitude of the elites towards politicians who have come to occupy positions of power through the support of the rural lower caste voters. He specifically talks about how Lalu Prasad Yadav was parodied in mainstream press for being a village bumpkin unfit for the serious business of politics. Even after the recent victory of Grand Alliance in Bihar against BJP, Lalu’s ‘village joker’ image is constantly brought back into the mainstream discourse to perpetuate Lalu’s incapability to be a serious politician.

Soon after Laxmikant Parsekar succeeded Manohar Parrikar as the Chief Minister of Goa, a photo parodying Parsekar was being circulated on WhatsApp. The photo showed Parsekar’s face morphed on a monkey’s body while Manohar Parrikar’s face was morphed onto a man’s body that held a rope around Parsekar’s neck. Some of the seasoned BJP members shared this photo with utmost glee, exposing their discomfort to accept a non-Brahmin leader as the Chief Minister of Goa. In such situation, it was not surprising when recently asked to list achievement of his government on the account of completing one year as the Chief Minister, Parsekar responded by saying that people have stopped parodying him on social media.

The aforementioned articulations by Pandian show that the the idea of India perpetuated by its modernizing elites does not provide enough space for contesting power based on the existing disparities of caste, region, language and religion. Instead, it homogenizes the struggles of the subaltern on the lines of secular versus communal, forcing them to choose the so called lesser evil. In contemporary times where the Hindu right is establishing control over institutions of power in India, the Nehruvian idea of secular liberal India as a necessity to combat the Hindu right is also getting affirmed. However, it needs to be pointed out that the Nehruvian polity was no less compatible with a certain form of Hindu right and hence needs to be destabilized.

To rethink subaltern politics, in the wake of such situation, would first require us to avoid falling into the traps of these so called lesser evils and false binaries of communal vs secular. The recourse would be, as suggested by Pandian, to foreground a political strategy that is based on the perennial contestation of different forms of power by acknowledging and addressing difference as the fundamental reality of the social. Alternatively put, instead of relegating the differences of caste, religion, region, language etc. into one’s private domain as ‘taught’ to us by the modernizing elite, we must use these very differences as arsenals for contesting power.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 24 November, 2015)

Subaltern Cultures as Commodities


“Rashtriya Sanskriti Mahotsav”, India’s national cultural festival, concluded last week at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Contemporary Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi. This annual festival is organized by the Government of India’s Ministry of Culture in collaboration with its zonal cultural centers and various autonomous cultural institutions patronized by the state. The Ministry of Culture’s objective in organizing this cultural festival, as state on their website, is to ‘celebrate spirit of Tradition, Culture, Heritage and Diversity of our incredible country’.


(Image courtesy NCF2015 website)

The weeklong festival was host to performances from various parts of the country. In addition to these performances, each zonal center had set up stalls wherein handlooms and handicrafts from their respective zones were available for display and sale. Artists from various states took turns in showcasing their art forms and skills outside these stalls, while the metropolitan Delhi audience clicked selfies with these artists in background. These cultural festivals have become routine in the annual calendar of cultural events throughout the Indian metros. Supported by the State and Central Government’s Departments of Culture, these festivals invite troupes from various states to perform their ‘indigenous’ art forms for the pleasure of an urban audience. The aim of such festivals might be to provide exposure to various cultures of the country, but a closer reading allows us to unravel the curious relationship of the Indian nation with its subaltern cultures.

Most of the art forms that are performed at such festivals fall under the category of folk arts and are practiced by the subaltern communities of the land. Unlike the classical art forms such as the Bharatnatyam or Kathakali in India, the folk arts do not claim their origins in Sanskrit texts such as the Natyashastra or Rigvedas. Instead, the folk art forms are inherently linked with the livelihoods of the communities practicing these arts. The cultural policies in India have rather successfully attempted to establish a hierarchy between classical and folk art forms, wherein folk art forms are ranked lower than the classical art forms. What this hierarchy suggests is that art forms which do not celebrate Sanskrit pasts are not worthy of being considered high art. The claims of these so called ‘classical’ art forms and their alleged origins in the golden age of Sanskrit is questionable and deserves an independent discussion.

This hierarchy between classical and folk arts implies different standards of remuneration and treatment to folk & classical artists, with classical artists being the pampered ones. The exclusionary attitude of the Indian state towards the subaltern art practices is further visible in the way in which the state promotes the folk and classical arts. To understand the biased attitude towards the folk arts, one could look at the festivals of classical arts organized by the state, such as the Khajuraho Dance festival or the Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar Classical Music Festival in Goa. These festivals of classical arts are organized as independent events and the name of each classical performer is individually publicized. On the other hand, the festivals of folk arts are organized along with handloom exhibitions, handicrafts sale and food courts, rendering them more on the lines of a chaotic bazaar instead of a cultural performance. Needless to say, the names of the artists performing these forms are never publicized, thereby reducing the folk artists to nameless & ahistorical bodies that merely perform a regional culture.

Most of these folk performances are associated with local rituals which are performed at specific times of the year and in specific spaces. By making the communities perform these art forms at these festivals that happen throughout the year, the organizers strip these art forms of their local context and convert them into cultural commodities that can be circulated for the consumption of an urban elite across Indian metros. The implications of this commoditization demands serious attention as it systematically alters the aesthetic structure of these forms in terms of costumes, duration of performance etc. It is not to say that the folk forms shouldn’t undergo changes in response to the times in which they are being practiced. In fact, changes in the art forms is what keeps them relevant in contemporary times. But these changes should occur organically within the community and not as a result of trying to fit them into a frame imposed by the cultural policies of the nation-state or because of global capital.

Taking cognizance of the aforementioned issues associated with cultural festivals that claim to celebrate folk cultures, one cannot help but see a strained relationship between the Indian nation and the subaltern communities. The subaltern communities are brought into mainstream spaces to exhibit their art and skills only when the nation seeks to celebrate its so called heritage and tired claims of unity in diversity. It is the same ‘Indian’ tradition, guided by casteist and communal doctrines, that otherwise ensures that these subalterns never become part of the mainstream. The benefits of the nation-state are not uniformly available to these communities on whose labor the nation validates its cultural existence. On the contrary, it appears that the Indian nation wants the subaltern communities to remain trapped in the bubble of their traditions, so that India’s post-colonial desperation of establishing a pre-colonial cultural identity can be fulfilled.

(This article was first published in The Goan Everday, dt: 10th November 2015)

Dayanand Bandodkar, Ambedkar and Nehru


In his essay titled ‘A Warning to Untouchables’, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar appeals to the depressed classes to strive for two goals. The first one being the pursuit of education and spread of knowledge, for he believed that the power of the dominant castes rested upon the lies consistently propagated among the uneducated masses. Challenging the dominance of the privileged classes requires countering these lies which could only happen with education. Secondly, he asserts that the depressed classes must strive for power. Ambedkar says that “[w]hat makes one interest dominant over another is power [and] that being so, power is needed to destroy power”.

The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh from the mid 1990s is considered a success story of Ambedkar’s aforementioned appeals. But Parag Parobo’s recently published book, India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), could help us imagine Goa’s first Chief Minister, Dayanand Bandodkar, as a bahujan leader whose politics resonated with Ambedkar’s political scheme mentioned above, much before Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.

In the first three state elections (1963, 1967, and 1972), the Indian National Congress (INC) suffered most humiliating defeats in Goa while Bandodkar and his Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party single-handedly emerged as the most powerful political force. The reason for this, as cited by Parobo, was the INC’s dependence on reproducing feudal and caste hierarchies within the INC’s organizational structure. During the first Goa assembly elections in 1963, the INC gave candidature mostly to upper caste landlords and “freedom fighters”, leaving no space for the representation of subordinated castes. Bandodkar, on the other hand, placed an emphasis on giving tickets to the individuals belonging to the bahujan samaj, two significant examples being Kashinath Shetgaonkar, a loin-cloth-wearing farmer and Vijay Kamulkar, a tea-stall-owner, both from Pernem. Shetgaonkar and Kamulkar won their respective seats while defeating feudal doyens Raghunathrao Deshprabhu and Vaikunthrao Dempo. Deshprabhu and Dempo’s loss reflects the grit of the masses to reject the INC’s attempt to reproduce upper caste dominance within electoral democracy.

Bandodkar’s caste background not only informed his political strategy but also his vision. Parobo astutely elaborates on this aspect by analyzing Bandodkar’s educational policies for Goa vis-à-vis Jawaharlal Nehru’s educational policies for India. Nehru is uncritically considered as the architect of Modern India by a large majority of the Indian population. Nehru’s narrative of development was launched through investments in heavy industries and mega-projects and dams, which Nehru referred to as the ‘temples of Modern India’. However, as Parobo points out, Nehru’s development rhetoric emphasized higher education by downplaying the value of basic education in the country. At a time when a vast portion of the country’s population did not have access to basic education, Nehru made precious resources available to higher education in the process  starving primary and secondary schools of funds.

High resolution Image of bookParobo articulates it precisely when he writes that “at a time when investments in higher education were a priority being driven by [the] Nehruvian vision of India, Goa’s story was being scripted very differently”. Within one month of taking charge of the government, Bandodkar announced the setting up of 200 primary schools for the academic year 1964-65. The major thrust of his educational policy was to eradicate inequality by universalizing primary education and to make education accessible to everyone in Goan society by setting up educational institutions in villages, especially for those who belonged to lower ranks in the caste hierarchy. Under Bandodkar’s tenure, the number of primary schools increased from 274 to 492 in 1964-65 and further increased to 900 in 1967. According to Parobo, Bandodkar did not merely limit himself to opening up schools but also created conditions that would make Bahujan access to education possible. For example, Bandodkar’s land reforms liberated the low caste mundkars from feudal compulsions and responsibilities, thus easing their way towards acquiring education. The results of these concentrated efforts were seen in the census of 1971, wherein in the New Conquests, a region which had received relatively less attention in terms of education before 1961, the literacy rate increased from 18 to 51 percent.

Bandodkar seized political power which, according to Ambedkar, was the master key for the lower caste emancipation. Through his political strategies and reforms, Bandodkar was able to achieve two things. Firstly, Bandodkar disrupted the elite Goan establishment, both Hindu and Catholic, which was reaping benefits available to them through their support of the Portuguese colonial state. Secondly, he strategically rejected the INC’s hierarchical politics as well as the Nehruvian vision of development that catered to safeguarding the interests of the elites. Instead, he scripted a development narrative that prioritized the liberation of the lower caste communities. Thus, even though Bandodkar may not have engaged directly with Ambedkar’s political thought, he was able to demonstrate the potential of Ambedkar’s vision of subaltern emancipation. He did this by seizing political power and exposing the limits of the Nehruvian model of governance. This goes to show that a critical questioning of Nehruvian idea of ‘modern’ nation and coupling an inclusive version of Bandodkar’s strategy with Ambedkar’s political thoughts could help us to imagine possibilities of emancipating the subaltern in contemporary times.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 27 October, 2015)