Blacklisted: Racism and the Injustice of Popular Violence

By JASON KEITH FERNANDES, R. BENEDITO FERRÃO, and AMITA KANEKAR

 

On 31st October, the local media was saturated with news of a group of Nigerian nationals who, it was claimed, had removed the corpse of their murdered compatriot from the hearse carrying it, thereafter placing the body on the road, effectively blocking traffic on NH 17 in protest. Policepersons intervening in the protest were said to have been assaulted and, to complicate matters, the Nigerians were subsequently set upon by a mob and viciously beaten up, such that two Nigerians suffered life-threatening injuries. The statements made by some of the Nigerians, that the protest was spurred by their fear that the police were not investigating the murder seriously nor paying heed to allegations that two prominent Goan politicians were involved in the drug trade of which the murder was a possible fall-out, were largely ignored.

 

Public reaction was astounding. Instead of being horrified at the mob lynching of the protesting Nigerians, most persons tended to respond with the simplistic question, what else were the locals supposed to do? This question implies that the Nigerians deserve what they got, not only because they were causing a nuisance, but primarily because of their alleged involvement in the drug trade in Goa. It is precisely this sort of rhetoric that demonstrates the double-standards at work in our society and as especially evidenced in this particular case. The assault on the Nigerians as well as the subsequent reportage, not to mention comments on social media, reek of a barely concealed, when not blatant, racism.

 

Incidents of mob lynching are often presented as spontaneous eruptions of anger against an ineffective government, but are in fact almost never so. Usually the manifestation of a shared local sentiment against a weaker opponent, they tend to happen only when it is convenient and ‘safe’ to take the law into one’s own hands. Why should a blockage of the highway lead to murderous assaults by people armed with lathis and iron rods? If this lynching was really a response to the government’s inaction against the drug mafia, as some claim, why have we never seen such attacks on the police or the politicians who have been frequently accused of protecting or patronising the trade? The answer is that most participants in the lynching are aware that attacking the police or politicians would have very serious legal and extra-legal implications. Lynching is never directed at the powerful but at the powerless. This ugly phenomenon is often directed at the innocent, as in the case at Arambol a few months ago, when a person mistaken for a thief was tied to a pole and then beaten almost to death – again by ‘locals’ – before he was rescued by the police. Media images showed a bound and bloody semi-naked figure whom bystanders were laughing at and taking pictures of on their cell phones. Social sanction for lynching is deeply troubling, and it cannot just be blamed on an unresponsive government.

 

Next is the issue of the ‘common sense’ that seems to prevail in Goa: that Nigerians are drug peddlers. It should be obvious that the entire population of Nigerians who visit or are resident in Goa cannot be peddling drugs. Such an assumption gains credibility only when supported by a racist logic that tars an entire community based on the actions of a few. Substantial examples of racism can be found in media reports and editorials, while the viciousness of social media is almost beyond description. Nigerians have been described as “hefty”, “boisterous”, “Uncivilized, uneducated pirates”, and one commentator proclaims, “we can’t forget what they did to us during Idi Amin times”. As the latter quotes demonstrate, the identities of distinct nationalities – Ugandans, Nigerians, and others – have been conflated while venting frustration. The only common feature between these nationalities is that they are all African and black. Even Goan diasporic history – the 1972 expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Amin – is roped in as reason for retribution. Further, there is the almost classic racist fear of the savagery of African men. One particularly telling comment on Facebook describes them as “massive Afzal Khan brand African giants,” intertwining the fear of the Muslim along with that of the African.

 

This is not surprising given our caste culture, which can surely teach racism a thing or two about violent discrimination on the basis of birth. Our society nurtures a biased belief in hierarchy and discrimination, all of which is also tied to skin colour, so that it is very normal for black people to be treated worse than whites. In an interview many years ago, an African living in Mumbai pointed out that while apartheid in South Africa was the law, in India it is human nature. This results in the khapri, or African, being relegated to the bottom of the caste ladder, lower than the lowest – not least because of Goans recalling their times in Africa as colonial collaborators, but also due to the legacy of slavery in Portuguese Goa, both of which have given Goans unacknowledged African bloodlines. Ganging up on Africans, whether physically or politically, brings Goans ‘together’ against the lowly outsider, creating a fake and racist unity. How convenient this racism is can be seen from the immediate attempts to cash in by MLAs like Rohan Khaunte and Vijai Sardessai, with their open defence of the lynching and avowed support to defend those responsible.

 

The calls for “rounding up” and deporting Nigerians are disturbingly reminiscent of the pogroms carried out against the Roma and Jews in Europe, and against other ethnic minority groups across the world. It is all the more ironic given the contemporary and routine racial profiling of South Asians, Goans included, who travel to or live in other countries. While many citizens see profiling as a logical response of the State, the fact is that such assertions of tough administration invariably come after an incident such as this; they are merely spectacles and knee-jerk responses, not evidence of good governance. In fact, the inherent jingoism conceals the rot in the system that has produced the problem in the first place. If some Nigerians are involved in drug peddling, can they have been doing it without local assistance? Indeed, the incident that commenced in Parra and concluded in Porvorim is an example of how institutions of governance have been systematically dismantled over time to serve the personal agendas of the locally powerful. Some foreigners may have benefited from the space that opened up, but the truth is, as so amply demonstrated on 31st October, that eventually they are as much the victims as locals. Tragically, these victims set upon one another while the kingpins laugh all the way to the bank.

 

In the face of this popular support for mob violence, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar’s assertion that it cannot do for citizens to take the law into their own hands is well placed, and one hopes that his statement that his government may prosecute those responsible for the life-threatening attacks on the Nigerians will be realised. Lynchings become precedents for more violence and, to reiterate, they invariably mete out unjust punishments.

 

(First published in The Navhind Times on 6 Novemver, 2013

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The Bahujan in Fiction

By AMITA KANEKAR

Once in a way, there comes along a work of art which holds a mirror to reality, and not the obvious reality that is on our minds and in the media, but the most ignored corners of our society and culture. The recently published The Salt of the Earth: Stories from Rustic Goa by Jayanti Naik appears to be one such. Intending to challenge the prevailing image of Goa, as declared by the author in her Foreword, this anthology released by Goa 1556 and Golden Heart Emporium contains short stories published originally in Nagri Konkani and translated into English for this collection by Augusto Pinto.

As many in Goa would know, Jayanti Naik is a folklorist, Konkani scholar (with a PhD on the language from Goa University), and prolific writer of short stories. In my experience, short stories are a challenging form of creative writing, requiring a tautness in the telling of a story, right from the introduction of a cast of characters and the plot, to its development and dénouement, all in the space of a few turnings of the page. It requires great control, greater than in novels, over the plot, the pace, the descriptions, the dialogue, everything. It’s not easy.

Naik uses the form quite well. Besides having a rooted feel, her stories are both easy to read and gripping. As the anthology’s title would imply, most of them are about people from Goa’s bahujan communities and set in Goan villages. They could be said to fall into two broad categories. One is about the ending of tradition, seen in the demise of rituals—like the shigmo tradition in Naman: The Invocations, and the Basvo tradition of leading a sacred bull from house to house in Basvo: The Nandi Bull— or that of a lifestyle, as with the tribal lifestyle in The Victory, and the brahmanical lifestyle in The Fulfillment of a Desire. Most of these stories are notably sympathetic to tradition, with many protagonists being elderly and respected leaders of traditional practices, and with almost no mention of the oppression that was often part of traditional life.

The other category is about women, and the often-painful compromises between tradition and rebellion made by, or forced upon, today’s women. Biyantul sees a woman forced by her family to give up the man she loves, because of his poverty. Uma and the Human Sacrifice sees another, despite being educated and a feminist, agreeing to an arranged marriage with a widower who is a suspected wife-murderer. The Curse of Vozryo sees an old husband whose much younger second wife has eloped with another man, remembering and regretting how he had ill-treated her. Ramaa is a strange story of a young woman rebelling against her family to marry an old (and impotent) and much-respected Konkani scholar just to support him in his life’s work in developing the language, but unable to give up her desire to be a mother; she has a child outside marriage but does not survive its birth. But if tradition is not seen as woman-friendly, the contemporary world is suspect as well. An Account of Her Life is a startling story of a much-respected professor and feminist, beloved of her bahujan students, being exposed after death as a serial sexual predator whose behaviour was condoned by her victims because of the numerous benefits they received from her mentorship.

The stories are realistic and moving, with more greys than black and white. And, given Naik’s folklorist background, it is not surprising that they are also peppered with fascinating details of bahujan traditions, ideas, and practices, including food, religious rituals, deities, and so on.

However, fiction can both challenge myths and prejudices as well as reinforce them, and unfortunately some of these stories do the latter. Although all are apparently pro-bahujan, the conservative approach to traditional culture, seeing it as both ancient and righteous, is in fact very brahmanical. In her Foreword, Naik not only reiterates this idea of tradition as primordial and full of brotherhood, she also sees pre-Portuguese Goa as ‘Indian in culture’. This is not just ahistorical, it supports the brahmanical and nationalist myth of a glorious pre-colonial India, in a time when neither India nor Goa existed. The fact that traditions are not always great should be obvious from our many casteist and anti-bahujan ones; nor are they unchanging or always old, as pointed out by Eric Hobsbawm long ago (The Invention of Tradition, 1983) and Parag Parobo (India’s First Democratic Revolution…, 2015) in the context of Goa. It is an approach that does not convince, for it does injustice to bahujan struggles to transform the world, whether in the past or today. In fact, Naik’s most searing stories are not those on tradition and folklore, but the few about academics and litterateurs, a brahmanical world increasingly challenged by bahujans, a world that she knows personally right down to its ugly underbelly.

On the whole, the collection is a treat. It does, as it promises to, challenge the image of Goa, especially in the eyes of Indians, as a westernised party paradise.

And the translation by Augusto Pinto is very smooth, retaining many Konkani words and also language structure, which gives a distinct and authentic flavour to the dialogues. Pinto has also written an interesting Afterward, The Bahujan Writes Back, in which he mentions that Naik is beginning to write in ‘non-standard’ Konkani for her recent stories, i.e. closer to actual bahujan speech. This is good news. Freedom from the Nagri Konkani of the upper castes, or the Baman Bhas as the bahujan writer Ramnath Naik has called it, will only result in a better representation of Goa’s bahujans.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 9 March, 2017)

Of Temples, Conversions, and Apologies

By AMITA KANEKAR

The Portuguese Prime Minister should apologise, say the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), ‘as soon as he lands, for all the atrocities committed on the people of Goa, while the Portuguese ruled Goa.’

Let us leave aside the fact that these apology-seekers have long been part of the present ruling establishment, and thus should themselves apologise first for their failure on every single front—for the freely proliferating casinos, for the mining mess, for the numerous white elephant projects destroying the environment while driving the state into massive debt, for the communities being uprooted right and left, for the lack of decent employment and wages for Goans even as the government prepares to clean out the state coffers to provide the 7th Pay Commission bonanza—to itself.

But let us ignore the fact that this talk of apologies for the past is clearly an attempt to distract us from the issues of the present, and to make some nationalist mileage out of the visit of the Prime Minister of Portugal to Goa. Let us also ignore the fact that it is ridiculous to ask for apologies for past events whose participants are dead and gone. What I would like to look at instead is the history peddled by the MGP and GSM, which, as expected, is both one-sided and brahmanical to the core.

So what are these atrocities that they want an apology for? ‘There was maximum destruction done by the Portuguese by destroying temples and bridges, just as they left Goa in 1961,’ claims former PWD minister Sudin Dhavalikar. Plus there was the ‘oppression under the Portuguese rule, conversions and inhumane treatment’, adds GSM president Anand Shirodkar, not to mention the introduction of the ‘English language culture’.

Now this is the first time one has heard of temples destroyed in 1961, probably because it never happened. There are of course records of temple destruction by the Portuguese earlier. But it is really a question whether this calls for apologies. Because what exactly did these temples represent? Even today, many Hindu temples across India are strongly brahmanical institutions.  Dalits have been beaten, even killed, for stepping inside temples in India not centuries ago but in current times. In Goa, while overt violence might not be heard of, Dalits are still barred from Hindu temples in Pernem. Even elsewhere—as in Marcaim, represented by Dhavalikar in the Goa Assembly—full access is allowed only to certain castes, while every single job, ritual and celebration sees the enforcement of the caste system with its ideas of purity and pollution.

The bahujan struggle at Marcaim to democratise the control of the temple is, not surprisingly, yet to receive a word of support from Dhavalikar.

How would it have been centuries ago when the temples of the Velhas Conquistas were destroyed? These dominant-caste temples were not just the owners of wealth, including lands, gold, and all kinds of slaves, but also the heart and soul of caste society. As Xavier and Zupanov (Catholic Orientalism, 2015) point out, the temples were the ‘centre of local sociability, a memory archive of social distinctions, a collective treasury, and the seat of village authority’. This was a society that upheld sati (banned by Albuquerque) and treated bahujans literally like dirt; not even accepting them as animals, forget humans; not allowing them to eat or dress decently—because that was against religion, the religion upheld by the temples. It was a time when Dalits could be killed in religiously-sanctioned sacrifices for the construction of all grand projects, as the inscriptions in Vijayanagara (Hampi) describe.

The destruction of such institutions by the Portuguese would thus surely have been seen as a moment of liberation by many, even though it was probably done not for liberation but as a statement of power.

As for conversions, according to Ângela Barreto Xavier (2007), the untouchables (farazes) were willing converts to Christianity, for they saw it as a chance to escape caste oppression. It is another matter that, thanks to many dominant castes also converting in order to retain power and wealth, caste itself entered Goan Catholicism. Even so, Catholicism still offered the message of equality, at least theoretically. The combination of this theory with the jobs, education, and other opportunities offered by the Estado to Catholic bahujans, meant that they could leave their former humiliating conditions and seek new opportunities. As Raghuraman Trichur and Peter de Souza point out, this in turn provided an opportunity for oppressed castes in the regions outside the Estado. For the Velhas Conquistas now needed labour; bahujan outsiders could find work here and thus escape their old positions and identities.

Conversions to Catholicism were thus a boon for Goans, not just the Catholics but all Goans. And the destroyed temples were similarly hardly likely to have been mourned by anybody but the dominant castes whose position they upheld. As for the ‘English language culture’, only casteists would want to deny this culture to all, along with the social and economic benefits it entails.

So, apologies for what? Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Malabar is in fact considered by many Dalits as a milestone in the history of Dalit liberation (Aditya Nigam, 2006).

It is high time that Goans stop falling for the history narratives peddled by casteist myth-mongers. For them, the only problem in Goan (and Indian) history is the arrival of the Portuguese (and the British); before that, we supposedly lived in a Golden Age. But this was a Golden Age of only the dominant castes, and the sooner we recognise this, the earlier our real liberation.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 January, 2017)

Where’s the Nation?

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

The internal or real face of Indian nationalism is caste, said Prof G Aloysius, while delivering one of the Dr Ambedkar Memorial Lectures this year at the Goa Arts and Literature Fest, 2016, titled ‘Retrieving Ambedkar for our Times and Places’.

 

Prof Aloysius is well-known for his book ‘Nationalism without a Nation in India’ (OUP, 1998), and its central idea that Indian nationalism has failed to produce a nation in the real sense. A nation, he said, is a modern way for different people to live and develop together. No nation has been around for very long, none from time immemorial. They were needs of the hour, arising specifically around the modern aspirations for liberty, equality, and fraternity. But equality, said Aloysius, is a category that has no meaning in itself. It is inequality that has meaning, with all its history, examples, practises, language, and so on. Equality therefore means the concrete dismantling of unequality. For instance, he added, following the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the elite Samurai class had to give up their traditional privileges in order to forge a modern society.

 

Nationalism is actually a part of modernity, explained Aloysius; it is a resource for regions that are modernising. But as nationalism moved into South Asia from Europe, it became less political and more cultural. Both kinds of nationalisms were born during the British Raj: the cultural nationalism of the dominant castes who found their age-old privileges threatened by colonial rule, and the political nationalism of the bahujans, who wanted freedom from age-old injustice and discrimination.

 

In theory, political nationalism is based on fraternity, which implies conscious unity, an ‘anonymous camaraderie’, where one respects the other as a fellow-citizen of the nation. When I sit on a bus in a modern nation, said Aloysius, I sit on just one seat, leaving enough space for my fellow-traveller, even though I know nothing about him/her. But in India, this doesn’t happen—you see people asking people to move elsewhere, trying to hog both seats, keeping their luggage or their feet on the other seat, and so on. Because cultural nationalism is based on only subjective similarities – similar foods, similar festivals, similar clothes, and so on – not conscious unity.

 

In practise, the cultural nationalism of the savarnas glorified the culture of the subcontinent, which meant its caste culture, tradition and custom, and the supposed ‘good old days’ before British rule. Political nationalism in contrast was all for change, about political, social and economic rights, and the dismantling of inequality and discrimination. But cultural nationalism won, for the upper castes were both closer to the British and a pan-Indian community. Although the cause of political nationalism had many votaries, including staunch modernists like Dr Ambedkar, they were also local and apart, separated by distance, vernacular languages, and a lack of financial clout; thus they were easier to ignore.

 

Cultural nationalism won, and the result is stark. In Europe and Japan, many elite privileges were ended in the creation of the nation, but in India it has been the opposite. All privileges continue. Nationalism here is the celebration of ancient custom and tradition. Instead of modernity, argued Aloysius, what Indian nationalism has produced is simply varnashrama dharma.

 

The proof of this is all around us. A modern nation has universal and egalitarian education as one of its fundamental goals, said Aloysius. India however has developed a hierarchy of school boards and infrastructure: CBSC at the top, followed by ISCE and IB, and local or state boards at the bottom; prestigious central schools at the top, and ramshackle municipal, village, and tribal schools at the bottom; schools with horse-riding and swimming pools for some, and schools without toilets, classrooms or teachers for others! The same attitude prevails in the Medium of Instruction policies, with the much-desired English education only in private and central schools, while local and state schools—used by bahujan communities—run perforce in the local vernacular. Here Goa goes a step further, by denying bahujans their own vernacular, i.e. Romi Concanim, and instead inventing a sanskritised and useless Nagri Konkani to be enforced in state and aided schools.

 

Varnashrama dharma, in short, is anti-national in the real sense of the word. It is the reason why you can have invisibilised communities even in a place like Goa: communities which have never voted, which are yet to enter higher education, still forced to live in semi-bondage. Varnashrama dharma is the reason for normalised atrocities, like that of manual scavengers being killed on the job, when they do not even officially exist! The law may say what it likes but tradition persists. And tradition says that it is fine that there is one standard of life for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’.

 

Ambedkar was a true nationalist, said Aloysius, i.e. a complete modernist. But he was defeated by the cultural nationalist politics of the Congress party. Thus, instead of a modern nation based on citizens with equal rights and duties, India has become a centralised and powerful state system, backed by a Brahmanical, pre-modern, and exclusionist ideology.

 

It is no surprise that many find themselves at odds with this system, whether among non-savarna communities of former British India, or in places like Goa, with our different history and culture. Goans have to locate themselves in their own context and reality, concluded Aloysius, to continue the fight against cultural nationalism and anti-national varnashrama dharma today, and for a rationalist, socially inclusive, and egalitarian modernism.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 15 December, 2016)

Demonetisation, both Economic and Social

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

It seems to be Achche Din for attacks on the citizen, economic as well as social, open as well as insidious. The open one is of course the demonetisation of currency. In 50 days there will be a new India, claims the Prime Minister; the ATMs will take 21 days to function normally, say the banks. Such is the gap between the hot air spouted by our leaders, and the situation that is actually killing people on the ground. Enough people—including even the BJP itself in its earlier avatar as opposition to the Congress government’s small demonetisation attempt—have pointed out that demonetisation never fulfils its purported aim of attacking the black economy; what it does do however is to attack the poor. The real aims of demonetisation are reported to be actually something else: to provide a shot of income to banks that were critically in the red, and also to upset the cash calculations of other parties for the oncoming elections.

 

The banks are in the red because of lakhs of crores of bad loans. Just 85 princely crooks owe Rs 87,000 crores, but the government does not want to even publish their names, let alone arrest them. No, the ones who have to pay the price are, as always, the poor. They are not being just ‘inconvenienced’ like you and me, but hammered. And so this newest manmade disaster unfolds, upturning the lives of the already-vulnerable, mostly people of SC, ST and OBC communities, those working in the informal sector, without bank accounts and ID proof, let alone plastic money. In Goa, there are reports of daily wage earners not being paid, pharmacies refusing to sell life-saving medicines, and small vendors losing all their daily customers. While the big moneybags laugh all the way to the Swiss Banks, or to their next 500-crore wedding.

 

The more things change, the saying goes, the more they remain the same. The very idea of a new India is a joke, given the entrenched social hierarchies we live in, which the establishment works hard to protect. This can be seen in another government intervention, this one in Goa, which took place quietly just a few days before the big announcement of demonetisation—an insidious, but no less audacious, intervention to ensure that the social hierarchy stays well in place.

 

In earlier columns, I have pointed to how bad things are in Goa with regard to the implementation of the constitutional provision of caste-based reservations in jobs and education. The rules regarding reservations have been brazenly flouted by most government bodies and educational institutions in the state, including Goa University, the Directorate of Higher Education, and so on. And this was the norm, so much so that the local press did not consider this wholesale flouting a newsworthy issue. But the number of complaints, challenges, and struggles against this scam are now growing, with the authorities having to respond, in the courts, or press, or other fora, to questions about their casteist practices.

 

The standard response is to plead ignorance. But this is a fake argument. The problem is a systemic one, for the misdemeanours happen repeatedly and only in one direction, i.e. to reduce the intake and promotion of reserved category candidates. And now there is incontrovertible proof that the government is just not interested in following the rules: a government directive to the Chairperson of the Goa Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, stating that the Commission has no jurisdiction in service matters.

 

But, according to The Goa Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, 2010, one of the functions of the Commission is ‘to investigate and monitor all matters relating to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution of India’.  The Commission is supposed to be a safeguard for especially vulnerable groups who despite various laws intended for their protection and development, are still discriminated against. The Commission, according to the same Act mentioned above, has hence the authority of a Civil Court trying a suit. And even though its rulings are only recommendations and not enforceable, the government has to give a reasoned explanation if it does not accept any.

 

In keeping with the mandate of the Act, the Chairperson of the Commission took up a service matter where it appeared that the rules for reservations had not been followed. The directive he received in response is however an attempt to snatch away his powers and cut the Commission down to size.  And it is an attack on all those from the discriminated-against communities who are fighting for their rights as citizens.

 

It is interesting to see that, in the immediate aftermath of this directive, the Goa University has issued an advertisement for recruitment to various administrative posts, even though complaints regarding the violation of reservation rules in its earlier recruitments are pending before the Commission. The directive thus seems to be taken as a sign that such complaints can be ignored.

 

And, although the Commission says that it will challenge the directive, the situation now is that all service matters are to be kept on hold till the issue of the Commission’s scope is resolved. This will obviously be a blow to petitioners, all of whom come from socially and economically vulnerable circumstances.

 

But does that matter? A government that can blithely say ‘please bear the pain’ when people are actually dying in queues to get their own small savings, is unlikely to shed a tear. Whether 50 days from now, or 500, Achche Din can never be for all in a caste society.

Caste Atrocities in Goa: A Fight against Invisibilisation

By AMITA KANEKAR

Goa has been making headlines of late for violent crime. But while there has been criticism of the over-the-top way in which many of these crimes are reported and discussed, it is much worse when the violence is not reported at all, when it is in fact ‘invisibilised’ and thus normalised. Many Goans might not even know that a community called the Wanarmari existed before the recent newspaper reports of an attack on their settlement in Nirakal-Bethoda, Ponda. But this incident was only the latest and most overt form of violence faced by this community, one of the most marginalised in Goa. As the Goa govt danced attendance on BRICS, where Modi swanned around as the leader of the ‘largest democracy in the world’, not half an hour away is a community of Goans who have never voted, besides being denied basic education, healthcare, jobs and housing.

As the newspapers reported, on 16th October, some 30 villagers of Nirakal barged into the small Wanarmari hamlet, when the adults of the community were away at work. The intruders ripped the roofs – made of palm leaves and plastic sheets – off all the huts, and broke the timber posts of some, sending the huts crashing to the ground. Then they destroyed all the possessions inside, especially the most valuable ones, like the solar panels (the only source of night lighting in the settlement), food stocks, children’s school uniforms, stored water (carried manually from a stream one hour away), vessels, along with the vegetable and fruit trees planted near the houses.

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One of the destroyed huts of the Vanarmare community. Photo: Amita Kanekar.

A week earlier, on 8th October, newspapers had reported that some Nirakal villagers had met the District Collector, and also the Industries Minister and local MLA, Mr. Mahadev Naik, to evict the Wanarmari from the village, calling them ‘dirty’ and ‘a nuisance’. Before that, on 2nd October, some villagers had visited the hamlet while the menfolk were away fishing, to threaten the women there that they would burn all the houses down; the women, fearing for their lives, ran into the jungle with their children. Finally, about a year ago, the press had reported that the Bethoda Panchayat had passed a resolution to evict the community from the village.

The Social Justice Action Committee – Goa had actually made a complaint to the Collector about a week ago, chronicling this growing harassment and demanding action before things got worse. However, nothing was done till after the 16th Oct. attack. The police even admitted that, thanks to BRICS, they had no manpower to spare; everything had to wait till Modi left the state. It is taken for granted that security for the PM means unprotected citizens!

But what was the reason for the attack? The victims themselves find it inexplicable. ‘Nothing has happened here between them and us. No fights, no problems, no complaints.’ They have worked off and on for their assaulters’ families over three generations now, they point out. And while it is true that the villagers sometimes take offence when a request for labour is met with refusal – saying: we allow you to stay and you refuse to work for us? – this has never lead to violence.

But the answer can perhaps be found in the changed context. The Wanarmaris, who call themselves Kathkari, belong to a larger tribal group living mostly in Maharashtra, where they are listed as a Primitive Tribal Group. In Goa, however, they do not have even ST status. Traditionally hunters, they were forced to give this up by the forest authorities some decades ago, and thus became wage labourers seeking work on farms, fields, and orchards. And, although they have lived in Nirakal for at least three generations now, it was never a continuous settled residence. ‘After we finished a season of work, we would be told to go,’ says Gopal S. Powar. ‘So we would go somewhere else. There too, we would be driven away after our work was done.’

Nomadism was thus not a choice. And, although they contributed to agricultural production in the region, they got little in return. But things changed in the last 4-5 years. Thanks to interactions with social activists, the people decided to send their children to school, and therefore to settle down. The younger children are now studying in Nirakal’s government primary school. Today the community has ration and adhaar cards. They were also provided solar lamps in order to facilitate the studies of the school-going kids. Now they have applied for voter’s cards.

Thus, they are finally getting the first of their basic rights as citizens. But could this in fact be the problem? After the Sunday attack, a large mob led by the Nirakal sarpanch had the audacity to visit the hamlet in order to remind the community – right in front of the police – that they had been warned to leave the village long ago. From where does this hatred come? There seems to be a resentment of the changing lives of the Vanarmare, a desire for them to remain as they were, i.e. nomadic, ignorant, and without any rights. Behind these sentiments is not just traditional casteism, but also the conviction that development for all is not possible; in such a situation it is easier to demonise and target a weaker group, rather than question the system.

And the same attitudes prevail elsewhere too: high-society murders lead to op-eds about Goa going to the dogs if it can’t attract and protect such elites, but sustained cruelty over generations to hard-working and sustainable-living tribals creates not a whimper of disquiet.

The Wanarmari say they are determined to secure their children’s right to a decent life. But will the administration – as much, if not more, to blame as all of us– get its act together at least now, to ensure at least basic security and development to all?

With thanks to Gopal S. Powar, Shalan T. Powar, Santosh G. Powar, Anjini D. Nikam, and other residents of the Vanarmare settlement, Nirakal-Bethora.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 October, 2016)

Z Axis 2016: Of Architectural Heritage and Contexts

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

‘Everything is our heritage’, was one of the memorable statements made at Z Axis 2016, the second conference on architecture organised last month by the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF) in Goa. It was said by Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang, while speaking about how he looked for inspiration to ancient China, Soviet-era China, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Modernist Germany, and all buildings anywhere. At a time when attempts are on to force people in Goa and India into nationalist straitjackets of what is ‘our’ culture, diet, language, history, etc, it was refreshing to hear an argument for global heritage, even if only from the limited realm of architectural practice.

 

And it is limited. Architecture may include all buildings, but the practice of architecture, or what architects (are expected to) do, touches only a small fraction of them. According to Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, winner of this year’s Aga Khan Award and another speaker at Z Axis 2016, as many as 90% of buildings are built without architects.

 

Even so, thinking about architectural practice is useful. Because the apparently tiny 10% comprises the big projects, the public ones, the expensive ones, and almost all the problematic, wasteful, and destructive ones. We architects desperately need to look critically at what we’re doing, if not stop doing it. The annual conference begun by the CCF in 2015 is thus a very welcome event.

 

Like most such events, the two editions so far have been uneven, in content as well as diversity, with almost no women speakers in 2015, and non-upper caste and local (Goan) speakers noticeable by their absence both times.

 

The 2015 conference, on the state of the city and titled Great City… Terrible Place, still set a high standard thanks to stellar presentations by two architects: Kunlé Adeyemi and Santiago Cirugeda. Nigerian Adeyemi’s firm NLÉ (At Home) works with local communities to develop projects like the award-winning Floating School of Makoko, part of a settlement once condemned as a slum. Spanish ‘guerrilla architect’ Cirugeda went further, challenging practically everything architects normally stand for. His architectural firm, Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes), is famous for reclaiming public spaces for communities in Seville, with low-cost and self-build projects in which the architect plays the role of facilitator, not for design or technical issues – those are handled by the community – but to deal with the law, politics, and bureaucracy.  Architecture is obsessed with beauty, said Cirugeda, when the really important things should be people and social function.

 

It was an electrifying presentation, especially for a conservative patron-driven profession like architecture. The discomfort in the student-filled auditorium was palpable, giving the lie to the idea that students love revolutionaries.

 

There was nothing quite as exciting at the 2016 conference, Buildings as Ideas, intended as a tribute to the late Charles Correa. At the outset, Rahul Mehrotra spoke of how Correa ‘reached into history to tradition’ as the context of Indian architecture. Some of the other presentations also touched upon context, in the realm of form, materials, landscape, as well as tradition. Too many however remained with beautiful-buildings-in-beautiful-settings, with far too many of the vacation homes, art galleries, and monuments that have given architects such a bad name.

 

Architecture is really a pathetic profession, admitted Chang at one point. ‘We don’t really contribute much, when we could do much more.’ One practise that seemed to buck the trend was that of Hunnarshala Foundation in Kutch, described (in absentia) by its founder, Sandeep Virmani. Hunnarshala’s focus is community-driven projects that are sustainable and make the most of traditional knowledge. One of its aims has been to revive and modernise traditional techniques of building, and train people, often villagers, in them. Some of their students have built successful careers in building techniques and even worked abroad. It has also been trying this—i.e. applying modern science to traditional community knowledge—in water-harvesting, animal husbandry, and other areas.

 

Hunnarshala thus stood out as a different kind of architectural practice, working with non-elite communities and their need of better shelter and jobs. Its focus on tradition, however, raises questions. How does the strengthening of a village’s traditions affect its normally casteist, patriarchal, and parochial culture? Was it better for marginalised castes and women when traditions were strong, or weak?

 

Some of these concerns were illustrated in another presentation, also connected to Hunnarshala, by Bombay architect Sameep Padora. It included varied urban projects, a village temple, and a community centre for Dalit Buddhist workers in a factory, the last in collaboration with Hunnarshala. The temple was presented as an exercise in form, ignoring its role of institutionalising caste, while the community centre had a floor made of – guess what? – cowdung. This extremely fragile, rough, and smelly flooring, once traditional for the village poor, was chosen because of the tight budget, said the architect. However, he added, it connects the users to the building since they have to redo it themselves every fifteen days.

 

But would he or Hunnarshala ever offer this ‘connection’ to the users of their other projects? Then why here? Could it be because of the social location of these users as so-called ‘low’ castes? Or the fact that, in caste society, cow dung and cow urine are traditional ways of purifying space supposedly polluted by the ‘low’?

 

Some answers were to be had from South African architect Ilze Wolff, who spoke of buildings as bad ideas. Her focus was the Apartheid-era Modernist architecture of an old factory building in Capetown. Pointing out how discrimination based on race, gender and class could be ‘read’ in the architecture, in the separate spaces, differing sizes of space, and differing qualities of space, Wolff too spoke of the importance of context in architecture, but what she meant was the social context, of race and gender.

 

In South Asia, the social context is caste. Charles Correa had spoken of how all Indian architecture is connected, whether vernacular, Modernist or monumental. One important connect is this context of caste. It is visible all over the place, but especially readable in traditional building and settlement types. This is probably why elites here, architects included, feel so attached to the latter. Our heritage might be the whole world, but what we hold on to reveals our own social location.

 

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