Blacklisted: Racism and the Injustice of Popular Violence



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


Is Camões Goan?


camoensSome months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on Goan literature in Portuguese. Central to that discussion was the question of defining a canon of Goan literature in Portuguese. For example, where would the history of such a literature begin from? Who could be considered Goan for the purposes of constructing such a history? In the course of these discussions, a question was half-jocularly posed: could Camões be considered Goan?

Luis Vaz de Camões is considered the national poet of Portugal because he authored the famed epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads). Camões’ narrative in this poem inserts the actions of the Portuguese and especially those involved in the ‘Discoveries’ into the form of classical Greek myths.

Despite the fact that Camões’ name was proposed half in jest, the suggestion was seized by a number of us with enthusiasm. Indeed Camões should be considered Goan! Not only was Camões a resident of the city of Goa for a long time, spending, according to Landeg White, a translator of Camões, about “fifteen years in Goa and beyond”,  but parts of the poem were certainly written while the author was resident in the city. Indeed, White argues that it was his time in Goa that forced Camões to turn from being a conventional poet of the times and experiment with different forms of expression. It was his time in Goa, therefore, that turned him into the towering literary figure that he is. Knowing that Camões initially came to Goa as a conscript into the army I have my own image of the man. The life of the common soldier in Goa was not a comfortable one. In fact, many of them lived in poverty, which was, no doubt, the reason for them to often desert the Portuguese army and find better options in the armies of the Sultanates around the Estado da India. In their state of poverty these soldiers took on lifestyles that were not very different from the locals. I’d like to think that like other soldiers Camões too abandoned heavy European clothing for hanging about in a caxtti and drinking water not from a cup but pouring it into his mouth from a jug.

But it is not just Camões life in Goa that it critical to the argument. There is also the fact of the afterlife of the Lusiadas. The poem was read by people in Goa, and, as O Vaticinio Do Swarga, the recent response to Camões by Prof. Ave Cleto Afonso, so clearly demonstrates, the text continues to have an audience in the territory. For these reasons, we argued, Camões is Goan.

We hardly expected a vigorous rebuttal to this idea, but there was one. “Camões is Goan?” cried a Portuguese national who was part of the discussion. “But that is insane! Camões is Portuguese! If Camões is Goan merely because he passed through, then surely Richard Burton [the English writer who while resident in India journeyed through Goa and penned a much reviled text on the territory] is Goan, and Rudyard Kipling Indian!” they asserted.

I have to confess that I was a little surprised by this response. To my mind the script was fairly simple. Racism was the defining feature of modern imperialism.  Human populations were marked off into different races, and some races seen as less capable than others. It was on the basis of this racial difference that some groups were seen as incapable of self governance. Because of this logic, postcolonial justice would rest on the rejection of racism, the welcoming of subjugated groups into governance, and the assertion of universal values. Of course, this has not been the trajectory of postcolonial justice and the post-colonial order has been marked by the sly assertion of racism. Thus, universalism is rejected as the decolonized states have been marked off as the national homes of different racialised groups. It is only such a logic that would ensure that both the former colonizers as well as the formerly colonized would deny the South Asian identities of Camões and Kipling.

This equation can be put another way by using a gustatory metaphor of anthropophagy that I have used once before. Colonialism is often critiqued on the basis that the colonizers consumed the natural resources of the colonies while impoverishing the colonized in the process. This consumption was not merely economic alone, however. There was also a cultural dimension. There can be no denying that both the British and the Portuguese were profoundly marked by the fact of their dominance of the colonies and imperial territories. Words like chintz, canja, pyjama, curry (caril in Portuguese), chutney, shampoo, and many others stand testimony to the fact that the British and the Portuguese were also profoundly marked by their consumption of the colonies. Thus, if colonialism was marked by the consumption of the imperial territories, postcolonial justice, or vengeance if you like, would lie in the reciprocal consumption of the Portuguese or the British. Thus, where the Portuguese insist that Camões is theirs alone, the Goan response should ideally be to assert that Camões was also Goan. It is when the former colonizer is denied the opportunity to be the sole signifier of symbols that postcolonial justice is truly achieved.

But my argument is not merely about vengeance. Rather it is about recognising the need for complex political moves if we are to assert universality of values and the equality of peoples. Take, for example, the case of Her Imperial Highness Victoria, former Empress of India who is remembered by the people of the Gangetic basin as Rani Toodiya. Rani Toodiya is not merely a foreign queen, but in fact used by unlettered North Indians as a marker of times when there was justice for the common man. This is not nostalgia for colonial times, but in fact a pronouncement on the moral corruption of our times. As in the case of Toodiya, so it should be for Camões.

Returning to the arguments of those who rejected Camões’ Goan identity by asking if Kipling could be considered Indian, my response would be that it is precisely the denial of our complex histories, such as Kipling’s Indian identity, that we in contemporary India are witness to the horrible politics of almost genocidal erasures of communities and their cultures. The weird and twisted politics of our times is not just the result of wicked Hindu nationalists, but in fact produced through the oftentimes innocent attempts by post-colonial scholars and subjects. These individuals seek to create a space for the native and the indigenous and in erasing the complexities of our history lay the basis for the politics of corporeal erasures that we are witness to today. A fine example of these naive politics are the recent changes of the names of cities in India away from their colonial era names. The fixing  of only one vernacular name for the city as the official title of the city  have effectively delegitimized the lives of those communities who were birthed in the colonial period and follow lifestyles associated with those times.

Given that politics must be marked by ideas and actions I would recommend that the claiming of Camões by Goans and the project of consuming the Portuguese and denying them a monopoly on signifying could begin with a simple act. Sometime in 1960 a humongous statue of Camões was erected in Old Goa. This statue was subsequently blown up by “freedom fighters” in 1980 when Portugal was celebrating the fourth centenary of Camões’ death.  We need to recognise that this act was a mistake and replace Camões back in the spot that originally held his statue. This is one act would allow us to reclaim Camões as ours and in doing so recognise that while the man is Portuguese, he is also undeniably Goan.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 27 Dec 2016)

Portuguese Citizenship and the Debugging of Indian Imaginations


I read with interest the recent opinion piece “The Portuguese nationality bug”  on the vexed issue of the rights of Portuguese Indians to Portuguese citizenship and was disappointed by the author’s refusal to see the larger picture. I suspect that this is because the author seeks to resolve the question within the narrow frames of Indian nationalism. As a result, the argument forwarded in the op-ed seems to buttress the rights of the state over those of citizens. Such legality will only strengthen the growing authoritarianism of the Indian state over subjects who, while formally citizens, increasingly lack the space to realize this condition.

In the opinion piece citizenship is presented as a status that is conferred by a state. This is not only a peculiarly lawyerly perspective but also a dated idea. Unsurprisingly, the argument refers to a judgment of the US Supreme Court from 1875. The wider field of contemporary citizenship theory recognizes that citizenship is more than a status, rather a condition to be realized. In these more recent understandings, as evidenced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) for example, rights are not conferred by a state, but inhere in the individual. Even the Indian Constitution recognizes that it is the people who constitute the state as evidenced in the famous lines of the preamble “We the People of India….” Thus, a post-colonial political theory recognizes that states are actually constituted by the people, which formally recognize the rights of people. With the passage of time as our appreciation of the depths of rights grows, states are required to recognize these evolving rights. Indeed, this was very much the case with India as well when from about the 1950s the existing fundamental rights were dramatically expanded through the interpretations offered by the Supreme Court.

Of the many rights that inhere in individuals, surely the right of citizenship is the most fundamental.If there was one single right that the anti-colonial nationalist movements fought for, it was the right of citizenship. As in the case of British India, the initial demand was for the right to imperial citizenship, and it was only because the British, hobbled by a racist imagination, failed to recognize this right, that the Indian nationalists pressed forward for a national citizenship.

Citizenship must necessarily be distinguished from nationality. These are two distinct concepts and must theoretically be kept separate. While citizenship involves a gamut of rights that allow one to be a political subject, nationality is the status of belonging that the nation confers on some individuals, and restricts from others. This is to say, the first deals with rights, while the second is the realm of cultural belonging. One of the reasons why the debate on the Portuguese Indian rights to Portuguese citizenship is so vexed is because the various parties fail to recognize the fundamental differences between these two concepts. This is obvious even in the opinion piece where there is a constant switch between the terms nationality and citizenship as if they were the same.

This failure is not surprising given that the nation-state form that has been taken up across the world purposely seeks to conflate the concept of the state and the nation. The famous philosopher Hannah Arendt refers to this as “the transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation”. Taking up this idea, other scholars have pointed out that “It was this conquest that defined citizens of the state as nationals whether defined racially, ethically, culturally or even religiously”. There is, in fact, no good reason for the two concepts to be conflated. A state can compromise multiple nations, while nations need not have a state. Take the case of Belgium, which is composed of people that identify with two different nationalities, the Flemish and the Walloon. Or take India, which can be said to comprise different nationalities, but refuses to recognize, and in principle rightly so, that each of these nations needs its own state. Indeed, the foundation of the contemporary international order as an association of nation-states can be traced back precisely to the racist imaginations of the colonial order. To this extent, the assertions of Portuguese Indians to retaining their Portuguese citizenship while also accepting that of India stands to offer the world a model in terms of post-colonial citizenship precisely because it is born of an early modern experience that differs dramatically from the colonial experience rooted in late-modernity.

What does come out in striking clarity from the argument in the opinion piece referred to above is the legal position of the former citizens of Portuguese India in the Indian republic. In addition to the legal formulation that the argument the op-ed relies on, and the military action of 1961, this population is not a liberated population able to act on equal footing with other individuals from British India, but in fact a subjugated population whose “rights” depend on what the State of India grants them. The noted philosopher Partha Chatterjee has recently articulated a concept of political society that addresses precisely this point. He argues that not all who are formally recognized as citizens enjoy rights. Chatterjee suggests that these people are members not of civil society, but political society. Members of political society do not enjoy rights, which are permanent and inhere in the individual; they are merely extended temporary concessions when these excluded groups challenge the status quo. Once the status quo is secure these concessions can and often are revoked.

Reading the argument in “The Portuguese nationality bug” in the context of this framework, given that the citizenship rights of Portuguese Indians seem to depend on the whims of the Indian state, one can see that what the Portuguese Indians enjoy are not rights that inhere in the individual and are not granted by the state, but merely temporary privileges that can be, and are, rolled back when the State feels like. The privilege of Indian nationality was extended to these groups when the Indian state needed to consolidate its hold over the newly conquered territories creating the mirage of extension of citizenship when in fact the recognition of their pre-existing rights is what would have constituted acceptance into Indian civil society.  It needs to be noted that this is not the position of the Portuguese state that recognizes the continuing rights of citizens in territories over which it formerly claimed sovereignty.

The argument also fails to appreciate the federal nature of the Indian Union, a vision that is embodied in the Constitution. The Indian constitution patently allows for a diversity of legal regimes within the Indian Union. Take, for instance, Art. 370 of the Constitution that allows for Kashmir to have its own constitution. This particular article is the subject of much vituperation but the fact is that such resentment against Art. 370 has been the result of Hindu nationalist opposition. Ironically it is Hindu nationalism which is contrary to the constitutional mandate. Art. 370 must therefore be seen as embodying the basic structure of the Indian constitution that makes space for a federal structure that incorporates widely different polities within a single structure. Consider also the fact that Buddhist monks and nuns in Sikkim get a double vote to ensure the representative of the Sangha in the legislature. This argument for legal pluralism can also be buttressed by reference to the reports on the conclusion of the Indian state’s negotiations with the Naga activists. Though the terms of the agreement are still secret, if a dubious news report is to be believed it appears that the Indian state, under Prime Minister Modi, has agreed to the Naga demand for a separate Constitution, as well as a separate flag. Such an agreement, if true, would testify to the capacity of the Indian Union to accommodate legal difference within a single federal structure.

A resolution of the question of the Portuguese citizenship of denizens of the former Portuguese India could contribute to the failing health of the Indian Union. It would allow an assertion of the dignity of the rights-bearing individual in opposition to asserting the right of a potentially tyrannical Indian state. It would contribute to the constitutional imagination of a federal India, an imagination that has unfortunately been undermined by the desires of Hindu nationalists and successive central governments.

For a long time the question regarding the legitimacy of Portuguese Indians holding on to both Portuguese and Indian citizenship is being debated in a dry and inspired manner. Given that the question is admittedly complex, the resolution cannot be obtained through a niggardly attention to the letter of the law. Rather, what is required is a reference not merely to the spirit that animates laws, but to the larger questions of postcolonial justice and the rights of individuals, this is to say a reference to political theory and the philosophy of law. What is required is not a debugging of Portuguese nationality, but Indian imaginations.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 4 October, 2016)

Diana and Actaeon: Brexit and the end of empires

by Jason Keith Fernandes


‘Diana and Actaeon’ this was the allusion that struck me when I heard the news of Britain’s vote in the recently conducted EU referendum, popularly known as Brexit.

The myth of Diana and Actaeon can be found within the Roman poet Ovid’s epic narrative, Metamorphoses. The tale recounts the fate of a young hunter named Actaeon and his encounter with the chaste Diana, goddess of the hunt. In the myth, Actaeon unwittingly stumbles upon Diana bathing nude in a spring with help from her escort of nymphs. The nymphs scream in surprise and attempt to cover Diana, who, in a fit of embarrassed fury, splashes water upon Actaeon. The hunter is transformed into a deer and, robbed of his ability to speak, promptly flees in fear. It is not long, however, before his own hounds track him down and, failing to recognize their master, tear him apart.


The myth can be interpreted in multiple ways. In one interpretation, Actaeon could represent David Cameron. Before the 2015 elections in Britain, Mr. Cameron had pledged to hold the referendum on EU membership if his party, the Tories, won a majority. The pledge to hold a referendum was a way of mollifying members of his own party and others, who were unhappy about the UK’s membership in the EU. In making this promise, Cameron disturbed a delicate scene very much like that of the goddess bathing. Given the fact that despite authorizing the referendum Cameron had in fact been campaigning to stay within the EU makes him a figure very much like the unwitting Actaeon, who really had no intention of intruding on Diana’s bath. Regardless of his intentions, however, Cameron has faced an Actaeon-like fate, having now promised to step down from the post of Prime Minister. Only time will tell if this exit marks the end of his political career, but for now, the allusion holds.


Diana and Actaeon by Paul Manship. 1925

Another way to read the myth in the current context is to see Actaeon as the English constituent of Great Britain, who will now be set upon by the hounds that the English have held on an imperial leash for so long. Like so many political entities, Britain is a cobbling together of various entities. Britain was constituted by the imperial ambitions of the English, who first added Wales to their imperium and subsequently Scotland and Ireland. There is a long history of resistance to English imperial rule that has resulted in the assertion of regional identities, as in the case of the Welsh, and wars of independence, as in the case of the Irish. More recently, the Scots made an unsuccessful bid for freedom through a referendum to leave the UK. However, in the wake of Brexit, which shows that the Scots overwhelmingly chose to stay in the European Union, and it was the English who chose to leave it, there is every likelihood that the Scots will demand another referendum. This time round, the English may not be so lucky and find their imperial union being torn apart. England may regret that it trespassed upon a site that it should have left alone in the first place.

A third contemporary reading of the myth could allow Britain to be seen as Diana, who has cursed the Actaeon EU to now potentially be torn apart by the Eurosceptic hounds. No sooner was the Brexit result announced than a host of largely right-wing hyper-nationalist leaders across Europe begin baying for their own version of the referendum. Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, made one such demand, as did the Islamophobic, anti-immigration Geert Wilders from the Netherlands. Similar noises also emerged from the Italian Lega Nord or Northern league. In the case of this group, the League would also like to break up the current state of Italy, and there are many in this outfit who would ideally like to get rid of the south of the country, a section that they feel is unduly burdening the more prosperous north of Italy.

While the leadership of the EU suggests that all is under control, one wonders whether this is mere bravado and if Britain has unleashed not merely Actaeon’s hounds but also the dogs of war. Europe was very similarly tied up in a set of international treaties and riven with ethnic tensions on the eve of the Second World War. What was also at stake at the time of this war, and the first, was the future of various empires. In the First World War, it was the future of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the second, it was that of the Japanese and German Empires. There are some who argue that the EU is in fact a non-coercive imperial formation. What is currently at stake, therefore, is the future of another empire. Given the larger state of the world, which exists in a state of armed conflict and the intervention of third-party states, and the fact that a number of treaties that have kept Europe stable during the past fifty years are now coming undone, one wonders if this is what the beginning of the end of the world order as we know it is going to look like.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everyday on 26 June 2016)

AAP: Clear and Present Danger?


Jason Keith Fernandes

With the elections to the state legislature in the not so distant future the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Goa has begun its campaigning in earnest. As is well known, AAP has been projecting itself as a credible choice on the basis of its promise to deliver good, i.e. corruption free, governance. The question, however, is whether the AAP should be judged merely by its rhetoric, or should it be examined against a broader canvas?

Recent history demonstrates that electoral decisions determined solely by the theme of corruption have ensured that we have moved from the frying pan into the fire largely because we have failed to examine the politics that these electoral options practice. Take the example of the Modi government now wreaking havoc across India. Modi was elected into power because so many people, rightly fed up with the Congress, decided that the man was a good administrator and deserved a right to govern the country. Closer home in Goa, fatigue of the never-ending corruption scandals presided over by the Congress enabled the BJP to come to power.

We now realize that in addition to merely continuing the corrupt practices of the Congress, the BJP is also committed to a kind of fascist agenda that is difficult to undo even after they have been removed from power. This is a kind of moral corruption that is difficult to undo largely because, as I will go on to show, Hindu nationalism itself is never challenged. As such, when evaluating AAP in Goa it is imperative that their proximity to the agents and logics of Hindu nationalism must be strictly evaluated.

An evaluation of the AAP along this axis must begin with a statement by Dr. Dattaram Desai, the AAP candidate for North Goa in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 2014. At that time, Desai indicated in a local newspaper along the lines that he saw no problem with the RSS and that it was just another nationalist organization. When Desai was confronted on this matter at a public meeting conducted by the AAP he denied that he was a part of the RSS, and denounced the RSS as a communal organization. However, it seemed that he did so largely because he had been hounded into that position after being asked a series of leading questions. Desai had been asked at that meeting to issue a public statement to the effect that he did not approve of the RSS, something he agreed to, but one that, to the best of my knowledge, was not issued. Desai continues to be a leading member of AAP in Goa, and in light of his past comments, this fact should be a cause for concern.

At the above mentioned meeting Dr. Oscar Rebello, also a prominent member of the AAP in Goa, sought to clarify issues regarding the links between the RSS and AAP. Using characteristically simplistic logic, Rebello pointed out that he had friends in the RSS, but that did not necessarily make him a member of the RSS. Rebello’s logic may be simplistic, but it is often winning in its presentation. Of course one cannot, especially in a small place like Goa, deny people entry into a party because they were once members of the BJP. Perhaps they may have, as is suggested in the case of Desai, realized that the BJP will not deliver.  But the problem with the RSS, and more importantly Hindu nationalism, lies in the logics that we internalize owing to a lifetime of being immersed in it. If these logics are not actively challenged we too become part of the Hindutva machine.

In this context, the decision of the AAP in Goa to name its outreach program the Goa Jodo campaign is quite disturbing. Why privilege Hindi in a state with no lack of local languages? Because a non-Hindi Goan-ness is suspect? How is this position different from that of most Hindu nationalists and the implicit understanding that it is primarily Hindi and Hindu culture that defines Indian nationalism? One should bear in mind that Hindi nationalism, as one can surmise from the old slogan “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” has never been far away from Hindu nationalism. This desire to run with the Hindi-wallas can also be seen  in the video of Desai’s response discussed earlier, where it appears that Rebello refers to Desai as Dr. Desaiji. Now one is entirely at liberty to add honorifics to people’s name. The problem emerges when one realizes that the ji has become popular in Goa with the rise of Hindu nationalism in the past couple of years. The question emerges therefore, can we rely on such a group to assert the rights of Goans which necessarily runs against Hindi and Hindu nationalism, such as the demand of Special Status, and assert our right to be different within India?

But it is not merely the local AAP that has disturbing connections with the RSS or is blasé about Hindu nationalism. Pamela D’Mello writing for an on-line magazine pointed to the disturbing relationship of Dinesh Waghela to Hindu rightist outfits. Waghela was charged with setting up AAP in Goa, and at that point just like Desai went on record, to suggest that he did not see what was wrong with people from the RSS joining the party.

What also needs to be pointed out is that AAP’s insistence on its promised good-governance as a central reason for being a choice in the upcoming elections partakes in the Hindu Right’s pushing of strong administrators, whether Modi or our very own Parrikar. This is not to suggest that good governance is not an important issue. It is. However, we need to recognize that a limited understanding of corruption, and governance emerges from the very upper-caste and middle-class reasonings that have generated the Hindutva upsurge in the country. It is this kind of unthinking of, and challenge to Hindutva logics that is critical and necessary if AAP in Goa should emerge as a safer option than it currently seems to be.

Most disturbing of all, however, are the actions of the party supremo, Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal has had no problem in the past drawing such Hindu spiritual leaders like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev into his movement. Right from the get go therefore, Kejriwal has violated secularism by mingling the Hindu religion with his politics. More recently, despite the livelihood and environmental violations involved in setting up the venue for the World Culture Festival on the banks of the river Yamuna, and in contravention of his own position on corruption, Kejriwal saw it fit to attend the event, and kowtow before Ravi Shankar.  As distasteful as this may be to some, it is not necessarily out of character for unprincipled political leaders who need to engage in populist measures if they are to stay in power. It is, therefore, precisely because AAP Goa will have to play by established rules of the game once it is in power, that we need to evaluate them stringently before they get into power. In light of this, AAP Goa’s connections to soft Hindu nationalism present a clear and present danger.

First published in the O Heraldo dated 29 April 2016

Lux in tenebris: Paulo Varela Gomes


Jason Keith Fernandes

525289Paulo Varela Gomes succumbed to cancer on Saturday, the 30th of April 2016. He was familiar to many Goans both because he headed the Delegation of the Fundação Oriente in Goa for two terms, 1996-1998 and 2007-2009, and for his book on Goan churches.

It was in the first capacity that I met with Gomes. Prior to this meeting I had been warned against him. He was racist and offensive, I had been told. Also that he was just another one of these supercilious Portuguese, mocking Goa and Goans from their metropolitan position. I have no idea what pushed me to meet with the man despite these warnings, but I did, and I have not once regretted that decision.

Gomes was in fact–to be fair to the person who warned me against him–pessimistic, foul mouthed, dismissive, and from time to time a tad racist. But there was a logic to his madness. The prickly exterior was armor, but breach that spiky defence and one realized that Gomes’ barbs were the provocations of a profoundly sensitive and giving man with a wicked sense of humour. A man who relentlessly asked questions, and never accepted the given until it bore up to the critique he subjected it to. When caught, he would laughingly confess to his prejudices, and it was this intellectual honesty and the ability to confront oneself that has left a lasting impact on me.

As our association matured Gomes grew to become an intellectual father. Lucky enough to live in the same neighbourhood as he did in Goa, I found myself able to go over to his home, engage in conversations that went on for hours, and borrow books from his library. Gomes’ library was an intellectual wonderland because he was a widely read man. Despite his learning and the difference in our ages, ours was not an unequal relationship. Gomes suffered my irreverence, and indeed encouraged it with his own. It was thanks to these conversations that I was able to sharpen my perspectives, not just on Goa, but also on Portugal, a country that has come to be my second home. Gomes was among the first to point me towards developing a deeper understanding of the Bijapuri Sultanate and make sense of Goan history in that context. As luck will have it, the idea of an Islamicate Goa has now gained more appreciation, and for this alone, Gomes has left a lasting legacy on the way Goa can and should be studied. Gomes was also the one who pointed to the complex history of the Padroado and the manner in which by the time it was wound up it was Goan priests who were the stoutest defenders of this right of the Portuguese state. It was also Gomes who problematised, to my delight, the term Indo-Portuguese. Asking several piercing questions of this category that is so taken for granted he revealed so many problems with the term, not least being the fact that it can be crafted only in the context of the peculiar racist politics of the British Empire.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Gomes’s wide reading, his ability to go against the grain, ask unorthodox questions, and come up with a new, more meaningful vision, is what was possibly his last academic publication; Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa (2011). In this book Gomes broke with the hitherto established ways of looking at ecclesiastical architecture in Goa. His argument was bold, and there can never really be any going back to earlier ways of looking at architecture in Goa. His study demonstrated how the position that Goan elites chose in the conflict between of Padroado and Propoganda Fide had a distinct influence on the architecture of our churches. It is the conflict between these that led to the emergence of specifically Goan architecture. Gomes’s argument was that churches in Goa were not Portuguese buildings, nor were they mere copies of European buildings. They were in fact entirely Goan. These buildings participated in a European vocabulary of building construction, but the way these various elements and plans were assembled was entirely Goan. Churches in Goa were Goan buildings, constructions of a native elite who were making a statement about the uniqueness of their culture and their place in the world. It was for this reason that the Goan builders of these churches continued to hold on to a Baroque architectural style even in nineteenth century when the days of Baroque were long over and other styles were appearing in British India. Whitewash, Red Stone is a critical work that would allow Goan ecclesiastical architecture to be appreciated more profoundly and deserves a wider audience than the one it currently enjoys.

In making this argument, Gomes went beyond, and challenged, two orthodoxies. The first was the one that seeks to delegitimize the uniqueness of Goan Catholicism, and the second that sees Goans merely as blind copy-cats of the Portuguese. In a nuanced argument, Gomes acknowledged that Goans were South Asian alright, but pointed out that they were South Asians who participated and innovated within European frames and hence they were also European. It takes not only a profound understanding of the field to make such an argument, it also requires that one have a profound respect for the people one is studying. As an architectural historian, and as one with deep friendships with Goans, Gomes had both in abundance. In his passing, therefore, there are many in Goa who will feel as devastated as they did at the death of the late Pedro Adão, Portuguese Consul in Goa between 2005 and 2006. There are few like them, persons who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, make themselves vulnerable, and engage meaningfully with the local. For this reason their memories will indubitably be long cherished.

When I moved to Portugal I imagined that Gomes and I would be able to pick up where he had left off, the same rambling, but always stimulating conversations. Unfortunately, however, the distance between our residences, and the distractions of my frequent travel between Lisbon and Goa ensured that this was not to be.  Our meetings were too few and far between, and our interactions limited mostly to virtual correspondence. Further, the possibilities for physical encounters became impossible after his tumour made conversation difficult. And yet, it is a testament to the loyalty, and the grace, of the man that he was known to respond to every communication that one sent to him, almost until the very end. My own experience was that our correspondences became more intense and poignant and will remain a cherished part of my virtual archive.

As much as one mourns the passing of Paulo Varela Gomes the fact is that there can be no crushing sorrow simply because every cherished memory brings to mind not just his courage, but also his irreverence, and this brings a smile even amongst the tears. Gomes’s life was a lesson in picking up challenges and besting them. How else does one explain the élan with which he took up writing fiction in the last phase of his life? Of course, to those who knew him there was little surprise. For someone who was a natural teacher, and taught through lively debate, there was absolutely no doubt that the man was a natural raconteur.

Paulo Varela Gomes, my friend, father, philosopher, and guide. Our world is diminished by your absence, but it would have been so much lesser without you.

(First published in the O Heraldo on 13 May 2016)

A Goan Waltz around Postcolonial Dogmas


Some days ago I found myself invited to a ball in Lisbon hosted by the Austrian embassy in Portugal. Revived after more than a decade, the current initiative was conceived of a way to generate funds for deserving causes. In this inaugural year, funds were raised in support of A Orquestra Geração, which is the Portuguese application of the El Sistema method created in Venezuela. Another objective was to introduce Portuguese society to aspects of Austrian, and in particular Viennese, culture.

It was because the event was billed as a Viennese ball that I have to confess being somewhat concerned about the protocol at the event. For example, would there be dance cards? It was when I actually got immersed into the ball, however, that I realized that I was not in foreign territory at all. The ball followed a pattern not merely of contemporary wedding receptions and dances in Goa, but also approximated quite well the manners that had been drilled into me as a young boy, when first introduced by my parents to ballroom dancing. One requested a lady – any lady – to dance, accompanied her on to the floor, and at the end of the dance, one thanked her, applauded the orchestra or band, and returned one’s companion to her seat. In other words, there was, structurally, not much at this ball that I, as a Goan male, had not already been exposed to.

This encounter made me realize once again, the validity of the argument that my colleagues at the Al-Zulaij Collective and I have been making for a while now; that Goans, or at least those familiar with the Goan Catholic milieu, are in fact also European. Given the fact that Goans participate in European culture, and have been doing so for some centuries now, denying this European-ness would imply falling prey to racialised thinking that assumes that only white persons born in the continent of Europe, are European.

two goans reworked

To make this argument is not the result of a desperate desire to be seen as European, but to assert a fact. One also needs to make this assertion if one is to move out of the racialised imaginations that we have inherited since at least the eighteenth century. It is necessary to indicate that European-ness is not a culture limited to a definite group, but like other cultures, is a model of behavior, in which one can choose to participate in. And one chooses to participate in this cultural model because the fact is that, whether we like it or not, this is the dominant cultural model in the world. The choice then is not determined by a belief in the model’s inherent superiority, it is simply a matter of pragmatic politics.

Some days before the ball, I intimated a continental Portuguese friend about this upcoming event, and the fact that I was on the lookout for a place I could rent a tailcoat from. She sneered. The suggestion in the sneer was, why do you have to become someone you are not. One should remain true to one’s culture, and not try to engage in the culture of others, or in other words, not engage in social climbing. The response was upsetting, but not particularly out of the ordinary. This is, in fact, a standard response, one that derives directly from our racialised imaginations. There is this misplaced idea that when we participate in one cultural model, say the European, one is abandoning other cultural models, and, more importantly, that non-whites would always be on the back foot when faced with European culture. A look at the cultural practices of Goan Catholics, however, will demonstrate the ridiculousness of the proposition.

Goan Catholics have not only taken up Western European cultural forms, but in fact excelled at them. In doing so, they have not abandoned other cultural models, particularly the local, but in fact rearticulated both these models at the same time. One has to merely listen to the older Cantaram (Concani language music) regularly played by the All India Radio station in Goa, to realize the truth of this assertion. Take the delightful song “Piti Piti Mog”, crafted by the genius Chris Perry and Ophelia, for example. Set to a waltz, the song talks of the desires and sexuality of a Goan woman. The emotions are honest to her social location. There is no betrayal of the local here, even as Perry articulates it within an international idiom. Indeed, one wonders if there is much of a difference between this song, and the soprano aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß”. From the opera Giuditta, and featured at the Viennese Ball, this aria also sings of the sexuality of a young woman in her prime.

There are some who would argue that what has been described above is not participation in a cultural model, but in fact mere mimicry, or at best syncretism or hybridity. To put it bluntly, Goans are mere copycats, there is nothing original in what they do. Indeed, a good portion of the post-colonial academy would describe the examples I proffer as syncretism or mimicry. To such critics my question is this, were the young Portuguese women and men, making their social debut in the ball, not also participating in an etiquette that is not quite Portuguese? The waltz itself, that great institution of the Viennese balls, originated in Central Europe. Does their participation pertain to the category of mimicry, and syncretism, or is it somehow an authentic performance? To suggest that it is, would be to fall right into the racist paradigm where things European appropriately belong to whites, and the rest are merely engaging in impotent mimicry. The anti-racialist argument would recognize that all of these groups, whether continental Portuguese, or Goans (indeed also Portuguese by right), are participating equally in a common cultural model, each of them giving a peculiar twist to the model in their performance, all of them authentic.

Another challenge to my argument would perhaps emerge from Indian nationalists. If no one culture is authentic, and one merely choses to participate in random cultural models, why privilege the European? Why not join in the Indian cultural model? In the words of a passionate young man from the Goan village of Cuncolim I once interacted with, why not prefer your own people over foreigners? At that interaction I pointed out that crafting the choice in terms of Us Indians, versus Them Europeans, and stressing a biological or genetic proximity was falling back into the very racist equation we should be trying to be exit.

To begin with, this construction of the Indians, versus Portuguese works only because like most Indian nationalists he privileges the terrestrial contiguity of Goa to the subcontinent. The art critic Ranjit Hoskote phrased a succinct response to this claim in the curatorial essay for the exhibition Aparanta (2007) when he argued “Geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning”. In highlighting Goa’s Lusitanian links, Hoskote rightly pointed out that the seas were not a barrier to conversation but a link, and maritime connections are no less powerful than the terrestrial. Indeed, while connected to Europe, Goa has been an equal part of the Indian Ocean world, often sharing as much, if not more, with the East coast of Africa than with the Gangetic plains; that privileged location of Indian-ness. Terrestrial contiguity apart, this nationalist argument also succeeds because it willfully ignores a legal history, of Goans being Portuguese citizens, and hence European, in favour of a biased construction of cultural history. The most important support to nationalism, of course, comes from the racism inherent in the post-colonial order which is built on recognizing cultural difference managed by nationalist elites rather than stressing continuing connections. Indeed, as I go on to elaborate below, to some extent everybody participates in the European model in today’s world – in clothes and speech and education and science, and so forth. But the control of nationalist elites over the national space, and the international post-colonial order itself, would be threatened by such recognition. It is therefore necessary that while quotidian affairs run along European lines, the extraordinary is sanctified by the irruption of the national. Thus, while Indians wear pants and shirts every day, they believe that special days call for traditional garb, like kurtas. The Goan bucks this trend by privileging special moments with a lounge suit. In other words, Goan culture celebrates what is overtly European, which is what the Indians don’t like as its wrecks the nationalist posturing of not participating in European culture.

To those who would simply ask, why not exert a choice in favour of the Indian, the answer is two-fold. The first, is that there are many Goans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who are in fact choosing the Indian model. They do so because they see that this is where local power lies. Behaving like Indians, they believe that they can make their way better in the Indian world. Others, however, recognize the limitations of the Indian model. It can take you only so far. Upwardly mobile Indians themselves recognize that they have to perform by different rules when they emigrate. Worse, the captains of industry will tell you that they have to perform by European rules whenever they meet with their compatriots from other parts of the world. As indicated before, where the European cultural model dominates the world, it is merely pragmatic politics to follow that model. Finally, it is precisely the lack of social mobility that makes many wisely avoid the Indian cultural model. The very attraction of the European model is that practically any person can learn to perform in it and be accepted as authentic. Indian models are so limited to Hinduism and caste that one cannot hope to make this parochial model work as a tool of social mobility. Indeed, one could ask whether there in an Indian cultural model at all, and if it is not just a savarna/brahmanical model?

This lack of social mobility is best illustrated by an example from Goa, where the Saraswats are a dominant caste. Speaking with a Saraswat gentleman at a Nagari Konkani event, he indicated to me how pleased he was with the response to the elocution competitions organized by the Nagari Konkani groups. Many a times the winners were Catholic girls. “But their accent is so good”, he shared with me, “one cannot even tell that they are Catholics!” Where Nagari Konkani is largely based on the speech of the Saraswat caste, one is forever trapped into behaving like a Saraswat, and distancing oneself from one’s natal behaviours. One can never be Saraswat unless one is born into the caste. A good part of the Indian model is similarly pegged according to the behavior of the dominant castes of various regions. This model has been created not necessarily to enable a democratic project, but to ensure their continued dominance within post-colonial India. As such, they will put a person in their place when a person from a non-dominant caste performs effectively. The adoption of the European model, however, is not restricted to birth precisely because it has been adopted so universally. The adoption and occupation of this model by diverse groups has thus ensured that its very form now allows for local variation. Indeed, it needs to be pointed out that the model is very dynamic. Let us not forget that at one point of time one was expected to speak Queen’s English on the BBC, but the same platform, at least in its local transmission, has now made space for a variety of accents.

The policing of cultural boundaries is one of the silent ways through which racism continues to flourish. It is in partly in the breaching of cultural boundaries that racism can be broken. Further, it is in operating within the idiom of power, and then filling the forms of power with differing contents, that negotiation with power operates and one moves from the margins of power towards the centre. In this project, Goans are past masters. Viva Goa!

(First published in Raiot on 26 April 2016)