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

Ser ou não ser Gawda

Por FAVITA DIAS

 

“O Senhor dá-me licença?”, perguntei ao entrar no gabinete do Talathi[1] de Curtorim, a minha aldeia.

 

“Sim, entre”, respondeu o Talathi, levantando os olhos dos papéis que tinha à sua frente.

 

Entrei no gabinete e, percebendo que havia outras pessoas à espera, pousei os meus documentos na secretária e sentei-me sem dizer uma palavra.

 

Tinha ido ao Panchayat[2] da aldeia para pedir um relatório ao Talathi, o primeiro passo para conseguir um Scheduled Caste Certificate.[3]

 

Queria candidatar-me ao departamento de Sociologia da Universidade de Goa e o número de vagas era limitado. Alguns dias antes, tinha ido visitar uma amiga que vive por trás da minha casa. Ao ouvir-me falar sobre o curso com tanto entusiasmo, a mãe dela perguntou-me por que razão eu não pedia um certificado de casta para assim aumentar as minhas hipóteses. A primeira coisa que me ocorreu foi: “Como é que ela sabe que a minha família pertence à comunidade Gawda? Isto só pode querer dizer que todo o bairro sabe”.

 

Enquanto eu digeria esta informação, a mãe da minha amiga disse-me que uma outra pessoa da vizinhança conseguira entrar no ensino superior com a ajuda de um certificado de casta. Mais um choque! Eu não sabia que essa família também pertencia à comunidade Gawda. Voltei para casa e perguntei à minha mãe se isso era verdade. Ela disse que sim e que essa mesma vizinha a aconselhara a não pedir um certificado de casta, uma vez que seríamos discriminados, de múltiplas formas, para o resto da vida. Estranhamente, contudo, ela própria tomara a iniciativa de pedir um certificado de casta para o seu filho.

 

Mas eu não queria um certificado de casta apenas para conseguir um lugar na universidade.

“Sim, diga?”, perguntou o Talathi enquanto pegava nos meus documentos. Sem me deixar responder, folheou-os e continuou: “O que é que a menina faz? Trabalha?”.

 

“Sim, trabalho como assistente de investigação para o Centre for Global Health Histories”, respondi.

 

Depois de um breve silêncio, perguntou-me: “Onde mora, ao certo?”.

 

“Perto da capela, ao lado da escola”, respondi.

 

“Humm… Dias… Não creio que haja tribais [Scheduled Tribes][4] nessa zona, ou há? E com este apelido?”

 

Esta pergunta deixou-me sem resposta. Estava com algum receio, pois pouco sabia sobre a presença de tribais na minha zona. Mas lembrei-me do que a minha mãe e a minha tia tinham dito e respondi com firmeza: “Sim, existem tribais nessa área”.

 

“Tem a certeza? Quantas casas de tribais existem lá?”, perguntou-me.

“Sim, tenho a certeza. Há umas três ou quatro casas”, respondi-lhe.

 

Fui ficando cada vez mais nervosa, pois não sabia quase nada sobre as famílias tribais da minha localidade. Nunca me interessara muito por saber essas coisas. Fiz os primeiros anos de escola na St. Joseph High School, em Shiroda, no taluka[5] de Ponda. Estudei nessa escola até ao terceiro ano, altura em que a nossa família se mudou para Curtorim, a cerca de trinta quilómetros de distância.

 

Tinha mais ou menos oito anos quando nos mudámos. A vida era muito diferente em Curtorim. Era grande o entusiasmo com os novos amigos, a nova escola, os novos vizinhos e todas aquelas novas caras. Quando me matriculei na escola de Curtorim, precisei de um período de adaptação não só para me familiarizar com os outros alunos e professores, mas também para fazer novos amigos. Mais tarde, quando passei para o ensino secundário, percebi que não éramos conhecidos apenas pelos nossos nomes e notas, mas também pela nossa casta. Eu conhecia bastante mal a questão da casta. Foi a primeira vez que reparei na sua importância. A minha turma tinha alunos de diversas castas. Havia um grupo de alunos que era conhecido por “atrasado” [backward], mas sempre achei que eles eram ricos e queria fazer parte da sua comunidade. O outro grupo de alunos não era “atrasado” e, segundo a minha percepção, era, em alguns aspectos, mais “culto” e “desenvolvido”. Ocorreu-me, naturalmente, uma questão: a que grupo pertenço eu? Eu achava que fazia parte do grupo de alunos cultos e desenvolvidos.

 

Mais tarde, à medida que fui avançando nos estudos, comecei a ter uma ideia mais clara sobre dois tipos de comunidades – Shudras e Gawdas. Certa vez, numa conversa entre amigos, os meus colegas quiseram saber a minha casta. Respondi-lhes que era Shudra. Tinha chegado a essa conclusão ao comparar a forma como vivíamos com o que observava na escola. Na verdade, venho de uma família que pertence à comunidade Gawda, mas a minha mãe é Shudra. Em casa, nunca se falava de Gawdas ou Shudras. No entanto, fazia-se sempre comparações com os Brâmanes, pelo que tinha a perfeita noção de que não era Brâmane. Nessa tarde, acabei por perguntar à minha mãe qual era a nossa casta. Ela ficou boquiaberta. Porque queres saber a nossa casta? Quem te perguntou? Não deves acreditar nessas coisas… Falou sem parar. Mas, por fim, disse-me que pertencíamos à comunidade Gawda. Fê-lo apenas porque a minha prima mais nova começou a rir e disse: “Ami ani khuinchi ami gawdi” (Nós também somos Gawda). Fiquei sem saber o que dizer aos meus amigos. Pensei em dizer-lhes a verdade mas acabei por desistir porque me senti desconfortável com a ideia.

 

A questão da casta só voltou a ser assunto de conversa entre os meus amigos quando chegou ao nosso grupo um rapaz que pertencia à mesma comunidade que eu. Estávamos todos a conversar informalmente quando o tema das castas veio à baila. Fiquei em silêncio e este novo amigo disse: “Hanv baba gawdi” (Eu sou Gawda). Foi então que anunciei, atabalhoadamente, que também era Gawda. Os meus amigos não tiveram qualquer reacção. Notei, contudo, que embora tivesse revelado que era Gawda, o meu novo amigo fizera-o em voz baixa. Percebi que se sentia tão pouco à vontade em revelar a sua casta como eu.

 

“Quem é o seu Panch?”,[6] continuou o Talathi.

 

“O Sr. Cardozo”, respondi.

 

“Ele conhece-a?”

“Sim”, respondi prontamente.

 

“Conhece o Sr. e a Sra. Fernandes? Eles conhecem-na? A Sra. Fernandes foi a sua ex-Panch, não foi?”. Bombardeou-me com perguntas.

 

“Sim, conheço-os. E eles também me conhecem. Moramos no mesmo bairro”, respondi.

 

Em tempos, o Sr. Fernandes tinha aconselhado a minha mãe a pedir um certificado de Scheduled Tribe. Tinha, portanto, alguma esperança de que ele pudesse confirmar que éramos Gawda. O Talathi decidiu telefonar a algumas pessoas para investigar a identidade da nossa família.

 

“Ninguém atende”, disse o Talathi depois de algumas tentativas. Fiquei um pouco desanimada. Foi então que entrou na sala uma senhora com o seu filho. Percebi, pela maneira como falava concani, que era Brâmane. Lembrei-me que quando a minha família paterna nos vinha visitar, a minha tia, que passou a maior parte da sua vida em Bombaim, costumava dizer: “Não usem a palavra tiyani (termo coloquial para o pronome eles, que permite identificar prontamente um Gawda); nós dizemos tenni (palavra mais sofisticada para “eles”)”. Dizia-nos também “Gawdi te Gawdi uttole kennach sudorpana” (“Vocês sempre serão Gawdi e nunca hão-de subir na vida”). Percebo agora o que eles devem ter sentido naquela altura. A minha prima mais nova contou-me uma vez um episódio que me incomodou muito. Ela ofereceu uma camisa verde a um amigo e ele respondeu-lhe: “Só o vosso tipo de gente é que usa essas cores, nós não”. Tive em tempos uma proposta de casamento de uma família de Brâmanes cristãos e a primeira reacção da minha mãe foi: “Avoi…Bamon…Chamti te!” (Ó, os Brâmanes são sempre forretas). Mas depois também me disse que não levantaria quaisquer objecções se eu quisesse aceitar.

 

“O seu Panch também não atende. A quem devo pedir informações sobre si?”

 

“Entre”, disse o Talathi para alguém.

 

Voltei-me e vi o primo de uma amiga que vivia perto de nossa casa. Estava a entrar com um formulário na mão. Fiquei com receio de que ele visse os meus documentos e fosse contar a toda a gente. Para meu alívio, saiu pouco depois.

 

Estava no gabinete do Talathi há já meia hora e começava a achar que ele não ia dar-me a carta de aprovação, uma vez que não havia provas de que eu pertencesse a uma comunidade tribal.

“Quando os pais têm um certificado, é tudo muito mais fácil”, disse o Talathi, quebrando o silêncio.

 

“Os meus pais tiveram vergonha de pedir um por causa da discriminação. Mas a minha prima tem. Se quiser, posso trazer o certificado dela”, disse.

 

Sei que os meus pais devem ter tido boas razões para não pedirem um certificado ST. Talvez tenham querido poupar os seus filhos ao estigma de serem identificados como Gawdi. Por isso, não os censuro. De facto, lembro-me de a minha mãe me ter dito que teve de enfrentar o seu pai para poder casar com o meu, só porque ela era Shudra e o meu pai era Gawdi. Quem devo culpar por termos sido excluídos da comunidade dos primeiros habitantes de Goa? Julgava que era algo de que nos devíamos orgulhar; se é assim, por que razão devemos escondê-lo? Aprendi a admirar as danças e canções Gawda à medida que fui lendo coisas sobre o assunto. Mas não tenho um conhecimento profundo sobre a comunidade. Se tivesse, as coisas teriam sido diferentes.

“Bom dia”, ouvi uma voz conhecida dizer, enquanto estava perdida nos meus pensamentos. Voltei-me e vi que era um amigo do meu pai, acompanhado de um vizinho.

 

“Eu conheço-os. Ele é amigo do meu pai e o outro senhor é meu vizinho. Pode perguntar-lhes sobre mim”, apressei-me a dizer ao Talathi.

 

Este vizinho também pertencia à Scheduled Tribe. Mas eu não queria que ele soubesse que estava a pedir um certificado ST, porque sabia que ele ia contar a toda a gente. A minha mãe tinha-me dito que fora este vizinho quem aconselhara os meus pais a não pedirem um certificado ST. Mas eu já não queria saber. Só queria terminar o que tinha ido fazer e sair dali o mais rapidamente possível. O Talathi não mostrou qualquer interesse em perguntar-lhes fosse o que fosse a meu respeito. Estava ocupado com um telefonema. Estava a tornar-se insuportável continuar sentada naquele gabinete.

 

Antes de ir ao Panchayat, tivera já de pedir um Samaj Certificate e entregá-lo, com muitos outros documentos, ao Mamlatdar.[7] Não foi muito complicado. Depois disso, tive de ir pedir um relatório ao Talathi. Nunca imaginei que fosse tão difícil convencê-lo. Nem sequer disse ao meu irmão o que andava a fazer. Quando ele me perguntou para que servia toda aquela documentação, a minha mãe disse-lhe que era para pedir a renovação da carteira de emprego. Fiquei em silêncio. Não sei porquê. Quando o meu pai quis saber por que razão eu queria um certificado de casta, a minha mãe disse-lhe, fazendo fé nas minhas palavras, que era para o exame do NET (National Eligibility Test).[8] De qualquer modo, ambos me apoiaram incondicionalmente.

 

“Vá tirar uma fotocópia disto e volte cá”, disse-me o Talathi enquanto me entregava o formulário de aprovação.

 

“Há alguma casa de fotocópias aqui perto?”, perguntei com entusiasmo.

 

“A menina é mesmo de Curtorim?”; o Talathi parecia, uma vez mais, intrigado.

“Sim”, respondi.

 

“A menina mora aqui, estudou aqui e não sabe onde é a casa de fotocópias?”

 

“Só conheço as do mercado. Não conheço nenhuma aqui. Talvez seja uma loja nova”, respondi. E saí rapidamente do gabinete.

 

Fiz a fotocópia do formulário de aprovação numa loja ao lado do Panchayat e voltei ao Talathi.

“Preencha”, disse-me ele. “Mas espero não vir a ter nenhum problema, está bem?”, acrescentou.

“Não, de maneira nenhuma”, garanti-lhe. E, passado pouco mais de uma hora, saí do seu gabinete.

O último passo para conseguir o certificado de ST era entregar este formulário de aprovação no gabinete do Mamlatdar. Tudo correu sem problemas. Tive de entregar o certificado no Tribal Welfare Office e, por fim, consegui o meu certificado de ST.

 

Terminado o processo, ainda me interrogo se estarei realmente preparada para anunciar ao mundo que sou uma Gawdi.

 

Falo abertamente sobre a minha identidade tribal apenas com pessoas que sinto que me compreendem. Tive um momento de hesitação quando escrevi num formulário de entrevista que pertencia à comunidade tribal, ponderando se deveria realmente fazê-lo. Havia naquele local algumas pessoas que me conheciam e, naquela altura, tinha alguma vergonha da minha identidade ST. Mas ganhei coragem e escrevi a verdade. Às vezes, falo abertamente sobre a minha identidade tribal; noutras ocasiões, apetece-me escondê-la. Parece-me, por vezes, que coloco a máscara de Gawdi quando vejo a possibilidade de retirar daí algum beneficio, removendo-a quando regresso ao mundo real. Ao fazê-lo, sinto que estou a perpetuar a discriminação… Concordo que as pessoas não devem ser discriminadas com base na tribo, na casta ou na religião. Mas, por outro lado, talvez eu também discrimine os outros. Lembro-me de ter recusado propostas de casamento só porque os rapazes eram de famílias cristãs de casta alta. Também já reparei que as pessoas da minha aldeia e da minha família ainda chamam “certificado de casta” ao “certificado de tribo”. Eu própria usei as duas palavras, ao longo deste texto, como se fossem equivalentes. Concluo que as pessoas não sabem a diferença entre casta e tribo. Usam muitas vezes palavras como Casta-che (de casta) mas nunca Triba-che (de tribo). Não tenho qualquer problema em usar a expressão Scheduled Tribe, mas o meu certificado diz CERTIFICADO DE CASTA. E, no final, acrescenta “pertencente à scheduled tribe Gawda”. Por conseguinte, eu também não sei que termo utilizar.

 

Aguardo para ver o que esta nova identidade me reserva. Nem sequer sei se os meus primos, que sempre viveram em Bombaim, têm a noção de que somos Gawdis. Se sabem, como se sentem em relação a isso? Terá alguma importância para eles? Por que razão fiquei em silêncio quando o meu irmão perguntou o que se passava? Li uma vez no jornal que a minha aldeia tem três bairros maioritariamente habitados pela comunidade Gawdi. Até hoje não sei quais são. Não sei se quero que os meus pais saibam que estou a estudar ou a escrever sobre a minha identidade tribal. Será que o faço para eliminar as diferenças de casta ou para esconder a minha casta? Não sei o que significa ser Gawdi. Por enquanto, não tenho um sentimento forte de pertença em relação à minha tribo. Tenho vivido como uma não-Gawdi mas não posso dizer que não sou Gawdi.

 

Estarei numa espécie de crise de identidade? Será que a minha vida vai continuar a ser a mesma, ou será que mudará para sempre? Quererei, de facto, esta identidade? Se sim, será apenas pelos benefícios que me traz? Não estarei eu a encorajar a discriminação? Os meus pais sempre me mantiveram longe das diferenças de casta/tribo. Serei capaz de enfrentar a discriminação, se alguma vez tiver de me confrontar com ela?

 

Agora que assumi a minha identidade tribal, penso muitas vezes na reacção de outros Gawda. Irão aceitar-me ou pensarão que sou apenas uma oportunista, alguém que adquiriu o certificado tribal apenas pelos seus benefícios? Sinceramente, não tenho resposta para isso. Não vou mentir e dizer que não usarei o meu certificado para fazer valer os meus direitos. Mas, mais importante do que isso, tenho o certificado para me ajudar a chegar a uma conclusão sobre a minha identidade. Como posso escrever nos formulários, ou noutro local qualquer, que pertenço a uma categoria geral quando sei que isso não é verdade? Além disso, se eu escrever que pertenço à comunidade Gawda, terei de prová-lo. Não ficarei, por conseguinte, de consciência tranquila se não tiver um certificado, mas se o tiver é a sociedade que não me deixa em paz. Na verdade, temo que a minha própria comunidade possa questionar as razões que me levam a querer adoptar uma identidade Gawda, uma vez que nunca sofri qualquer tipo de discriminação e sou assolada por todos estes receios. Podem pensar que sou como aquelas pessoas que obtêm certificados falsos para lhes roubarem as suas oportunidades.

 

Se pensam que nunca fui vítima da discriminação de casta, tudo o que posso dizer é que não estaria aqui a escrever sobre a minha experiência se não fosse esse o caso. Na verdade, posso vir a ter de enfrentar uma dupla discriminação: primeiro, por parte dos não-Gawda, por ser Gawda; e, segundo, por parte dos Gawda, que podem pensar que eu estou a usar a minha identidade Gawda apenas para daí retirar benefícios pessoais. Se o tratamento fosse igual para todas as castas, ser-me-ia perfeitamente indiferente saber que sou Gawda. Mas como não é esse o caso, sinto que sou vítima do sistema de castas.

 

Agora que passei o meu exame NET, penso que há mais probabilidades de ser rotulada como uma oportunista. Vão dizer que passei o exame apenas por causa do meu certificado e não por mérito próprio. Sei que alguns dos meus amigos que pertencem à categoria geral não foram aprovados, embora tenham conseguido uma classificação mais alta do que a minha. Pergunto-me como se sentirão em relação a isto. Também devem sentir-se discriminados. Devo, portanto, sentir-me mal por eles ou feliz por ter passado o exame? De certa maneira, sinto que o facto de ter adoptado a minha identidade tribal pode criar problemas, não só a mim mas também a outros membros da comunidade tribal. Poderá haver maior oposição ao sistema de quotas.

 

Há momentos em que gostaria de ser conhecida apenas por Favita. Em que preferia não ter descoberto a minha identidade tribal e não ter de enfrentar esta situação. Mas este processo marcou-me. Transformou-me numa nova pessoa. Uma pessoa com um conjunto de novas questões que requerem novas respostas. Espero apenas ultrapassar esta confusão e perceber com maior clareza o que quero fazer e onde me quero posicionar. Também gostaria de saber se há outras pessoas a enfrentar crises semelhantes à minha.

Traduzido por Dr. Monica Saavedra e Manuel J. Magalhães

 

(This Portuguese translation was published in Boletim da Casa da Goa, September-October 2016. The original English version first appeared here)

 

[1] Funcionário do corpo administrativo da aldeia, encarregado de funções burocráticas.

[2] Órgão administrativo de uma dada aldeia, constituído por um grupo de cinco pessoas democraticamente eleitas.

[3] Documento que prova a pertença a uma determinada casta ou tribo, mais especificamente as que são consideradas socialmente desfavorecidas (scheduled ou “classificadas”), de acordo com a Constituição Indiana.

[4] Termo que, no caso de Goa, se refere aos indivíduos pertencentes aos grupos populacionais normalmente tidos como autóctones.

[5] Subdivisão de um distrito,[o concelho do antigo Estado da Índia Portuguesa]. Grupo de várias aldeias organizado para efeitos de administração fiscal.

[6] Um dos membros eleitos do Panchayat.

[7] Samaj Certificate – Certificado emitido por um organismo não governamental com o objetivo de garantir os direitos de uma determinada casta ou comunidade. Mamlatdar – magistrado nomeado de acordo com o artigo 20º do Indian Criminal Procedure Code de 1973. É um funcionário superior nomeado pelo governo estadual e preside ao Taluka.

[8] Teste que avalia os candidatos a lugares de ensino nas faculdades e universidades indianas, bem como a atribuição de bolsas para investigadores em início de carreira.

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.

From Sateri to Navdurga, and Worshippers to Sevekaris

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

At the foot of the entrance stairway to the Navdurga temple of Marcaim, a banner waves in the wind. On it, in Nagri-scripted Konkani, is:

 

Amchi murti, amkam zai!
Mullchi murti amkam zai, hich amchi vhadlikai
Ganvkar saglle ek zavya, amchi murti ami rakhum-ya

(We want our idol!
We want the original idol, for it is our pride
Unite Gaonkars, we have to protect our idol!)

 

The temple has been in the news of late for the dispute between the GSB Mahajans and the bahujan villagers, which began over the temple idol. The Mahajans, who wanted a new idol, claim the temple is theirs and built when they migrated to Marcaim. The villagers say that the Mahajans are Mahajans only because they were able to use their privileged caste position to register under the 19th century Lei das Mazanias. The temple, they say, actually belongs to the village. The villagers also took over some rituals that were earlier the privilege of the Mahajans alone, like the palki procession in which the idol is carried through the village along a specific route. The Mahajans responded by declaring all rituals cancelled till further notice.

 

The dispute is before the courts. But a visit to Marcaim reveals a many-layered worship, which is at once deeply connected to the bahujan communities and non-brahmanical deities, but in a casteist fashion.

 

The temple itself is built in the syncretic style of many Goan shrines of the 17th-early 20th centuries and still retains some of this distinctive old ambience, including the basilican (i.e. church-like) plan, arched windows, and a Renaissance dome over the sanctum, along with pitched roofs elsewhere. Much of this has however been rebuilt in concrete and altered in the process, either subtly (like the roofs), or crudely (like the large ugly window-eaves), or even completely (like the new secondary buildings).

 

The syncretism in any case is limited to the temple’s architecture, for its functioning is as brahmanical as ever. All the functions and rituals of the temple need bahujan participation, the villagers say. But this participation is never equal or free but always based on caste. There are drums in the temple lobby, beaten only by the Gomantak Maratha Samaj caste. There are the gold- and silver-clad inner doorways, created by the Chari caste. The priests all belong to the Bhat caste. And only they and the GSB Mahajans enter the sanctum, even today. In fact, the bahujans who contribute to the temple’s functioning are called sevekaris (servants).

 

The temple’s influence extends through the village in many ways, but always hierarchically. E.g. rituals like the First Harvest, for which rice is specially cultivated near big tallem (pond) known as the Tallembandh, see the harvest offered first to the temple and the Mahajans, and only then other houses in the village.

 

Anthills, known as roin or Sateri, have long been considered sacred by the indigenous communities of Goa. There are two Sateris in Marcaim, in different vados. One is near the Tallyambandh, on a GSB-owned property. Nearby is a Sateri temple and another to Vetal, another non-brahmanical diety. This Sateri and its temple used to be frequented by villagers earlier but have now been walled around, making public access difficult. The second Sateri is located with its own little temple at Tallyamkhol, another tallem at the foot of a hill in Parampaivado. This Sateri remains accessible to all, for the land here belongs to a Christian bhatkar. This is where Navdurga’s palki procession ends, to return over the hill back to the temple.

 

There have been attempts to change things, as when a grand new gateway was recently built along the palki route in the village. Funded by bahujan devotees from one of the village vados, it carries a plaque naming the vado. There are similar new gateways at the temple proper which also prominently bear the names of funders—GSB ones—which have not caused comment. But here the palki route was apparently altered, to avoid passing through the bahujan-funded gate.

 

Curbs are now being put on older ways of participation, probably as a result of these challenges. E.g. the bahujans would put up decorations at the Tallembandh for the yearly Sangod ritual, but now a new metal fence prevents their entry.

 

All in all, it is clear that the Mahajans are fighting to maintain their privilege and power, in the face of a growing bahujan challenge. The real question is about the focus of this challenge. Marcaim’s worship of the goddess Navdurga appears to be an overlay on the bahujan Sateri and other non-brahmanical gods, co-opting these and their worshippers into the brahmanical world but as inferiors. The bahujan stand however seems to be that this brahmanical temple, with its ‘original’ idol, is native to the village and belongs to them; only the GSBs are outsiders. The problem with this stand is that it challenges the Brahmins but not brahmanism. For, can a brahmanical temple—which is casteist not just in practice but also theory, being backed by all the casteism of the Shashtras, Stutis, and Smritis—ever oppose brahmanism?

 

The real need is not to fight Brahmins, but to challenge Brahmanism in every form. Otherwise faces will change, but nothing else. This is going to be a long battle, but one small step in it could be to put up another banner outside the temple with the same slogan in, not the baman bhasha, but Romi Concanim, or Marathi, or English.

 

(With thanks to Ashwinkumar Naik)

 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 September, 2016)

Goa’s Reservation Scam, Part 2

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

My last column was on how the system of caste-based reservations, which is supposed to ensure representation of all communities in government and education, is consistently subverted in Goa. This is commonly done by fudging the reservation rosters (which contain each department’s record of implementation, on a post by post basis), or by not following the proper procedures in recruitment, admissions, advertisement, etc, or by simply acting as if reservations don’t apply.

 

Examples include the improper reservation rosters of Goa University, and improper admission procedures to the B.Ed course by the Directorate of Higher Education. For improper advertisements, one need only open any newspaper: almost all government departments and colleges, along with the University, ignore the rules regarding announcement of reserved posts/seats, viz. clear mention of the number and location of the reserved posts/seats, the method of application, the relaxation in qualifications, etc. And those who simply and illegally ignore reservations include many schools, private colleges, self-financed courses, as also contract and hourly-basis employment everywhere.

 

Such is the ongoing subversion of the rules. In this article, I want to discuss the implications of this subversion, and also how some of the rules themselves are a problem.

 

According to the Goa government’s employee record (of 1/1/2015), while 41% of posts are reserved for SC, ST and OBC communities, only 23.4% are reserved posts actually occupied by reserved category recruits. 43% of the reserved posts are thus held by others. But the law says that no reserved post can, after 1997, be allotted to an unreserved (UR) candidate. This means that the post-1997 appointees in this 43%—numbering into the thousands—are illegitimate occupants of these posts and should immediately vacate them. Their ignorance of the scam is not an excuse. If you buy a stolen car in ignorance, are you allowed to keep it? No. Similarly if you accept a stolen job, you can’t keep it.

 

And even this figure of 23.4% is probably inflated. One recalls the roster examined in the last article (of Assistant Professors at Goa University), where various ‘mistakes’ conveniently resulted in a higher percentage of filled reservations. Only an examination of all the government’s reservation rosters will reveal the true situation.

 

The Goa’s Government’s demarking of a total of only 41% posts for caste-based reservation is also questionable, given that the Supreme Court has allowed caste-based reservations up to 50%, and that SC, ST and OBC communities are over 50% of Goa’s total population.

 

There are also problems in the roster lists. Non-caste reservations like Physically Disabled (PD) and Children of Freedom Fighters (CFF) are not supposed to be listed like caste-based ones, for they cut across caste. E.g. a PD recruit would also be UR, SC, ST or OBC. So the proper way of maintaining the reservation roster is having the 3% PD recruits occupy UR, SC, ST, OBC positions, as the case may be, and by selecting one PD candidate in every 33 recruitments. Goa however chooses to fix separate posts for these.

 

How are all these posts fixed? According to the system in central organisations, if the reservation for ST is 7%, i.e. 7 in a 100 employees or one in every 14, the first ST post is No. 14, the second No. 28, and so on. Now this is only for central government where the cadre strength is generally large and the smallest reservation is 7%. State governments are supposed to work out norms that fit their situation.

 

In Goa, the smallest caste-based reservation is SC at 2%, i.e. one in 50 employees. Applying the above rule places the first SC post at No. 50 on the roster. This means that it will take forever for the first SC recruitment, especially with many small departments/cadres. E.g. in a cadre of 10, the SC appointment will happen only after the retirement/dismissal/death of not just all the first 10 recruits, but also their successors, the successors of their successors, and so on, till the 5th generation, i.e. after perhaps a hundred years. This obviously defeats the purpose of reservations. If one really wanted to achieve representation of all communities in a tiny cadre, one would put the first SC, ST, OBC posts at Nos. 1, 2, and 3 on the roster.

 

Goa’s government however applies this central rule, but with casteist modifications. The lowest reservation percentages in Goa are SC at 2%, CFF at 2%, and PD at 3%. With CFF and PD listed on Goa’s rosters just like castes, the first CFF post should be No. 50 (like SC), and the first PD No. 33. But Goa has instead put the first PD at No. 1, and the first CFF at No. 10, while the first SC is far away at No. 49. Thus, there will be PD and CFF recruits even in small cadres, but not SCs. Why this discrimination? Obviously, it’s because PD and CFF recruits can be UR, and usually are.

 

Thus there are innumerable ways in which caste-based reservations get subverted in Goa. And changing this looks difficult, given the brahmanical tendencies of all our political parties. But an attempt is on. Following many complaints by individuals from the marginalised communities, members of Goa’s Social Justice Action Committee (sjac@gmail.com) are conducting workshops to create awareness on the issue. And the group ‘We for Reservations’ (v4reservations@gmail.com) has announced a conference on reservations in Ponda, on August 28.

 

Bahujan Goa is fighting back.

 

(With thanks to the ‘Discrimination in Reservations’ workshop conducted by Yugandraj Redkar and Prof. Alito Siqueira.)

 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 28 July, 2016)

A Goan Waltz around Postcolonial Dogmas

By JASON KEITH FERNANDES

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)

Universities or Agraharams?

By AMITA KANEKAR

 

In the wake of the widespread anger over the death of the Dalit PhD scholar Rohit Vemula at the University of Hyderabad, many excuses have been proffered to divert attention away from caste. One of these is about the so-called ‘Decline of the University’. But were Indian universities really ever, as we are told, liberal institutions concerned with excellence, bursting with secular ideals, and open to, if not welcoming of, dissent?

 

Of course not. As political scientist Gopal Guru has pointed out, although universities are expected to espouse the concept of ‘universal’, they have always been at odds with it in India, whether in the sense of inclusive or broad-minded. Students from Bahujan communities often enter these institutions with great difficulty, fighting against economic hardship and social discrimination, and via enormous sacrifices by their families. Have these institutions ever shown the sensitivity to appreciate such students? No.

 

Rohith Vemula’s death is only more evidence of the same. A brilliant and erudite scholar, Vemula was also active in the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) on the campus which provided support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and also sought to intervene intellectually in civil society. But members of the ASA were accused of being ‘anti-nationals’ by the ABVP (the BJP’s student wing), after they participated in meetings to protest the beef ban and the hanging of Yakub Memon. After a series of such accusations, the ABVP charged Vemula and others with assault. Although the charge was confirmed as false by the police, the University took action, apparently following orders from Central ministers. In a step to deny them basic shelter, food and human interaction, a step that proves that the horrific practice of outcaste-ing of Dalits is neither dead nor confined to some rural hinterland, Vemula and four others – all Dalits – were evicted from the hostel, and barred from the mess and other student areas.

 

With no home in the city, the five students spent the nights in the open, in the biting cold of the Hyderabad winter. Rohith Vemula wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, suggesting that poison be given to Dalit students during the admission process itself. There was no response. He finally killed himself, leaving a note expressing disgust for a society where ‘the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility… Never was a man treated as a mind’.

 

Vemula’s scholarship – with which he had tried to support both himself and his family – had not been paid for seven months when he died. His was the ninth suicide at the University in ten years, almost all by students from marginalised communities.

 

All this, and more from the University’s history, like Dalit research students not being provided supervisers for years, or a well built for the exclusive use of a brahmin professor, show the accuracy of the description by writers on the Ambedkarite portal Round Table India (www.roundtableindia.org) – that these prestigious educational institutions are really agraharams, i.e. settlements reserved for brahmins.

 

In Goa, for example, despite the affirmative policies mandated by the Constitution of India, many students belonging to the Bahujan communities identified as SC, ST and OBC prefer to join BA or BSc degree courses in the so-called ‘general’ category, rather than taking up reserved seats in prestigious professional courses. For it is common knowledge that ‘reserved-category’ students get ignored, if not harassed, by the mostly savarna teachers. These teachers, instead of explaining how ‘merit’ is really a euphemism for privilege, and encouraging students who are often first generation learners, identify with the savarna students and foster resentment against them.

 

The teachers are mostly savarna because the constitutionally-mandated reservation policy – followed grudgingly, if at all, for students – was usually ignored when it came to university teaching jobs. Even after Bahujan organisations took up the issue from the 1990s, following which the Supreme Court laid down strict guidelines for the filling of reserved posts, and professors were also brought under the ambit of reservations, only 7 % of college teachers across India were from the SC communities (against a required 15%) last year; and only 2% from ST (required 7.5%).

 

For example, Goa University hit the headlines two years ago when Bahujan applicants for faculty positions exposed its failure to follow the reservation rules in recruitment. While the recruitment roster showed lower figures for reserved posts than actually the case, the authorities ignored even these flawed numbers while making new appointments. Not surprisingly, the University has less than 5% of faculty members from all the Bahujan communities, when they should be nearly 50%. But even this is an improvement, according to insiders; earlier there used to be none.

 

So there is actually no decline of our universities, but a tiny improvement – and it has come as a result of people like Rohith Vemula fighting to make these institutions meritorious and universal, at huge personal cost. But the agraharams will not give in easily. Goa University is right now running a public course on Caste Today, under the Visiting Professors Programme, which seems like a radical step. But the course is chaired by a brahmin, assisted by guest lecturers among whom are a disproportionate number again of brahmins. The more things change, the university no doubt hopes, the more they will remain the same.

 

(First published in O Heraldo, 11 February, 2016)