When Jallikattu Raises the Dhirio Issues



It is another hot January day in Madras. I have alighted at the Chennai Bus Stand and am heading for the Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference at the Madras University, near the Marina Beach. There are others headed there as well. There are many, many people present there; quite a number wearing black T-shirts or shirts. Some are carrying placards, others beating drums. First I see a lot of young students, then I see young and old, men, women, they seem to be from different communities. They are all walking towards Marina beach. “We need Jallikattu”, “We want Jallikattu” is written on the placards and also on banners along the way.


As reported in the press there has been an ordinance allowing Jallikattu by exempting it from applicability of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and as such I wondered why they were still agitating. They say they are talking of a permanent solution. At first, in my technocratic lawyerly understanding, I look at it myopically and think that there is something amiss, because the Constitution has no way to ensure permanence except with the calling of an Assembly session and passing the legislation at the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. So why did the people not wait until the summoning of the Legislative Assembly, considering that the Assembly session had anyway been called on 23rd January?


As the drama unfolds, I begin to get a sense of their understandings of permanent solutions. The issue really is far beyond Jallikattu. It seems that Jallikattu has been the point of convergence. The point of convergence for those who feel that Tamil culture is neglected; those who oppose the subsuming of Tamil culture under a homogeneous Indian culture; those who are upset by the disregard for farmers’ concerns; those who have borne the brunt of demonetization; those who have been rearing the bulls for Jallikattu; and those whose livelihoods are at stake anyways. Jallikattu or no Jallikattu, for the Thevar community which like the Patels in Gujarat feel neglected, for those in the city who are threatened by the impending water scarcity, for those who want the Tamilian bull species to thrive, for those who resist controversial state projects that often reinforce hybridization programs of dubious value, for those who see an imposition in aerated drinks of multinationals. Despite the fact that Jallikattu may in some ways be reinforcing machismo, despite the fact that Jallikattu is stated to be a dominant caste traditional practice wherein it is considered a sign of valour to win a bride by successfully hugging the hump of the bull. Despite the fact that the large mobilization of women for the Jallikattu is suspect, considering that women otherwise are not easily permitted to participate in demonstrations and protests.


The people at the Marina are not the ones who are associating Jallikattu with centuries old temple culture, they are talking of Tamil culture. They are also asserting their freedom to express, come what may.


Someone at the demonstration quips, “At Jallikattu or in a boxing match, sometimes there are unintended adverse consequences, just as in a motor vehicle accident. So because there is an accident, will you say ‘don’t use motor vehicles’?”

They also resonate in the context of Goa, where the difference  that is Goa is marginalized, where there has been selective targeting of bull fights, selective targeting of Muslim businessmen when it comes to beef, selective non-implementation of the Constitution, when it comes to reservations, selective stripping of powers of statutory bodies such as the Goa State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, selective  mining loot, selective recognition of what demonetization has meant. There is a convergence emerging, albeit a different sort in Goa.


It dawns on me that permanent solution means recognizing the federal character of India enshrined in the Constitution. It means recognizing the diversity of cultures – that it is not about one nation, one language. It means recognizing the sustainability of the locally bred animals. It means recognizing that people suffer by acts of the Centre such as demonetization and planning policies that drive the farmers to the margins. It means no selective targeting of certain cultural symbols and projecting of the same as barbaric. Permanent solution in the people’s understanding is not limited to technocratic ‘legal’ solutions, it means addressing the power structures in which decisions are made, and the way the issues are represented be it in the legislature, by the Executive, and before the judiciary.


No doubt this permanent solution idea is fraught with ambiguities on gender and on how Tamil culture comes to be defined. No doubt the permanent solution concept is fraught with shades of Tamil nationalism. As much as Goan nationalism breeds its own disparities.


(First published in Goa Today, February 2017)


Where’s the Nation?



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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)