Unburdening the language from motherhood

The debate over Goa’s language issue continues because the conflict is far from being resolved. The passing of the much controversial Official Language Act (OLA) in 1987 did anything but resolve it. In my previous columns, I have argued that the passing of the OLA was an act to impose Hindu Saraswat hegemony onto the Goan people, particularly the Hindu and the Catholic bahujan communities. In a book published in 2004, bahujan activist Ramnath Naik termed Nagari Konkani as ‘Bamani’, indicating the caste location from which the Nagari Konkani assertion emerged and is sustained till today. BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Wagh, in his op-ed article in a Marathi daily few weeks ago, also made a similar assertion, attracting sharp reactions from the Nagari Konkani camp.

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 1.32.23 PMEvery time the legitimacy of Nagari Konkani as an all encompassing cultural marker for Goans is challenged by Romi Konkani and Marathi supporters in Goa, its proponents religiously argue against it. Instead, they assert that Konkani as the sole Goan language since it is widely spoken in Goa. They would put forth the idea of Goa as the ‘mother’land and Konkani being the ‘mother’tongue of all Goans. By Konkani, they of course mean Nagri Konkani.  What distinctly marks the responses of the Nagari Konkani proponents is the manner in which they cover their defense with seeming emotional overtones, when in fact they are solidly reasoned out to assert their cultural supremacy. To nuance these conversations, one needs to undo a lot of generalized assumption about Goan history and language politics.

It is crucial to remember that there’s nothing natural about the languages we speak, contrary to what is often believed. We pick up languages that are being spoken in our environment. If speaking ‘a’ specific language was as natural as having a biological mother, we would have been hardcoded into speaking only the language that our mother would speak, irrespective of the social context that one would be born in. In a multilingual environment such as South Asia, one is bound to know more than one language with equal ease and proficiency. Further, this patriarchal fixation with defining languages as ‘mother tongue’ needs to be critically scrutinized. Characterizing language with the chaste figure of a mother, as something which needs to be protected is a pattern often observed in proto-nationalist movements. Such political movements not only restrict the role of woman as a passive symbol of political discourses which are largely driven by men, but their underlying masculine nature often tends along the lines of fascism.

deleuzeguattari1French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), argue that “there is no mother tongue [but] only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity”. This is to imply that the project to naturalize languages (and script) as ‘mother tongue’ is essentially an attempt in fixing the language of the most dominant social group as the sole vehicle for cultural identity for those under subjugation. So, when Naik or Wagh refer to Nagari Konkani as Bamani, they are not merely hinting at the specific caste location of ‘official’ Konkani but also targeting the resultant fixing of the Hindu Saraswats in Goa as the ideal bearers of Goan identity, by the virtue of their dialect of Konkani being the official language binding onto the entire state.

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Bharat was a bilingual weekly (Marathi and Portuguese) published from Portuguese Goa. In early 1920s, it also started a supplement in Romi Konkani. Govind Pundalik Hegde Desai, also known as Bharatkar Hegde Desai, was the editor of Bharat.

It also needs to be emphasized that contrary to the claims of existence of one single Konkani since antiquity, history indicates otherwise. As Jason Keith Fernandes has argued there could have been several proto-Marathi and proto-Kannada dialects in use prior to the arrival of Portuguese. These dialects must have been largely confined to speech and associated with various caste communities. One must also remember that the access to knowledge was a privilege available only to the upper castes. Thus, even if there existed any tradition of writing in proto-Konkani prior to the arrival of Portuguese, it wasn’t a democratic tradition to begin with. A transition of a dialect to language is marked by its dissemination and popularization through networks of circulation. In Goa too, as argued by Fernandes and recently by Wagh, it was the work done by Catholic missionaries in codifying and disseminating Konkani through the Church that enabled the emergence of Konkani as a language. It is imperative to note that this version of Konkani predominantly used the Roman script. Rochelle Pinto’s Between Empires (2008), an inquiry of print and politics in nineteenth century Goa, also hints at the glaring absence of Nagari Konkani in the networks of print circulation while Romi Konkani, Marathi and Portuguese were thriving in Goa as well as in colonial Bombay. Thus, this false assumption that Nagari Konkani as a language was always present in Goa – even before the arrival of the Portuguese – has no basis in history.

Languages do not operate solely on impulses of emotions or identity, especially for communities which are displaced to the margins.  Rather, people adopt languages that will provide them opportunities and social mobility. Multi-lingual practices are important to facilitate social mobility in a caste and class setting that would diligently deny this mobility. Marathi, Romi Konkani and Portuguese have historically played that role for various Goan communities and therefore are very much the languages of the peoples of Goa.

Tiatr and the Goan Public Sphere

The emergence and evolution of the Goan public sphere has received very sparse attention, despite its potential to nuance the larger debate over public sphere, owing to the multicultural stratifications that are observed in the Goan polity. The Goan public sphere was being conceptualized not only from Goa but from colonial Bombay too. These attempts started consolidating towards the end of nineteenth century and early twentieth century owing to the resurgence of print. But print was not the only medium through which these publics were being consolidated. Often, studies on public sphere base their analysis on the emergence of print culture. As Janelle Reinelt has argued, in her article Rethinking Public Sphere for the Global Age (2011), studies on public sphere focused mainly on print cultures run the risk of eliding the presence of multiple channels of communication that employ aurality and visuality.

Nancy Fraser, in her essay ‘Rethinking Public Sphere’ (1990), has put forth the idea of a subaltern counterpublic. Subaltern counterpublics are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, ie the discourse that challenge the dominant discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs. Subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the relationship between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides. This dialectic enables subaltern counterpublics partially to intervene the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups in stratified societies.

Tiatr has been a mode to disseminate counterdiscourse, that challenge the dominant discourses originating from mainstream public spheres populated largely by socially dominant groups. Thus, tiatr has been influential in consolidating a subaltern counterpublic. In colonial Bombay, tiatr was a mode of contesting the shaming of the bahujan Goan Catholic communities by the Goan Catholic elites. The attempt was to build a positive identity through tiatr. In post-colonial Goa, the major function that tiatr has played is to create discourse asserting the differences of the Goan Catholic communities as a Catholic populace in a polity that is majorly dominated and governed by Hindus. Let me elaborate.

Francis de Tuem’s kantar in his tiatr Reporter (2015) begins with eulogizing Mother Teresa for her charity work and ends with a critique of ‘Ghar Wapsi’. Tuem’s kantar was in response to the statements made by Mohan Bhagwat in June 2015 where Bhagwat had said that Mother Teresa’s work was motivated by a desire to convert Indians to Christianity. This statement by Bhagwat was made around the same time that  ‘Ghar Wapsi’, a series of religious conversion activities were being carried by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in various part of India. The prime objective of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was to convert Dalits and Muslim Dalits into Hinduism and had become a topic for emotionally charged public debate. Tuem begins his kantar elaborating the work that Mother Teresa has done for the orphans, refuting charges of ulterior motive laid on her by them.  To the RSS and VHP, who sought to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, Tuem asks, ‘we are Kunbi Catholics! Will you convert us to Bamon Hindus? The Bamons do not allow lower caste Hindus to enter their temples, will you allow us [the Catholics] in your temples?’ He ends the kantar on a note that says ‘my forefather might have been converted by Portuguese but I have become a Catholic by my own choice. I guarantee that all Catholics in Goa will die but as Catholics’.

This is a very crucial counter that Tuem poses to the narrative of ‘Ghar Wapasi’. It emanates from the daily shaming of the Goan Catholic communities as ‘living under a colonial hangover’ or as ‘anti-nationals’ by those who claim affinity to Hindu nationalist rhetoric. The presence of Catholics in Goa is always seen through the frame of religious conversions that were carried out in late 16th and 17th century. What needs to be highlighted here is that the conversions are predominantly believed to be ‘forced’ onto the natives by the Portuguese missionaries. However, there is enough evidence to contest such rhetoric by exploring other possible reasons that initiated the native residents to convert to Catholicism. Tuem’s kantar not only reclaims agency from a lower caste Catholic identity, but also refutes the narrative that essentially renders Catholic communities as disenfranchised population in Goa.

These counterdiscourses that make their way into the public imagination through tiatr operate at a scale where they have the potential to make or break governments and mobilise mass support to influence policy decisions. Tiatr does not merely act a mediator between the state and the public but also as a ombudsman. Thus, there have been attempts to stifle the tiatr artists for their sharp and incisive critique on the state. Reinelt argues that counterpublics change the face of the socio-political representation of the nation and its citizens and therefore create new sites for democratic struggle. Tiatr exemplifies creation of such ‘sites’ for a consistent struggle, and perhaps embodies the promise of a true democracy.

A response to ‘Archbishopancha Sermao’

An ideal commitment towards sustaining plurality would be to broaden the definition of ‘Indian’ness.

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

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

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

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

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