Opinion Poll: Choice or Compromise?

We need a nuanced historical analysis to understand the preconditions and after-effects of the Opinion poll.

A series of events are being planned to commemorate the historic Opinion Poll whose  50th anniversary was marked last week on 16th January. Second to the territory’s merger into the Indian Union, the Opinion Poll is perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of post-colonial Goa. The Opinion Poll was a referendum held to decide whether to retain the Union territory status of Goa or merge it with the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The majority of Goans voted against the merger and thus Goa retained its status as a Union territory, putting an end to any possibility of the merger with Maharashtra.

Current tellings of the history of the Opinion Poll are centered around two prominent figures, Dayanand Bandodkar, the then chief minister, and Dr. Jack de Sequeira, the leader of opposition. While on the one hand it was Bandodkar’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) that rooted for the merger with Maharashtra in post-colonial Goa, on the other it was Dr. Sequeira and the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) who mobilized the anti-merger sentiments successfully. But such a reductive understanding of a complex historical moment ensures that the grey areas that marked Goa’s history and the reasons which prompted as well as averted the possibilities of merger are obscured. Recent historical analysis, such as that contained in Parag Parobo’s book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), hint  that Bandodkar was not keen on merger after he tasted political success. Also, the initial demand for merger dates back to late 40s, much before Bandodkar came onto the political scene. Hence to nuance our understanding of the Opinion Poll, we need to shift away from the sources that only emphasize Bandodkar and Sequeira, and write a history from below.

I was recently recounted an anecdote of a volunteer conducting the proceedings of Opinion Poll in Curtorim. After the polling ended in the evening, the said volunteer visited a nearby cafe where he overheard a conversation between two Catholic gentlemen. One of them reportedly proclaimed that “if Goa gets merged with Maharashtra, I will not stay in Goa anymore. I will move to Bombay”.

It might seem ironic that, in order to escape the threatened merger with Maharashtra, he wanted to escape to a city that was now claimed to be an integral part of Maharashtra. The city of Bombay had become the capital of the newly formed state of Maharashtra in 1960. However, if we assume that it was not so much the merger with Maharashtra that the gentlemen wanted to escape, but the possibility of further marginalization in a Hindu dominated polity his claim begins to make more sense. For him, the cosmopolitan big city would have perhaps offered hope to escape Hindu dominance. But since the late ’60s, spurred by the logic of linguistic nationalism that organized Maharasthra as a Marathi state cosmopolitan Bombay was also transforming to become the migrant hating ‘Mumbai’ claimed by the far right Hindu outfit Shiv Sena.

This situation illustrates how marginalized groups are compelled to compromise in order to negotiate their existence with a larger dominant community. Such compromises often come in the guise of political choices wherein, despite making a choice, the marginalized is destined to suffer. The Opinion Poll was one such compromise disguised as a ‘choice’. Whether to merge with Maharashtra or to remain as a Union territory were restricting choices. The Indian union never offered Goan citizens the possibilities of self determination. Instead, it obliged them to negotiate their political future within the narrow frames of Indian nationalism. This nationalism, which in hindsight has revealed itself as, in fact, Hindu nationalism has steadily led to the disenfranchisement of Goan Catholics as legitimate subjects of the republic. The recent berating of Catholics as lacking in Indianness due to their leadership of the demand for grants to English medium schools is evidence of such disenfranchisement

If the Goan Catholics wanted to escape Hindutva by voting against the merger, the Hindu bahujans wanted to escape Brahminical dominance by opting for the merger. In retrospect we realize that just as evading merger wasn’t a remedy to escape Hindu majoritarianism, merging with Maharashtra wasn’t a solution to escape the Brahminical dominance. To escape either of these evils, one must challenge the dominant discourse of Indian nationalism which is inherently infused with Brahminical Hindu notions.

It is only in hindsight that one can feel relieved that Goa did not merge with Maharashtra and was saved from being party to the hyper-masculine Maratha nationalism. However, Goa is far from escaping the ills of Hindu majoritarianism and has seen several native forms of Hindu majoritarianism breeding in the state. One can cite the movement for the official recognition of Konkani wherein the cultural legitimacy of Romi Konkani and the Catholic communities which utilized this script were systematically marginalized as lacking in Indianness as an instance of Hindu majoritarianism at work.

The Opinion Poll could be seen as a mixed blessing; a choice for freedom and independence that was structured upon narrow linguistic nationalism – thus restricting the very freedom and independence that it promised. While we celebrate Opinion poll as a triumph, we should also be aware that it restricted the lives of many Goans.

Dayanand Bandodkar, Ambedkar and Nehru

Bandodkar’s politics show the potential of Dr. Ambedkar’s vision, but also the limits of the Nehruvian model of governance.

In his essay titled ‘A Warning to Untouchables’, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar appeals to the depressed classes to strive for two goals. The first one being the pursuit of education and spread of knowledge, for he believed that the power of the dominant castes rested upon the lies consistently propagated among the uneducated masses. Challenging the dominance of the privileged classes requires countering these lies which could only happen with education. Secondly, he asserts that the depressed classes must strive for power. Ambedkar says that “[w]hat makes one interest dominant over another is power [and] that being so, power is needed to destroy power”.

The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh from the mid 1990s is considered a success story of Ambedkar’s aforementioned appeals. But Parag Parobo’s recently published book, India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), could help us imagine Goa’s first Chief Minister, Dayanand Bandodkar, as a bahujan leader whose politics resonated with Ambedkar’s political scheme mentioned above, much before Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.

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In the first three state elections (1963, 1967, and 1972), the Indian National Congress (INC) suffered most humiliating defeats in Goa while Bandodkar and his Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party single-handedly emerged as the most powerful political force. The reason for this, as cited by Parobo, was the INC’s dependence on reproducing feudal and caste hierarchies within the INC’s organizational structure. During the first Goa assembly elections in 1963, the INC gave candidature mostly to upper caste landlords and “freedom fighters”, leaving no space for the representation of subordinated castes. Bandodkar, on the other hand, placed an emphasis on giving tickets to the individuals belonging to the bahujan samaj, two significant examples being Kashinath Shetgaonkar, a loin-cloth-wearing farmer and Vijay Kamulkar, a tea-stall-owner, both from Pernem. Shetgaonkar and Kamulkar won their respective seats while defeating feudal doyens Raghunathrao Deshprabhu and Vaikunthrao Dempo. Deshprabhu and Dempo’s loss reflects the grit of the masses to reject the INC’s attempt to reproduce upper caste dominance within electoral democracy.

Bandodkar’s caste background not only informed his political strategy but also his vision. Parobo astutely elaborates on this aspect by analyzing Bandodkar’s educational policies for Goa vis-à-vis Jawaharlal Nehru’s educational policies for India. Nehru is uncritically considered as the architect of Modern India by a large majority of the Indian population. Nehru’s narrative of development was launched through investments in heavy industries and mega-projects and dams, which Nehru referred to as the ‘temples of Modern India’. However, as Parobo points out, Nehru’s development rhetoric emphasized higher education by downplaying the value of basic education in the country. At a time when a vast portion of the country’s population did not have access to basic education, Nehru made precious resources available to higher education in the process  starving primary and secondary schools of funds.

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Available for online order on Amazon

Parobo articulates it precisely when he writes that “at a time when investments in higher education were a priority being driven by [the] Nehruvian vision of India, Goa’s story was being scripted very differently”. Within one month of taking charge of the government, Bandodkar announced the setting up of 200 primary schools for the academic year 1964-65. The major thrust of his educational policy was to eradicate inequality by universalizing primary education and to make education accessible to everyone in Goan society by setting up educational institutions in villages, especially for those who belonged to lower ranks in the caste hierarchy. Under Bandodkar’s tenure, the number of primary schools increased from 274 to 492 in 1964-65 and further increased to 900 in 1967. According to Parobo, Bandodkar did not merely limit himself to opening up schools but also created conditions that would make Bahujan access to education possible. For example, Bandodkar’s land reforms liberated the low caste mundkars from feudal compulsions and responsibilities, thus easing their way towards acquiring education. The results of these concentrated efforts were seen in the census of 1971, wherein in the New Conquests, a region which had received relatively less attention in terms of education before 1961, the literacy rate increased from 18 to 51 percent.

Bandodkar seized political power which, according to Ambedkar, was the master key for the lower caste emancipation. Through his political strategies and reforms, Bandodkar was able to achieve two things. Firstly, Bandodkar disrupted the elite Goan establishment, both Hindu and Catholic, which was reaping benefits available to them through their support of the Portuguese colonial state. Secondly, he strategically rejected the INC’s hierarchical politics as well as the Nehruvian vision of development that catered to safeguarding the interests of the elites. Instead, he scripted a development narrative that prioritized the liberation of the lower caste communities. Thus, even though Bandodkar may not have engaged directly with Ambedkar’s political thought, he was able to demonstrate the potential of Ambedkar’s vision of subaltern emancipation. He did this by seizing political power and exposing the limits of the Nehruvian model of governance. This goes to show that a critical questioning of Nehruvian idea of ‘modern’ nation and coupling an inclusive version of Bandodkar’s strategy with Ambedkar’s political thoughts could help us to imagine possibilities of emancipating the subaltern in contemporary times.

When the Bahujans Speak

Porobo’s book on Bandodkar offers fresh perspectives on Goa by narrating a history that refuses to conform to the dominant narratives.

The discourse on Goa’s history oscillates between two dominant narratives, one is that of Goa Dourada –a reminiscence about a Goa that is European; and the second —Goa Indica– which is a nationalist reversal of Goa Dourada, at times propagated by orientalist scholars. Both are often pitted against each other, ultimately trying to erase the existence of the other narrative. However, both these narratives emerge from elite rungs of Goan society and hence fail to represent the complex nature of Goa’s diverse social ethos. The inadequacy of these narratives lies in the very nature of their historiography which tends to ignore or silence the marginalized communities of the land. Till recently, no scholarly attempts of writing ‘history from below’ were made in the context of Goa and the recently published book India’s First Democratic Revolution – Dayanand Bandodkar and the rise of the Bahujan in Goa (2015) by Parag Parobo is a step towards bringing marginalized  narratives of history to the fore. Parag Parobo is a professor of History at the Goa University.

High resolution Image of bookThe book chronicles the rise of Hindu Bahujan samaj in post-colonial Goa under the leadership of Dayanand Bandodkar. Moving away from the trend of solely attributing the Portuguese colonial state for the ‘making and unmaking’ of Goa, Parobo argues that Goa was a product of Portuguese as well British colonialism. Similarly, post-colonial Goa isn’t a self-standing entity but, he says, one needs to place Goa in wider context of the subcontinent while assessing its regional complexities. Adopting a non-conformist approach to the Portuguese colonialism, the book also debunks the trend to attribute Goa’s post-colonial advancements to the Portuguese colonialism, which fell considerably short of effectively reviving an economy that was stagnating economy since the nineteenth century.

The book begins by giving a detailed accounts of formation and consolidation of caste identities in Goa. The case of Gaud Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs) is of particular importance here to understand their dominance in contemporary civic sphere. The book argues that the Brahmin status of Saraswats is actually a seventeenth century construct, following the intervention of the Benares based Vedic scholar Gaga Bhatta. Porobo also critically analyses the myth of Parashuram as narrated in the Sahayadrikhand from the nineteenth-century, rebutting the antiquity of the claims therein. Thus, Porobo challenges a dominant view that asserts the GSBs as the original settlers of Goa, based on a nineteenth-century rendition of the Sahayadrikhand.

Simultaneously, Parobo also offers insight into the reorganisation of lower caste communities around the Maratha identity as a path to seek upward mobility. Further, the book analyses the colonial state in its local and micro contexts, unearthing the elitist nature of Portuguese colonialism. Parobo argues that the colonial state, and its collaboration with Saraswat Brahmins, actually accelerated the Brahminisation of Goa in terms of establishing control on land, temple, administration, and history.

In post-colonial Goa, Parobo provides a detailed account of Bandodkar’s politics and how his lower caste affiliation complimented with his capitalist background marked a possibility of emancipation for the Bahujan samaj in Goa. Parobo provides insightful analysis of the merger issue for which Bandodkar has been criticised by a certain fraction of Goan society even today. Parobo argues that, though the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s (MGP) chief agenda was to merge Goa with Maharashtra, Bandodkar wasn’t keen on the merger. He says Bandodkar’s personal political interest may have taken precedence over the party ideology. Even though the rest of the MGP wasn’t satisfied with the opinion poll verdict, Bandodkar was first to accept it. The opinion poll did not dent Bandodkar’s image but on the contrary, strengthened it. MGP’s vote base and seats increased in the elections that followed the merger. Parobo further analyses Bandodkar’s regime through his far reaching land reforms, educational policies and healthcare initiatives that proved to be emancipatory to the Bahujan samaj.

The book seeks to project Goa onto India to demonstrate how the marginalized, equipped with political power, can change the course of their progress and create newer possibilities for themselves. Nehru’s vision for India was a result of his upper caste elite background which worked only to the benefits of Indian elites while the marginalized struggled to find a place for themselves within that vision. Bandodkar, with his lower caste capitalist background, set a model of governance that prioritized liberating the Bahujans from bonds of feudal and social oppression. The limit of Nehruvian idea of development and liberating nature of Bandodkar’s governance is evident from Parabo’s astute analysis of their respective education policies.

The book departs from the traditional narratives of Goa Dourada and Goa Indica and reterritorializes Goan history from the perspective of the lower castes. However, its scope is limited to the Hindu Bahujans and the narrative of the subaltern Catholic is largely absent in this work. Also, the book does not provide an analysis of the progress of Bahujans post the Bandodkar regime, which was systematically hurdled by the resurgence of brahminical dominance in Goan civic sphere. The denial of official language status to Marathi or the recent amendments to the tenancy act are telling examples. Nevertheless, the book offers some great insights into Goa’s history and is a must read for individuals interested in understanding Goa as well for those engaged in articulating newer possibilities of subaltern politics in contemporary Indian context.

(The book is published by Orient BlackSwan under their “New Perspectives in South Asian History” series. The book is available for online purchase on Amazon)