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.

Marathi and the Hindu Bahujans

Marathi is as much a carrier of Goan ethos as Konkani (both Romi and Nagari) and Portuguese.

The presence of Marathi in Goa is looked upon with suspicion by some for its links with the demand for Goa’s merger with Maharashtra from the period between 1961 until the Opinion Poll of 1967. In writing off Marathi as a Maharashtrian import, people often ignore the centuries-long historical presence of Marathi in Goa, as well as its current usage in the public sphere. Gauging by this usage, one can safely say that Marathi is as much a carrier ofthe Goan ethos as Konkani (both Romi and Nagari) and Portuguese.

The demand for Marathi as official language was largely made by the Hindu Bahujan Samaj of Goa initially, many of whom also identify with a Maratha identity. The Bahujan Samaj is a conglomeration of lower caste groups in Goa that was comprised of Kshatriya Maratha Samaj (Fisher communities), Gomantak Maratha Samaj (temple servants), Naik Bhandaris or Kshatriya Naik Marathas (toddy tappers), Kshatriya Komarpant Maratha (service caste) and Gaud Maratha (tribals). Following the rise of Maratha power in 17th century and Maratha invasions in Goa, Maratha identity had become a cultural resource through which lower castes imagined a modern identity, as Parag Parobo articulates in his book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015). This reorganization of Hindu bahujan samaj in Goa around Maratha identity was aimed to contest brahminical hierarchy and social dominance.

The potency of the Maratha symbol for the bahujan samaj was further deepened in the course of the merger-language debates that dominated public discourse from the 1960s until their culmination in 1987. Recognizing that the pro-Konkani forces were in fact directed by Saraswat interests, the bahujan Hindus realized that the imposition of Nagari Konkani was a tool towards instituting Brahmin hegemony in Goa. It was for this reason that they chose to side with Marathi as their preferred language of expression. The political establishment in Goa was well aware of the emotional currency that Marathi carried for Hindu masses in Goa. Hence, there was a provision made to grant ‘equal status’ to Marathi in the Official Language Act of 1987 (OLA) and subsequently it was notified that Marathi would also be used in official purposes of the state government.

The suspicion of Marathi, especially among the Catholic communities in Goa, isn’t surprising. The merger with the Indian union in 1961 implied the arrival of Indian nationalist discourse in Goan public sphere which meant a preferential bias towards Hindus while Catholics would be rendered as second class citizens. The animosity of Catholic communities towards Marathi is precisely because of this reason and the Marathi camp in Goa did not make any attempts to address this problem. Instead the Marathi supporters further validated the apprehension that Goan Catholics harbored towards them by fashioning their demands of merger with Maharashtra and official recognition for Marathi with Hindutva symbolism.

But much has changed since the passing of Official Language Act, 1987. The Official Language Act did not give any recognition to Romi Konkani despite the fact that the mass support in favour of Konkani emerged from those who desired the recognition for Romi Konkani. If the demand for Marathi was seen as a bow towards a Hindu majoritarianism in Goa, instituting Nagari Konkani as the sole official language proved that suspicion right. One of the recurring argument made by the Nagari leaders against Romi Konkani was that the Roman script is ‘western’ and not ‘Indian’, and hence unfit for any official recognition. Secondly, they argued that the adoption of Nagari Konkani will help bring the Goan Catholics into Indian mainstream. What these two arguments not so subtly implied is that the Catholics in Goa would have to adopt the modes of life set by upper caste Hindus while rejecting the peculiar history that the Goan Catholics were part of. It is about time that Goan masses realize the brahminical agenda operating in the name of Nagari Konkani. The recent debate over the Medium of Instruction (MoI) issue is a direct result of this agenda and the failure of subsequent governments to amend the Official Language Act in order to make it more inclusive by giving equal status to Romi Konkani and Marathi.

The current Marathi leadership, however, is not positioned against countering the brahminical agenda operating via the Nagari Konkani camp nor do they seem to be interested in addressing the issues of caste tied with the assertion of Marathi in Goa. To make matters worse, the leadership within the Marathi camp is assumed by upper caste individuals who have suspicious links with right wing groups such as the RSS and VHP. What they will end up doing is to push down a brahminical Hindutva agenda on Hindu Bahujans. Also, the current Marathi movement, especially the one led by Marathi Rajyabhasha Prasthapan Samiti, is geared to oppose the alleged onslaught of English in Goa. Such a stance will curtail the possibilities of upward mobility to Hindu bahujans in a world that is dominated by English. An ideal assertion for Marathi in Goa would be one that recognizes the bahujan position of Marathi as well as that which employs Marathi as a gateway to learn English and access a world view beyond regional parochialism of Goa or India.

Of Muthalik and Nagri Konkani

Goa’s multicultural ethos is threatened not just by Rama Sene, but from self-professed guardians of Konkani identity too.

The ban on entry of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene into Goa has now been extended till January 2016 by the Goa Government. Drawing attention to another sinister group engaged in cultural policing, last week, BJP MLA Vishnu Wagh urged the chief minister to impose a ban on Sanatan Sanstha for its alleged links with the murder of Govind Pansare in Kolhapur.  While Sanatan Sanstha was alleged to have been involved in the Margao blast case few years ago, Muthalik, who achieved national attention after his associates ransacked a pub in Mangalore in 2009, wanted to set up a Ram Sene branch in Goa.

Goa has been a target of these groups for the supposed ‘western’ outlook and character. Outfits like Ram Sene have stated their intentions to cleanse Goans of western influences. Such cultural imposition of right wing Hindu outfits must be resisted, though whether to ban them or not is a topic for another article. However, while it is important to be vigilant of these external forces altering plurality of Goan society, one must be aware of such culture police locally present within Goa. This local culture police might not be as formally organised as Ram Sene, but their larger project has similarities, i.e. to impose a singular identity by carefully erasing all cultural differences to ensure the hegemony of a dominant social group. It is also interesting to note that some of these individuals indulging in cultural policing are also active members of a Facebook group called “We Don’t Need Ram Sene in Goa”.

I am referring to the lobby that propagates Konkani as the authentic embodiment of Goan identity. The Official Language Act of 1987 instituted ‘Konkani written in Devnagari script’ as the sole official language of Goa. This Konkani, however, was not the extant and popular Concani. Rather, it was the dialect spoken largely by the Hindu Saraswats of Goa. By officially recognizing this Konkani as the only official language of Goa, the state excluded two major Goan communities i.e. the Catholic and Hindu Bahujan groups. The Catholics in Goa largely use the Roman script to write Concani. By specifically mentioning ‘Konkani written in Devnagari script’, the official language act slyly suggested that Devnagari script is the marker of ‘Indianness’ in Goa.

As Goan historian Parag Parobo suggests in his book India’s First Democratic Revolution (2015), the upsurge of Maratha power in 17th century had turned Maratha identity as a symbol of cultural resou rce. The lower caste Hindus in Portuguese Goa articulated  a modern identity through the Maratha symbol to escape caste oppression.  The potency of this symbol was further deepened in the course of the merger-language debates that dominated public discourse from the 1960s until their culmination in 1987. Recognising that the pro-Konkani forces were in fact directed by Saraswat interests, the bahujan realised that the imposition of Nagri Konkani was a tool towards instituting brahminical hegemony in Goa. It was for this reason that they chose to side with Marathi as their preferred language of expression.

The symbolic power attached to Nagri Konkani by its institutionalisation through the state apparatus has rendered Goan Catholics and Hindu Bahujans as ‘lesser’ Indians and Goans respectively. Instead, it frames the Nagri Konkani supporting Hindu as the ‘ideal’ representative of Goan identity. Such idealisation is in the interest of sustaining the caste hegemony of Saraswats in Goa. In the popular press or social media platforms, any demand for official status for Romi Konkani is vehemently opposed citing it as a representative of the colonial hangover of Goan Catholics. Similarly, even though the pursuit of merger is no longer feasible, the demand for official status for Marathi in Goa is held under suspicion as a step towards Goa’s merger with Maharashtra. Both these demands emerge out of a resistance to upper caste hegemony and are a call for accommodating the plurality of vernacular cultures in Goa. However, the ‘Nagri Konkani sena’ has time and again opposed such assertions by labelling them as a threat to “Goan identity”; implying that such identity should be expressed only through Nagri Konkani. Those demanding official status for Romi Konkani are asked to leave for Portugal. Similarly, those asserting a Marathi identity to resist Nagri Konkani hegemony are asked to settle in Maharashtra.

Muthalik and the Nagri Konkani lobby may have different organizational structures and modus operandi but they strive towards similar agenda. In the case of Muthalik, it is the militant imposition of Hinduism as the authentic Indian culture, by attacking cultures that challenge the idea of ‘Hindu rashtra’. In the case of the Nagri Konkani-wallahs, it is professing of Nagri Konkani as the sole vehicle of Goan identity. Any opposition to this is accused of being a ‘traitor’ to Goan and Indian society. Muthalik has often resorted to violent ways of propagating his claim while the Nagri lobby systematically executes its agenda through an equally violent, albeit insidious, state apparatus. Both consider themselves to be the guardians of monolithic identity formulations that are validated only by excluding the subaltern communities of the land. While there is no doubt that Goans need to be vigilant against the Ram Sene, there is clearly a need to challenge such locally present cultural policing as well.

(First published in The Goan Everyday dated 29th September 2015)