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.

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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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.