Citizenship in a Caste Polity - Transcript

00:00:02 D. McCargo | This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

00:00:09 K.B. Nielsen | Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm an associate professor of social anthropology based in Oslo and also the coordinator of the Nordic Network for Asian studies. I'm here today with Jason Keith Fernandes, also an anthropologist and a research scholar at the Centre for Research in Anthropology, based at the UniversityInstitute of Lisbon. Jason was one of our invited speakers at the ASIAWEEKconference that took place online in December 2020. At the conference, Jason spoke about his new book titled Citizenship in a Caste, Polity, Religion, Language and belonging in Goa. In this podcast, we continue the conversation about what is truly an intriguing book that is impressively well researched as well. So welcome, Jason, and thank you for taking the time to join us.

00:01:04 J.K. Fernandes | Thank you for this invitation. Kenneth, I'm so delighted to be getting the attention, so thank you.

00:01:10 K.B. Nielsen | So please tell us a little bit about your book and not least what motivated you to embark on writing a book such as this?

00:01:19 J.K. Fernandes | So these are two questions here. Let me just briefly sketch the outline of the book. The context of the book is the protest that I encountered when I began my research around 2006. The protest was by a group of persons who write in the Roman script of the Konkani language, as you know, is the official language of Goa. It is also the dominant language in Goa and it is written in two scripts, the older being the Roman script and the younger being the Nagari script, which is the script that is used to write Hindi. It is the script that has been recognised by law, a law that came into place in 1987. And as a result of this law, there has been a fair amount of what I would say suffocation of Konkani written in the Roman script. So there were these protests demanding that the Roman script be recognised in law. And I realised that this was a great way to understand the way in which citizenship plays out in Goa in India. As you know, a large number of the states have been demarcated on the lines of language and language. As a result, is the way to which the ideal citizen subject is identified or marked out. So if the version of the language that you best identify with is not recognised by law, you are fairly certain that you are not the ideal citizen subject. You don't embody the ideal citizen subject. So the first part of the book discusses, it sets out the theoretical framework. The second deals with the history of the Konkani language. I look at the way in which Konkani became to be a part of the public sphere, which came to be recognised as a language of Goan's. This is in the colonial period. The second chapter looks at the way in which the Konkani Mooney or the Konkani person that is the ideal citizen subject was framed in the postcolonial period.

00:03:13 J.K. Fernandes | The third chapter looks at the ways in which the demands are being placed by these activists for the recognition of the script and also the opposition by representatives of the Nagari script who do not want Konkani recognised in the Roman script. What I realised I was looking at citizenship practices, but then I realised that the citizenship practices are not merely actions that take place by an abstract individual, but they are really practiced by a feeling body, by feeling individuals. So I looked at emotion and in particular the emotional humiliation, given that caste defined so much of the Konkani language. And I look at the way in which citizen subject is a feeling citizen. So that would be the outline of the book. So that will be the first question. The second question was what brought me to this theme? And I really did intend to study the Konkani language and its politics in Goa. I was really interested in the way Goan'sand is particularly Goan catholic's from what seemed like labouring class and caste backgrounds, was asserting a Portuguese identity. Now, normally in Portugal, the Portuguese were spoken by members of the upper class and upper-middle classes. So I was interested that the people who were asserting Portuguese identity, even though they didn't traditionally speak Portuguese, and I wanted to follow these groups in Goa, in Portugal, and in London, because a number of these people, assert Portuguese citizenship and then go off to work in London, as very many Portuguese do. Unfortunately, I realised that there was not enough work done on the, let's say, the working caste, working-class Catholics. And so I had to follow what the field was telling me. And the debates around the Roman script seemed perfect because this was emerging from working caste, working-class Catholics, in Goa. So so this is what brought me to the book.

00:05:07 K.B. Nielsen | So your book is an investigation, you might say, of language and script as markers of caste and also of subalternity, if you like. So you take us into the domain of the politics of language. In other words, you could say, could you give us some examples of how such a politics of language plays out in everyday life among Goan's? You mentioned just now, for example, feelings of humiliation and shame as part of everyday experience for at least for certain, Goan's.

00:05:38 J.K. Fernandes | Right. So when in South Asia language is adopted as a marker of a state identity, it isn't innocent. It is always tied in with the identity of a dominant caste. And unlike class, where you can let go of your former class and pick up new markers, with caste,this is not quite possible. So I was at an event organised by votaries of the Nagariscript that is Konkani, which should be recognised only in the Nagari script. And we were having tea before the event and speaking with this gentleman, he was telling me of how happy he was that the Konkani elocution competitions that they were organising for some time now were very successful. He also mentioned to me that what was wonderful was that they were Catholic girls who invariably won the prizes and the selection competitions. And then he went on to add with great delight on his face. He says it is so wonderful that if you hear these girls, you can't even make out that they're Catholic. As a good anthropologist, I latched onto this instantly because I realised he was telling me something. What he was telling me was that the ideal citizen subject, the ideal concrete Mooney's, the concrete person, is someone who doesn't speak like a Catholic. If you sound the way a Catholic sounds when you speak Konkani, you're not the ideal citizen subject. So the next question is, who is this ideal citizen subject? The idea of a citizen subject as one who speaks in the language of official Konkani and official Konkani is the form that has been used by the Sallerson,Brahmins and Goa. This is a Hindu cost of Brahmin's, so everyone has to aspire towards the ideal. But what happens when you do this is that the definition of the ideal is always being set by a caste, not by a class of people. What the definition now is being marked by Hindu standards and standards, which makes it kind of impossible for Catholics and non-Brahmin Hindus to ever reach this ideal, which is why a number of the opponents of the hegemony, of Nagari, were not just Catholics, but also what one could call politicised virgin Hindu. People who did not want to see a Saraswathidialect dominate people who may have earlier supported Meraki as an official language because all of them realise that Brahmanical hegemony, was extremely problematic. So this is one way in Konkani marks, or rather how caste is marked in the Konkani sphere. Another great example of the way in which the language is marked is I met this gentleman from a labouring caste background, but who has achieved university education now and was in Konkani. He has a degree, he has higher degrees in Konkani and was looking for a job in the university in the Konkani Department. When he went to the interview, he reported to me that he was rather than talking about his accomplishments, the head of the interview panel saysBabu, which is the name of adopted for him, why don't you tell us something? And thisBabu explained to me that what was going on was that they were trying to figure out what kind of Konkani he spoke and his Konkani measured up. Now, when you're in a language department, one assumes that you should be able to dominate various forms of the language. So therefore your understanding of the language is being tested, not the fact if you can perform in the state-sanctioned version of the language and when the state-sanctioned version of the language is of Brahmanical form, essentially the question is, are you brahmin enough? And of course, if you're not brahmin, you never will be brahmin enough because there's always a Brahmin around who is going to take your place. So this would be the way in which caste infects language in Goa.

00:09:33 K.B. Nielsen | When we first talked about doing this podcast quite a while back. Yeah, I remember distinctly that you mentioned in one of our conversations that it was important to you that the book was not just received as another book on Goa, not to belittle the importance of Goa, of course, but that its wider relevance for debates on citizenship in India and even beyond India was also made visible to a larger audience. Could you tell us how you think this perspective from Goa, which is in many ways distinct, can help us shed new light on this bigger theme of citizenship in postcolonial contexts?

00:10:10 J.K. Fernandes | Thank you for this question, Kenneth. Yes, this is my concern because too often Goa is dismissed because it is seen as someplace small. Dismissed because it is seen as a pleasure periphery for India and not much else can emerge out of it. But besides these concerns, I think it is important to see this work as contributing to an Indianconversation on citizenship, primarily because it offers the reader a perspective into India that is outside of British India. Most perspectives on India emerge from within British India. And they either ignore or paper over the nuances or the insights that emerge from non-British India, whether they speak princely states or locations like Portuguese India or French India. The norm in South Asia, in academia, or in academic work on South Asia is British India. And this is, I think, a huge problem because it automatically excludes or blind's perspectives coming up from options that have different histories about socio-economic, more importantly, legal histories. So, for example, the legal history, of Goa, is the fact that unlike British Indians, Goans were citizens of Portugal since at least since the liberal monarchy was set up in the mid-eighteen hundreds. To put this in perspective, this is when persons in groups in north India were fighting the British East India Company, the greater board of 1857. So, Goans have a long legal history and this automatically infects the way in which they understand colonialism and therefore the post-colonialism. Another reason to take this work seriously as a contribution to India is that it moves away from the usual concerns of the secularism debate in India. Invariably, secularism studies in India focus on the Muslim. So it focuses on the Muslim, but the Muslim is the other to the Hindu self. So any obsessive focus on the other is really a conversation about the self.

00:12:14 J.K. Fernandes | So you have a situation where everyone is concerned and rightly so rightly concerned with the condition of the Indian Muslim. But as a result of this focus, what happens is really it is a conversation about the Hindu self, scribing, despite your good intentions, the Hindu subject back into the narrative of Indian citizenship by focusing on Catholics outside of British India. I think what my work is trying to do is expand the conversation, make it a tripartite conversation at the very least so that you can also see the way in which the relations between Muslims and Catholics, and Catholics with Hindus. And so we broaden the scope of the conversation and move outside of these problematic binaries that structure so much of our work. I think these would be two important ways in which this work would contribute to the debate on citizenship in India.

00:13:10 K.B. Nielsen | Another way in which, at least in my reading, the book also makes a major intervention is a way in which it engages the work of Chatterji and his work on the politics of the governed and in particular, the conceptual PR. he operates with between civil and political society. This is, of course, both, I think, tricky and complicated terrain. And there's a large literature on this now. And I don't want us to in a sense get caught up in this conceptual debate for too long. But since your book, in my view, at least makes a major intervention in this large debate on Chatterji's work, I would like to ask you how you have benefited from his work in your own analysis, as well as how you've tried to push it even further by working with this case from Goa.

00:13:58 J.K. Fernandes | When I began work on the field, I realised that this was a question about citizenship,but something was not quite right. Well, you know, I have a degree in law and in the sociology of law. So, you know, these usual models you have of civil society where people identify the problem and then there's an almost irrational identification of the law and an application of the law. This was not happening right at the very outset. I wasn't in the realm of classic civil society. Something else was going on. Pleas were being made to people as if they were father figures, as if they were feudal figures. And around this time, I encountered Chatterji's work on political society. And instantly I knew that there was a click just to indicate what Chatterji says. Political society. The members of political society are citizens only in name, but not. In fact, they do not enjoy rights but are only extended concessions when the status quo is shaken. So I realised that this was great, that pleas were being made to feudal lords to extend the shadow of their umbrella over these poor people. It was clear that these weren'tCatholics were not equal citizens in any form of understanding. So this was a great political concept, political society really helped me understand what was going on and helped me to move eventually to the title where if you not, I don't say it's citizenship ina caste polity. The word polity is used deliberately because this is not your regular liberal civil society. This term caste polity also indicates how I've differed from Chatterjibecause I think Chatterji, in his original formulation, is kind of blind to cost. And I realised caste is everything here and caste, in fact defines the nature of the Indian polity. What you have is not a secular liberal democracy or a republic, but really a caste polity.

00:15:49 J.K. Fernandes | We've already spoken about how caste influences language and how language is the marker for citizenship. So really, you don't have a liberal civil society. You have a caste polity in which the agenda is set by Brahmanical groups and everyone needs to fall in line. This polity hijacks the language of secular liberalism to suggest that you can get into the club. But in fact, because caste does not allow for admission of outsiders, you never really can enter this club. So you are always only given concessions to maintain the status quo. And this is the kind of polity that we are at. Just to buttress my case. I think that if you take the storm seriously, the cost quality, you realise that what is unfolding in India right now is exactly this that you have in the centre and in states like Uttar Pradesh. Places where the Brahmanical model is clearly the model that will be followed. And based on this model now we are going to essentially a village, a kind of a polity that is similar to villages where dominant castes rule the roost. So essentially, India's transforming very rapidly into a pure caste quality, and all pretense of being a secular liberal democracy is being abandoned.

00:17:08 K.B. Nielsen | I think I may add that another way in which I found the book to be original is that it engages contemporary Goa, or at least issues that have unfolded politically from the1980s onwards, most visibly. Also as if much of the work we have on Goa tend to be historical in nature, focusing either on Portuguese colonialism or Goa, if you like, as part of the looser world, as if people only look to Goa in order to study the past, if you like. What do you think explains this peculiar situation? And what was it like for you to work on contemporary issues in Goa as an anthropologist?

00:17:44 J.K. Fernandes | You know, again, I think to explain the lack, you're very right in this observation about a lack of focus on contemporary Goa. This is changing. It has to be said that that works. Yours included that challenge this norm. But for a long time, the focus on Goa has been primarily historical. The reason for this, I think, is best explained. If one looks at the relationship between Northern Europe and southern Europe, where southern Europe is the place of culture, a place of leisure and great, it's a place of the past. Look at Rome, Italy. Italy is Europe's past, but sometimes seen, especially in politics, is not particularly relevant to Europe's future. The future is firmly in the not. The British Indian inherited the British gaze on the world, and Goa, being a Portuguese territory, was viewed by British Indians as the British would gaze on Portugal or southern Europe. So Goa then becomes the place which was interesting in the past. And it is this past that is now interesting for the British Indian or the British gaze is the place where the British Indian can go to perform their whiteness, where the British Indian can go to get a break from India, India that they are producing, and kind luxuriates in this vague European environment. It would be Europe for the brown side. This would explain the reason why Goa hasn't really been taken seriously by academia in India. It's interesting, but it's largely interesting for its history. So I think this would be why Goa doesn't feature in contemporary work. As I said, this has been changing. I'd like to point to the work of Rachelle Pinto of Ragazzi Chewed, Rosa Perez has done some interesting anthropological work on contemporary Goa. So I need to look forward to the works of persons who go to work on contemporary Goa as well.

00:19:43 K.B. Nielsen | You mentioned, I mean, earlier in the conversation today that you started out studying law and then you moved into anthropology. And that combination gave you a fairly unique perspective on citizenship, I mean, located somewhere between formal definitions and an actual citizenship practice. I know that you are now pursuing studies in the theology of some sort. What kind of perspective do you foresee emerging from that combination of anthropology, theology and law. Perhaps more out of curiosity, what will your next project be looking at?

00:20:17 J.K. Fernandes | So as I started studying Catholics in Goa, but I was looking at them as a cultural group, their religion in terms of taking religion seriously wasn't my concern. But as I grew in the field, I realised I also needed to or I would I became more interested in the way in which they take their religion seriously. So my next project was how does catholic, or how did Catholicism in Goa accommodate itself to Indian nationalism? I did, this theology became more and more interesting for me, and I realised I needed to take it seriously. And this was the question for me as an anthropologist, how do we take theology seriously? Does it have something to offer us as social scientists in the understanding of the world of the people we are studying? Firstly, and secondly, does it offer something to us? Are we writing from a predetermined position where essentially we are pushing one point of view, which should be the secular point of view? I mean, this is just as problematic as adopting a purely, let's say, a religious framework to look at something. We have to have a conversation where there are sciences. So this was the reason why I decide, OK, let me take theology more seriously. But I also realised that there is a crisis in liberalism. It's not just India, which is not a liberal state, but liberalism globally seems to be in crisis. And a good amount of this crisis seems to be its inability to deal with persons who are not secular. So you have the famous work of Lassard that looks at France and various people have looked at the Muslim question across the world. And the Catholic is similarly a victim of secular politics. So you may have countries that are seen as being Catholic, like Italy or Portugal, but really they're using Catholicism as a cultural marker rather than engaging with the faith.

00:22:10 J.K. Fernandes | I think that theology does have something to say to secular liberalism. What exactly? We will need some more time for me to get my work in order. But one of the things I think I can offer, I would say that theology, let's say Catholicism in this case, can be compared to an imperial language, an imperial form, which is to say a form that is universal, that embraces people from across races, regions, and as a result, is able to well larger polities. And this is distinct. The imperial polity is distinct from the national polity, which imprisons groups that don't conform to the national identity, to the national citizens subject. So I think this is the way in which theology can help us. It can give us a broader frame with which to deal with the crisis of liberalism that we're experiencing.

00:23:06 K.B. Nielsen | So lots to look forward to. Jason Keith Fernandes, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation on the book, Citizenship in a Caste Polity, Religion, Language and belonging in Goa. It's part of the New Perspectives in South Asian History series published by Orient Black Swan.

00:23:24 J.K. Fernandes | Thank you for inviting me, Kenneth.

00:23:27 K.B. Nielsen | My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia.

00:23:37 D. McCargo | You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast.