Friday, January 9, 2015

Rethinking Special Status 2: Origin Myths and Rights Claims

In our culture that is obsessed with symbols it is traditional that the first offerings in the new year contemplate the theme of freshness, new beginnings, and the like. And so it is that my first offering in the year 2015 will proffer some thoughts on the idea of origins.

Many years ago I had co-organised a reading group under the name Reading and Writing Goa. The idea of the group had been to think critically about the received wisdom about Goa and to rethink some of the intellectual frames through which Goa is thought about and represented. As a part of this exercise the group interacted with Gauda, Kunbi, Velip, and Dhangar activists from Goa who were asserting the rights of their communities within the state. In the course of our interactions one of the members of the group asked of these activists if they had any origins myths about Goa that would contest the more popular origin myth, that of Parashuram.

For those who are as yet unaware, the Parashuram myth suggests that the west coast of the peninsula of South Asia was created through the intervention of Parashuram, the sixth incarnation or avatar of the brahmanical deity Vishnu. There are a number of variations of this myth along the west coast, some suggesting that Parashuram threw the axe that he is named for into the sea, while others suggest that it was an arrow that he shot into the sea. In any case, all narratives are in agreement that having flung his weapon into the sea, the water receded to reveal landmass that was then used by Parashuramto settle brahmin communities. Given the penchant that Indians have for digging scientific facts out of  myth, this narrative has in recent times been interpreted to suggest that the story refers to the skills of the brahmin communities who were able to reclaim land from the tidal influenced rivers that mark the coastal territories of Goa. More suspect is the other use of this myth that suggests that since the lands were gifted to these brahmin communities by Parashuram, they may therefore operate as rulers of the territories created.

The visiting activists were flustered on being pressed for a Parashuram-like myth of origin for the territory. They could not offer a similar myth. What they could offer, however, is the narrative of their peoples that they had been systematically been cheated of their rights in the land. Where they were cosharers in the land, the brahmin and other dominant communities had ensured that the rights of the Adivasi groups were not recognised by law. In many cases the accounts the activists offered were more recent, from the time of the Portuguese administration where the dominant castes together with Portuguese administrators ensured that these already marginalised groups were further dispossessed.

Seeing the discomfort of the activists made me realise that an irrational demand that was being made of them. Despite the fact that they were offering a tangible fact, they were being forced to take their narrative of creation of land, possession and dispossession into a mythic past. Not every history needs to be ancient to have value. Histories can be recent, of only a few years and still be valid.

A recent column by Radharao Gracias in this newspaper offers a perfect example of how histories do not need to stretch back into myth or the ancient past. Intervening in the debate around the identity of Goans and the availing of the right to Portuguese citizenship, Gracias begins his discussion of the subject by referring to the Bahamani Sultanate. “Goans were the subjects of the Bahamani sultan, until the Portuguese defeated Adil Shah and replaced the Bahamanis” is the way Gracias phrases it.

I was delighted to see this framing of the debate because it seemed to meet my own views on the origin of Goa. While there are many who will read the history of our state into mythic times, the fact is Goa did not exist as a distinct nor legal entity prior to the Portuguese conquest of the city of Goa from the Bahamanis. Until the Portuguese crown gave it significance as a city state that annexed territory around it, Goa was just one more entity like the many port towns along the west coast of the peninsula. It was only after the territories around the city were ruled from this urban centre that it was possible to have a new and larger identity of Goa and consequently people called Goans. A Goan history, therefore, does not precede the conquest of the city in 1510. It was only after a combination of various factors, made possible by the assertion of the sovereignty of the Portuguese crown over the territory, the recognition of this sovereignty by local princes, and the vigorous socio-political environment that was jointly constructed by natives and colonials that Goa came into existence. This is not to say that the slate of history of the various territories that came to comprise Goa were blank before that. What I am suggesting is that a history of Goa as a distinct entity begins only from 1510. The histories of very many groups within contemporary Goa, as well as those outside of it, begin from 1510. There is no ancient history for these groups who were born subsequent to the birth of the city-state of Goa, and there is no reason for these groups to feel awkward about this apparent lack of history. The history that they do have is intense enough to provide reams of literature.

A shift in focus away from privileging a distant and mythic past allows us to shift attention to narratives that are based on rights and justice. Mythology, we must recognise, is not the realm of rights. It is only in more recent times that legal rights have been extended to all, and even today there are active impediments to ensure that these rights cannot be actively claimed. Furthermore, until recently it was only the dominant who could claim long recorded history. To privilege myth alone as the basis of history is to actively disempower persons and groups who cannot claim ancient myths of origin. Indeed, most Goans, who were born from the colonial encounter only claim histories that emerge from the colonial period.

Experience tells us that when ancient myths are recounted in the contemporary they work largely to bolster the image of, and invent a glorious history for groups that enjoy unfettered privilege. Another reason for recounting ancient myths is to dream up ancient and unsubstantiated wrongs that will be unfairly redressed in the present; but this is a different story. The contemplation of origins can be a cute exercise that may leave us feeling all warm and fuzzy, but it cannot be at the expense of compromising our commitment to the rights of marginalised groups.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo  dated 9 Jan 2015)

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