Tuesday, 28 May 2013

COLONIALISM AND OTHER CROSSES


·         “I call for a theological appropriation of the history of Goa.” (p.73)

The history of conversion is the alter ego of the history of Christianity in India despite Christianity predating Portuguese and British colonialism. Any reflection on the position of Christians and Christianity in India always has to depend on historical knowledge and narratives. Being a Goan Christian by Fr. (Dr.) Victor Ferrao is one such philosophico-theological reflection on the position of Christians in contemporary Goan society.
            Drawing on his intense engagement in philosophy and theology, Ferrao tries to understand the history and the historical processes as also the various kinds of discourses surrounding Portuguese colonialism, different forms of resistance to colonialism and its effects on the Goan Christian of today. What follow in the book is a thought-provoking analysis as well as a plan for the future – for the Christians to assert their rights and fight the marginalized, subaltern position imposed on them.
            Having established that ‘difference’ is fundamental to human existence, Ferrao asserts that “a Goan Christian does not have to account for being ‘other’” and s/he can create his/her own self through Christian values and ethics. Why is there a need to assert this ‘otherness’ and call for the creation of a new Christian self? The answer lies in the conversion to Christianity and the colonial experience. The dominant Hindu discourse (the ‘other view’) understands the colonial experience in terms of ‘ritual pollution’ and the converted Christians as polluted. The ‘purity/pollution’ principle, argues Ferrao, forms the basis of ‘othering’ the Goan Christian and as a consequence is used to disenfranchise them. This is a very important insight as we can now better understand why allegations such as “anti-nationals” and “agents of the Portuguese” are hurled at the Catholics in contemporary times.
            The above point is further buttressed by arguing that colonization resulted in the loss of the ‘self’ (or identity) for the Hindus and Christians. The Goan elites during the Portuguese rule identified with the colonizer as a way to recover this ‘self’. In post-Liberated Goa, this recovery of ‘self’ happened with the dominant community identifying and integrating with a Hindu culture of mainland India. This project now saw the Catholic as de-nationalized whereas the Hindu was not burdened as such.
            Ferrao argues that the Christian “ethics of integration and love” are contrary to the notion of ‘purity and pollution’ and thus, a suitable response will be to understand such a notion and “construct[…] ‘ethics of compassion’.” But I suspect this is easier said than done as the Goan Church and Church hierarchy is ridden with caste prejudices which are not taken into account. Also, these ethics of compassion invites the Christians of today “to understand the pain of our Hindu brethren.” Fair enough. But we also need to recognize that colonial and post-colonial experiences have also hurt and pained the Christian in many ways and that, as new research in history demonstrates, most of those who experienced this “pain” five centuries ago saw conversion to Catholicism as a promising alternative to gain higher ritual status and land.
              The writing of history from a brahmanical position and the narratives that it has produced (such as that of Parashuram) indulges in “overwriting and underwriting” of the history of Christianity in Goa. Such a history tries to compress a long period of time into a nebulous entity making possible the identification of the Christians of today “with the colonizers of the pasts.” The burden and onus of making things right is entirely on the Christians, according to such a discourse. Ferrao identifies this tendency but also believes that it is the Christian who has to do all the work. There is a problem here as Ferrao tacitly accepts the ‘victimization-of-Hindus’ theory that conceptualizes the Hindu as infallible.

            The chief concern of this book is an inter-faith dialogue between Catholics and Hindus. One gets a sense that the categories are monolithic in conception whereas the actual segmented nature (past and present) has been glossed over. Thus, an issue like caste (which shapes our social life in more ways than one) occupies little space. Although the author recognizes (in a footnote) that Hinduism as we know it today might have taken birth in British colonialism, the native pre-Portuguese population is still ‘Hindu’ for the author. Goa’s Islamic past and the “pain” of Muslims due to colonialism is sadly missing and which needs to be integrated in future projects.
            It must be said that this book is dense but one which is a must read. This short study is not enough. A deeper and elaborate reflection would surely alleviate the burdens and crosses ‘we’ have to bear.

Being a Goan Christian: The Politics of Identity, Rift and Synthesis by Victor Ferrao (Panjim, Goa: Broadway Publishing House), 2011; pp. xv+120, Rs. 195/- [ISBN: 97893808373552]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: May 29, 2013).

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