Caste, an old story that mostly never gets told

By Kalanand Mani and Frederick Noronha

In power earlier this decade, Goa's BJP government ran into an unexpected issue. They needed speedy irefighting to solve a vex atious caste problem that broke out, of all places, in a crema torium.

'Upper' and intermediate caste Hindus from Verla-Canca, Bardez objected to 'lower' scheduled-castes being cremated in a common area. To complicate matters, local authorities initially seemed to initially support this stance by offering to build 'another crematorium' for the Dalits. The latter mainly comprised of the basket-weaving Mahar community, who have a lowly place in the caste hierarchy.

Earlier, 'upper' castes questioned the Dalits plan to cremate their dead in a crematorium they said they had been built, but with part State funding. 'Upper' castes argued that the Dalits earlier would bury their dead for generations, not cremate them. In reply, the Dalits said that earlier they were simply too poor
to afford fire-wood to cremate their dead. But now they could afford it.

Discrimination even after death?

''One Dalit was cremated on August 15 (2001). In the second case, on September 11, there was strong opposition to another attempt to cremate a Dalit at Verla-Canca,'' social activist and writer Dadu Mandrekar said. Some years earlier Mandrekar was in the news for facing threats from the Shiv Sena, who didn't like the tone and tenor of his Dalit campaigns on social rights.

Former leaders of students organisations in Goa -- some involved then in launching a Goa People's Front -- called on influential local Hindu religious leaders. People's Front convenor advocate Satish Sonak later quoted religious leaders as criticizing ''caste discrimination'' in the Verla-Canca crematorium as ''most
disgraceful acts'' which had no basis in Dharmashastra.

Some 25 activists -- many ex-student leaders of the 'seventies generation in Goa -- called on religious leaders to impress on their disciples the need for equality and humanity. Ex-judge Dharmadhikari also visited the village. After coming under the media glare, a truce was called. Villagers pledged to stand
united against discrimination, as the media reported.

* * *
Dalits, at the extreme lower end of the caste ladder, have occasionally made it to the headlines for the discrimination they face. But others like the aboriginal communities of Goa -- Gavdas, Kunbi, Velips and Dhangars -- might simply not get the focus.

One mystery is even how these communities had to wait look, till around 2004, for them to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list.

In December 2001, the Lok Sabha Secretariat Committee on Petitions noted that these four communities ''have been categorised as tribes by sociologists and historians from time immemorial.'' It argued that even during the long tenure of Portuguese rule, the Gavda, Kunbi, Velip and Dhangar communities were treated as tribes. Noted the panel: ''Certain communities from Daman and Diu have been notified as Scheduled Tribes in relation to Goa whereas local ethnic communities of Goa have been
left out.''[]

Writes Anita Haladi: ''Though the Gavde may have originally been the owners of land, the development of formal ownership patterns led to the ownership rights ultimately being transferred to the upper caste landlords or 'bhatkar' as they are known in Goa, which resulted in the deprivation of natural ownership rights of the Gavde.''['Unchanged plight of the original Goans' (in The Transforming of Goa, Norman
Dantas, ed)]

Editor of the book, the late journalist Norman Dantas commented, ''The Gavda alienation from the land, according to some sources, was primarily caused by the formation of gaonkari, the village communities formed by higher castes who came to Goa after the original settlers and staked land ownership rights to the virtual exclusion of the lower 'conquered' castes. Individual 'bhatkar' ownership is believed to have come later.''

By some coincidence -- you could also interpret it as a play of power -- Goa has sited a number of its 'development' projects in land predominantly occupied by its subaltern communities.

Government has acquired large tracts of land -- where paddy was cultivated by the community -- in Verna and Quelossim. Similar was the case when it came to constructing the National Institute of Oceanography at Dona Paula, to construct the Goa Medical College and Goa University at Bambolim, or to construct the Ciba Geigy plant in Corlim or to construct roads in Miramar, argues Haladi.

Projects keep getting sited along the hilly areas where these communities have traditionally been pushed to. Then, land is taken from the poor and handed liberally over to other 'developmental' projects which often have no meaning for them.

For instance, the Goa University has been quick to parcel out the land it had taken over to a range of parties – a Convention Centre and an IT Park, and even a long-delayed TERI project.

[In October 2005, the GU Executive Council handed over 50 acres of land to the Goa government for a convention centre and IT Park, arguing this would be ''beneficial to the University''. By June 2006, the government okayed 20.2 hactares land for Convention Centre and IT Special Economic Zone. In September 2006, the government alloted 8.4 hactares for this purpose to the Finance Department and the Info Tech Corporation Ltd. Then, considering public opinion, in Nov 2006, the Executive Council revoked its earlier decision.

Goa University also leased out some 4000 square metres to Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), for constructing a research centre; 2500 square metres for a telephone exchange and staff quarters; and 3500 square metres to Government of India's Electronic Testing and Development Centre (ETDC) for
its laboratory, office building and quarters, at a nominal lease rent of one rupee per annum for a period of 99 years, without obtaining the required approval of the State Government.

While land of the poor is snatched under the draconian, and colonial, Land Acquisition Act, what is this used for? A university guest house had very low occupancy rates of 11 to 43 per cent, while also suffering from large staff overheads.]

* * *
Deprived caste groups form a significant chunk of Goa's population. Not just Hindu society, but Christians too follow a hierarchical caste-system of their own. Goa is often seen as a place which is modern and liberal. Yet, time has stood still in parts of rural Goa when it comes to caste. This is not to suggest that caste divisions are absent in urban parts of the State.

It's almost as if there are parallel worlds in Goa. One world belongs to economically-affluent Saraswats and a handful of other dominant castes. Another belongs to the middle castes. The third division is about the bahujan samaj.

[The term 'bahujan samaj' has meant a ''community of the majority'' in Maharashtra. In Goa, after 1961, it referred to the non-elite sections of the Hindu society, or specifically the non-Saraswat Brahmin Hindu, the latter being seen as being priviledged during part of the colonial rule too. It was sometimes used as a catch-all term, including a wide range of intermediary and 'lower' castes, though, depending
on by whom it is used, the term also has connotations of referring to the under-priviledged and deprived.]

In today's Goa, the bahujan samaj is a victim of caste-based division too. They lack the resources to enrich their lives. They have grown up in a context of social ignorance and social untouchability, and so one can find a lot of anger among the young generation of the bahujan samaj. At another level, they have been used as a political reservoir after one-man-one-vote majoritarian politics were introduced after the end of Portuguese colonial rule.

There is, incidentally, a Portuguese connection in the term caste itself, and its perception by the rest of the world. Why and how did Europeans start to use the term 'caste'?

Author Susan Bayly ['Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age'] attempts an answer: ''The word's origins are usually said to be Iberian. In the sixteenth century, the term 'casta' (apparently derived from the Latin 'castus', chaste) was used in Portuguese and Spanish to mean species or breed in both botany and animal husbandry; it seems though to correspond to the English word cast or caste which had the same meaning and apparently predates the British connection with India.''

''Casta came to be used in the Iberian New World colonies to refer to Amerindian clans and lineages. Since its botanical and zoological uses involved the concept of pure or true strains and breeds, in the Americas it also came to be applied by bloodline-conscious Iberian settlers to people of mixed white and non-white descent.

''In India, 'casta' was used by early European travellers as an ambiguous term for community, blood-line or birth-group. It appears in sixteenth-century Portuguese sources both as a term for religious denomination, that is the difference between 'Moor' (Muslim) and Hindu (or 'Gentoo'), as well as what we would now understand as jati and varna.''

By the mid-sixteenth century, says Bayly, the Dutch and English writing on India had adopted these usages from the Portuguese. They employed them with equal ambiguity and in conjunction with other imprecise terms. Including race, class, nation, sect and tribe. ''In the maritime trading ports, early travellers and officials met forms of social organisation which were apparently much influenced by Brahmanical conventions,'' she writes.

* * *

Back to today's Goa: the population of the bahujan samaj has been used by various political parties.

After 1961, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party positioned itself as the party of the bahujan in Goa, working against Brahmin domination. It is somewhat ironical to see the same party, in 2008, represented in the assembly by two Brahmins.

One could say the bahujan samaj got a sense of self-esteem under the wealthy mine-owner who became Goa's first chief minister, Dayanand Bandodkar. This confidence allowed them to stand firm independent of the support of the Brahmanical order, on which their forefathers had survived for generations.

But over time they also became a political tool, whose emotions could be exploited easily. A section which could be rallied to express anger against the Brahmanical-destined order, without drastically changing the ground reality or thinking of improving the long-term prospects of their own society.

Clouds of distrust exist, even today, in rural society between diverse castes. Organisations working in the field often find it difficult to mobilise support in a way that goes beyond caste.

Till now, the bahujan samaj of Goa lacks enough access to quality education. It is not able to cope with the current mode of education. What hits him (or her) is the language policy, the change of syllabus from time to time, and due to the ascendence of new technology which makes education more of a capital-intensive activity that further excludes.

Resultantly, they grow up with an inferiority complex; just as some do with a superiority complex. They often lack abilities to communicate properly, are not able to understand their political exploitation, and also sometimes come across as unable to build positive change for themselves.

Goa's bahujan samaj also faces pressures from the depletion of the resources they sharply depend on, for survival. Accessing land for housing, improving agriculture, getting access to safe drinking water... all these challenges they find tough to face.

They now feel lost in the fast-changing world of politics. After the 1990s, the prominence once given to bahujan politics came to an end.

Over the past couple of years, when Pandurang Madkaikar lost his ministership, and so did Dayanand Narvekar, talk quickly went around about the attempt to also cut to size Ravi Naik. All are seen as politicians from the bahujan samaj. Groups who see them selves as being part of the wider bahujan samaj umbrella felt a sense of being marginalised as a political front. It would not be wrong to say they continue to be politically exploited by upper caste interests.

There is also the issue of the gender gap. Women in this strata of Goan society have a status different from that of their menfolk. Many are victim of the alcohol consumption by their menfolk, facing suppression, often ignored or unnoticed by the rest of society.

* * *
Another issue facing the bahujan samaj is the acute housing crisis. While Goa sees an unprecedented real estate speculative boom, the housing needs of this segment – along with less-affluent others -- are still overwhelmingly unmet. Areas where the bahujan samaj is concentrated tends to be less hygienically built or environmentally sound. Making for a 'slum Goa' within so-called 'rich Goa'.

All these trends and changes are going by largely unnoticed. At the same time, social activists tend to focus on concerns that come from the middle-classes -- the environment and the skyline, preserving Goa's scenic aspects of Goa, and such. Issues affecting the socially deprived, the poor, women,
migrants and other weaker sections unfortunately don't get much currency in today's Goa.

Try raising such issues, and the response is usually silence. It might not be wrong to say that the bahujan samaj has thrown up no effective leadership since the 1980s, in terms of those who can feel the pain and concern of these issues. Political leaders meanwhile take care to ensnare votes. No leaders from the bahujan samaj itself have a vision, or seem to to understand the long-term needs of these very communities, and the other poor in Goan society. To argue that the bahujan samaj is influential, just because its relatively larger numbers can carry weight in an electoral democracy, is misleading.

Some of the bahujan samaj's victories have been hollow. Take policies like the Mundkar Act (meant to protect home-stead tenants, many of whom come from the bahujan samaj, due to the class-caste connect). It offers protection against eviction of tenants. But it also creates a lot of limitations for the

For the landlord, specially those who remain politically well-connected, a new form of security comes in. The landholder, specially the larger one, knows exactly how much land he would lose, and doesn't fear further erosion of his landholdings, in a Goa which still lacks land-ceiling laws. (Note the irony of the situation: Congress gave the task of framing land-ceiling proposals to legislators who were among the biggest landlords in the state!)

Besides, the tenants lost access they had earlier to seeking land from the now overly-cautious 'bhadkars' or landlords. Now, the government has to be depend on increasingly for land too. In effect, tenants end up getting land neither from the bhadkars nor from the government under the Mundkar Act.

Researcher and academic Anita Haladi suggests the much-praised Tenancy Act ''has done more harm than good'' to the Gavda population in other ways too. Landlords were earlier responsible for the maintenance of farms. That responsibility, of maintenance and upkeep, has shifted from landlord to the Gavda tenant.

''The Tenancy Act saw the Gavde individually asserting tenancy rights, which led to the gradual disappearance of collective cultivation. Now, each individual tenant has to hire labour to cultivate his farm. They cannot afford the maintenance costs and, consequently, a majority of their farms have become infertile. All this has made agriculture uneconomical for the Gavde and they are being forced to live at subsistence level due to lack of other well-paying employment opportunities,'' she comments.

Giving the poor land is not enough. There's a need to develop their agriculture, to help find sale for their agri-produce. Now, the bahujan samaj has ended up cultivating a small piece of land. The landlord, with his vast stretches, can store his produce. The tenant of yesterday has become the 'deemed owner' of his tiny strip; but the irony is he cannot take advantage of that change. He finds agriculture making huge
losses, and is only too willing to sell his land for housing and real-estate speculation, in the hope of getting some access to quick cash.

The poor in Goa are getting quickly deprived of their land and forests; and at the same time, they don't have access and skills to make use of the new opportunities that might have come their way.

* * *

GOA, A MELTING-POT: Goa is a virtual melting-pot, with people coming in from various streams and ethnic stocks at different points of time of the long and varied history of this small region, says a book touching on the subject.

"The coastal society of Goa was more elastic and less rigid than that of the Deccan. The Brahmins of the Deccan Plateau looked down on the people of the coastal areas," says a book by Dr. V.R.Mitragotri, titled the Socio Cultural History of Goa: From Bhojas to Vijayanagar.

In its study on Goan society, the book highlights the various communities that make up the patchwork quilt that is currently Goa.

Early settlers include the Gavdas, inhabitants of Ponda or Antruz and Tiswadi. They may have migrated from north-eastern India around the fourth century before current era. They belong to proto-Australoid stock.

Velips, found only in Canacona and Quepem, are other early settlers. Kumar Paiks or Kumar Panths were hunters and soldiers in the early period. Many were recruited as soldiers in the Vijayanagara army, and tradition has it that they belonged to Gulbarga of Karnataka.

Cobblers (chamars) and Maharas, despite what their current lowly status might suggest, were actually very much part of ancient and medieval society in Goa.

Mitragotri says that the Brahmins of Goa -- with priestly functions traditionally -- are subdivided into Saraswats, Karhades, Padhye Brahmins, Bhatt Prabhus and Kramavant Joshis.

The Saraswats are known as Bamans while some of the other groups are referred to as Bhats. Chitpavans are found only in Sattari taluka, says the writer.

In Goa, the Garauvas are also a small community, based in Pernem, Salcete, Bardez, Tiswadi, Ponda, Sanguem and Canacona. References to them are found in inscriptions from the beginning of the 9th century in Kannada-speaking region.

"There are Gurav priests in the temples of Chandreshwar-Bhutnath, Mahalsa and Saptakoteshwar in Goa. Commonly Guravas were the priests in the shrines of the grama-devatas (village deities) scattered all over Goa," says the book.

Artisans such as gold-smiths, black-smiths, carpenters, sculptors working on stone and copper-smiths were called Panchala Brahmins. Belief has it that these Panchalas (along with the Saraswats) were brought in by the sage Parasurama around 2500 years before the current era to assist the priests in performing sacrifices.

Unlike in some other regions of India, in Goa the occupations of carpentry and black-smiths were combined. Being hereditary professions, usually one member of the family got engaged in carpentry and the other looked after smithy.

"Goa being a thickly forested region, there was no dearth of wood. The carpenters of Goa were expert in wood carving. They carved wooden pillars of the temples and decorative wood ceilings of temples," adds the author.

Mitragotri writes that that there is a concentration of carpenters in the villages of Moira in Bardez, Cuncolim, and Paiguinim of Canacona taluka. During the Inquisition, carpenters from the Old Conquests shifted to Sirsi, Honnavar and Bhatkal of nearby Karnataka, taking their skills there.

Kasars are the traditional copper-smiths, who once made bangles in copper but perhaps shifted over to glass bangles during the Bahamani period when these became popular. Village Kasarpal of Bicholim is believed to be named after them.

Kshatriya families, of the traditional warrior-class, show evidence of migrating from north-western India to the Deccan early in the current era. Vanis, or the local traders class, and merchants could have been engaged in trade and commerce in Goa as early as around the fifth century.

Kunbis are found in Sattari and Sanguem talukas. There is also some population in Tiswadi, Salcete, Bardez and Mormugao. Marriage among Kunbi families having the same totems are forbidden.

Toddy-tappers in Goa were called Naik Bhandari, who were also navigators and farmers. Fishermen have been called gabit and boatmen known as kharvi. Gavdas working on saltpans have been called mitha-gavdas.

There were also profession-based castes like barbers, washermen (madival), oil-extractors, tailors, potters and cobblers. Such professionals were paid a fixed quantity from the paddy crop during the harvest season, from comunidade land.

Saraswats have a larger population than any of the other Brahmin communities. Ancient Indian text, the Sahyadrikhand suggests that the original home of the Saraswats is Tirhut -- in today's north Bihar.

"Even after settling down in Goa, they had retained in their memory that they had migrated from elsewhere," says Mitragotri. But he points that there is "no agreement" among scholars about the original home of the Saraswats.

Mitragotri points to rivalry both within a caste and between different castes along Goa's long history.

"Many Saraswats left Goa after the invasion of Malik Kafur and fled to the neighbouring regions and, during the period of the religious persecution of the Portuguese also, the Saraswats migrated to Uttar Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and the North Konkani," he says.

Others also left Goa. Some Muslims from Goa might have migrated to Bhatkal and Honavar, and the Navayats of Bhatkal are descendants fo the Muslim community that once lived in Goa.

In addition the writer points to "conflict" between Saraswats and the Karhades, between gold-smiths and Vanis (Vaishyas) of Khandepar in Ponda taluka in past centuries.

Even Catholics have adapted the traditional caste system to fit their society in some ways, though not all of the categories mentioned above are found among the Catholics in this state.

* * *

Caste has other connotations too. Even Catholic Goans are affected by it.

''It has been going on for sometime, but since the past few years one hears a number of Catholic Brahmins stand up to proclaim their Saraswat status. To be proud that they were (are?) Brahmin we can argue is as old as the sun, but to see themselves as Saraswat is a relatively new phenomenon,'' argues lawyer and columnist Jason Keith Fernandes, in his recent writing.

He charges: ''It may not be openly acknowledged, but these two upper caste groups have time and again collaborated to ensure that the status-quo is maintained, the easiest example being the manner in which the Konkani agitation was managed. Upper caste Catholic and Saraswat combine to create the
(Konkani) terms for their dominance.''

Fernandes contents that the assertion of an upper-caste identity by non-Hindu groups ''works only to ensure a management of communal tension, as these groups work hand-in-hand to keep the lower castes in check, until they realize that the communal situation has blown up in their collective faces!'' He points out that Goa continues to see unprovoked attacks on Muslims, ''because the upper-caste Catholic, who is in control of Church and community has internalized Hindu 'nationalist' logic about the Muslim.''

Not that caste identities among Catholics are new here. Bangalore-based Rochelle Pinto has written on the subject ['A Time To Publish', the Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, February 26, 2005]. She says that, increasingly, in the early decades of the 20th century, the ''monopolies and usurpation of and rights by nadkarnis, kulkarnis, and other dominant castes began to be challenged across villages in Goa.''

As Pinto points out, in the Old Conquests of Goa, the territories conquered from 1510 on, the institution of the 'communidade', -- which administered village land through councils whose membership was hereditary, male, and usually upper caste -- was particularly strong. Talking of the colonial context then, she says, rising literacy levels among sudras had, however resulted in their ''growing visibility among groups of litigants in Goa.'' Salaried employment outside Goa had enabled Catholic sudras to use the print medium to supplement litigation for land-rights.

As one looks back, and to current-day Goa, the fact remains that caste disparity and discrimination remains a serious issue, essential to comprehend if one wants to understand poverty and under-development here and now.


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