Citizenship in a Caste Polity

The celebration of World Konkani day on the 9th of April references the death of Vaman Varde Valaulikar who is hailed by Konkani literary activists by his pen name, Shenoi Goembab, and as the father of Konkani pride, and Konkani language activism. These celebrations of Valaulikar and the Konkani language mask the fact that while Valaulikar’s language activism was received, especially in latter times, by a secular audience – i.e. one constituted by multiple religious and caste groups – the original context of his activism was that of securing the interests of the newly formed caste group – the Gaud Saraswats – to which he belonged. Konkani was painstakingly marked out as a marker of their brahmin identity, and in the context of the early twentieth century, was also imagined as the basis for a homeland that the Konkani-speaking brahmins could lead. It is only through understanding Varde Valaulikar’s occluded caste history that one is able to appreciate the way in which Konkani linguistic politics play out, not just in Goa, which is the focus of Citizenship in a Caste PolityReligion, Language and Belonging in Goa, but in other parts of the western coast of India, namely Kerala, and coastal Karnataka.

Excerpt from the book:

Exploring the significance of Shenoi Goembab, the pen name which the young Valaulikar chose, provides an insight into the context within which his work emerged. In her commentary on his life, Budkuley points out that one of the reasons for Valaulikar using Shenoi in his penname was to ‘herald to the world proudly the glory contained in the word “Shenoi”, which was often misconstrued or misinterpreted by petty individuals for short-sighted motives’ (emphasis mine). What is being referenced here is Valualikars’s investment in the battle to gain respect for his caste in the face of dismissal by other Brahmin castes in the city of Bombay. A less hagiographic description of the text in which Valaulikar exhumes the honour of the term Shenoi points out that ‘the essay titled “Shennai”, which forms the main part of his collection of essays in Marathi, deals with the different brahmin sub-castes in Maharashtra and Konkan, in order to prove the superiority of the GSBs among all.’ In the course of proving his caste’s superiority, Valaulikar is reported to have played on the Dravida–Gaud distinction. The Saraswats, he argued, were Gaud, and hence Aryan, whereas the Chitpavan and Karhada, and Dravida, that is, Dravidian. Drawing on Aryan supremacist ideologies, his assertion was that the Chitpavan and Karadha Brahmins were for reason of their racial origins not quite up to scratch against the Aryan Saraswats. Consequently, it becomes obvious that Valaulikar’s adoption of the term Shenoi as a nom de plume, and his fight for its respect, was not disconnected from the affirmation of caste superiority.

Similarly, the second part of his name was connected with a slight he received on his migration to Bombay from Goa. Goembab seems to have been the manner in which the established ‘Saraswat’ families in Bombay referred to the lower-class Brahmin migrants to the city from Goa. Once again, establishing coeval status with the ‘Saraswats’ in Bombay appears to have been central to his life’s project.

One of the many works he penned under this pen name was the poem, Goenkaaracho Mumbaikaar (The Goan Resident in Bombay), in 1910. In a tract, Shenoi Goembab: The Man who Resurrected Konkani, Kiran Budkuley writes, ‘It lampoons the presence, the hypocrisy and the ultimate misery of a man who pawns his self-respect and identity for petty pelf and false sense of borrowed grandeur, only to be disillusioned and chastened at the end.’ The poem is clearly mocking the Marathi-speaking ‘Saraswats’ of Bombay who refused to accept a Konkani identity. What is noteworthy is that in this process, Valaulikar, his biographers and commentators managed to normalise the idea of a single GSB caste not marked by internal hierarchies or distinctions. Second, in keeping with the racist and nationalist frameworks of the nineteenth-century epistemologies, he constructed Goa as the original homeland of this Konkani caste. Finally he asserted in no uncertain terms that it was Konkani alone that was the language of the Saraswat caste (and by extension of all Goans), and that the use of Marathi was the result of misplaced sensibilities. Narayan B. Desai points out that Valaulikar simultaneously constructed Marathi as the language of the Chitpavans and Karhadas, the two major Brahmin jatis in Maharashtra, against whom the ‘Saraswats’ were pitted. These early assertions of monolingualism and linguistic identity would nevertheless require more time before this suggestion could be matter-of-factly asserted, as is today the case.

There is another episode that demonstrates the manner in which Valaulikar’s work was part of a larger caste battle aimed at securing a space for his caste-group in late-colonial modernity. This episode was that of a school teacher in Bombay who ‘slighted a particular community in class, making irresponsible and disparaging comments about the people concerned’ (emphasis mine). What is relevant to the recounting of this incident is that subsequent to these comments, the young Valaulikar penned an essay, managed to get it published, and posted a copy of the publication to the teacher. By erasing all references to the castes involved, or the context of this comments and Valaulikar’s response, his biographers have been able to use this episode to demonstrate his strength of character and dedication to the cause of truth. While these character traits may have been present, what is critical to this discussion is that it also indicates that the young Valaulikar was sufficiently aware of, and invested in, the caste battles that animated the literate segments of the denizens of Bombay.

The fact that Valaulikar’s work was motivated by the caste battles that were being fought simultaneously both ‘within’ the ‘Saraswat’ caste and against other Brahmin castes is obvious by a close reading of the texts he produced. A review of the work of his biographers and commentators does not provide any clue as to the audience he was largely addressing. Indeed, if one relies on these works, then one is led to believe that the audience he was addressing was a secular ‘civil society’. This audience was indeed ‘secular’ because it transcended a single religious community by eventually incorporating Catholics from the ‘upper castes’. This was done by drawing on popular preoccupations with Aryan heritage and Brahmanical roots, and a space for the Goan in diverse public space, both in Portuguese, and British India. It meets the requirements of ‘civil society’ in that this rhetoric was addressed to a larger audience in the public sphere. But this does not reveal the dominant constituents of this ‘civil society’.

If one reads Valaulikar’s works closely, scanning his logics for clues to the groups they would appeal to, one realises that the ‘civil society’ he was addressing was essentially a Hindu, and especially, a Brahmin audience, in particular, the members of the Saraswat caste whose unification cause he was essentially furthering. This discussion is critical because it is this largely occluded caste context of Valaulikar’s work that sets the stage for the conflicts that would mark the political history of the Konkani language, and the delineation of post-colonial Goa’s civil society.

A good part of Valaulikar’s writings that are translated into English were delivered in the context of a specific associational setting. He was involved with the establishment of, and subsequently the running of, the Goa Hindu Association, a cultural association for the Goan ‘Hindus’ of Bombay, akin to those available to the Goan Catholics. The most substantial of his works, Goenkaranchi Goianbhaili Vosnook (Goan Migrants Outside Goa), was originally a lecture delivered to a ‘public’ audience hosted by the Goa Hindu Association and the Saraswat Brahman Samaj. The aim of this lecture series was to boost Saraswat pride and to create a history for this group fighting for place in the public spaces of the Bombay Presidency. Referring to the debate that was on-going among Hindu Brahmins in Goa at the time, as to whether one should avail of the opportunities for a job in the government services, Valaulikar urged pragmatism:

You can insult the job and say that it is not worth doing but even then it does not change the job or its content. If we Hindu Goans kick aside government jobs, then our Christian brothers will hold them in high esteem; even if they kick these jobs aside, we will have the Parsis from Mumbai or the Iyer-Iyengars from Madras come and take up these jobs …. We will then not have the opportunity to get these jobs.

Like other reformists, Valualikar extols the Brahmin community when they shed traditional prejudices and taboos to participate in the opportunities being opened by colonial modernity. More specifically, he encourages the younger generation of the Saraswat to follow their noble learned ancestors and challenge the idea that the Saraswat was backward in education. The setting of modernity that Valaulikar established then involved the rejection of traditional interdictions of a provincial community, an encouragement of entering into ‘modern’ professions, especially those within government service, and a stressing of the Aryan heritage.

From the discussion above, it appears that one of the primary motivations of Valaulikar’s work was the promotion of the cause of Saraswat unification. In the course of this effort, following on the labours of other caste activists, he identified Konkani as a significant symbolic marker. As was the case with other upper-caste activists in colonial British India, this caste mobilisation was not uninformed by nationalist ambitions, and already in the 1920s, Valaulikar seems to have also envisaged a time when Goa would be a part of free India. Still, he refused to directly address this nationalist cause and was more focused on the issue of language as a caste issue. His argument in response to the question as to why he did not engage in the nationalist struggle, appropriately enough, was that ‘even in linguistic issues there is a lot of politics’ (emphasis mine).

In the mid-1980s, Goa witnessed mass demonstrations, violent protests and political mobilising, following which Konkani was declared the official language of the Goan territory. However, Konkani was recognised only in the Devanagari script, one of two scripts used for the language in Goa, the other being the Roman script. Set against this historical background, Citizenship in a Caste Polity studies the contestations around the demand that the Roman script also be officially recognised and given equal status.

Excerpted with permission by Orient Blackswan from Citizenship in a Caste Polity: Religion, Language and Belonging in Goa by Anthropologist, researcher and NIF Fellow Jason Keith Fernandes. The book is available on Amazon.

Write a comment ...