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Interview with Jason Keith Fernandes 

Jason Keith Fernandes is an anthropologist from Goa. Currently, he is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research in Anthropology at the University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in law at the National Law School of India, Bangalore, he obtained a master’s degree in the sociology of law at the IISL in Spain, and went on to achieve a doctorate in anthropology at the University Institute of Lisbon for his research on the citizenship experience of Goan Catholics.

He has also worked in the environmental and developmental sector. Fernandes has written many journal articles on issues that affect Goa and India, which have appeared in national and international publications. His writings can be accessed at www.dervishnotes.blogspot.com.

Santosh Digal of Matters India spoke to him about some current socio-cultural, political and anthropological issues.

Given your varied academic training, tell us how you would look at the current socio-cultural and political state of contemporary India.

I believe that India is passing through a moment of crisis, the tension of which has been building up for some decades now, as the dreams and promises that animated and underlay its establishment in 1947 have not been realized in these many decades. As time has passed, we can see that of the many possibilities that the nascent Indian state held, the most virulent has come to dominate – namely, India as a Hindu nation.

Given that Hinduism is based on caste, what we can see, therefore, is the systematic persecution of those who are not Hindu savarna. What sustains this project of persecution is that it is often joined by those savarna from non-Hindu religions as well – I can specifically think of Muslim dominant castes and Christian dominant castes.

But, as Dr. Ambedkar ably demonstrated years ago, this is part of a caste polity. In other words, what we have in contemporary India is a caste polity. Recollect also the political scientist Rajni Kothari’s description of the ‘Congress system’, which was the alliance built up by the leaders in the centre, with dominant castes in the varied regions within the Indian state. In other words, caste was always central to the Indian polity.

I would like to point out that I use the word polity, and not society, deliberately. This is to suggest, as I hope I will be able to elaborate later, that it is not merely a case of caste in the social structure but rather that caste has become a part of the state as well. So, both state and society – i.e. the polity – operate according to the logic of caste.

Speaking more specifically about the present, it seems to me that all too often, Prime Minister Modi is presented as the cause of the crisis. I choose to disagree with this proposition. Modi is merely a manifestation of the larger crisis that I have just discussed. In fact, I was struck by the flurry of activity organized by his government the moment he came to power: the attention to his dress, the various programs to renew the nation.

These were not novel interventions. India had seen them before, though not crammed so intensely in such a short period, during the decades of Nehru-Gandhi dominance. What the BJP was doing was recognizing India’s existential crisis and going back to established principles to reinvent the nation. If it was not Modi, it would have been someone else. Had it not been the BJP, then we would have seen another party – perhaps a faction within the Congress disposition. Indeed, let us not forget that the Congress has contributed in no small way to the establishment of Hindu nationalist rhetoric and practice within India. The BJP, no doubt, is accentuating it manifold.

What gives hope, however, is the fact that there is so much resistance to this project. The Indian caste polity is being opposed by a variety of groups that are challenging the hegemony of the dominant castes, and this also explains the widespread violence across contemporary India.

The trouble with this opposition, however, is that all too often, it gets co-opted into the language of Hindu nationalism or remains within the logic of the caste polity – i.e. the idea is merely to displace the dominant, not to change the logic of the system.

Despite rapid progress in technology and scientific achievements, the resurgence of primordial sentiments and obscurantist ideas, sectarian animosities and communal belligerence are tearing asunder our heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist social fabric.

Actually, I think that it is the presence of technology and the increased access to it that has created the rise of these tensions that you mention. We need to remember that this expansion of the market has happened not out of love for the population but to meet the needs of national and international capital. The problem, however, is that this expansion of capitalism has encountered opposition in the caste polity.

Once again, remember that a caste system rests on the fact that those lower in the hierarchy do not have access to the privileges that are restricted to a few. As such, when one is in an economy where persons from marginalized castes and communities now have access to the same goods and privileges as those from dominant communities, it is expected that members of these dominant groups who are not reconciled with an egalitarian polity will seek to suppress this access. Let us also not forget that the caste system does not operate by itself; it is able to function only because of the constant enforcement of its exclusions through violence. As such, the increased expansion of the market and access to technologies, and the assertion of these marginalized groups, is met with the violence that we are witnessing.

I would also like to point out that what we are witness to is not the resurgence of primordial sentiments. Just as caste is not something in the past but is also something that exists in the present, and in fact finds new ways of asserting dominant caste privilege, so too these so-called primordial sentiments are new ways of creating communities that can oppose the assertions of marginalized communities.

For example, today we see the attempt to actively craft a Hindu India. But we need to remember that for the longest time, until the nineteenth century, a number of groups being welcomed as Hindu today were, in fact, not seen as Hindu. This was a term reserved for dominant caste groups. So, not only do we see new groups being recognized as Hindu but the groups themselves are newly recognizing (or inventing – to use the concept introduced by E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger in their book Invented Traditions [1983]) themselves as Hindu. No, these are most certainly not primordial sentiments.

Further, I don’t think that we should automatically buy into the nationalist imagination of India’s ‘heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist social fabric’. Doing this masks the fact that heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist India was a dream – it was a promise. There was an attempt – and I stress attempt – to create a polity that would have these features and characteristics. Recollect, once again, that Dr. Ambedkar pointed out to the Constituent Assembly in 1949 that ‘On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality’. This social equality was such that, as Soumyabrata Choudhury has recently reminded us, Ambedkar suggested that what manifested in India was not the logic of a society; rather, it was the logic of gangs. There was, therefore, no Indian society. Further, it also needs to be pointed out that the idea of India itself is an invention. The idea of India was invented in the course of the nineteenth century, precisely as part of the nationalist mobilization against the British. Prior to this, there was a sub-continent called India by those who came from outside the subcontinent, but there was a great political diversity within the subcontinent. The Indian national project was an attempt to capture this heterogeneity within one polity and allow for pluralism and diversity. The past 70 years have shown us that this has not come to pass, and we now need to start thinking about the problem differently.

Political authorities at the helm of affairs and responsible for implementing the provisions of Indian Constitution have failed Babasaheb and his erudite co-framers. Their partial, non-judicious implementation of Constitutional provisions, especially those pertaining to Dalit and Tribal empowerment, have created deep-seated chasms between communities. How does one address this concern?

As I have already indicated, I believe that the best way to address this concern is to continue opposing the attempt to entrench the caste polity in India. And perhaps the single most effective way is to continuously underline the Constitutional values, as is increasingly being done.

But there is another route that we must take, still very much within the spirit of the Constitutional values, but perhaps one that has not been taken too seriously: that would be the project of federalism. Thus far, too much of the thinking within India has been contained within a national model. I believe that we need to take up Hannah Arendt’s idea and distinguish between the nation (which is an imagined community) and the state (an entity dedicated to the rule of law). De-emphasizing India as a nation and stressing its quality as a state would allow us to recognize that the only reason we are together is to work for the benefit of every group and the most marginalized person. Stressing the nation often ensures that centralization is privileged, and questions of diversity are pushed under the carpet. It is when we move out of the nationalist framework that I believe we can move out of the presumption of Hinduism as something that links all Indians and begin to seriously think of a federal relationship where each region works not only for its own best interests – i.e. of the people and communities that constitute it – but to augment the relationship with the federating partners. It is not that this federal arrangement does not already exist in the Constitution, but I don’t believe that this arrangement has effectively been supported, given the emphasis on nationalist rhetoric.

I should add that this federalist imagination needs to be carried forward right down to the lowest administrative level with the effective devolution of power to local governments. Too often, following a casteist model, the MLA is seen as a strong man (remember that violence is at the heart of caste), a little king, the dispenser of favours, rather than as someone who can effectively communicate the concerns of the constituency and contribute to the deliberations in the legislature. This impedes the emergence of a strong local government which can articulate issues of common interest. So, clearly, attacking caste, or the unabashed exercise of illegitimate violence, is important. This is all the more important because, despite the rhetoric in favour of village governance, villages are also spaces where there is the most vicious suppression of marginalized communities. Thus, I would not like to romanticize local governance, even though I argue that power must be devolved through the lower level of the body politic. Note that I do not use panchayati raj deliberately, because this term effectively romanticizes the panchayat – a vicious, casteist institution.

Despite the existence of a Constitutional Right to Religion, this right has effectively been frustrated – especially through the restrictions on the propagation of religion, the denial of reservations to Dalit Muslims and Christians. On the other hand, a number of offensive practices, such as that of untouchability, in the name of religion have been allowed to continue despite their incongruity with ‘public order and morality’ so long as they fitted into the electoral considerations of the political elite. Your comments.

A number of these problems are the result of the nationalist imagination which saw, and sees, the ideal Indian as the dominant caste, North Indian, Hindu male (see, for example, Tharu and Niranjana 1996). I have referred to Dr. Ambedkar several times already, and I would like to refer to one more incident from his life – that of the Poona Pact, which he agreed to in 1932 under duress from Gandhi. Where Dr. Ambedkar had been insisting that the Dalits have the right to a separate electorate, Gandhi feared that this move would render caste Hindus a minority and insisted, taking recourse to a fast unto death, that Dalits be included in an electorate with Hindus. This action is one of the bases of the Hindu majoritarianism that stalks India today. Wanting to preserve Hindus as a dominant community in India underlies this action, as much as the refusal to extend rights to reservation to Dalit Muslims and Christians did (and does).

Indeed, one can take the proposal of federalism that I suggested earlier even further by proposing separate electorates in India. This would not be out of place with Ambedkar’s vision. In fact, Ambedkar warned that the system of general electorates would ensure that the interests of marginalized groups would never be represented. He further suggested that even reserved constituencies, where only members of marginalized groups could stand as representatives, but be elected by all members of the electorate, would ensure that the representatives, despite being from marginalized communities, would be forced to appeal to the good will of the dominant groups. Time has proved him correct and, as you have so correctly observed, political projects now correspond to the electoral considerations of the political elites.

In your question, you have suggested that a number of offensive practices are allowed to exist, and I would add thrive, despite their incongruity with ‘public order and morality’. Continuing with my initial suggestion of India having incarnated a caste polity, I would argue that, in fact, these practices exist because they are congruous with the notion of public order and morality proper to a caste polity. In such a polity that justifies ‘graded inequality’ (another concept proposed by Dr. Ambedkar), it is seen as right and proper that some persons have rights and others not. Based on my doctoral research on Konkani language politics in Goa, I have been arguing that when the language of a brahmanical group is recognized as the official language of a state, one is effectively rooting brahmanical casteism into the heart of the polity. Thus, those who do not speak brahmanised versions of the language are automatically considered lesser citizens and reap the implications of this fact, being marginalized further and further. And this is not the case only in Goa; brahmanical languages have been recognized as official languages of most states in the Union, and brahmanical culture is often given pride of place in the official cultural offerings of the state. This only ensures that despite the lofty rhetoric of the law in the books, the law in practice is that of the caste system.

I would like to point out that this problem is not limited to the secular public. Rather, this policy is continued by the Catholic Church as well. What form of languages has the Bible been translated into? What form of languages are Masses held in? What model do projects of inculturation follow? The Church in India needs to do some serious introspection to enquire into the way in which we contribute to the creation and maintenance of these caste hegemonies and the nativism that is at the heart of the Hindu nationalist project. We, as members of the Church, cannot let national ambitions come in the way of our higher calling, which is to work towards the realization of the kingdom marked by universal fraternity.

Leaders make a mockery of democracy when they insist that the cultural norms of the majority community are to be equated to that of the entire nation. Or similarly when they allow archaic, illiberal, gendered practices to continue out of anxiety of losing the votes of a minority community, minority appeasement in other words, thereby ignoring the wishes and sentiments of sane members of all communities and playing into the hands of the most radical, regressive sections of society. Your views.

I think you are quite right when you say that a mockery is being made of democracy. It is tragic that democracy has come to be understood as the rule of the majority. This is far from a healthy or historically accurate understanding of the concept. Briefly put, modern democracy emerged in the context of a demand for representation against autocratic rulers. Another critical understanding of democracy was that it was a rule against the tyranny of the majority, and hence hinges on securing the rights of minority groups. As such, democracy is about the representation of interests and the protection of rights.

I’m also delighted that you bring up the issue of ‘minority appeasement’. I think we need to reflect on minority appeasement and ask who exactly within the so-called minority is being served through this appeasement. Those who work within the Muslim communities in India will point out that it is segments among the dominant caste Muslims who benefit from what has been called ‘minority appeasement’. I have no doubt that something similar works among Christians in India. Minority appeasement, in fact, works to the benefit of elites, who then are able to suppress questions of internal justice within the community and present themselves as leaders of the monolithically constructed community.

But there are other interesting issues in your formulation of this question, and if you will allow me, I’d like to use this question to highlight these issues.

To begin with, we need to stop using the terms ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ community. The fact is that majorities and minorities do not naturally exist; they are produced. I also pointed out earlier that the Hindu (dominant-caste) majority was actively produced by Gandhi, and this dominance has been maintained through various measures, such as the controversial Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 which prohibits Muslims and Christians who are Dalit from accessing the constitutional rights granted to Dalits. The language that we use must always attempt to demonstrate the social processes that are ongoing. As such, I prefer to always use the word ‘minoritized’ instead of ‘minority’.

Second, we need to be more cautious in the way we use the word ‘liberal’, or its opposite, ‘illiberal’. Whereas liberal has come to mean open and allowing for a variety of lifestyles, in fact, liberalism has been at the root of much of modern violence. By liberalism, I mean the product of the revolutionary ferment of late eighteenth century Europe which stresses the independence of the individual and the creation of such binaries as the public and private, secular and sacred. These claims were not selfless political ideals but were aimed at suppressing, or destroying, existing social institutions that claimed the allegiance of the population. Historically speaking, liberal secular nationalism has engaged in warfare with these other institutions. Take the early history of liberalism in Europe or the United States, for example, where the Catholic Church, which presented a holistic worldview was attacked, often brutally (Hamburger 2002). Liberal nationalism can also be credited with creating internal enemies of the state. In Europe, after the Catholic Church, it was the Jews, and more recently, Muslims (Joskowicz 2013). There is, therefore, something deeply illiberal about liberalism itself. It is not a perfect system and is, in fact, at the root of much modern violence.

More than ever before, we need to cling to the magnificent ideas of secularism, equality, justice, fraternity and social democracy embedded in our Constitution, all of which can coalesce into making India a country which values religion but doesn’t propagate infallibility of religion, which progressively treats religion as a matter of private faith rather than public posturing, which is free from exploitation and discrimination, which prioritises rationality and social harmony. Your comments.

I’d say that I am in general agreement with you, when you speak of supporting the constitutional ideas of secularism, equality, justice, fraternity and social democracy. But I would hesitate with the latter part of your suggestion, which seems like a classic liberal formulation. The problem in India is not that faith is coming into the public arena. The problem is that only one faith – the Hindu faith – is being imposed on the arena, and other faiths are being suppressed. Indeed, one could argue that it is not even Hindu faiths (since there is really no single Hinduism, but many Hinduisms) that are being allowed space in the public domain. Rather, we are witness to the instrumental utilization of a Hindu identity for the purpose of capturing the state. And this is not restricted to Hindus in India; this is being done by some Muslims and Christians even, who, rather than submitting to the obligations of their faith tradition, instead mobilize it primarily as a political identity. I think that this is where the problem lies.
We are used to Hindu nationalists of all shades suggesting that Hindusim is not a religion but a way of life. But the same could be claimed by members of any faith tradition! Islam and Christianity don’t have prescriptions only for the private sphere; they instruct us on how we should live each and every aspect of our lives.

This idea that the public presence of faith creates a problem for the life of the polity is a peculiarly liberal idea and is ahistorical. When one religion is imposed on others, there is clearly a problem, but historically, there have been several societies where multiple faith traditions have lived side by side and interacted with each other – even learned from each other! This is not to suggest that they were equal, and that one was not privileged over the others. But this did not necessarily lead to persecution or public violence. Liberalism proffers this idea of intolerant religions largely because it seeks to dominate the public sphere with no challenge from any other ideology (or theology).

What makes this whole scenario slightly more perverse is that given that liberal nation-states are actually trying to forge a single community, creating minoritized groups in the process, they invariably latch on to a religious identity to structure the community. In the process, just as in India – but one can also look at Talal Asad’s work on the operation of secularism in France for another example – they define, or more appropriately re-define, the faith practice and convert it to an identitarian framework (Asad 2006). As I have tried to point out in the course of our discussion, the problem of Hindutva in India is not disconnected from the current nature of the Indian state.

One final question. What, in your opinion, could be the role of the Catholic Church in dealing with the crisis in India?

I believe that the Catholic Church needs to recognize that saving the nation is not its mission. Its mission is a universal one that goes above and below the nation. All too often, the projects of the Catholic Church, meant to be witness to Christ, participate in nation building. Our institutions – i.e. schools, colleges, hospitals – have become little cogs in the vast machine of governance. It would not be wrong to say that the dignity of the individual is often undermined in our institutions. I believe that individually, and institutionally, we need to re-examine the extent to which we participate in this nationalist project and then turn away from it. Indeed, I think that the individual acting in concert with a larger group is where the change should begin. Remember that the Church is not just the hierarchy; it includes all of us.

The opening verse for Ash Wednesday from the Prophet Joel (2:12–13) offers us a clue as to our options: ‘“Yet even now”, says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments”.’ What would returning to Him mean? It means recognizing that we are contaminated by our participation in the Indian nationalist project, which privileges the logic of caste so disrespectful of human dignity. Note that I am not making a liberal distinction between politics and religion. Rather, setting ourselves on a track against nationalist politics and turning towards actions that respect the dignity of the individual would support a project that builds a strong state based on the rule of law – so lacking today. And finally, our goal ought to be not social justice but the self-emptying love that embraces the apparent foolishness of the cross. Such a project is best begun at the individual level, such that it builds up and eventually makes the tasks of the hierarchy, who are today faced with making difficult decisions of safeguarding the flock, easier.

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