A man died an untimely death in our village. There was an outpouring of grief. Many paid their tributes. This may not seem very unusual, because there is considerable sadness and regret when anyone dies too early. We are left to cope with that feeling of what would his (or her) life had been, had he to live on.
The unusual thing was that the young man who died, Rajesh Toppo, was from the tribal belt of Jharkhand, in eastern India. What was even more tragic was that he died while working in the cemetery; he functioned as the village’s caretaker, the toller of the bells and grave digger — performing the many crucial tasks of a job sometimes called the sexton.
This might come as a surprise for anyone knowing the anti-immigrant sentiment which pervades not only much of Goa, but afflicts large parts of India and most parts of the globe currently, including affluent Western nations like the US and the UK.
But what do you do when you realise that the departed had worked for you, fit into the area, carried out a trying task (which few locals would opt for) and always carried a smile on his face? Rajesh buried the village’s kin, and did it all without a grumble. It is believed he passed away due to snake bite while in the cemetery itself.
A few villages away, another controversy – magnified on social media and via video recordings – erupted over a higher secondary school. This institution has shaped generations of people, was one of the early English schools, and has generally played a well-appreciated role.
But, one morning, on waking up, the first thing that hit my eye via Facebook was some angry video showing protesting people. It turned out that the dispute had started over the transfers of some priests from the very same institution.
In no time the battle shifted. It became one dealing with the origins of the priests who had been transferred out (they were Goan) and the priests who had replaced them (who happened to come from another State). Given the tone of the prevalent discourse, ethnic identities can quickly come into play in today’s world where everyone distrusts one another and identity politics often gets the upper hand.
But better counsels prevailed. Many who were taking up the issue on Facebook started pointing out that the ethnic origins of the priests involved was not the issue, though such concerns can serve to inflame passions. Someone pointed out that, Goan or otherwise, the educationists had been serving the village and building the institution.
All the more ironic this is in the case of Goa, a tiny region which has sent many of its own sons and daughters to selflessly serve in other parts of India as priests and nuns themselves, and even in the rest of the globe. Sometimes, as far away as in Latin America.
In some sense, it is understandable why we fear or dislike the ‘outsider’. Donald Trump won after promising to curb immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Psychology suggests fearing outsiders is “one of our oldest, built-in psychological tendencies”. We dehumanise them, our brains exaggerate their threat, anecdotes prove more attractive than facts.
No one is immune to the fear of the threat of outsiders. In countries like the US, Whites fear that minorities could overtake them. But they themselves once took over the Native Indians. Hindutva also has parallel fears. If one looks at a map of India, almost every Indian state has someone it loves to hate.
The Shiv Sena was founded on a distrust of someone from another region of India, and later, another religion. Karnataka resents its state capital being so Tamil-oriented. Movements have been built in Assam (where massacres took place as well, in places like Nellie) and other parts of the North East over perceived illegal immigration.
If the Tamils have their concerns over language, in other parts it’s a battle over religion. States or union territories which are situated on the periphery of larger cultures – like Bengal, Maharashtra, or Tamil Nadu – always fear getting swamped.
Some states don’t want their land to go into ‘outsider’ hands. Contrary to perceptions, this isn’t the case of the erstwhile J&K alone. Even some other states continue to have such provisions. Others use language as a tool to protect the ‘interests’ of the ‘sons of the soil’. Not every part of the country can take equal advantage of the opportunities thrown open by migration.
To complicate matters, politicians can cynically make use of such sentiment. The Shiv Sena has worked on its regionalistic politics model since the 1960s; some have blamed the Congress of the time for its growth. It has a twin in the MNS, both of which parties are occupying different sides of the political space, in a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose situation.
On the other hand, politicians, like in Goa, have also made the most of the migrants plight. They will sometimes quickly get the migrants onto their own bandwagon, grab their votes, and use the plight of the poor to undercut the more-demanding, more knowledgeable local voter.
Not surprisingly, a whole lot of genuine issues get caught up with exaggerated dislikes and fear. Sometime back, a poster on Facebook was making the point that migrants into Goa need to prove their bona fide. In my view, even so-called “locals” need to prove their intentions and concerns. Accidents of births alone don’t translate into good intentions.
It is perhaps time that Goa too starts being fairer about how it treats those who make this place their home. One can understand fears of facing tougher competition, being undercut in the competition, or facing a tougher fight over limited resources. But, somewhere, somehow the genuine issues will need to be separated from the exaggerated.
In my view, among the most productive sections of Goa’s society today are the returned expat Goan, and the so-called ‘non Goan’ (a condescending term).
The assimilation process can work both ways. While a growing number of even Goan village kids speak Hindi with their friends now, I’ve seen Sikhs and Odiyas, not to speak of Maharashtrians and Kannadigas, speak good Konkani. Children of migrants from Bihar are keen to take Portuguese as a third language in school. A theatre group practising recently surprised us all by including a mando in their script, coming as the performers did from a diverse range of states of India.
Goa too has sent out many of its people as migrants. The Prime Minister of Portugal, with his Goan roots, completes his term in office with hardly any noticeable racism. The Goan-ancestry former minister of external affairs of Portugal in the 1980s, André Gonçalves Pereira, died recently. In the House of Commons, there are three MPs of Goan origin (Keith Vaz, his sister Valerie, and the Conservative Suella Fernandes aka Sue-Ellen Braverman) plus two more who are or were married to Goans – the shadow chancellor of the exchequer since 2015 John Martin McDonnell and Baroness Frances D’Souza, the life peer and former Lord Speaker of the House of Lords.
Sooner or later, migrants will merge into Goan society as well. We need to find the ways that make this easier and more effective so that they too end up working with Goa, rather than against it.