Sunday, May 14, 2006

Being Goan, in a sea of Chinese and Malay... and beyond

Berkley, California-based Dr Filomena Giese (pronounced Gee-see) is an expat Goan whose name one keeps hearing of in cyberspace. During her recent visit to Goa, FREDERICK NORONHA took the opportunity of a hurried meeting at the Kala Academy canteen to whip out this IBM ThinkPad and record some views and perspectives of this interesting person, who lives "about half-an-hour from San Francisco". Excerpts.

FN: To begin, Filomena, tell us something about yourself.

My parents were married in Singapore. My mother, when she was expecting me, came back to Goa. It was the war time. That's how I was born in Goa.

After six years, we went back to Singapore. I was brought up in Singapore, went for my college to Australia -- Melbourne University, where I did a PhD in multicultural education. Of course, I never used that really. I've been teaching English as a second language, and thought I would get on in a career. Unfortunately, I had a brain operation in 1991, and then had to slow down.

Q: That's interesting. You've been almost all of your life across the globe, outside of Goa. Why then do you feel so strongly about Goa?

We were brought up in a home where (the Goan identity) was very important for my parents. We spoke Konkani and Portuguese at home, though I went to an English school. I understand Konkani, and can say a few words. It makes people smile, because I have an ... (foreign accent).

My mother was a great cook. My father was a stickler at home. We were brought up with a sense of being Goan, in a sea of Chinese and Malay. After college, I met and married an American, and have been living in California since 1967.

But we went to Goan functions, had Goan friends. It was always like social engagements. Somewhere along the line, I kept saying we should be doing something to help Goa become a better place, and to help Goans here. They have needs, we are well off, and that's true of almost all whoever is in the diaspora. We don't have to struggle. Finally, I met George Pinto who was also looking for something. We set up about making Goa Sudharop (a not-for-profit organisation that supports projects in Goa,

FN: If you were asked to make a shortlist of issues, which would you -- with your perspective from the outside -- see as the three most important facing this region today?

Let me thing.... Okay, I've just been to North India (Rajasthan, Delhi, and Rishikesh) for possibly the first and last time in my life. That's a good perspective for me; I feel we're not alone with some of the issues (that we face in Goa).

There's the environmental issues; everywhere there's the issue with garbage. Then, there's the problem of historical buildings. It's not only in Goa. Even India as a whole is over the top in historical buildings. But everywhere there's a need to preserve the past.

Besides that, I think, another issue is of adapting to new conditions, facing up to competition from other ethnic groups that come to any place -- whether that's in Jaipur, or Panjim or Rishikesh. There is the pressing need to help people who have been here for many generations to get the job skills, entrepreneurial skills and life skills so that they can compete.

FN: Looking back at Goa Sudharop, which you've played an active part in, what would you see as the organisation's main achievements so far?

We've managed to raise consciousness among Goans in California and the US or in some other places, through the website. (We've put it on the agenda) that it is a good and healthy thing if we stay connected to our homeland, and that we can really do something.

There has been a shift in the thinking of overseas Goans.

We have connected with people who have been doing great work in Goa, doing work in the field of education, or saving the environment. This year hopefully we plan to have some projects for Goan seniors.

FN: So do you see a bigger potential for the overseas Goan communities to get more deeply with their roots?

We've just touched the surface. If there are good projects here that Goans can get interested in, they (their overseas counterparts) will support, they will donate, and they will help. Maybe we can connect people with skills and other talent.

There is obvious potential, but I can't predict where it is going to go.

FN: But Goans in the US or North America aren't quite like the expat community from Goans in the Gulf. The former plan to stay on overseas....

At one level I think we're all the same. We do share certain cultures and aspects in the diaspora. But, on the other hand, no, we're not like the Gulf Goans, because we are going to stay there.

Besides, very few Goans in US have actually migrated there directly from Goa. Most have come from Pakistan, other parts of India, or even from Africa. It's a whole different ball game. Many don't have contact in Goa. They come mainly for holidays.

FN: So, why should they bother at all?

Well, that's a good question.

Why I wanted to bother about Goa is I have roots here; I still have family here (around Margao and Salcete). I've lived through some kind of a transition when Goa became part of India. I always had a social action kind of drive (laughs). Of trying to change the world.

My daughter who's a doctor has come to Goa few times, and loves it. I mentioned this idea of wanting to do something. She said why not concentrate just on Goa, because it's good to do something for a specific part of the world. As I had so many roots and connections here, it made sense to me. I can't talk for other Goans. I can only tell you what my own motivations were.

The idea is, if you're trying to make a difference somewhere, it could work better for a specific place. And when you have roots in a specific place, it's more meaningful.

FN: Could you share with us some of the big names who have been supporting Goa Sudharop, your vision and goals?

There's Romulus Pereira (of Navelim) who had a company in computers in California, and is extremely well off. Victor Menezes of Citibank is another big name. But the bulk of donations we got were our friends and family members. They know what we're doing, they trust us, and know we're sending the money to the right people. I can't mention all the names, but that's what it is. I don't think it's just the big names that are important.

FN: There is a general perception that Goans have, globally, lacked entrepreneurial skills, as a society. Maybe it's because they got it easy early on, and decided to play it safe as a salaried, employee class?

Culturally, Goans don't come inbuilt with the shopkeepers' entrepreneurial style talent. Specially when compared to what I just saw -- say in the case of the Rajasthanis, Sindhis, or Punjabis. Yes, we have gone more into the civil service, and the professions. Now, our children are however thinking of business, definitely. Quite a few Goans work in the financial field, and are doing very well. They're rising to the top.

I think we had such a necessity. We were rural people, we were never thrown out of anywhere to be refugees. I just saw one of the sections of Jaipur which was just desert land not very long back; and it was given to the Punjabis thrown out of Pakistan during the Partition. Through hard work and mostly entrepreneurial activity, they're thriving today. It's all business, business, and more business.

You won't find that ethic among the Goans. They've (the Punjabis in Jaipur) have turned the desert into a money machine.

FN: To pick your brains, what in your view are the strengths and weaknesses of our society, as you perceive it?

What I see here is two Goas. One is the old Goa. The one that I remember: where it's all about family, having a stable kind of life, not being very competitive. The other Goa is the new Goa. It's all about tourism, business, corruption, drug-tourism. It's sad, but it is a reality, and we need to face it, change it. We have to work to change something.

FN: So is your view of Goa pessimistic, optimistic, or a mix of both?

I'm not a pessimistic person by nature. If there are people working to change things for the better -- even a few people -- it makes a big different.

Just to mention a few people I met (during my recent visit here). One of Goa Sudharop's volunteer Ibinio de Souza, a liberal-minded but still a traditional Catholic Goan. The future lies in building a bridge between Catholics, Hindus, Muslims to save the values we share. We're not really doing that. I do wish we could do more.

Then there was Olav Menezes, who has been and continues to, help us a lot. The other person I met is Dr Francisco Colaco of Margao, who keeps busy, amidst a hectic professional life, raising public issues of concern through the papers and by other means. He's just been elected president of the Indian Medical Association-Goa. He's going to help us at Goa Sudharop with health issues. Both he and Ibinio say they keep fighting and just keep going.

The other marvelous person is (the former Goan bureaucrat) Percival Noronha, who has done so much for heritage, and also for diverse fields such as Goan astronomy. A 15-year-old boy Ralph D'Souza has just been to the international olympiad in astronomy, in Geneva. That's through Percival Noronha's efforts. When you see things like that, you can't be pessimistic. FN: So, what do you look forward to?

Let me think... After this trip to India, the big impression I got was North India -- which is so different from this part of India (Goa, on the west coast) -- still has this 5000 year old tradition. It's a living tradition, in relationship to nature, for example, something that is divine. It's so touching.

I'd like to really work on environmental issues, because I somehow saw the significance of nature and the earth to the people. That really was my biggest experience on this trip. I would like to remove the garbage and the filth and work to conserve certain areas. Maybe in Goa... I don't know.

FOOTNOTE: Dr Filomena Giese can be contacted at Goa Sudharop is at (do take a look at their special listing of non-profit and non-governmental organisations in Goa):

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Broken Peace, a fact-finding report offers hard-talk on Curchorem

[By FN] 'Broken Peace' is the name of the just-released fact-finding report into last month's Curchorem anti-Muslim violence. It has been done by a team headed by Nandita Haksar, Supreme Court lawyer and prominent human rights campaigner.

Haksar, who ruffled some feathers at a media launch on Thursday evening with her blunt talk, is the co-author of 'The Delhi Riots: Three Days In The Life Of A Nation' that indicted Congress politicians for playing communal anti-Sikh games in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

For some years now, this gutsy campaigner has been a resident of Chorao, in Tiswadi/Ilhas. Some might know her as the daughter of P.N. Haksar, a prominent figure in shaping part of post-Independence India. But with her sharp legal acumen, she's willing to fight for the underdog when most otherswon't.

For a change, Goa's secular lobby has responded fairly rapidly -- even if a tighter edited report could carry more weight -- to the growing and systematic hiked-up communalisation of life here in recent years.

We've long had low-intensity communalism, whether during the MGP-UGP days or in times of Portuguese theocracy and intolerance. Or even during the early phase of the colonial conversion zeal. But the recent spurt has been slowly built up, not adequately studied, and probably more shocking in a supposedly secular state.

Haksar and her team undertook this report on behalf of the All India Milli Council -- a common platform of the Muslims
of India. Interestingly, she writes: "I learnt that the Milli Council had requested me, because the Government of Goa had
refused to accept the demand of the Goan Muslims organisations for a judicial enquiry into the whole incident."

Haksar did the 49-page report (with a thick set of annexures) together with three others. On the team was Vinod K Jose (an award-winning young radio journalist working for the alternative radio in the US, reporting on how the 'war on terrorism' has been used to erode the human rights of the citizen), editor of Lankesh Patrike weekly from Bangalore Gauri Lankesh and editor Bilidale Eesha of the Guide, a Kannada magazine, who has also been active in the movement against communalism.

It's findings would come as a shock to most oblivious to the actual situation.

From the nineties, Muslims, in Goa, have been systematically denied human rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, says this report bluntly. "Attacks on mosques have been  violent, including setting on fire a mosque at Porvorim during the Ramzan month and burning of pages of the Quoran some three years back, a hand grenade was thrown at a mosque in Mardol, Ponda and the floor mats were set on fire. Muslims were made to abandon a mosque in Sanquelim," it adds. There are more 'disputes' being raised over mosques, as those reading the local papers -- specially the regional language press -- would be aware.

This team says it was "shocked to learn" that in the majority of the mosques, there is no azaan (call-to-prayer) over the
loudspeaker. For instance, in Chimbel, a settlement largely of Muslims, the loudspeaker is connected to speakers in the
homes, so that the azaan can be heard inside the homes but not disturb non-Muslims.

"Our attempt in this fact finding was to try and understand the root causes of the communal violence. Therefore, although we interviewed many victims of the violence, we have not documented the pain, suffering and loss felt by the Muslims (of Curchorem)," she writes.

Some points that come out strongly in the report:

o An attack on the mosque at Guddemol cannot be explained  without an understanding of the rise of communal politics in Goa.

o Without going into the historical roots of this communalism, we cannot begin to understand how the Goan
society and state have tolerated attacks on mosques in Goa and the culprits who instigate such attacks and the people
who actually damaged or demolished these mosques have not been punished.

o According to Ramesh Gauns, school-teacher and long-term fighter for secular values, the Hindutva lobby has
organised a base in both the pro-Marathi and pro-Konkani supporters. (RSS chief and educationist) Subhash Velingker,
a spokesman for Marathi, always delivers his speeches in Konkani. Moreover, Velingkar has a regular column in the
only Konkani daily Sunaparant. Later extracts point to the bile poured out via such columns, and point to the possibility of legal action for hate-speech.

In 2001, after the BJP came to power, it handed over 51 government primary schools to the RSS (or affiliated groups). "Unregistered village bodies acting as fronts for the RSS tried to take over the primary schools. The schools are in Marathi medium (and) were handed over to Subhash Velingkar, who was then vice president of the Vidya Bharathi
Education Trust. Velingkar, a RSS functionary, was inducted into Parrikar's new Education Advisory Board".

o More recently, the Congress education minister Luizinho Faleiro took steps to restore the school... the Sangh Parivar immediately dubbed him anti-national.

o It says: "The Hindu Right defines its nationalism by attacking symbols of 'Western' culture such as festivals, monuments and even places of worship. In Goa, the Catholic community becomes easy targets of their attacks. The Sangh Parivar attacks the Catholic community by reviving memories of the horrors of Portuguese rule. Portuguese rule being equated with Catholic rule. The most insidious part of the campaign is that they have appropriated the writings by

great Goan nationalists such as T B Cunha and used it for their vile politics...."

o Other issues noted include the infamous RSS-influenced CD on "Goa's freedom struggle", the influence exerted by the Sangh Parivar on centres of religion and festivals, and the attack on the Goa Heritage Action Group for "promoting Portuguese culture" through a festival, and referring to them as 'Pakhleancheput'. There's also the issue of vandalising restored monuments, damage to Catholic crosses, and converting issues like the anti-Konkan Railway protests into communal ones.This report traces the long role of Muslims in Goa (right from the eighth century, and the Kadamba kings appointing at least two Arabs as their prime ministers)

o Says the report: "The Sangh Parivar has continued the fascist political tradition of the Portuguese by playing the politics of divide and rule, instilling fear in the minorities by physical attacks on them. Till recently they attacked the Christians, but in more recent times, they have turned on the Muslims in Goa. The events at Sanvordem-Curchorem have been especially disturbing because they took place during the Congress rule. It seems that the Hindutva ideology has permeated into the Congress party's secularism."

o Interestingly, the report points out how the Sangh Parivar is using anti 'outsider' sentiment to justify their case. Says the report: "In recent years, Goa has attracted a number of migrants, mostly from neighbouring Karnataka. These migrants have been contributing to the prosperity of Goa by building roads, homes and hotels. They are the best artisans available. The Sangh Parivar has always made the outsider the target of their violent politics of fear. It is true that the Goans felt a discomfort with the 'outsider'; but now the Sangh Parivar has zeroed in on the outsider being the 'Muslim'."If you get a chance, do take a close look at this report, which makes for insightful reading about the position of the Muslim community in Goa. Just after two youth -- who happened to be Muslim -- had an accident with BJP's then union minister Shripad Naik, a mosque at Socorro (near Porvorim) had its main door set afire. At Ekta Nagar in Mapusa, property bought for the Muslim community for use as a mosque, was attacked.Says the report: "On the next day, the deputy collector passed an order stopping the Muslim community from offering namaz in the premises, and since then they have not been allowed to pray together in their own building."In Corlim, Tiswadi, the village sarpanch refused an occupancy certificate because of objection from residents!

Haksar traced the developments at Guddemol, a small vaddo (hamlet) in Rumbrem village under the Sanvordem village panchayat. She responded to issues of the mosque being illegal, and pointedly asked how former chief minister Manohar Parrikar could talk to a large crowd when prohibitory orders had been issued during the trouble.Rumours spread by those behind the trouble, official action (questionable or malafide) or inaction, and the violence against the Muslims also comes under the scanner.

Obviously, there are different strokes for different folks. Says the report: "What is interesting is that at Guddemol the Muslims' efforts to establish a place of worship have been continuously thwarted for the last one decade. In comparison, the Hindus had not only built a temple on government land, last year they succeeded in building a new temple closer to the village. It is pertinent to note that neither the administration nor the 'general public' in any way hampered or questioned the setting up of these temples."It adds: "The destruction of the mosque at Guddemol and the subsequent communal events only go to prove how a double strategy of baseless rumours and a deliberate disinformation campaign can irretrievably ruin the secular fabric of a society. Unfortunately, this strategy is not new to those who have been watching the machinations of communal elements in Indian society for a long time."Besides scrutinising the role of the main Opposition BJP and its leaders -- whose bias is more than clear -- the report

also takes the ruling Congress strongly to task. It is in power both in New Delhi and Panjim. Yet, a central minister even came to Goa but did not "bother to go to the spot".

Likewise, says the fact-finding report: "The Congress Party has no programme for countering communalism, and many of its MLAs and members are former members of the BJP."

It appreciates Goan civil society for protesting against this political-linked violence. But it warns: "None of their interventions on the issue of communalism can be effective unless they recognise that Goan society is divided along lines of community, caste and religion."

Comments the study: "Communalism in Goa may be largely a result of electoral politics; but it has got a fillip because of the rise in Islamophobia unleashed worldwide by the US President Bush and his war against terror."

This panel's recommendations include a demand for a white paper from the government on the Sanvordem-Curchorem violence; an official programme against communalism; a government- initiated public debate on the issue of 'outsiders'; and creating a secure atmosphere for Muslims in Goa to name the real culprits. Also sought is the right of the Guddemol Muslims to resume prayers stopped by the local police, and providing them with land (which they will buy) to build a mosque.

Goanet's Vidyadhar Gadgil, campaigner Arun Pandey, GT journalist Preetu Nair, activist Ramesh Gauns, and women's campaigners Ulka Lotlikar and Sabina Martins of Bailancho Saad (another Goanetter) have played a role in making this report happen, among others.