Book Review: Jason Keith Fernandes, Citizenship in a Caste Polity: Religion, Language and Belonging in Goa

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
134 Book Reviews
Jason Keith Fernandes, Citizenship in a Caste Polity: Religion, Language and Belonging in Goa. Hyderabad:
Orient BlackSwan. Co-published by New India Foundation. 2020. 380 pages. `975.
DOI: 10.1177/2321023021999189
Although largely unexplored, with few honourable exceptions, language politics in South Asia holds
immense possibilities for understanding the everyday entanglements of democratic politics in the region.
This book is an ‘anthropological account of citizenship practices’ in Goa’s caste-dominated politics.
Jason Keith Fernandes provides a rich ethnographic account of the making of Konkani language ‘as a
marker of Goan modernity’. He also examines the inherent challenges in the making of ‘Konkani in
Nagari script’ as the basis of post-colonial Goan identity. Caught between two empires, Portuguese and
British, and a belligerent Indian nationalism and proximity with Marathi speaking Bombay presidency,
politics in Goa, particularly after its unification with India in 1961, is deeply embedded in its language
Fernandes engages with the conflicting positions of various stakeholders, both external and internal,
in the language debates in post-colonial Goa. Champions of Marathi language denied Konkani its
independent status, with an accusation of lack of literature and limited publication. Marathi speakers and
the Portuguese speaking Goan Catholic elite considered it to be a language of Gaud Saraswat Brahmins
alone. For other subaltern groups, Konkani was the language of romance, songs and everyday prayers.
Konkani had to fight hard and long against the imposition of Marathi, which was already a recognized
language of education and administration in Goa. To establish Konkani’s independence, language
enthusiasts and organizations fought for and achieved its recognition in the Sahitya Akademi (1975); as
the official language in the state (1987); as a medium of instruction in schools (the 1990s); and finally,
its inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution (1992).
After Goa’s integration into India, the first hurdle was to decide whether it would be merged with
Maharashtra or kept as an ‘independent’ or autonomous region. The issue was settled through an ‘opinion
poll’ in 1967 in favour of autonomy. The next hurdle was to decide what should be the legitimate marker
of Goan identity in a society deeply divided in terms of caste, class and religion. That turned out to be
Konkani, which united Goan citizens against the imposition of Marathi. However, a deep divide about
its script remains. Although ‘Konkani written in Nagari’ is a recognized language of the state, demands
from the Catholics for its recognition in the Roman script have not died down. Fernandes examines this
from Goan Catholics’ perspectives and explains the inner tensions between the Catholic priests or elites
and ‘subaltern’ Catholics.
The book essentially deals with ‘elite formation’, particularly the collaboration and confrontations
between Gaud Saraswat Brahmins (GSB) and Catholics in post-colonial Goan society and politics. The
first chapter discusses India’s citizenship debates and defines citizenship as more than a legal status. The
author agrees with the assertion that citizenship is a status that provides the individuals and groups ‘room
for manoeuvre’. Surprisingly, the author does not engage at all with the important works on citizenship
in India by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Anupama Roy. He offers fascinating and rich ethnographic details of
the persons, parties, organizations involved in the making of the Konkani Mai (Konkani as the mother)
and the idealization of its true speaker—‘the Konkani Munis’ (Konkani person). According to the author,
the Konkani Munis embodies the highly Sanskritized and Aryan worldviews of Saraswat Brahmins.
Once the normative ideals of Konkani Munis had been set, every population group was expected to
uphold them. The author examines effect of this on the citizenship-practices of Muslims, Christians and
Hindu Bahujan in Goa. Although there are many references to ‘subaltern’ Goan citizens, both Catholics
and Hindu Bahujan, very little attention is paid to their concerns and inner divisions. Fernandes mainly
focuses on the rise to prominence of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins in Goan politics and how Goan

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