Claude Alvares and Sanjay Subrahmanyam debate on Vasco Da Gama Quincentenary.
‘Ban all related events’
In 1992, the spanish attempted to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The celebrations ran aground in the turbulent waters of protest that emerged from several quarters of the globe. For, historians concede that over 100 million indigenous South and North American Indians and Blacks were eliminated or traumatised in the miserable chain of events that followed, creating 500 years of bitterness.
Despite being Spain’s neighbour, Portugal seems to have learnt very little from the 1992 protests. The Portuguese Government decided to chalk out its own festivities to mark the quincentenary of the discovery by Europeans of the sea route to India, achieved by Vasco da Gama. The celebrations comprised plans to finance a voyage of replicas of da Gama’s ships to India and a world exposition in Lisbon. India was invited to join a bilateral committee to oversee the events.
Incredibly, India agreed. Kerala jumped to claim the event for promoting tourism. After Portuguese lobbying, the Goa Government agreed surreptitiously to change the Menezes Braganza Institute – named after a freedom fighter – back to the Vasco da Gama Institute. Thus the Indian Government was actually agreeing to participate in events that would celebrate the inauguration of the colonial age and the servitude of its people.
|There’s no reason to commemorate the inauguration of an era of wickedness.|
So why then blame the Portuguese? The Government of India is, after all, still a colonial institution in form and spirit. The most overt declaration of this spirit was made by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram before a conference of business leaders in Washington in September 1996: “To those of you who wish to come to India, I say come there for a long term. The last time you came to India to take a look, you stayed for 200 years. So this time if you come, you must come prepared to stay for another 200 years. That is where the largest rewards lie.” (Teriscope, July-September 1996.)
Fortunately, the people of this country are not as daft as their political rulers. Immediately after the media reported plans of the commemoration, protests began. Vasco da Gama may in one sense be central to these events.
The manner in which he conducted himself, terrorising the settlements he found on the west coast of India, is well-documented. This Portuguese hero bombarded Kozhikode with cannons, looted ships, hacked and dismembered the bodies of captives and strung them up on his ship’s mast.
Those who protest against the commemoration of Vasco da Gama do so because he is a symbol of the inauguration of a process of subjugation and suppression which has not lost its force even now.
The 500 years after 1498 saw not only to the imposition of European power in India, but the dismemberment and division of our society, the abuse of the local population, sustained and destructive exploitation, intolerance of local religious systems. No love, no affection bound the coloniser to the colonised for any of these five centuries.
|Claude Alvares is organising secy of the anti-colonial National Committee on 500 Years. The Government, he urges, must prohibit any observance.|
Portugal’s objective in organising the da Gama celebration is certainly not to demonstrate any affection it may have for India.
It is merely one more exercise in self-love. For this reason, we should have nothing to do with the celebrations. If we can convince the Portuguese that this is an inappropriate way in which to recall da Gama’s achievement, we will be doing some service to them as well.
As a result of the present din against the commemoration, the Central Government has declined to participate in it. Two preliminary meetings of the Indo-Portuguese Joint Commission have been cancelled. Prime Minister I.K Gujral and the Ministry of Culture have promised that the Government will no longer be a party to the celebrations. Similarly, the Kerala and Goa proposals have been canned.
But something more than mere withdrawal is expected of the Government. The politically correct response of the country should be that no celebration associated with the event will be allowed on Indian soil and no visas will be granted to anyone from Portugal for the purpose. This is a response India is permitted to make in a year in which it is celebrating its 50th year of Independence.
‘History can’t be effaced’
Not all nations of the 20th century are equally concerned with public commemoration. Some like France and Portugal regard this process, usually centering on centenaries or divisions thereof, as highly significant. Other nations – like India – seem to have public cultures less attuned to the idea of the “commemoration as affective synthesis”, to use the formula of Teofilo Braga, the Portuguese republican politician. In the late 19th century, Braga wrote essays on the role of commemoration in the nation-building process.
|After all, Indians experience the legacy of the colonial era in their everyday lives.|
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani Independence, as well as of the unhappy events surrounding Partition. It is being commemorated both in South Asia and elsewhere, but not on the sort of giant scale that went with the bicentennials of 1776 or 1789. This is a matter of resources of course, but also of the sort of culture of commemoration that one has.
At a recent meeting in Lisbon’s Geographical Society, I was struck by the confusion on the issue in Portugal itself. Some saw the “commemoration” – of the quincentenary of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India – as awaking the public from lethargy and energising the Portuguese nation in its struggle to come to terms with the present. A socialist politician who spoke made it clear that the purpose of the exercise was to make Portuguese proud of their past, in order to be better equipped to face the future.
But his crude nationalist rhetoric, and rather cavalier attitude to historical facts, embarrassed many of his compatriots. A.M. Hespanha, historian and head of the Portuguese Discoveries Commission, took a rather different line.
For him, it came down to accepting that versions of history held by different groups were bound to be different; indeed, that it would be rather naive to expect Angolans and Mozambicans, who a quarter-century ago were under Portuguese colonial rule, to see Portuguese expansion in a positive light.
|Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam is a biographer of Vasco da Gama. To him, the very debate on the anniversary amounts to a commemoration.|
The Portuguese thus have their problems. But can we in India actually envisage the explicit possibility of “forgetting” 1498 by an act of will, even knowing that we thus run afoul of the philosopher’s cliche that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it? The mere fact that the issue of “commemoration” is being debated publicly in this country is to my mind already an act of commemoration. Those who protest loudly are a part of the process of remembering, and when historians reflect back on this issue, their writings will be taken into account.
Those who do not commemorate are actually those who are silent, and I suspect that most of them have already forgotten not only Vasco da Gama, but also Robert Clive, Mahmud Gawan and Kanishka.
One cannot forget by an act of will. There remains the question of how and in what form one chooses to remember. If remembering takes the form of an architectural eyesore, it should surely be opposed. Yet, if academics want to discuss the matter in their usual ephemeral way, I cannot see what the real objection is.
If, for instance, the Portuguese wish to endow a chair in early modern history in an Indian university – in the context of the 500th anniversary of da Gama’s journey – I can see no objection either, so long as the teaching is not restricted to glorifying the Portuguese past.
The historian’s business is to remember. But I think too that every intelligent member of the Indian public has an interest in thinking about the past in its complexity. It is another matter that, 50 years after Independence, the Indian state has failed to deliver on education, as it has on a number of other basic needs.
If it had not, more Indians may have known that potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, tobacco, groundnuts, chillies, and a number of other items that impinge on their daily life for better or for worse, are the combined result of the Spanish voyages to America and Portuguese voyages on the Cape route.
We might call this a part of the “Gamian exchange”, to parallel what Alfred Crosby has called the “Colombian exchange”. I myself think tobacco is a curse – but can hardly imagine life without tomatoes and chillies.