30 Jul 2022  |   06:31am IST

Reaching for Reconciliation

Reaching for Reconciliation

Vivek Menezes




urrounded by descendants of precolonial Canadians gathered in a pow wow circle, Pope Francis delivered an apology of great potency earlier this week in Maskwacis, Alberta. The pontiff said he was on “penitential pilgrimage.” That “when the European colonists first arrived here, there was a great opportunity to bring about a fruitful encounter between cultures, traditions and forms of spirituality. Yet, for the most part, that did not happen.”

The 85-year-old Argentinean (he is the first Jesuit, and also the first non-European Pope in well over 1000 years) shared his grief about how “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples” underlining “I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation.”

There was quite a bit of minutely couched legalese, intending to evade legal culpability, but this pontiff’s candour is highly admirable. At the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, he explained, “it pains me to think that Catholics contributed to policies of assimilation and enfranchisement that inculcated a sense of inferiority, robbing communities and individuals of their cultural and spiritual identity, severing their roots and fostering prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes.”

For many in Canada – and representatives of other communities that experienced conversion via colonialism – Pope Francis did not do enough. The Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak – an indigenous peoples organization – noted that “saying sorry and acknowledging the harms that have been caused is just one step of many that need to happen. There is so much more work to be done.”

Laryssa Waler, an official spokesperson of the Papal visit, promised the church would go further - “galvanized by the calls of our indigenous partners, and by the Holy Father’s remarks, Canada’s bishops are working with the Vatican and those who have studied this issue, with the goal of issuing a new statement from the church.” This is the promised repudiation of the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery”, papal pronouncements of the 15th and 16th century (they are called “bulls”) which ruled the world open to conquest by Christian Europeans, and which are still the legal framework for settler colonial states founded on genocide, like Canada.

Those same intolerant – indeed inhuman – attitudes came to Goa as well, where the main relevant item of nonsensical legalistic gibberish was the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas – where the bone of contention was precisely India - which grandly divided the world beyond Europe into giant spheres “owned” by Spain and Portugal. Thus, the barbaric modes of thinking that Pope Francis apologized for in Canada, were unleashed here too, with the main difference being that they failed.

Still, even if there are direct connections between 16th and 17th century Goa and what happened in Canada much later, there are also crucial differences. The historian Sanchia de Souza (a Goan from Bombay who is completing her PhD at University of Toronto) told me “there is an enormous difference in context. There has been a court-mandated, years-long process of research, documentation and witnessing, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined the systemic abuse, with two publicly released reports. The conversion of people to Catholicism, whether violently or voluntarily, and the first colonization of Goa is several centuries in the past; by contrast, the Pope’s apology in Canada was to living people who had experienced abuse themselves and are still suffering its consequences.”

De Souza says “Catholicism has ceased to be a religion allied with state power in Goa, and it never held that position in most of South Asia. It did in the Americas. In this light, I have thought a lot about the work of Catholics like Fr Stan Swamy, Fr Bismarque Dias, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and others and their relationship with the state. It is an irony that while the Catholic Church has been complicit in state violence in the Americas and in state appropriation of traditional Indigenous lands, there are certainly individual Catholics in India who have worked tirelessly for the rights of the most marginalized in our society: Adivasis and Dalits.”

Says de Souza: “An apology is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a sign of wishing to make restitution. In the case of Goa, narratives of the Inquisition — including several that are no longer considered historically sound — circulate widely and sensationally, to be either stoutly denied or seized upon depending on an individual or community’s political bent. Before we consider whether an apology is necessary, we have to think about what we might want an apology for.”

In very much the same vein, right after Pope Francis’s apology became public, I was struck by this Facebook comment by well-regarded Panjim-based physician Anita Kamat Dudhane: “An extremely brave and wise man!! Allhealing/acceptance can come only after injury is acknowledged by the perpetrator. Many will say that it was in the past and how many apologies can be given - yes it was in the past but the injury/hurtlives on in the minds of the descendants, and it needs to beacknowledged. Now those of us who have lauded the pope for this action, let us too apologise to the Dalits for the 2000 years of pain/suffering/alienation that we have caused them.”

Dudhane elaborated via email - “I can only speak for the Goan Hindus like my family who lost their home, their land and had to flee to avoid conversion. Though they resettled in Karnataka they had to adapt a lot and were considered to be “non-native” there. My childhood memories revolve around trips to Goa where my dad would touch the soil and say that this was our land, to which we belonged, where our language was widely spoken and people ate the same food. He felt the pain of his ancestors who had been forced to leave their land.”

Dudhane – a practitioner of Buddhism– told me she believes amends are important: “an apology would be an acknowledgement of the suffering caused by colonialism that was supported by the church, on all people of Goa - the newly converted Christians, Muslims and Jews suffered more than the Hindus during the Inquisition. An apology would also really pre-empt further division by mischievous elements, that are using the silence around this issue to spread incendiary and false information in the guise of history.”

But that’s not the end of it, because Dudhane also says “speaking of apologies, Dalits have been alienated, mistreated and severely oppressed by the upper castes for at least 1000 years. Why should an apology be restricted to a foreign religion that committed atrocities? Let us begin by at least acknowledging what was done here, which in my opinion was infinitely worse, and tender a heartfelt apology to our brethren. An apology is not just words but acknowledgement, and regret for the harm committed, with the action that backs it to try our best to not let such harm happen again.”