Liberation of Goa: Removing The Portuguese Pimple On The Face Of Mother India
The Portuguese were the first European colonisers who came to India and the last to leave. This was remarkable for such a tiny country with very few natural resources. While the British were evicted in 1947, no action was taken against the Portuguese occupation of Goa until December 19, 1961 when an Indian military operation ended 450 years of foreign rule.
There’s no doubt it was the indifference of independent India’s leaders that delayed Goa’s freedom. Typical of Jawaharlal Nehru’s cavalier attitude towards the country’s defence and security, India’s first Prime Minister did nothing except make speeches, an activity which he seemed to enjoy the most. If there was a way in which no real blood, sweat and tears were involved, it perfectly suited Nehru’s lotus eating lifestyle.
Indian nationalists were fond of describing Portuguese rule over Goa as “the pimple on the face of Mother India”, implying that it was an unattractive, small and foreign nuisance that would eventually disappear over time.
For all their lofty words, Nehru and his gang suffered from a huge geopolitical disconnect. They believed that “once the British had left the subcontinent, Goa would be almost immediately abandoned by the Portuguese government”. Therefore, neither the Congress nor Indian nationalists tried to organise Goans against the Portuguese state. (1)
In 1949 Nehru’s government established a legation (a diplomatic representative office of lower rank than an embassy) in Lisbon to negotiate with the Portuguese government their withdrawal from Goa. To Nehru’s surprise, however, the Portuguese government refused to even discuss the issue. If Nehru had had a basic understanding of how nations think and act, he would not have been surprised. While Indians viewed Portuguese rule over Goa as a pimple, the Portuguese referred to Goa as the “Rome of the Orient”, signalling that Portuguese rule over the colony was destined to be eternal. (2)
Portugal was ruled by a fanatic Catholic Christian dictator named Antonio Salazar, who was prepared to hold Goa till the last Goan Christian. In a speech presented to the Portuguese National Assembly on November 30, 1954 he said: “The extension of Indian sovereignty to include Goa is not a prospect opened up by, or in anticipation of, the evolution of history; it is a political goal which India’s present leaders suppose it their duty to achieve in order to fulfill their mission … It is always historical facts, and not geographical outline, that fix frontiers, institute rights and impose sovereignties… For the Indian Union to claim to turn the clock of history back to the 14th century, to come forward now and make out that she already existed potentially at that time, or to set herself up as the rightful heir of those whom we found holding sway there, is the fancy of static dreamers; it is not for the dynamic shapers of history that the men who received an empire from England want to be.” (3)
To Indians, Goa was part of India – it was obvious and did not require any persuasion. One simply had to consult map. Nehru said in the Lok Sabha on September 17, 1955: “In Goa, we have a remarkable picture of the 16th century facing the 20th century, of decadent colonialism facing resurgent Asia, of a free independent India being affronted and insulted by the Portuguese authorities, of, in fact, Portugal functioning in a way which, to any thinking person, is so amazing in its incongruity in the modern world that he is a little taken aback.” (4)
The war of words led to fraught relations between India and Portugal. By 1953, the Indian legation was closed and diplomatic relations between the governments were conducted by intermediaries.
While Goa did not see mass revolutionary movements, the local people evinced keen interest in the liberation struggle on the mainland and identified themselves with Indians. The growing liberation struggle in India had inspired them to assert their own rights. This led to a small but spirited freedom movement in the enclave. In response, the Portuguese rulers resorted to “rigorous and repressive measures for suppressing the national awakening”. (5)
On one occasion in 1946, the Portuguese mercilessly beat up a group of Indian women who had organised a peaceful march through Goa. Not only were the women beaten in police custody but the Portuguese also threatened to strip naked the little daughters of the marchers. In 1955, during a liberation march, the Goan military shot dead 20 Goans and Indians.
All Nehru did was institute a blockade, which the Portuguese regime easily evaded by flying in supplies from Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Six more years dragged on, with Nehru allowing this colonial sore to fester. The prime minister was concerned only about international opinion and did not want to break with his non-violent approach inherited from his mentor Mohandas Gandhi. India’s strategic interests, the protection of Indian lives, and even the honour of Indian women were not at all a priority for Nehru. It didn’t matter to him that the Portuguese were killing Indians; all that he cared about was the followers of Gandhi mustn’t use force.
As the tension built up, Salazar sought help from the US, UK and other countries sympathetic to his cause. The British were reminded that under the terms of the 1899 Anglo-Portuguese Treaty they were obliged to come to Lisbon’s assistance if any Portuguese colony was attacked. The Americans tried to reign in India. US President John F. Kennedy wrote to Nehru, asking him not to use force – irony at its best as only a few months earlier American backed guerrillas had attempted an armed invasion of Cuba. (6)
In November 1961, emboldened by Nehru’s inaction, the Portuguese opened fire on Indian coastal steamers and fishing boats. Finally, on December 17, India mounted an army, naval and air attack on Goa using overwhelming force.
Western nations led the chorus of criticism against India. Leaders and official spokesmen in many countries, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, Spain and West Germany deplored the Indian action. So did Pakistan. On the other hand, India got the full support of the USSR, Yugoslavia, the Arab States, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The British were the first to come out all diplomatic guns blasting. On December 18, the Commonwealth Relations Secretary Duncan Sandys told the House of Commons: “Her Majesty’s government deeply deplore the decision of the Government of India to use military force to attain its political objectives.” In addition he said, “We are particularly concerned about the wider repercussions which the action taken by the Indian Government may have upon other problems that face the world to-day.” (7)
Here was British hypocrisy at its height. Just five years prior, Britain and France had jointly invaded Egypt to seize the Suez Canal.
German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said India had been “ill-advised” to resort to force in Goa, adding that it would be “difficult to know what to make of India’s professed policy of peace in future”. (8)
China’s reaction was interesting. The Chinese Communist Government issued a statement on December 19 expressing “resolute support” for India’s action in Goa. The Hong Kong Communist newspaper Ta Kung Pao (regarded as reflecting the views of the Chinese Government) described the attack on Goa as “a desperate attempt by Mr Nehru to regain his sagging prestige among the Afro-Asian nations”.
The Pakistani reaction was the acme of immaturity. A Foreign Ministry spokesman described the Indian attack on Goa as “naked militarism”, and said Pakistan stood for the settlement of international disputes by negotiation through the United Nations. Pakistan said that the proper course was a “UN sponsored plebiscite to elicit from the people of Goa their wishes on the future of the territory”. The statement continued: “This is one more demonstration of the fact that India remains violent and aggressive at heart, whatever the pious statements made from time to tune by its leaders.” Rich, coming from a country which killed a plebiscite in Kashmir.
USSR President Leonid Brezhnev, who was on a State visit to India at the time of the Goa crisis, said in Mumbai on December 18 that Moscow had “complete sympathy for the Indian people’s desire to liberate Goa, Daman, and Diu from Portuguese colonialism”.
Brezhnev, one of the few Soviet leaders who had a genuine affection for India, urged Indians to ignore Western indignation as it came “from those who are accustomed to strangle the people’s striving for independence…and from those who enrich themselves from colonialist plunder”.
USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev sent a telegram to Nehru, saying that “the resolute actions of the Government of India to do away with outposts of colonialism in its territory were absolutely lawful and justified”.
US President John F. Kennedy, who was consistently pro-India, outwardly expressed regret at India’s action to smother the anti-India hawks in the US State Department. However, in private he told India’s Ambassador B.K. Nehru that he was less annoyed by India’s action than by Jawaharlal Nehru’s not having said anything about Goa during his state visit to the US. Kennedy, in fact, found the event somewhat amusing. B.K. Nehru recalled the President saying:
“You spend the last 15 years preaching morality to us, and then you go ahead and act the way any normal country would behave and now that you have done what you should have done long ago, people are saying, the preacher has been caught coming out of the brothel. And they are clapping. And Mr Ambassador, I want to tell you, I am clapping too.” (9)
Crossfire at the United Nations
The Portuguese delegate at the United Nations, Vasco Vieira Garin, requested on December 18 an immediate meeting of the Security Council in view of the Indian military action, which he described as “the result of cold-blooded premeditation”. (8)
Adlai Stevenson, the US representative at the UN, strongly criticised the Indian action. Invoking Gandhi, he said: “India is led by a man whom I regard as a friend –who has been a lifelong disciple of one of the world’s great saints of peace – whom many have looked up to as an apostle of nonviolence – who only this year addressed the Assembly with a moving appeal for a UN year of international co-operation. These facts make the step which has been taken today (the attack on Goa) all the harder to understand and to condone.”
This is a typical reaction from Western governments, which want to box India within a peacenik framework, making sure India remains high on rhetoric and low on military power. Both the Australian and New Zealand envoys parroted a similar line, saying India should not deviate from the path of peace and the way of Gandhi. (A few years, both countries were heavily involved in the Vietnam War, killing innocent Vietnamese in their thousands.)
Valerian Zorin, Moscow’s permanent representative to the UN, said the Goan question was entirely within India’s domestic jurisdiction and could not be considered by the Security Council. If discussion was necessary, however, the subject of discussion should be “the question of the violation by Portugal of the declaration on granting independence to colonial countries and peoples”. “Portugal does not fulfill and is not going to fulfill this declaration, and she is thereby creating a threat to peace and security in various parts of the world,” he said. (8)
The Russian representative went on to say that neither Britain nor America had denounced Portugal when she was “annihilating scores of thousands of people in Angola”, nor had they suggested a cease-fire in Angola and the withdrawal of Portuguese troops from that territory and other Portuguese colonies. As soon, however, as “the question comes up of supporting the liberation from colonial dependence of peoples and territories which constitute an integral part of India, high-falutin pronouncements are immediately made of violations of the UN Charter….”
The US, Britain, France and Turkey presented a resolution in the UN Security Council, asking India to withdraw its forces to “the positions prevailing before December 17, 1961”. The resolution received seven votes in favour (the four sponsors and Chile, Ecuador and Taiwan) and four against (the USSR, Ceylon, Liberia and Egypt). It was defeated by the Russian veto – the 99th cast by the USSR in the Security Council.
Post colonial legacy
Despite the passage of nearly six decades, the negative after effects of colonial rule linger. The late Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar commented last year: “The struggle which began 72 years back (in 1946) resulted in the liberation of Goa in 1961, but I feel the fight is yet to get over.” He was referring to the issue of problems faced by people living in the evacuee properties at Mayem village in the state.
“The issue of Mayem (evacuee properties) is a part of this struggle (against colonial rule) and I am personally working to resolve it as soon as possible,” said Parrikar. Mayem, a village with a population of around 30,000, has been declared evacuee property, owned by Portuguese nationals who left the place and settled in Portugal after the state’s liberation in 1961. The Goans, living as tenants on the property, are still fighting for their rights. (10)
Then there’s the case of Goans having dual citizenship, which is illegal under Indian law. In 2016, more than 200,000 citizens of Goa were issued a ‘Bill of identity’ by Portugal. The bill not only allows them to travel to Portugal and other European Union countries without a visa, it also entitles them to invest in properties and obtain a passport of any other EU nation. An inter-ministerial committee headed by Additional Secretary B.K. Prasad ruled that those citizens who got their names registered with the Central Registry in Lisbon were considered citizens of Portugal, and they technically lost their Indian citizenship as per provision of the Citizenship Act, 1955. (11)
In 2017, the Goa government notified a Central order which seeks to authorise district magistrates to decide the cases of dual citizenship. The police were asked to register FIRs based on complaints filed by local activist Kashinath Shetye, who said several politicians, legislators, police officers, bureaucrats, lawyers and thousands of Goans have over the years applied and availed themselves of the Portuguese identity card, Bilhete. Police initially refused to register FIRs, but later did so on the directions of a local trial court. (12)
In Goa, as in the rest of India, colonial rule may have ended, but the ghosts of colonialism continue to haunt the people.
- Philip Bravo, The Case of Goa: History, Rhetoric and Nationalism, page 133
- Philip Bravo, The Case of Goa: History, Rhetoric and Nationalism, page 149
- Antonio de Oliviera Salazar, The Case for Goa (Lisbon: Secretariado National da Informacao, 19S4), pages 3-5,8
- Jawarhalal Nehru, India s Foreign Policy: Selected Speeches: September 1946 to April 1961 (The Commercial Printing Press, 1961), pages 112-120
- P.P. Shridokhar, Goa’s Struggle for Freedom (Ajanta Publications, 1988), page 23
- History.com, Bay of Pigs Invasion, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/bay-of-pigs-invasion
- Official Report of Debates in the UK Parliament, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1961/dec/18/goa-diu-and-daman-entry-of-indian-forces
- Keesing’s Record of World Events (formerly Keesing’s Contemporary Archives), Volume 8, March, 1962 India, Portugal, Indian, Page 18659
- Dennis Kux, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991, page 198
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