RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT BUZZ
A familiar proverb in Sanskrit states that tales of the battle are interesting only for the purpose of listening and as long as one is away from the battlefield. This is so true, especially when one considers the damage inflicted by the battles and wars on the innocent people and their properties. The synchronised armed action by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force against Portuguese Goa, referred to as ‘Operation Vijay’ had however become necessary to end the 451 years of Portuguese overseas provincial governance in the region, more so as the reign of terror unleashed by the colonial power in Goa since 1953, which was led by Agente Casmiro Monteiro and his team of sadistic policemen had become intolerable to locals.
Post-Liberation there were countless narrators in Goa, recounting the sustained land, sea and air strikes of the Indian Armed Forces for more than 36 hours – between December 18, 1961 and December19, 1961 – which eventually resulted in the unconditional surrender of Portuguese forces on December 19. I myself was told about these tales by my mother, who maintained that she heard large explosions in the direction of Ponda as the attack happened and the Borim Bridge was bombed by the retreating Portuguese forces. Then there were several others, who had so many other stories. Prabhakar Sinari, an important member of the Azad Gomantak Dal – a key participant in the Goa Liberation Movement – who has compiled his memories in a book, ‘From Darkness to Dawn’, himself narrated various first-hand accounts to me. It would be timely to revisit those tumultuous days as we enter the diamond jubilee year of Goa’s Liberation.
The political wheels working towards liberating Goa from the Portuguese colonial yoke gathered speed in 1960, although the Jawaharlal Nehru government had been long making peaceful efforts at the global forums including the United Nations, to make Portugal give up its colonies in India. The issue of Goa’s Liberation came alive when Portugal paid no heed to a UN resolution of December 1960 asking it to indicate when it would grant independence to its colonies in Asia and Africa. In fact, in March 1960, Portuguese defence minister, General Botelho Moniz told Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar that a sustained Portuguese campaign against decolonisation would create for the army “a suicide mission in which we could not succeed.” His opinion was shared by army minister, Colonel Almeida Fernandes, the army under the secretary of state, Lieutenant-Colonel Costa Gomes and other top officers. Ignoring this advice, Salazar sent a message to Governor General Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva in Goa, in which he ordered the Portuguese forces in Goa to fight to the last man.
When the Nehru government contemplated military action to liberate Goa, his defence minister, V K Krishna Menon supported the move wholeheartedly. At the beginning of 1961, G K Handoo, the senior Intelligence Bureau officer in-charge of Nehru’s security was given command of the borders of Goa, Daman and Diu. He started preparations for the attack on the three Portuguese enclaves by asking Prabhakar Sinari to provide details of Goa’s topography to the Indian Army by clicking photographs of bridges, culverts, etc, as well as key installations. All the military plans for attacking Goa were ready by the end of monsoon.
The Indian government now needed a motive to launch an attack on Goa. It arrived on November 17, 1961, when a Portuguese garrison stationed at Anjediva Island opened fire on the passenger ship Sabarmati passing between Kochi and Anjediva Island, resulting in the death of a passenger and injuries to the chief engineer. A week later, on November 24, Portuguese provoked India by firing at the local fishing boats, killing one fisherman, as also tried to pull out villagers and take them hostage. Finally, Nehru dropped his Gandhian approach and decided to take military action.
The military build-up created panic amongst Europeans in Goa, who were desperate to evacuate their families before the commencement of hostilities. Governor General Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva allowed 700 Portuguese civilians of European origin to board the ship India that arrived on December 9, at Mormugao port en route to Lisbon. This 380-capacity ship was filled to its limit. In fact, the evacuation of European civilians also continued by air even after the commencement of Indian air strikes.
By December 11, Indian forces were placed at Belgaum, Vapi and Una for attacks on Goa, Daman and Diu, respectively. The military operations against Goa were to be directed by Major General K P Candeth. The plan was to advance into Goa from the North and East. The attack from the South was meant to divert attention. On December 12, the two main land routes connecting Goa and India were sealed for the civilian population, a move to facilitate the movement of the Indian Army. Finally on December 18, around 30,000 Indian troops with full air and naval support launched assault on Goa, which at that time had only 3,300 Portuguese soldiers.
As the attack began, the Indian Air Force planes at about 6:30 a.m. bombarded the radio station at Bambolim and the airport at Dabolim damaging its runway. The attack was led by Air Vice Marshal A Pinto do Rosario in Hawker Hunter aircraft. The Indian Navy ships were positioned outside the Mormugao port. The only Portuguese warship Afonso de Albuquerque was beached by the Portuguese Navy after attack from the Indian Navy comprising of the frigates INS Betwa and INS Beas. The old-fashioned guns on the Afonso de Albuquerque failed to inflict serious damage on much more modern Indian frigates.
The Indian Army entered Goa from the North at 5 a.m. on two fronts and moved forward to Pilgao and then to Banastarim. Another platoon entered Goa via Dodamarg around 6:30 a.m. and advanced towards Assanora, Tivim, Mapusa and eventually Betim. The onward move of these soldiers was difficult as the Portuguese tried stopping them by blasting bridges and culverts on the way. The local population however helped the soldiers with information as regards places that were mined and unsafe.
Meanwhile, on the North-Eastern side a platoon entered Goa and proceeded to Sanquelim, Usgao and then Ponda. The situation in Ponda was that of chaos and confusion. The Portuguese had left after setting fire to their equipment and some buildings. After occupying Ponda, the force moved towards Panaji only to be halted in their advance by the blasted bridge of Banastarim. On the Eastern side, two platoons entered Goa via Anmod, while the attack from the South began at Poinguinim when a Portuguese post opened fired on the Indian troops, but was conquered soon along with the arms and ammunition stocked there.
Along the Eastern front, after occupying Ponda, the Indian troops moved towards Margao via Borim, where the bridge was bombed and a bailey bridge had to be erected by the Indian Army. The forces then advanced towards Vasco and the Mormugao port via Verna and Dabolim. They captured Mormugao at about 4:30 p.m.
On hearing the firing at Betim, the Portuguese flag in front of the secretariat was lowered and the white flag was hoisted to indicate surrender at 6 p.m. on December 18. As the Indian soldiers at Betim entered Panaji on the morning of December 19, the local employees of the Goa Development Bureau knocked down the bust of Salazar installed in front of their department building. The Indian national flag was hoisted in front of the Secretariat by Major General Candeth.
The Indian Army by December 19 evening restored law and order in the Goan towns. It also took over and sealed all the public buildings, banks, treasury, police station, post office and so on. In all, 4,668 personnel were taken prisoners by the Indian Army, a figure which included military and civilian personnel – Portuguese, Africans, and Goans.
Despite orders from Lisbon, Vassalo e Silva took stock of the numerical superiority of the Indian troops, as well as the food and ammunition supplies available to his forces and took the decision to surrender. He described his orders to destroy Goa as “Um sacrifício inútil”, which meant “A useless sacrifice”. The official Portuguese surrender was conducted in a formal ceremony held at 8:30 p.m. on December 19, at Vasco. When Vassalo e Silva signed the Instrument of Surrender and submitted it to Brig K S Dhillon, it brought to an end the 451-year-old Portuguese rule in Goa. Major General Candeth was appointed the military Governor of Goa.
Interestingly, even though Portugal was a NATO member, the US and other NATO members failed to come to its rescue. The USSR, other socialist countries and progressive regimes of the Third World nations, and finally left-wing parties in the West expressed full support for India. On December 18, 1961, the United States submitted to the UN Security Council a resolution on an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Indian troops from Goa to their original positions, but the USSR vetoed.
In March 1962, India officially incorporated Goa, Diu and Daman into its composition as a Union Territory. The last colony of a foreign country in India was integrated with the motherland.