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Forgotten Martyrs of Margao and Panaji

By Nandkumar M Kamat

The most loved professor of French and Goa’s poet laureate late Manoharrai Sardessai had once chided me for arguing on ‘ifs and buts’ in history. “Don’t dare to ask questions to history”, he said smilingly and I understood. We cannot question the gaonkars of Taleigao why they did not sink ships of Albuquerque in 1510? Albuquerque had not visited Goa for picnic. We cannot ask upper caste Hindus who fled the territory with their idols to escape forcible conversions, why, despite their fairly large numbers they did not unite and crush the Portuguese? We cannot ask Peshwas of Pune why they spent so much energy in capturing Vasai (Bassein) from well-entrenched Portuguese but despite their armies reaching Attock in Afghanistan with our own Goan commander Bakshi Jivabadada Kerkar leading  from front– they could not annex the miniscule “Estado do India” ? Why Pinto’s revolt in 1787 did not become a mass revolt?  Why the blood which was shed in Margao in 1890 did not result in a mass movement which could overthrow the Portuguese?

Keeping aside differences of opinions on interpretations of history, today, all the Goans tasting fruits of liberation, democracy, development and affluence should offer silent, solemn tributes to 13 martyrs (exact number differs, excluding those who subsequently died due to injuries) who were massacred on the grounds near Holy Spirit Church, Margao, on September 21, 1890. If this is not done it would be great injustice to the brave, patriotic, rebellious spirit of people of Salcete. After all, on that day Goans had shed blood on their own red soil not to seek any personal favours but to dream of a more equal world. Those who had assembled on 21 September, 1890 had a rich legacy of two thousand years of self governance – administering the ‘gaunkaris’ or comunidades based on ‘ganvpon’. They did not need lessons from Portugal in self governance or village republics.

There were thousands of others in old and new conquests, majority illiterate, many landless and bonded labourers, undergoing hardships who were silently watching the uprising by the upper caste landed gentry. But these subalterns had no recognition and no voting rights. It is not important at this point to go into the micro-history of politics of elite and upper castes in Salcete at the end of 19th century.

It is intriguing to notice that Margao and Panaji still have no dedicated memorials to the martyrs of 1890 and 1789. We need to salvage the heritage of sacrifices of our forefathers for future generations. It is a mission to state facts as they had occurred and sacrifices which had been made at Margao in 1890 and Panaji in 1789 where Portuguese killed and brutally mutilated 15 native rebels. Rest of India and world need to know that Goans do not deserve the ‘happy go merry’, ‘sosegado’ image portrayed by tourists.

Martyrs of Panaji, 1789 and Margao, 1890 had proven that Goans were not cowards, they could revolt, face bullets and could confront the Portuguese state. They had no broad-based organisation like Indian National Congress founded in 1885. But Goans did not wait for lessons from British India. The situation on civil rights of the natives was much worse in India under British when bullets were fired on civilians in Margao on 21 September, 1890. The quasquicentennial anniversary of massacre in Margao needs to focus on political aspirations of Goans and the characteristic ‘divide and rule’ policy of the colonial masters. Portuguese richly benefited from the caste system among Hindus which was ditto transplanted among the neo converts. If we depend only on fabricated records of colonial masters and their blackmailed witnesses and approvers, then the martyrs of Margao would never get justice and national recognition.

We need credible historians like Celsa Pinto who can change the whole paradigm of these anti-colonial protests, revolts and rebellions. Celsa Pinto in 2013 came out with the well-researched book – A revolt of the Natives of Goa, 1787 and demolished the myth that it was merely a conspiracy hatched by a few priests. She successfully positioned the strong republican impulse behind the motive which itself was a great contribution to understand the first global wave of decolonisation in a post Columbian world. The rebels of 1787 had “aimed at subtracting the whole State from the subjection, obedience and government of Her Majesty, destroy the State and found a new republic, in which the government would be composed of Goan natives.”

That was the most outstanding and courageous contribution of Goans to history of peoples’ movement for decolonisation, years before the French revolution. The massacre of Margao also needs to be re-positioned from similar local and global context. It was not just matter of re-election or a rivalry between two political parties or a feud between castes conscious Catholic landed gentry or power struggle between a few Christian families.

About 4000 people on 21 September, 1890 had trekked from farming and fishing villages like Colva, Benaulim, Betalbhatim, Seraulim- and they had a single aim, ensure free and fair re-elections and demand a voice to the natives. It does not matter whether they were armed or unarmed, agitated or peaceful, sober or drunk. What matters today to all of us is the fact that 4000 god-fearing people, almost all Christians, could show courage to march to a garrisoned town from their  peaceful villages without any idea or a hope of a reassuring outcome and in preparation to  face the ruthless power of the state. They could have surrendered or fled the grounds when firing began but they braved the bullets.

It is difficult to get even the names of those who laid their lives for a cause which ended on 19 December, 1961. That makes their martyrdom more important because many people have remained nameless and unrecognised in history of Goa. Margao deserves an appropriate and grand memorial to the martyrs of 21 September, 1890 and Panaji deserves a grand memorial as permanent tribute to 15 native rebels who were killed in the main square of the city on 13 December, 1789. The government, the civil society and political class need to urgently address these legitimate patriotic aspirations which all Goans would support wholeheartedly.

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