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Karachi’s ‘prodigal’ Goans find it hard to return

Frederick Noronha

Of all the expat diasporic Goan communities, those who opted to shift to Karachi and other parts of Sindh must be the most sinned against. The pun here might have been funny, if it wasn’t for their sad reality. Many decades after they chose to migrate, their children and grandchildren are still even deprived of the basic right to return home when they wish. Even if they are settled in some other parts of the globe.

Some days ago, a policeman showed up at my home, and politely mentioned that he wanted to check out a few details. Knowing the background to the issue, I well knew where this was headed to. A friend from Canada had applied for a visa to visit Goa, and the policeman was just checking out some basics about him. Like, when was he planning to visit, what was the purpose of his visit, how did I know him, etc.

As our exchanged proceeded, the visiting policeman was himself surprised that the visitor had not even arrived yet, and was, in fact, still awaiting a visa!

It was at this point that I felt obliged to download onto the uniformed visitor a little bit of Goan migration history. I explained to him that the friend in question happened to have been born in Karachi, that he had moved from that city to Canada sometime in the 1970s, and that this full section of the expat population was needlessly getting harassed each time they wished to visit home.

It’s a fact that India and Pakistan today do not have the best of relations. And that each looks at the other with suspicion and mistrust. But the needless harassment meted out to the Karachi Goans is definitely something that grows out of ignorance of our own history, and a bad misreading of the
situation.

For one thing, the Goan migration to Karachi has nothing whatsoever to do with Partition, its politics or the ensuing bitterness. Theirs was not a choice based on a religious divide of the sub-continent. In fact, the Goans who migrated to Karachi were mostly Catholic, and had shifted there decades before Partition was even dreamt of. They went there for pure economic reasons, when Karachi was just another city in British India, much like they went to Bombay, Calcutta, Poona, Mangalore or other centres of Goan migration.

Menin Rodrigues, a Karachi Goan who traces his roots to the village of Colva, in Salcete, had put up this fascinating site called the goansofpakistan.org.

Unfortunately, probably because it was not renewed on time after he himself migrated westwards, the site no longer works. Yet, there are luckily some mirrored archives available at archive.org, where one can search for this original site. Had this not been the case, then we would have also forgotten about this part of our migration, as we have over so many aspects of Goa’s
unusual history.

The role of the Goan community in Karachi is remembered till this day, including in recent local newspaper write-ups. “Two communities that stand out for giving Karachi the face it has, are Parsi businessmen cum philanthropists and the Goan Christians….  Goans followed with their skilled manpower and organisational ability… During the turmoil of Partition in 1947, it was the Goans and Parsis that held the city together… The majority of health care, educational and civic facilities were run by these two communities,” wrote Samson Simon Sharaf in The
Nation newspaper.

Goa should have been welcoming to those who did it proud, even if they ended up in another country due to the accidents of history. One day, we might look back and realise how foolish it was to treat our own folks as The Enemy.

Many Goans in Karachi, like their counterparts here, have migrated to North America or Australia-New Zealand. But some estimates still place their community strength at about 15,000. And, their story is amazing.

From writing the first constitution of the Hockey Federation of Pakistan (OB Nazareth), to representing that country in the Olympics (Milton D’Mello, Jack Britto in hockey; and Mathais Wallis, Antão D’Souza in cricket), the Goans of Karachi have done it.

Tollentine Fonseca, a Goan bandmaster, is credited with writing the actual scores and compositions for Pakistan’s catchy national anthem. (And another Goan, incidentally, Antsher Lobo, set to music another patriotic song this side of the border, ‘Sareh Jahan Seh Accha, Hindustan Hamar…’ Certainly this must be a unique case.)

Others were prominent surgeons (Michael Rodrigues), and sportsmen. They’ve served as judges and bishops, and more.

The goansofpakistan archives, or what’s left of it online, says that Goans started emigrating to “Kurrachee” for greener pastures in 1815 (that’s not a typo!), and taking dhows to go there since 1820.

Anthony Cajetan was made the Chief Appraiser of the Karachi Customs in 1852, and St Patrick’s High School (which even L K Advani studied at) was built in 1861, with many Goan teachers. Somewhere in between, in the mid-nineteenth century, the J C Misquita bakery was opened in
Saddar.

Cincinnatus Fabian D’Abreo (1862-1929) of Saligão, was born in Goa, and shifted to Sindh, where his father had already migrated. He held many important posts, was president of the Karachi municipality, set up an insurance company (the Indian Life
Assurance Co) and built Karachi’s first planned township, named Cincinnatus Town, over 1000 acres. It is now known as Garden East.

The list goes on….

During one of his speeches at an NRI Commission event, the late Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had
himself commented on the unfairness of the current situation. He had, rightly, pointed out that Goan migration to Karachi had been purely economic, and had nothing whatsoever to do with politics. As he himself had said, the visa-denial situation was
unjustifiable.

But apart from such occasional statements, nothing has been done over the years to correct the situation. Currently, groups of Karachi Goans bunch together their travel plans, and visit their home state as ‘pilgrims’ during the St Francis Xavier feast.

This works out a bit easier in the impossible situation they face, perhaps because both India and Pakistan have some understanding about granting visas to pilgrims on the other side of their borders. Yet, when the relations get soured – which happens often – after waiting till the last minute, even such visas might not come through.

India is currently implementing the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being offered as a solution to Assam’s “long standing foreigner problem”.

At the same time, people from here who legitimately migrated and want to visit their home are being denied the very right to do so. Even those born in Karachi, who might be holding some other nationality, are kept out on mere suspicion.

It’s time someone sat up to recognise the problem for what it is, instead of just pretending it doesn’t exist.

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