by Chris Wright
Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva will be in East Timor later this year to attend the country’s independence celebrations. No such diplomatic gesture will be extended to Goa where celebrations have begun to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Goa’s accession into India in 1961.
Vasco da Gama’s pioneering sea voyage to India is one of the defining moments in the history of exploration. Apart from being one the greatest pieces of European seamanship of that time – a far greater achievement than Christopher Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic – his journey acted as a catalyst for a series of events that changed the world.
By the middle of the 15th century, Portugal was the leading maritime nation in Europe, thanks largely to the legacy of Prince Henry the Navigator, who had brought together a talented group of mapmakers, geographers, astronomers and navigators at his school of seamanship at Sagres, on the south west tip of Portugal.
But when Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India in 1498, little did he know the turmoil it would cause some 450 years later.
Portugal’s territories in India included a number of enclaves of which Goa was one. Britain ceded independence to India in 1947 and three years later India asked the Portuguese government to open negotiations about the future of Portuguese colonies.
Portugal categorically stated that its territory on the Indian subcontinent was not a colony but part of metropolitan Portugal and hence its transfer was non-negotiable!
In June 1953, India withdrew its diplomatic mission from Lisbon. Matters came to a head in 1961 and in December the Portuguese Air Force was placed on alert to transport ten tons of anti-tank grenades to Goa to assist in its defence.
However, the two military aircraft were denied stop-over facilities at the US Air Base in Libya. When the Portuguese Air Force was unable to obtain such facilities elsewhere, the civilian airline TAP offered to do the job.
When permission to transport weapons through Karachi was denied by the Pakistani Government, the flight landed in Goa with a consignment of half-a-dozen bags of sausages instead of the intended grenades! However, the aircraft also arrived with a contingent of female paratroopers to assist in the evacuation of Portuguese civilians.
Eventually, on December 17 1961, India invaded Goa where they were faced with little Portuguese resistance. Salazar had ordered his armed forces to either defeat the invaders or die. The Portuguese meagre force of 3,300 men was no match against a fully armed Indian force of over 30,000 with full air and naval support.
The war lasted two days. India lost 34 killed and 51 wounded. Portugal lost 31 killed, 57 wounded, and 4,668 captured. The Governor of Portuguese India signed the Surrender on December 19, 1961 ending 450 years of Portuguese rule in India.
On receiving news of the fall of Portuguese India, Lisbon virtually went into mourning and Christmas celebrations were extremely muted. Cinemas and theatres shut down as tens of thousands of Portuguese marched in a silent parade from Lisbon’s city hall to the cathedral.
Today Goa is one of India’s richest states where tourism accounts for an eighth of all foreign tourist arrivals in India.
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