If the declaration of the British government in 1946 that India would be granted full independence seemed to many Britons the passing of their Empire, it fell upon the ears of the Portuguese on the Subcontinent as a death sentence. While France, free from England’s desire for her to retain her Indian holdings, quickly negotiated their transfer to the new Indian Union, the government in Lisbon declared that the province of Goa on the southwestern coast, which they had ruled for four and half centuries, was not a colony but an integral part of metropolitan Portugal, and that its transfer was non-negotiable.
This, in turn, was unwelcome news to India’s new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who held that the inclusion of Portuguese as well as French territories into the Union was equally non-negotiable. Following Portugal’s abject refusal to make terms, Nehru severed diplomatic ties with Lisbon in 1953, and began campaigning through the UN for a peaceful withdrawal of the Portuguese from India.
Meanwhile, however, the defense ministry in New Delhi was singing a different tune. The Indian government began providing weapons, money, and intelligence to terrorist groups dedicated to the liberation of Goa through “direct action”. The organization Azad Gomantak Dal, among the most active in Goa, took advantage of safe havens provided it within Indian territory to mount raids on Portuguese police stations and factories and to attack Portuguese patrols. The Goa Liberation Army, likewise, used Indian support to sabotage mining operations in the territory.
As the Indian government began to dabble with violence as a means to secure its ends, however, many ordinary Indians remained committed to nonviolence. Peaceful marches, termed satyagrahas, were organized in protest of the restrictions Portuguese authorities instituted on movement and communication between Goa and India. Marches of thousands of civilians attempted to illegally enter Goa in 1954 and 1955, only to be met with violence by Portuguese police. For its part, Portugal insisted that India’s permission of the satyagrahas violated its territorial sovereignty. In response, Nehru was forced to publicly condemn the nonviolent marches, even while his government continued to privately lend support to armed insurrectionaries. Following his denunciation, the nonviolent movement lost momentum, and the violence continued.
On 21 July 1954, the army of the United Front of Goans forced a Portuguese withdrawal from the landlocked enclave of Dadra. The neighboring Portuguese territory of Nagar Haveli was invaded by the forces of Azad Gomantak Dal, in conjunction with another revolutionary group, on the 28th. Both would be administered as de facto independent states for the next seven years. Portugal appealed to the International Court of Justice, which determined that Portugal held full sovereign rights over its possessions in India. Unable to retaliate militarily, however, Portugal had no choice but to abandon the lost enclaves and retreat to the coastal territory of Goa, sealing its borders to prevent further disturbances. Nehru, reticent to act directly against the Portuguese who, as NATO allies, could broaden the conflict if attacked, continued to support insurgents within the territory while demanding that Lisbon negotiate a transfer.
As the situation around Goa grew progressively more tense, however, and Lisbon refused to come to the table, Nehru finally issued a statement in 1961 that Goa was to be liberated “either with full peace or with full use of force”. Beginning in August, Indian troops were positioned and readied for conflict. On 10 December, Nehru declared that “[c]ontinuance of Goa under Portuguese rule is an impossibility.” On the 18th, he ordered Indian forces to invade.
Four days before, however, Portuguese Governor General Vassalo e Silva had received a communique from Prime Minister Salazar:
You understand the bitterness with which I send you this message. It is horrible to think that this may mean total sacrifice, but I believe that sacrifice is the only way for us to keep up to the highest traditions and provide service to the future of the Nation. Do not expect the possibility of truce or of Portuguese prisoners, as there will be no surrender rendered because I feel that our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead. These words could, by their seriousness, be directed only to a soldier of higher duties fully prepared to fulfill them. God will not allow you to be the last Governor of the State of India.
Consequently, although outnumbered over ten to one and possessed of no air support, Portuguese forces in Goa began preparing to defend the territory to the last man. Orders were similarly received to transfer the remains of Goa’s patron saint, St. Francis Xavier, to Lisbon—which was done—and to destroy all non-military Portuguese structures in Goa as part of a scorched-earth policy. This was not done. E Silva countermanded the Prime Minister’s orders, saying “I cannot destroy the evidence of our greatness in the Orient.” He then arranged for 700 women and children to be evacuated on an available ship, also in defiance of orders from Lisbon.
With no reinforcements and no realistic means of defending the territory against a 36-hour sustained assault by land, sea, and air codenamed by the Indians Operation Vijay, Portuguese defences crumbled swiftly. Although Prime Minister Salazar had requested at least eight days of resistance to give him time to seek international support for the Portuguese defence, most of the province was lost in two. E Silva, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, once again defied his orders and signed an instrument of surrender on the 19th, formally ending 451 years both of Portuguese and of European rule in India. Thirty-one Portuguese had been killed in the two-day war, as well as thirty-four Indians. Although E Silva’s wife was allowed to leave with other non-combatants, he was taken as a POW alongside 3300 Portuguese soldiers and policemen, who were transferred to their own military camps and put to hard labor. By May of 1962 most had been returned to Portugal, being taken into custody by military police immediately on arrival without the opportunity to see their families who had come to greet them. The officers were charged with insubordination for participating in the surrender; many were cashiered and expelled from service. E Silva himself, who had single-handedly prevented the loss of all the heritage of Portuguese India, was court martialed and driven into exile, from which he would only return after the fall of Salazar’s government in 1974.
Both Goa and the formerly seized inland enclaves were swiftly incorporated as union territories. The shocked world recoiled, and US President John F. Kennedy contacted the Indian ambassador, saying, “You spend the last fifteen years preaching morality to us, and then you go ahead and act the way any normal country would behave… People are saying, the preacher has been caught coming out of the brothel.” The president of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan, explained the situation to Kennedy in a subsequent letter: “My Dear President, The forcible taking of Goa by India has demonstrated what we in Pakistan have never had any illusions about—that India would not hesitate to attack if it were in her interest to do so and if she felt that the other side was too weak to resist.”
And perhaps that was it after all; India, which for so long had been too weak to resist, at last was not. Armed with British bombers and tanks, trained in French administration and diplomacy, funded by Dutch corporate structures and financial instruments, and connected to a great wide world by Portuguese maps and shipping lanes, India had grown more powerful than her former masters and had become, in turn, their conqueror.
In the half century since, India, which had been so richly planted in the flags of European nations, has become the fourth country to plant its flag on the moon with the Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008, which was the first to discover water there thanks to a suite of instruments, some Indian and some the payloads of the European Space Agency, carried for free as an act of generosity upon an Indian rocket. Once a distant port passively receiving ships cast out upon an unknown sea, India has become a world leader in the sending out of ships upon the unknown sea above, and the gracious partner of her former rulers. Once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, she has become a jewel in the crown of our whole emerging global society, and at last the wealth of her history and spirit, of her ingenuity and courage, of her spirituality and wisdom, no less than that of her spices and her gems, enriches us all.