Remembering the Fall of Portuguese India in 1961

Contributed by: Teotonio R. de Souza

Francisco Cabral Couto, O Fim do Estado Português da Índia, Lisboa, Tribuna, s.d, ISBN.10:972-8799-53-5, pp. 136. Priced at € 21.60 by FNAC in Lisbon, this hard cover coffee-table publication is perhaps the latest addition to the surprisingly rich and often controversial historiography about the end of the Portuguese colonial rule in India. The author, now a retired general, was a young 26-old fresher from Military Academy when he arrived in Goa on 27 March 1961 and was posted at the Afonso de Albuquerque military camp in the village of Navelim, with command over 47 «caçadores» (hunters) with responsibility for the defence of Borim bridge, Paroda canal, river Sal and Anjidiv island.

Within months the reinforcements made a total of 158, including many youngsters with little military training. They were mostly involved in reconnaissance missions to ward off terrorist attacks. Describes the lack of basic conditions for any sort of defence in any terms of strategic or military means at disposal. The camp headquarters at Navelim had a generator that did not work, and depended upon the use of kerosene lamps and stoves. With the exception of the delicious mangoes and abundant supply of bananas, classifies the food resources in Goa as of poor quality. There were canned supplies of quality food and drinks from UK and Holland, but few could afford them.

The author admits that he did not stay in Goa long enough to take the pulse of the civil society, but remained with the impression that most Goans favoured autonomy or integration with India. Felt that the Portuguese presence was tolerated and even respected, but not much loved: «Quanto aos portugueses, é importante dizê-lo, pareceu-me que eram, dum mode geral, respeitados, bem tolerados, mas não amados, a não ser por aqueles que com eles tinham fortes laços familiares» (pp. 20-21).

While the acts of terrorism in Goa were multiplying, the Portuguese authorities were curiously encouraging the families of the men posted in Goa to join them, giving a false impression that all was well in Portuguese India. The author had his first son born on the eve of his departure to India. His wife and 5-month old son arrived by the first flight of TAIP in July. While reporting about the relics of the Portuguese naval force in Goa, the author refers to a curious incident in September 1963 when Salazar ordered the ground batteries at the fort of Almada in Portugal to fire upon the cruiser Afonso de Albuquerque for having joined the republican forces in the Spanish civil war! Hence, ironically, the Indians were the not the first ones to do fire upon this war vessels.

The author does not fail to report that the Commander of the warship was gravely hurt in the Vijay Operation, but his life was saved by the Indian military medics who treated him on shore in the Naval Club at Caranzalem. The author reveals that in an emergency defence planning meet in September 1961 he had opposed the «Plano Sentinela» that was approved by the home government for resistance to Indian attack, suggesting that the defence should concentrate in the capital island, and not in Mormugão. Confesses that he was asked to drop his objections and withdraw his suggestions.

Reveals another «Plano de Barragens» that has found no mention in earlier publications known to me. It complemented the «Plano Sentinela». It was meant to demolish the vital bridge links to delay the advance of the enemy forces. The same plan envisaged also mining of the main roadways and beach approaches. But lack of mines did not make it viable. We have a fairly detailed description of the events at Anjidiv on 23-24 November, when the Portuguese forces stationed there fired upon the passenger vessel Sabarmati passing between the island and Kochi harbour, causing some deaths. The Portuguese forces were convinced that Indians were planning to disembark in the island. The Indian press was agog with news on 25 November and provoked a rapid escalation of diplomatic and military tension.

The Portuguese official sent from Goa to investigate the case reported that the soldier manning the gun had fired upon the ship alleging that it was within the Portuguese territorial waters on 17 November and had kept his action unreported. On December 9 the vessel India arrived from Timor on its way to Lisbon. With capacity for 380 passengers, it left on 12 December carrying 700, despite a telegram received from Lisbon ordering the Governor General to not permit any families to embark in the ship. The Governor General ignored the order. Allowed all who wanted to leave to embark and the passengers were fitted even into the bath rooms during night time. It arrived in Lisbon on the last day of the year. The most valuable and original contribution of this book are the very personal experiences of the author after his detention by the invading forces. Such details as we read in pp. 103-116 constitute the value that this kind of personal memoirs can bring to historiography, despite and precisely because of their questionable nature of subjective version. Every personal version counts and is important for the re-construction of an «objective» history.

Francisco Cabral Couto describes the humiliation he felt when the Indian troops forced them to break up their weapons and arrange them in mounds. He got a gun-handle knock on his knuckles when tried to play dumb. Greater humiliation awaited him when his group was taken to the Navelim camp where he had been in command. Now he and his colleagues had to sleep on cement floor, dig trenches to serve as open-air latrines, and had to go make do with a jar of water that was supplied by tanks of Margão Muncipality. Confesses that this shortage was caused by the Portuguese themselves by destroying the bridges and other supply routes. Remembers how the Christmas was celebrated with some dry biscuits that meant much in the context.

Most interesting is the fact that among the guards, soldiers of Indian army he recognized three who had served in Goa as train TC, another as Longuinhos bar servant and a third who would be seating as a beggar under a banyan tree. After all, they seem to have been serving the Indian spy system, and nobody had sensed it. The Navelim internees where shifted to the Ponda camp in mid January 1962, where the Alfa Detenues Camp was much better organized. Describes how a few soldiers tried to escape, provoking a serious incident when the some of the Portuguese officials were called upon to admit lack of responsibility and were threatened with death by shooting. The timely intervention of a Jesuit military chaplain ended it all without any tragic consequences.

The author admits that he and his Portuguese colleagues admired the discipline of the Indian army, which was equally just in punishing its own members who failed to comply with rules. Describes how he left Goa by air to Karachi on May 8 and embarked on 9th for Lisbon aboard Vera Cruz. On arrival in Lisbon 11 days later, they were taken away early in the dark of night under police escort and without access to the families that awaited them. In the following months all were subject to unending questionings, until on 22 March 1963 a list was published of those who were subject to punishment of some kind, and many were dismissed from service without right for self-justification. The book ends by admission that Salazar failed to calculate well the international support, but that also the Indian invasion proved the Portuguese capacity to resist subversion.

This conclusion appears to be a non sequitur after the author admits that Nehru has shown great patience for nearly two decades, and implying that no one can be tested indefinitely, as did the Portuguese diplomatic intransigence. Perhaps the photo chosen to be included in the book reveals author’s bias and provides an answer? Is the photo meant to illustrate Nehru’s intimacy with the Mountbatten couple, or does it insinuate anything else?

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About fredericknoronha

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One comment

  1. P. Melo e Castro

    Interesting the way the author of the article above describes this incident…

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