On 8th February 2022, while addressing the Rajya Sabha following the 60th anniversary of Goa’s liberation on 19th December 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that Jawaharlal Nehru had ‘deliberately’ delayed the liberation of Goa, to protect his international reputation as a peace-loving leader. He also went on to add that Nehru had insulted the Satyagrahis and that the then Home Minister, Sardar Patel, would have liberated Goa sooner, just as he had done in the case of Junagadh and Hyderabad.
These remarks have set off a huge debate in the mainstream and social media, with accusations being hurled from all sides. But like all things in history, the truth is complicated and not as simplistic as both sides make it out to be.
While India became independent from the British Raj on 15th August 1947, there were still enclaves that remained under colonial rule. These were the five French enclaves of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, Mahe and Chandernagore, and the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Diu and Daman-Dadra-Nagar Haveli. Soon after Independence, the Indian government began negotiations with the French government, and between 1949 and 1954, all the French enclaves peacefully merged with India.
Ironically, while the French amicably settled the colonial issue, the attitude of the Portuguese government to its Indian possessions was very different. And this had everything to do with the man holding the levers of power in Lisbon, António de Oliveira Salazar, the Dictator who ruled Portugal with an iron fist.
Salazar was a fascist leader, who had come to power in 1932. While the Second World War had toppled fascist regimes across Europe, Salazar maintained his iron grip on power by staying neutral. This iron grip also extended to Portuguese India, where any dissent was ruthlessly crushed.
Following India’s Independence, the Indian Government under Nehru was grappling with the issues of Partition, the accession of Hyderabad and Junagadh, and the economic crisis thanks to famines and the masses of refugees who had poured into India. Understandably, the Government did not want any unnecessary armed conflicts that would put even more pressure on the scarce resources of a newly independent nation. The Indian Government had hoped that the Portuguese would agree to a negotiated settlement, but this was not to be.
Even Goa’s freedom fighters realized that the Salazar government was very different from the British, who had been defeated by a non-violent Satyagraha. In Goa, since the 1930s, even peaceful protests had been brutally suppressed and Satyagrahis were arrested without trial. The arrested freedom fighters were imprisoned either in Africa or faraway Lisbon to ensure that they didn't cause any trouble.
Given this state of affairs, by the late 1940s, Goa’s leaders concluded that an armed struggle was the only way to end Portuguese rule. But an armed conflict was not an easy option due to a complication that most Indian commentators ignore.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), an alliance of the United States and European powers, had just been formed to create a ‘Block’ against the Soviet Union, in 1949. Portugal under Salazar was a founding member of NATO and had given military bases to NATO alliance partners across its empire. There was even a talk of a NATO base being established in Goa.
– In 1951, Salazar smartly decreed that Goa and all other colonies were ‘overseas provinces’ and an integral part of Portugal, and were therefore entitled to NATO protection. This meant that any Indian military action in Goa would have drawn India into a war with NATO countries.
The Indian government under Nehru had no intention of being drawn into an armed conflict with NATO powers. In a debate on Foreign Policy in Indian Parliament on 28th March 1951, Nehru declared:
“India cannot tolerate any footholds of foreign powers in this country.... There are only two ways of bringing this about—either through war or through diplomatic means. In pursuance of our ideals, we have ruled out war as a means of redress, unless we are forced into one. The only alternative we are left with is the diplomatic method, and we are pursuing it.“
Through their pronounced bias towards the Soviet bloc, Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon had already alienated the United States. In 1955, Soviet Union Premier Nikolai Bulganin, on a visit to India, supported India’s position on Goa. There was an immediate reaction from the United States. On 2nd December 1955, the staunchly anti-Communist US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles issued a joint statement with the Portuguese Foreign Minister Dr Paolo Cunha, in which he referred to Goa as a “province of Portugal”.
This statement was received with great disappointment by Nehru, who had hoped that the US and UK would influence Portugal to come to an amicable solution. Nehru remarked to an Indian delegation on their way to the US: “Dulles’ statement about Goa has angered everybody here. Indo-American relations are much more affected by this kind of thing than by the aid they may give.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Goa kept deteriorating. Indian Socialists under Ram Manohar Lohia organized mass protests in India and Goa, and plans were made to cross the Goa border. In August 1955, 22 protesting Indian Satyagrahis were shot dead by the Portuguese army as they attempted to cross the Goa-India border, and more than 300 were injured.
It was in this context that Nehru criticized Indian Satyagrahis, a point referred to by P M Narendra Modi in his speech. Nehru had said, “The people think by disrupting the situation, they can convince us to send our forces there, but we won’t budge”. Nehru wanted Lohia to understand the international ramifications of such an action.
This is Modi’s statement in Parliament on February 8: (translated from Hindi) “Even when bullet shots were fired at Satyagrahis in Goa, when Indian people were being fired at for fighting for India, Prime Minister Nehru had the audacity to not send the army to Goa.” His statement is unjustified as any such attempt would carry the prospect of an India-NATO war.
To be fair to Nehru, he never gave up the military option while hoping for a peaceful settlement. S Gopal in his biography of the former Prime Minister titled Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Volume 3) reveals how Nehru came to the conclusion that the Portuguese were pushing the Government of India into thinking afresh and of a taking proactive military stand with Nehru adding, “When and how I cannot say now, but I have no doubt that we will do it …”
In 1961, John F Kennedy became the President of the United States and was extremely supportive of India’s position on Goa. With this, the possibility of a possible US-led NATO intervention in Goa receded. In November 1961, Nehru made a last attempt to bring about a diplomatic resolution with Portugal but Salazar refused to budge.
Ironically, it was India’s Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon who pushed for military action in Goa, and the reasons for that were personal. Menon was standing for elections scheduled for February 1962 from the North Bombay constituency against Acharya Kriplani. A swift Indian victory in Goa would have boosted Menon’s popularity, and this is exactly what happened.
Between 17th and 19th December, the Indian Army marched into Goa and thousands of enthusiastic Goans welcomed them. Portuguese rule in Goa finally ended, though any political gains for Menon did not matter much as India was embroiled in a border conflict with China by then.
Given these facts, it is clear that an early military operation in Goa was not an option. And even the then Home Minister Sardar Patel would have followed the same course had he been Prime Minister then.
In the theatre that modern-day politics has become, clearly it is historic facts that act as a balance.
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Cover Image: PTI via Hindustan Times