If 15 August, 1947 is considered as a momentous day in the history of the Indian nation, 19 December, 1961 can be considered to be the Goan equivalent of the ‘Indian Independence’ whereby it is largely agreed upon that ‘Liberation’ from Portuguese colonial rule was achieved after 450 years. The corpus of perceptions handed down to us regarding Operation Vijay launched by the Indian State is often viewed through a (almost sacral) veneer of nationalist history, wherein vivid images of Goan freedom-fighters being brutally assaulted and tortured by the Portuguese police and military shape and define this discourse through art, literature, poetry and songs. But one cannot deny the fact that this particular slice of history and the role of freedom-fighters in it have not been critically assessed. Happily for us, due to a wonderful memoir by Suresh Kanekar, we can shift our thinking in this direction.
Suresh Kanekar is the father of the best-selling novelist Amita Kanekar, though Suresh Kanekar is a well-known academic himself, having few books and numerous research papers to his credit. He has also previously authored a novel called Of Mangoes and Monsoons.
Suresh Kanekar’s memoir Goa’s Liberation and Thereafter: Chronicles of a Fragmented Life is roughly divided into two phases: one, where as a very young student he enters, head-on into the freedom struggle and gets incarcerated for five years in Aguada and then again for a few more months; and in the second phase, he describes his life as a student of Psychology in Poona, in the US and finally in the Bombay University as a faculty member. Though the latter part of the book is interesting as it chronicles Suresh Kanekar’s battles with an inefficient and lackadaisical administration and also gives a glimpse of his cantankerous and enfant terrible side, I shall however largely dwell on the former part of the book as it is more relevant to Goan history.
Suresh Kanekar describes his cavalier days as a student, first in Goa and later in Poona. He was a happy-go-lucky person who decided to join the freedom struggle after the arrest of Pundalik Gaitonde. But young Suresh Kanekar was not fired by any patriotism or nationalism and joining “the Goa freedom movement was a matter of escapism at worst and romanticism at best, with hardly any idealism or patriotism involved. Conceivably, in my case, patriotism was the first refuge of the scoundrel. I became seriously committed to the freedom movement only after I was arrested and put behind bars,” Suresh Kanekar discloses. Suresh Kanekar does not try to fit his account in the established moulds of hagiographies about the Goan freedom struggle and thus, his book can be useful to look beyond the nationalist paradigms of history.
One can find a very detailed and vivid description of Suresh Kanekar’s arrest, interrogation and the final incarceration in Aguada – where he was imprisoned for five years. What will strike the reader is that nowhere in the account stories of physical brutalities against the political prisoners are present. Life in the jail “was uneventful after the preliminary hearings. We had settled down to a routine of cooking, eating, cleaning, and so on,” he says. In fact, one can find Suresh Kanekar having a pleasant and civil time with the Portuguese guards in the Aguada prison. When the prisoners had any complaints they would write petitions to the authorities and generally they were given a patient listening. Even when they did not wish to stand to the Portuguese flag as a mark of respect and homage, the prisoners after non-violent disobedience and a few petitions achieved their goal and, “one fine morning the sergeant or corporal on duty came to our hall and told us the commander-in-chief had determined that we should no longer be forced to stand for the flag. I practically danced with relief and joy.”
Finally when Suresh Kanekar completed his term of imprisonment and was released, this is what he had to say, “I never saw Aguada again, although I had and have wonderful memories of the place. I had been sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment and I had been behind bars for five years and twenty-five days. Those five years were the best five years of my life till then. They changed me into a much better person than I was before imprisonment.”
Suresh Kanekar narrates a particular incident about Mohan Virginkar, the then vice-president of the National Congress (Goa). He was supposed to offer satyagraha in April 1955, but failed to appear at the site after he developed cold-feet. “[B]ut unfortunately for him his name was announced on the All India Radio along with the names of other satyagrahis who had genuinely offered satyagraha on the specified day. The next day he was arrested and put behind bars. When he was sentenced, he fainted in court. He was in Aguada briefly, and then was transferred to Margaon where female freedom fighters were imprisoned. There he was close to his wealthy and influential family,” reports Suresh Kanekar.
What one can observe in the autobiography is that Suresh Kanekar narrates anecdotes and incidents about people who were, generally, elites. One gets a sense that most of Suresh Kanekar’s interaction in prison was with this group of people who were upper-caste. All the petitioning and protests inside the jail were conceived and lead by these people. And within this group of upper-caste freedom-fighters, in Suresh Kanekar’s memoir, there are more Hindu names than Catholic ones. Thus, one needs to ask some questions: who were the ones who fought and as a consequence went to jail for Goa’s Liberation? Why did they fight for Goa’s Liberation? Why weren’t other sections of Goan society actively involved in the freedom movement (satyagraha or armed rebellion)? These other sections do not find any worthwhile mention in the memoir. We must remember that Suresh Kanekar was in the Aguada prison for five years and Aguada was not a large prison; it seems that everybody knew everybody.
One of the most memorable and high points of the book is definitely Suresh Kanekar being witness to the formal surrender of Goa to the Indian Army between Vassalo e Silva and Dhillon, despite it being a virtual war zone. Thus, it needs to be quoted at some length, “We went back to where the surrender was to take place right out in the open. Dhillon was sitting in a jeep, while Nanda arranged to have the few cars including ours that were there placed in a semi-circle, with the headlights converging at where the governor-general would be surrendering to Dhillon. At about 8:45 pm, Vassalo e Silva was brought to the spot along with his adjutant or chief of staff, probably named Andrade, and made to wait while adjustments were being made to the cars and the lighting. Nanda had found a photographer to take the picture of the ceremony, but the photographer did not have a flash for his camera. Nanda instructed the photographer that he was to take the photograph at the signal that Nanda would give him [which did not happen, as a result we do not have picture of that fateful moment]…At Nanda’s orders, Vassalo e Silva stepped forward, saluted Dhillon (…) [Dhillon did not salute back], and handed over the instrument of surrender to Dhillon, after which Dhillon went back to sit in his vehicle and Vassalo e Silva returned with his adjutant to the place of his confinement. Neither Dhillon nor Vassalo e Silva had uttered a single word during the brief ceremony.”
I have come across, generally in cyberspace, many discussions about the Indian Army’s action in Goa. Many point out that excesses that accompany military actions were not witnessed in Goa. Although this is true to a large extent, Suresh Kanekar however recounts “a horrible event” in Margão. A young Catholic woman was crossing the railway tracks where some Indian jawans were loading or offloading material in train wagons. Not far from here, a group of men were playing cricket, one of them being a friend of the author and the source of this information. The group of men playing cricket suspected something foul and found the woman raped. This matter was hushed up and the perpetrators were eventually taken into custody and quickly moved out of Goa. On 19 December, ironically the day of Goa’s Liberation, when Suresh Kanekar and two of his friends were moving to Vasco they had the company of two captains in their car. Suresh Kanekar recounts, “One of them said these [i.e. Goans] are our people or else we would have had some fun.”
Although interesting and well-written, Suresh Kanekar only narrates events of history of which he was a part. Since there is not much written about the freedom-fighters or writings of the freedom-fighters, it would have been better if Suresh Kanekar had engaged much more rigorously with this history and situate his experiences within it thereby providing his reader with critical historical insights. Thus, a young reader like me knows what happened, but does not know what these momentous events meant for Suresh Kanekar and a lot of other people he talks about. But all said and done, this book is a fresh insight into Goa’s freedom struggle and one should not miss it.
Goa’s Liberation and Thereafter: Chronicles of a Fragmented Life by Suresh Kanekar (Saligão, Goa: Goa1556), 2011; pp. vi+270, Rs. 295/- [ISBN: 9789380739304]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: May 14, 2013).