Russell Peters, the Indo-Canadian stand-up comic, has a joke about Indians changing the names of their cities from British usages to more ‘Indian’ ones. Like most of his humor, the joke is rather a no-brainer. Indians, he says, waited for so long after the departure of the British only to be very sure that the Brits have indeed left and would never ever come back again. Since this is not a real reason, one could indeed ask what took the Vasco da Gama-Sambhaji Nagar controversy so long to erupt, given that it has been in circulation for more than 50 years since the Portuguese left?
Actually there were efforts to change the name of Goa’s only port-town right from the ’70s. One does not know the details of this attempt by the Dayanand Bandodkar regime, except that the change was vehemently opposed even then, including by tiatrists like the trio of Conception, Nelson, and Anthony.
Coming to the current Vasco da Gama-Sambhaji Nagar controversy, by and large, it has been represented in the media as a ploy to whip up communal sentiments, and polarize the electoral prior to the state assembly election in 2017. Given the BJP’s proven track record in using this strategy there is no denying this possibility. However, it appears that in the process commentators have missed the larger picture of obfuscating and erasing history. A focus on the longer time period is critical, because it helps us understand the process of how propagandists, demagogues, and ideologues would create a political controversy before transforming it into votes.
The names of places in India are often changed in order (or ostensibly) to move away from British colonial history. There is no doubt that an effort to change names (surreptitiously or otherwise) is easily achieved by groups who enjoy political representation and power. The marginalized groups within the nation, or those marginalized on the basis of caste and/or religion have to battle it out to inscribe their identity and icons onto the public sphere. Name-changes therefore is the display of triumphalism by dominant groups in power and one should be aware of the manner in which history is deployed through such a misuse.
The case of Goa, and the history and legacy bequeathed by the Portuguese, are in a sense different from the experience of British colonialism in the rest of India. This is the reason why Goan identity within the Indian nation itself is structured on foregrounding the influences of Portuguese culture and language on the Goans. A Goan self can be said to have slowly emerged from European and Catholic influences over four centuries. Though the upper caste Catholics assumed and appropriated for themselves the guardianship of this identity, this Europeanized-Catholic identity permeated almost all sections of Goans today, both Catholic and others. Therefore, for many of these diverse groups, taking away the element of Portuguese heritage would mean taking something fundamental out of their Goan identity or ‘Goan-ness’.
So, what does one do with a certain Vasco – glorified as well as reviled within the history of European colonialism? The Vasco-Sambhaji Nagar case illustrates the immaturity of the powers-to-be in Goa in handling such issues. It seems that one of the motives was to overwrite the history of the town of Vasco using icons that the Hindu right has appropriated. Whether Sambhaji was really a defender of Hindu dharma, as he is portrayed in some quarters, is not the question that I want to address in this column. What I would like to stress is that the Hindu right and the State today has neglected the complex geo-political maneuvering between the Portuguese, the Mughals, and the Marathas solely to appropriate Sambhaji as one who stood against a proselytizing Christian (and Muslim) power. In fact Sambhaji had allied with Prince Akbar, the son of Aurangzeb, against the Portuguese. Before that the Portuguese are believed to have provided refuge to Prince Akbar. Thus, the complex history of diplomacy, trade, and political strategies are completely forgotten in order to propagate a narrow Hindutva agenda.
We must also ask ourselves what exactly has the Maratha ruler to do with Goa or indeed the town of Vasco? Apart from the panic and terror that Sambhaji’s raids had caused amongst the residents of villages and towns of Bardez and the Portuguese administration, Sambhaji seems to have little connect with the history of Goa or the town of Vasco. Rather, Sambhaji seems to be a convenient figure to pit against that of Vasco da Gama in an easy binary scheme of ‘us’ (Hindus) against ‘them’ (colonizers/Portuguese/Christians).
This understanding of Portuguese colonialism and the overwriting of this history seems plausible as the Christians – the group that (despite internal divisions) is perceived to be the most Westernized and closest to the Portuguese – appears to be once again held suspect for steadfastly refusing to let go of their love for Portugal or the colonial hangover. In fact, this can be very clearly seen in the comment of Custodio D’Souza, a resident of Vasco: “This is an effort to change the very identity of our home town and our lives…Instead of giving us good governance, all this government is trying to do is needle the minority community with such tricks and upset Goa’s peace”.
If we think about the Vasco-Sambhaji Nagar controversy more deeply, we can place it in a series of events wherein Goa’s legitimate history, made by its people, is continuously undermined. One is reminded of the Jack de Sequeira incident, wherein his role in the Opinion Poll and the role of the Christian community in leading the agitation for Goa’s statehood was sought to be undermined. Similarly, one can also ask why stadia in Goa are named after politicians like Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Nehru, when they have nothing to do with Goan sports? Thus, if we would like such kind of events not to repeat themselves we would not only be vigilant to the ways in which history is twisted and erased in contemporary debates over Goa’s past.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 December, 2015)