India’s Invasion Of Portuguese Goa

Between 1945 and 1960, three dozen former colonies achieved autonomy or outright independence from their colonial rulers. Some transitions were peaceful, others were only achieved after protracted revolution or guerrilla warfare.

The largest and most significant of these independence movements was that of India. Indian independence figures including Gandhi, Nehru and Chandra Bose led varying campaigns of civil disobedience (and outright revolt in Bose’s case) throughout the first half of the twentieth century, eventually leading to a war-fatigued Britain relinquishing control of the ‘jewel in the crown’ of its Empire in 1947.

However, 1947 was not the final chapter in India’s independence story. A small area of India would remain under European control until 1961.

Portuguese India

Goa became a Portuguese colony in 1501. The small coastal region was conquered by General Afonso de Albuquerque and became an important trade hub for the eastern spice trade. Goa was to serve as the capital of the Portuguese Empire east of the Cape of Good Hope for 450 years.

Portuguese Goa

Goa had a turbulent history even before the arrival of the Portuguese. Control of the territory had shifted between various Indian powers, including the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire and the Muslim Bahmani Sultanate. The Bahmani Sultanate would break up into a number of successor states just prior to Portuguese arrival. Bijapur inherited Goa.

In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque’s forces seized the port. Albuquerque would serve as its first Viceroy (1510-1515). Bijapurian forces recaptured the town within three months, but Albuquerque’s men quickly returned to firmly take control.

Goa became a vital part of the Portuguese Empire, with the Viceroy responsible for all Portuguese officials in East Africa, the East Indies and Japan. Goa was among a select set of colonies permitted to send representatives to the Portuguese parliament, the Cortes.

It was briefly occupied by the British (1799-1815) during the Napoleonic Wars to deter the French from doing the same. Later British attempts to purchase Goa were refused. Portuguese neutrality spared Goa from the horrors of the Second World War, however sanctuary provided to German and Italian merchant ship alerted the British.

Despite Goa’s neutrality, the British could not allow enemy ships to transmit important information out of the territory. The Special Operations Executive (the precursor to the SAS) backed a covert raid by a civilian part-time unit, the Calcutta Light Horse. The unit sailed to Goa on an ancient Calcutta riverboat and sank the German ship, the Ehrenfels.

Portugal retained control of the territory throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Local resistance to European rule

Long standing tensions between India and Portugal grew as the anti-colonial movement gained momentum in Goa. Leading anti-colonial forces included the Azad Gomantak Dal (The Free Goa Party) and the United Front of Goans. These groups carried attacks on key economic and communication infrastructure, aiming to create an environment of instability to fuel broader uprisings. The Indian government provided the groups with arms and financial support.

In 1950, India requested that Portugal open negotiations on Goa’s handover. Portugal refused, insisting that the territory was part of Metropolitan Portugal and not a colony. Furthermore, Portugal claimed that India did not have any claim over Goa as it had been a Portuguese territory long before the Republic of India was established.  

By 1954, India increased its pressure on Portugal. It instituted visa restrictions, paralysing transport between the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Damão and Diu. Indian dockworkers boycotted the territories, crippling the local economy.

 In July 1954, armed activists attacked and forced the surrender of Portuguese forces stationed in the inland enclaves of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Later in the year, a few thousand unarmed Indian activists attempted to enter Goa, but were repulsed by Portuguese police, resulting in a few deaths.

In 1956, the Portuguese ambassador to France, Marcello Mathias, along with Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, argued in favour of a referendum to determine Goa’s future. However, this proposal was rejected by the Portuguese Ministers for Defence and Foreign Affairs.

The Portuguese became increasingly alarmed by India’s veiled threats of armed action. Both the UK and the United Nations Security Council were asked to intervene, but both refused. The US ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, requested that India resolve the issue peacefully rather than through armed conflict.   However, India’s Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, stated in no uncertain terms that India had not “abjured the use of force” in Goa.

This all came to a head on the 24th November 1961, when a civilian boat was fired upon by Portuguese troops, resulting in the death of a passenger. Portugal claimed that they feared that the ship was carrying troops to land in Goa.

Following the incident, India Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru stated to the press that continuance of Goa under Portuguese rule was “an impossibility”. America responded by warning India that if and when its armed action in Goa was brought to the UN Security Council, it could expect no support from the US delegation.

Military action

On the 11th December 1961, Indian Army troops were ordered to advance into Goa to capture Panaji and Mormugão in a manoeuvre codenamed Operation Vijay. On the 17th December 1961, a unit of Indian troops attacked and occupied the town of Maulinguém, killing two Portuguese soldiers. Portuguese command was in disarray.

President Salazar ordered his troops to fight to the last man. He called for a scorched earth policy, with Goa to be rendered unusable before it was given up. It is important to note that Portugal was engaged in other colonial wars in Africa at the time and needed to rally support back home.

By the evening of the 18th of December, most of Goa had been overrun by advancing Indian forces. Large numbers of Portuguese defenders were captured. Despite Salazar’s calls to fight to the last man, the Portuguese Governor General, Manuel António Vassalo e Silva, signed an instrument of surrender.

Intentional reaction

Portugal refused to recognise the incorporation of these territories into the Republic of India and offered all Goans Portuguese citizenship. It wasn’t until the collapse of Salazar’s regime in1974 that relations between the two nations were mended.  On the 31st of December 1974 Portugal recognised full Indian sovereignty over the former territories of Portuguese Goa.

The future leader of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev was in India at the time of the invasion. He made several speeches applauding the Indian action. Nikita Khrushchev telegraphed Nehru stating that there was “unanimous acclaim” from every Soviet citizen for “Friendly India”.

The UK Government deplored the use of military force. However, it understood the desire to incorporate the territories, and had been broadly frustrated by Portugal’s refusal to relinquish its possessions.

The Dutch feared that India’s attack on Goa might encourage Indonesia to make a similar attack on Netherlands New Guinea. Fears were so great that on the 27th of December 1961, the Dutch requested that the US provide naval support as a deterrent.

At the UN the US, the UK, France and Turkey proposed a resolution condemning the Indian invasion, but it was blocked by the USSR and its allies.

With the fall of Goa, 451 years of European rule in India finally came to an end. Nowadays, there is little evidence of Portuguese rule in Goa aside from the odd place name, a handful of Catholic churches and the two landmarks of the Cathedral of Santa Caterina and the Basilica of Bom Jesus.

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