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17 months in morgue: No RIP for former Goan priest-activist's body

Father Bismarque Dias’s close aides say he knew his life was under threat. The group was fighting several cases against the land mafia and builders who had allegedly occupied land, and the way he used to criticise the church also earned him enemies, they said.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2017 07:13 IST
Nida Khan
Nida Khan
Hindustan Times, Panaji
Father Bismarque Dias,Goa,Catholic priest
Friends of Goan Catholic priest and activist Father Bismarque Dias are refusing to bury his body because they suspect he was murdered.(HT File)

Days before his body was spotted floating in Goa’s Mandovi river on November 5, 2015, Father Bismarque Dias had circulated a video naming builders, real estate agents and politicians, and said they should be held responsible if he died suddenly.

This is what family and friends of the former Goan Catholic priest and activist are clutching on to, refusing to bury his body because they suspect he was murdered.

The body has been lying in the morgue at Goa Medical College for nearly 17 months. On Monday, Goa human rights commission directed Dias’s remains be formally laid to rest, but his backers are resisting the move.

Differences with the church over sale of land to a firm had seen Dias being disrobed, but he remains ‘Father’ for many.

“Father Bismarque Dias knew his life was under threat. We were fighting several cases against the land mafia and builders who had occupied land in Vaxim, St Estevam and Tiracol. The way he used to criticise the church also earned him enemies,” said Sudeep Dalvi, a close aide of Dias and also a petitioner seeking an inquiry into his death. “He was murdered and we are not going to rest till his murderers are behind bars.”

A relative of Dias who did not want to be named said, “Why is the government so worried about the body? Where was this concern when police beat up his supporters seeking probe into his murder?” His family is planning to challenge the rights commission’s orders in court.

Dias’s fight had found expression in music. His friend, composer Jackson Dias, said, “I used to write and compose songs, which his group — Musical Warriors — would sing to draw people’s attention to environment, land grabbing and the rights of villagers. We cannot abandon the fight. The issue is not about the burial, it is about giving him justice.”

The Musical Warriors, a group established by Bismarque, holds a memorial service for him. (HT Photo)

Dias was 52 when he died. The then superintendent of police (North Goa), Umesh Gaonkar, under whom the case was investigated, said it was a clear case of accidental death. “Whatever the police had to say is well represented in the documents which are being put in the court. As the matter is before the court, I prefer not to say anything,” said Gaonkar.

The police are going by the version of two boys who went swimming with Dias that night and insist he drowned as he was under the influence of alcohol.

People in Dias’s hometown, St Estevam, about 25 km from Panaji, dismiss such claims as smear campaign. St Estevam is an island village in Cumbharjua constituency from where Dias had contested the 2012 assembly elections as anindependent candidate.

He lost, but managed to upset calculations of established parties with his election agenda — ‘Kindness For All’. “People give money to voters so that they can win elections, but for Father Dias, people volunteered to make posters and campaign for free,” said St Estevam resident Janet Fernandes.

A similar volunteer effort is sustaining the fight over Dias’ body. Signs of anger in the Goan community over the “tardy” probe into his death are visible in posters and pamphlets across tourist spots in Panaji and old Goa.

Goans settled abroad launched a crowdfunding initiative last year to finance the fight of his friends and activists whofiled the petition with the Panaji bench of Bombay high court demanding a fair probe into his death. The initiative has raised more than Rs 7 lakh so far.

On burial of Dias’s body, his supporters insist the decision rests with his family.

First Published: Apr 07, 2017 07:12 IST