Visitors at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Though Catholics are a minority in the state, the beautiful churches of old Goa continue to draw tourists and the devout from across the world.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
Visitors at the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Though Catholics are a minority in the state, the beautiful churches of old Goa continue to draw tourists and the devout from across the world.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

Hate speeches made, crosses desecrated: Goa on alert to keep fanaticism at bay

Crosses have been desecrated, hate speeches made. Fanaticism is trying to break in. There is apprehension. But Goans are determined to defeat attempts to polarise the state
By Poulomi Banerjee | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON AUG 07, 2017 03:11 PM IST

It was a Saturday morning in July. Agnelo Fernandes, a retired seaman and resident of Goa’s Curchorem village was dressed to go out, but decided to call a staff member of the local church before doing so, to check with him the schedule for a Mass to celebrate the local MLA’s birthday. The committee member told him about desecrations at the church cemetery. Fernandes rushed to the cemetery – one of his daughters is buried there. “When I reached, I found bones lying near the entrance. Some crosses had been broken and niches damaged. I made my way to my daughter’s grave and the niche we had made in her memory. The granite stone covering the niche was broken. Still it didn’t strike me. Then I saw the satin bag on which I had written her name, her date of birth and the date of her death, before putting her bones in it to preserve her memory, lying on the ground. It was then that I realised that the bones lying near the entrance were my daughter’s,” he says, with barely concealed pain.

Last month Goa was jolted by a spate of desecration of crosses, causing grief and alarm to Catholics inthe state. There were also reports of a temple being vandalised. “The method of destruction was the same everywhere – the base of the cross was broken by hitting it with some heavy implement. More than 40 structures were damaged,” says Father Savio Fernandes, executive secretary of the Council for Social Justice and Peace, which has been engaged in fact-finding studies into the desecrations. In some places the headstones on the graves and niches – where families preserve the mortal remains of a departed member – were broken. Goa Police has arrested Francis Pereira, a resident of Curchorem for the desecrations and claimed that he has confessed to the crime. But more desecrations were reported after Pereira’s arrest.

The cemetry in Curchorem village, where crosses were desecrated and niches and graves broken. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
The cemetry in Curchorem village, where crosses were desecrated and niches and graves broken. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

The mood in Goa is one of apprehension. The breaking of the crosses is being viewed as only a manifestation of the actual danger, the danger of an attempt being made to divide Goan society on the basis of religion, the danger of the shrill communal rhetoric being projected across the nation disturbing the peace also in Goa. . “With or without the incidents of desecrations, even if this incident had not taken place, there is a threat to the social harmony of Goa. Fanatical elements are getting emboldened and empowered,” says Prabhakar Timble, former president of the Goa Forward party. Timble resigned from the party when party MLAs decided to align with the BJP after the 2017 elections.

Goa, says writer Brian Mendonca, means a “certain acceptance, a certain kind of flexibility to be able to look at life holistically and to be able to accommodate various cultures and views.” But now “I think the Hindutva people are desperately trying to find a toehold in Goa,” he says.

In June, Goans say, inflammatory speeches were made against minorities at the All India Hindu Convention organised by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, allied to the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha. Sadhvi Saraswati had reportedly made a statement that she would request the central government to publicly hang people who eat beef as a mark of social status.

In Ponda, where the Sanstha has its ashram, locals say that they know little about the workings of the organisation. “Most of their members are from outside, not Goans,” says a shopkeeper near the ashram. Another asks, “Are you a cop? The police come often to the ashram. These people are involved in many anti-social activities.” Members of the organisation have been accused in the murders of rationalists outside the state. Sanatan members had also been accused in a 2009 bombing in Goa, but were acquitted.

A Disturbing Silence

“The state government should have taken note of the Sadhvi’s speech, it should have filed a police complaint against someone who makes such inflammatory comments to disturb the peace of Goa. But it did nothing,” rues Jovito Lopes, vice president of the Catholic Association of Goa. The national mood of terror and mob-lynchings fuelled by anti-cow slaughter and anti-minority sentiments adds to the mood of apprehension in the state. Goa has had a BJP government since 2012. Most Goans admit that the government has not made any anti-minority comments: “Due to the substantial numbers ( translated as votes) of minorities, it looks like the BJP has played its political cards well in Goa and successfully steered clear of national controversies created by its national leaders,” says A Freddie Fernandes, a political scientist. But he adds, “Since the BJP has been in power in the state in 2000 and now since 2012, attempts to divide the people and break the communal harmony have been visible.”

BJP MLA and deputy speaker of the Goa legislative assembly Michael Lobo admits that even he is “hurt” by the state’s inaction against the Sadhvi’s comments. “This type of thing should not be tolerated. FIRs should be filed automatically from the police side because this can create communal tension,” he says.

A resident of Goa’s Marcaim village holds up one of the crosses in hte local cemetry that was broken. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
A resident of Goa’s Marcaim village holds up one of the crosses in hte local cemetry that was broken. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)

The government’s silence has added to the commonly-held perception that the BJP is a majoritarian party.In Curchorem, a young Catholic woman who doesn’t want to be named says that when she first heard of the desecrations she felt that the BJP or a fanatic Hindu group would be behind the damage. “When the party was in power between 2000 to 2005, they had made attempts to sanitise school textbooks,” says Freddie Fernandes. Favita Dias remembers how the BJP government had in the past attempted to cancel the holiday on the Feast of St Francis Xavier. “Communalisation takes place in many ways,” says writer Amita Kanekar, “both direct like the new beef bans outside Goa (which resulted in a severe shortfall in beef supply in Goan markets), and indirect, like the false portrayal of Goan culture and history as Hindu and Brahminical. Catholic culture is portrayed as foreign, while Muslim culture (including Goa’s own Islamic past and culture) is ignored.” According to the 2011 Census, Christians constitute 25.1 per cent of the population in Goa. Muslims account for eight per cent and Hindus comprise 66.08 per cent of the population.

United Colours Of Goa

Goa has a history of religion-based politics. “After Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule in 1961 we had the United Goans Party (UGP) which mostly enjoyed support of the Catholics and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) which was a Hindu-majority party. While the UGP wanted Goa to be a separate state, MGP wanted it to be merged with Maharashtra. But one’s political views never influenced social relations between the communities,” says writer Damodar Mauzo. The writer remembers how he was once breast-fed by the late Goan musician Anthony Gonsalves’ mother because his own was too ill to feed him. “That was the kind of relationship the communities shared. Anthony’s sisters used to call me doodh bhau (milk brother) because I had shared their mother’s milk,” he says.

Goans of all communities are peaceful in nature. Outside forces are trying to disrupt the peace,” says Michael Lobo, deputy speaker of the Goa assembly

Goans, Hindus and Catholics, repeatedly talk of this bond, of a shared living and role in each other’s lives. But now, says Timble, the situation is not as comfortable as before. “There is a feeling among a few in the majority community that they are tolerating the minorities. If earlier only five per cent of Goans were fanatics, now the number has gone up to 15 per cent.” The emergence of competition over religious display means both crosses and gumtis are increasingly being erected along the roads, says Freddie Fernandes. “There are many crosses across Goa where even Hindus pray. Now tulsi manches have come up alongside some of them,” says Timble. And an effort has begun to institutionalise Hindu practices. “The Sanstha people tell us to worship together, rather than do our individual pujas at home. At any village fair now, you will find their stalls,” says a Goan. Dadu Mandrekar, a Dalit writer and activist, rues the RSS’s growing influence in the Bahujan community. The underlying tensions sometimes spill out in social media, where a local says, “Goan Catholics are sometimes being portrayed as anti-national and pro-Portuguese”.

On July 29, the Catholic Association of Goa and the All India Catholic Union held a meeting to discuss the Sadhvi’s speech. All-religion peace meets have been organised to dispel tensions, if any. Father Savio and Shaikh Basheer Ahmed, president of the Association of All Goa Muslim Jamaats also issued a joint statement last month against the targeting of minorities. “It is important to have these meeting now, before anything happens, rather than after. Afterwards it becomes just a post mortem of events,” says businessman Ralph De Sousa.

All this is new for Goa. “I don’t think the community feels threatened but a certain element of trust, that prevailed has been lost,” says writer Maria Aurora Couto.

Most Goans feel that the Goan tradition of peace and communal harmony will win the day, that there is little divide between people in the state. “Goans of all communities are peaceful by nature and even those who have come and settled here get moulded in its culture. It’s the outside forces who are trying to disrupt the peace. Not just the minorities, even the majority is disturbed by this. But these forces won’t be able to disrupt the harmony here,” says Lobo. His conviction does not seem misplaced as one watches a group of young Goans play football under a grim monsoon sky at the beach in Siridao. Two of the players sport saffron jerseys. “It’s the team colour of Netherlands, my favourite football-playing nation,” says one with a grin. It is the same disregard for communal politics that one finds at Da Silva’s – Panjim’s favourite cutlet joint. A woman in a salwar kameez and mangalsutra comes for a snack with a young girl in jeans. She orders a chicken cutlet for herself, but nods encouragingly at her young companion who orders a beef cutlet. Da Silva does brisk business in both.

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