On December 19, President Ram Nath Kovind flagged off the celebrations for Goa’s 60th year of liberation on the banks of Mandovi at the historic Bandodkar Grounds in Panjim. It’s an occasion for the state to reflect on its accomplishments as well as failings as part of its integration into the Indian Union.
As one of the smallest states in the Indian Union, with excellent social and economic indicators and a quality of life not enjoyed by many in other states, Goa is indeed a class apart. Perhaps no other land of such a scale has so much history and made as much of a contribution to religion, art, music, cosmopolitanism and nationalism as Goa has. At the same time, in no other place, perhaps, has the battle for identity, language, and ecology been as strong as has been witnessed in Goa during the last several decades. The other side of the story is of people’s struggle for things that are critical for their very existence — water, air and land.
The state and the political class in Goa have been at aninteresting intersection of these two often divergent trends, often as mediators, but many a time as complicit forces in these battles. On questions of identity and language, as witnessed in the 1967 opinion poll and the movement for statehood culminating in 1987, the political class and the state went along with the people’s wishes. In recent struggles over land, environment and water, in contrast, they have often been seen as succumbing to big capital and a different vision of development that has flowed from Delhi and Mumbai in the last two decades.
What kept the state’s hopes alive was the ability of the political class and the people to have a voice much bigger than their actual scale and intensity, given its national and international profile. That, perhaps, also united Goa’s civil society and political society. For example, in its early years, Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his initial disappointment with Goa on not naturally giving the Congress the chance and opting for regional parties, was clear in his 1963 message to Goans that the state will always remain special in the Indian mosaic and its identity shall be protected. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has always had a special place for Goa in his illustrious political career, in one of his speeches marvelled at the then demand by people for special status, not based on material benefits, but for preserving their identity.
Seemingly tall leaders like former Chief Minister Pratap Singh Rane and former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, along with various luminaries in academia, literature, defence, art and culture, remained prominent ambassadors of Goa, who would always exude optimism and hope that Goa would be able to put its views across much strongly than its size. The result was that with all its inner turmoil, Goa had the optimism that its promised uniqueness would remain an article of faith. This faith is gradually getting eroded if Goa’s trajectory in the recent years is any indication. To quote a prominent Goan academic, while Goa is becoming part of the Indian mainstream (and that was natural), the nature of mainstreaming that has been going on over the years — political, economic and ideational — has raised apprehensions. There is a sense of loss and this loss, it is feared, will be difficult to recover. The onus lies on the rest of India to make sure that the mainstreaming emerges out of the diverse ideas that Goa has stood for rather than subsuming them into a paradigm of monolithic nationalism.
Politically, Goa appears to be heading towards single party domination, following more or less the pattern of the ruling party poaching on the Opposition and fragmenting it. But to say that Goa will become a single party dominant state would be premature given its history of defections. What is more worrying is that there is often a disconnect between grass roots level democracy as proffered by Goa’s vibrant gram sabhas and the ruling establishment. Besides, thanks to the majoritarian political impulse creeping in the rest of the country, there is a feeling in Goa that the fringe could become the mainstream, unsettling the harmony that has been evident for centuries.
Goa’s ideal economic model is linked to its fragile ecology, which often militates against big ticket capital that is gradually engulfing it. While mining, the backbone of the economy, saw a hiatus owing to a Supreme Court judgment, the impact of the pandemic has left tourism reeling. Meanwhile, the Centre wishes to make Goa part of its big infrastructure push which superimposes mega plans over a state where micro planning should actually have been a norm. The state also fights an uphill battle with big neighbour Karnataka over the sharing of river Mhadei (as Mandovi is known in Karnataka), its lifeline. The despair on the ground stems from the perception that the bigger state has a greater say in the corridors of power in Delhi.
But the biggest battle perhaps is ideational. Can there be a new idea for Goa, away from the popular ideas which have always harped on Goa’s uniqueness, but have not done much to protect it? The onus lies as much on the rest of India to protect it, even as contemporary Goa debates that idea. The 60th anniversary perhaps gives us a chance to begin reflecting.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 26, 2020, under the title “A new idea for Goa”. The writer teaches political science at Goa University. Views are personal.