The exit of Britain from the European Union famously known as BREXIT took the whole world with a surprise. But It was a big shock to hundreds of thousands of Indians including the Goans with dual citizenship living in the UK. They were worried about their future in the UK. Nobody was sure as why Britain took such a drastic step to come out of the EU which it was associated with from the inception. A similar situation faced by Goa in the year 1967 when Goan had to face the referendum (Opinion Poll) on whether Goa should merge with Maharashtra and most of the villages in South Goa were strongly against the merger. This story will give you the complete insight into Goa’s first referendum. Read the complete report here.
It was in the year 1967 in the month of January the national media ‘The Times of India’ (TOI) had reported as how the villagers of Lotoulim in South Goa were against the merger of Goa with Maharashtra when Goa was about to face its first and India’s biggest referendum. “Most of the villagers were against the merger but the local barber was strongly for it and when such a fundamental issue of identity was being decided, the villagers evidently felt it best to steer clear of a man with a razor,” reported the TOI.
With Goa voting against the merger, either the barber became too morose to be violent, or the regular rhythm of village life returned. “When the final result was announced today they went to him with unshaven faces and overgrown hair,” ToI wrote. “The bitter feelings of the past few days had been wiped out.” Easy availability of safety razors means men in the United Kingdom (UK) probably didn’t face this problem in the Brexit referendum. But they must be hoping for a similar quick return to normality. As Goa discovered in 1967, and the UK has now, a referendum can be a convulsing and divisive event, with results that spill beyond the actual vote.
Goa referendum to join the Bombay (Maharashtra) which was called as ‘Goa’s Opinion Poll” was not supposed to be the only one that held in India but it stood out only one without the managed outcome (as stated by the journalist Shoaib Daniyal post Brexit survey) Since all other cases involved deciding on India’s territorial integrity, the Indian government seems to have been careful to avoid surprises — whether the results were to join ( Junagadh in 1948, Pondicherry in 1954, Sikkim in 1975) or leave (Sylhet and North-West Frontier Province in 1947).
The Question of ’67 Goa in 1967 was more an internal matter, though it did stem from the takeover of the Portuguese colony in 1961. Perhaps conscious of the negative publicity this received in the West, in 1962, Prime Minister Nehru declared, “We want Goa to maintain its separate identity, separate individuality…. We have no intention of changing or suppressing that identity.” The problem was that this identity was not as clearly defined as it might have been assumed. As ToI noted on January 14, 1967, Goa consisted of “old and new conquests,” with the former areas, along the coast, having a 400-year history and a strong Portuguese colonial identity, and speaking Konkani. But the latter, more interior areas had a history of fewer than 200 years and were more Hindu and Marathi-speaking.
Parag Porobo, a historian at Goa University, notes that since the 1950s, when it was becoming clear that Portugal could not keep Goa indefinitely, the question of merger with Maharashtra was being discussed: “People were afraid Goa might become independent, and the merger was seen as the answer.” According to the sources, the first election in Goa as part of India, in 1963, seemed to confirm this possibility. The Marathi speakers were both numerous and eager to grab power long denied to them by the old Goa elites. They voted the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) to the office, headed by Dayanand Bandodkar a wealthy mine-owner and champion of the backward classes, who would become the face of the movement for the merger.
Indira Gandhi Backs the Poll Parobo, who has written a book on Bandodkar, cautions that this image might be faulty. “Bandodkar may not have been that keen on the merger, and tried putting it off during his first term. But others in the MGP were much more insistent and forced the issue.” Such sentiments were stoked by Maharashtra’s politicians, eager to absorb both Goa and Belgaum from Mysore (now Karnataka) state. They supported the idea of a referendum, even though it came from a political opponent, Dr Jack Sequeira of the United Goans Party.
Jack Sequeira was a flamboyant character, lavishly bearded and with an exuberant personality. “Once I used to play tennis. Now I am playing politics… I like it better,” he declared to a ToI interviewer (who writes that at one point he had to remind Sequeira that it was a one-on-one interview, not a public meeting). He once floated the idea of a Konkan state, from mid-Maharashtra to Mangalore, with Goa at its heart.
Sequeira decided to challenge the merger movement by pushing for a direct face-off. He insisted this had to be a single-issue referendum since in a general election it would get lost among other issues. That this was a gamble can be seen in the horrified reaction of Dr. Alvaro Loyola de Furtado, another founder of the United Goans, who felt Goa’s future should not be risked in such a direct way. He broke with Sequeira and challenged the Opinion Poll’s constitutional validity in the Supreme Court.
Although when the referendum (Opinion Poll) took place in Goa, it was under the rule of MGP government and it was almost sure that Goa will get merged with the Maharashtra. But the political calculations were working in the different directions. The then Congress head Purshottam Kakodkar had joined the hands with Jack Sequeira, who was against the merger. While this issue of the merger was underway, the reign of congress was taken over by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. According to the sources, Mrs. Gandhi has supported the referendum. Perhaps this too was a combination of principle and practical concerns. Nehru’s daughter may have wanted to honor his declared commitment to Goa by letting the Goans decide on their identity. Such a demonstration of democracy helped India’s image in the West, where Indira would soon have to go to seek aid. It might also overcome lingering criticisms over the takeover of Goa.
India’s Constitution has no provision for referendums then, so a special bill was passed in December. National elections were due in February-March 1967, so the Opinion Poll had to be squeezed in on January 16. This haste seemed to confirm suspicions that the pro-merger side was pushing a poll before people could understand the issues. Another problem was eligible voters. Many Goans lived outside Goa, working in Bombay or other cities, with a large number in the merchant navy. The anti-merger campaign demanded people be allowed to return to vote, while sailors could vote at sea (with their captains doing the collecting). The Election Commission said this wasn’t workable, further inflaming fears of a stitch-up.
Sequeira, the convenor of United Goans Party, decided to fight as best as he could. He enlisted Konkani singers and performers of tiatr, the local theater, a potent form of social communication. The pro-merger side countered with Marathi balladeers who, ToI reported, sang of how Shanta Durga, the goddess revered by most Goan Hindus, was going to meet Goddess Bhavani, the family deity of Shivaji. The anti-merger campaign used a more material promise: “We do not want Maharashtrian shrikhand. We are content with our rice curry.” Another fear was that prohibition would be imposed on this liquor-loving state. Naik hastily made a package of promises, from the promotion of Konkani to exclusion from prohibition.
In the end, the vote was close but decisive. The counting in Panjim took three days, and Goa came to a halt, as crowds collected to follow the tallies. The MGP had an early lead, but by lower margins than anticipated, and it was evident that part of its base had switched to support the Don Panna, the two leaves symbol for staying separate (merger’s symbol was a flower). With a high turnout of 81.7%, 54.2% voted to keep Goa separate, against 43.5% for the merger (the rest was invalid votes).
Practical concerns mattered. “We didn’t know how we would manage with Marathi written in Devanagari when we were used to Roman script for Konkani,” says Annie Kapoor, who remembers the excitement of the campaign. But as with Brexit, the fear of being lost in a larger entity was potent. “If we had merged, we would have been just a district in Maharashtra, with a collector as our head,” says veteran Congressman Eduardo Faleiro. “Today we are a state, with our government, and that comes from the Opinion Poll.”
In Goa, Bandodkar vowed to keep fighting for the merger, though Parobo notes he was said to have spent the day of the verdict, “playing cricket in Panaji.” In the next elections, the MGP came back to power, with two more seats — his base was still with him on all other matters. But Indian politicians ever since have steered clear of the uncertainties of such direct democracy.
The winners of the Opinion Poll vowed that Goa would never forget the day. In reality, memories faded for a long time before being suddenly revived of late. “Goa fears of losing its identity again,” says journalist Devika Sequeira (she is Jack Sequeira’s niece, though her father followed the Congress). Goans see wealthy outsiders coming in and buying land, and it makes them worry about their future — and remember the Opinion Poll that once guaranteed it.
Devika Sequeira says that the state’s current BJP government seems to have mixed feelings: “They have taken over the base of the MGP, but know that they must appear to respect the Opinion Poll.” She notes that local communities have put up statues of Jack Sequeira, but the state assembly doesn’t have one. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Opinion Poll, and perhaps some signs of where Goa now stands will be seen in how, or even whether, it is commemorated.