The twists and turns in Goa

Goa itself was a Portuguese colony, parts of it for as long as 451 years. It has undergone an intense set of religious conversions in the past and bouts of religious intolerance in 16th-17th centuries

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Frederick Noronha

The conversion debate, which the Hindutva Right has pushed for decades, gets even more complex in Goa. Religious intolerance of the past and present mixes with syncretic beliefs and quite a bit of give-and-take.

Sociologist Dr. Rowena Robinson, of Goan origin, argues: “Boundaries between Catholics and Hindus can sometimes get exceedingly blurred, yet they do not entirely disappear either. Each group maintains its individuality within Goan society, is aware of and accepts similarities as well as differences.”

Goa itself was a Portuguese colony, parts of it for as long as 451 years. It has undergone an intense set of religious conversions in the past and bouts of religious intolerance around the 16th and 17th centuries.

Till the 1920s, Catholics formed a majority of the region’s population. But with exodus of Goans since the 1890s, that section of population is today only at below 25% of the total and still declining. A growing Muslim population, mostly from neighbouring areas, has increased the “minority” population somewhat.

In today’s Goa, “conversions” have taken on a new meaning. Some smaller sects and non-Catholic Christian groups have gone on an intense drive to get more followers. More often than not, those joining such groups are members of the Catholic community themselves, causing some concern to the mainstream Church. Some of them are drawn by the more emotive styles of evangelical religiosity. Evangelicals believe in the centrality of conversion in receiving salvation.

The push in Goa to “convert” people to Catholicism ended roughly a century ago. This happened not because of native protests, but on account of ideological shifts among Portugal’s rulers. The 1910 Republican Revolution in Portugal saw strong anti-religious and anti-clerical trends.

Contrary to what is projected, for centuries the rulers of Portugal had a complex love-hate relationship with religion. King Afonso Henriques (r. 1139-1185) and other early rulers made much of religious support. But subsequently the Church’s position declined.

By the 18th century, sentiment against the Church grew. The Marquis de Pombal, who ruled Portugal and its colonies from 1750 to 1777, expelled the powerful Catholic order of the Jesuits in 1759, cut relations with Rome and brought all education under state control; religious orders were banned and the Church lost much of the property in the early 19th century. This equation zig-zagged over time, with fissures during the Republican Revolution of 1910, curbs on religion and then the use of religion by the Salazar dictatorship for the better part of the 20th century. Today, if anything, the boot is on the other foot.

Soft communalism during the MGP rule of the 1960s and 1970s, and later low-intensity or overt majoritarianism, together with the lack of access to government jobs, have contributed to the minority Catholic community migrating overseas. The Catholic population in Goa has been on a consistent decline. But this has not stopped the issue from being used as a propaganda tool and vote-catching device.

Goa has also been in a state of flux after the death of Manohar Parrikar, who virtually built the BJP here as a one-man army, through fuelling defections and other strategies. Due to this flux, the local BJP has gambled on creating disarray and a division of votes among the Opposition. It also may need to build communal tempers here. Religious conflict of the past is given a one-sided narration and a political twist to connect it with the present.

PM Modi recently got his history wrong while saying the Portuguese came to Goa when the Mughals were in India. One of the quirks of history is that it was anti-Muslim sentiment that led to the Portuguese being invited to take over Goa, with the hope that they would leave soon. But they didn’t.

Online fora have added fuel to the fire and injected considerable bitterness. Those whose ancestors opted to convert, in Goa or elsewhere and are still mostly devoted to their faith, often get dismissed as “rice-bag converts”. However, regardless of the religion they follow, most Goans continue to be a rather religious lot. This is true for those who converted as well. To suggest that conversions happened only due to force would be an oversimplification.


In the early 20th century, when the Church and colonial State were so closely intertwined, many freedom fighters took anti-religious stands as well. Today, while dealing with a far less dominant form of Christianity here, the situation is markedly different.

Religion too changes with time. Jesuits, influential and Conservative players in the Catholic Church worldwide, including in Goa, came to the fore in the 16th century. It was at the forefront of the Counter-Reformation. Today, the Jesuits are considered liberal, at times radical (as was the Liberation Theologyinfluenced political martyr Fr Stan SJ), and close to a quarter of its global members are, yes, Indians.

Ironically enough, those who campaigned against Portuguese colonial intolerance of the past centuries seem to be following the same pattern themselves, four to five centuries later. Local diversity is not taken into account or deliberately neglected while deciding state policy. This has led to policies of grants to primary schools, or allocation of government jobs to take turns that cut deeply into the interests of Goa’s minority community.

The future will be determined by how good intentions and vested interests interact with each other.

(The writer is a senior journalist covering Goa since 1983)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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