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Sunil Sethi: Goa's Portuguese presence

Studies in Portuguese were knocked off school and college curricula in the 1960s; thousands of Goans migrated to Portugal and elsewhere, and Goa's Portuguese speakers sharply declined

Sunil Sethi 

Sunil Sethi

On Altinho hill in Panaji, Goa, not far from the chief minister's and archbishop's mansions, stands an imposing Indo-Portuguese bungalow freshly painted a vivid yellow and white. Here sits an important and sought-after official presiding over a large staff. He speaks neither Konkani nor Hindi and is the only resident career diplomat based in Goa.

Forty-eight-year-old Rui Baceira - trim and tanned, with emphatic hand gestures and a piquant sense of humour - is the eighth Portuguese consul general since the consulate opened in 1994. Mr Baceira (pronounced "Basera") had served in many capitals, including Moscow and Madrid, before opting for the Goa assignment a year-and-half ago. "I had travelled in Asia but never been to India. The job presented a challenge, of bridging our common past, India and Portugal's centuries-old shared history and culture."

There's nearly 500 years of history: "India Portuguesa" was established in 1510 with the outposts of Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli; and a history of trouble, too, when Goa was integrated into India in 1961 and connections severed between the two countries. Diplomatic relations were cautiously restored in 1974 and have progressed apace. But that doesn't necessarily cut a smooth, straightforward path for Mr Baceira.

Studies in Portuguese were knocked off school and college curricula in the 1960s; thousands of Goans migrated to Portugal and elsewhere, and Goa's Portuguese speakers sharply declined. In recent years, however, the trend is slowly reversing: Portuguese courses are now offered in schools and colleges with the two governments sharing costs. The consulate's cultural wing runs language classes and, Fundacao Oriente, a private foundation based in Panaji's picturesque Fontainhas district, supports research projects including the excellent restoration of Capela do Monte, a 16th century church in Old Goa.

Mr Baceira points out with pride the institution of a chair of comparative literature at Goa University last year. "If you include Brazil, and former Portugal colonies of Mozambique and Angola in Africa, Portuguese is the fifth biggest spoken language in the world. This interests young Goans seeking a future in a Brics country like Brazil."

Considerably more tangled is the issue of acquiring Portuguese nationality. Goans born in the territory before 1961, or with legitimate proof of descent over three generations, can register their births in Lisbon, and become citizens. This means unrestricted travel, social security benefits and employment in the European Union.

Mr Baceira is reluctant to quantify immigration applications but a recent Oxford University study reports that "the only group larger than 10,000 with a common EU country of citizenship and a common non-EU country of birth is India-born Portuguese citizens. This group accounted for just over 20,000 UK residents in the first quarter of 2015". For instance, the past decade has seen the Goan Catholic population in the British town of Swindon alone swell to 12,000. A couple of years ago two Goan legislators, Caetano Silva and Glen Ticlo, were discovered to be Portuguese citizens in violation of Indian law. And over Christmas last month, when the singer Remo Fernandes was summoned by the Goa police in an infraction involving his son, he was discovered to have taken Portuguese citizenship.

Old links of family and kinship between Goa and Portugal apart, migration over the decades has seen the rise of an influential Portuguese elite of Goan ancestry. Antonio Costa, Portugal's Socialist prime minister and former mayor of Lisbon, is of Goan origin; so are some of the country's leading judges, politicians and artists - Prime Minister Costa's father Orlando was a distinguished poet and writer. But as in other western countries, the presence of a powerful Indian diaspora can cut both ways.

Mr Baceira's diplomatic remit is large and includes the state of Maharashtra, the age-old Portuguese consulate in Mumbai having shut shop long ago. He would like to foster greater ties in trade and development, and culturally, introduce modern Portuguese art, cinema, music and dance in place of the demand for traditional fado singers. Still, part of his job is also that of policeman and investigator.

This has to do with sifting fraudulent immigrant applications from the genuine. Unscrupulous agents and lawyers in both countries assist illegal immigrants in forging birth certificates, creating fake family histories and fictitious identities. "It's tricky," he says. "People can go to absurd lengths like visiting graveyards to cook up false pasts. Luckily there aren't too many, I would say about 10 in a 100."

What is it about living in Goa that he likes best? Mr Baceira's look becomes ruminative. "In the food, the architecture and the way people live, Goa retains memories of old Portugal. In some ways there are values of life and values that may not be so visible in Portugal today."

First Published: Fri, January 15 2016. 22:03 IST