A look at clashes between outsiders and locals in Goa

Published: 23 November, 2013 08:06 IST | Vidya Heble and Pamela D'Mello |

After the Nigerians-Goans clash last month, amid statements about tit-for-tat measures and threats of throwing out Indians from Nigeria, we take a look at the outsiders-vs-local phenomenon in the state

The Nigerians’ protest was a game-changer for the holiday-destination state of Goa, which has long battled a dichotomy of insider-outsider mindsets in an increasingly tourist-hungry economy. For long, Goans have grumbled about the influence of “outsiders” - an influence that has been increasingly pervasive and, ominously, powerful as well.

The average Goan is by and large unperturbed by the foreign presence in the state, until a clash occurs. Pic/Suresh  KK

But the outsiders - or “bhaile” in Konkani, Goa’s official language - have till now remained in a circle which, while it intersected with Goan life in some ways, still remained distinct from it. Goan life itself was different, if not distinct, even from life in its neighbouring states.

A different state
Though it was liberated from Portuguese occupation in 1961, Goa nevertheless retained many aspects of its “foreignness”, for decades. The “best” families prided themselves - many still do - on speaking Portuguese at home, Konkani being the language of the servants during the Portuguese era. One of the fallouts of this colonial-club mindset was that people from across the border were looked down upon.

The serene environs of Goa’s Dudhsagar waterfall are a far cry from the seething interpersonal politics of the beach belt

This writer’s family moved from Mumbai to Goa in 1973, which was a short period after the then union territory had shaken off the shackles of its 450-year-long Portuguese occupation. It’s a big burden to let go of, and understandably enough for years thereafter one heard references to “Goa versus India”. Often the references were plaintive: “These Indians…” and India was also referred to as if it were still a foreign land. The dissociation was so pervasive that Goa was sometimes thought to be an island, by people who had never visited it.

The recent unrest has stirred up roiling emotions in Goa

This dissociation also meant that from within Goa, everyone was an outsider - excepting, perhaps, white-skinned “foreigners” who fell in the category of “pakle” (literally, “whites”). People of African origin fell uneasily between the two labels of Indians and foreigners. At best, they were called Africans. At worst, the derogatory “khapri” was the term used to paint them. Khapri is a corruption of “kaafir” or infidel, a term originally marking out the slaves that the Portuguese brought with them. Intermarriages between rulers and slaves often led to mixed-race children who invited the label, which was also used to indicate people of African origin in general.

Discrimination not new
Goa’s “discrimination radar” is being talked about in the wake of the Nigerian issue, but the fact is that this discrimination has been well-entrenched in the Goan outlook for decades together. “Outsiders” have been blamed for everything from flawed public perception to actual problems within the state such as garbage pileups and price rise, though there is more than one factor at play in giving rise to these problems.

Public perception has been due in part to the Tourism Department’s suggestive posters of Goa as a happy-go-lucky and liberal holiday destination. Garbage piles up because collection and disposal is pathetic, when it exists (garbage is just not collected in village panchayat areas - it is dumped in a central location and periodically set ablaze by way of disposal). The price rise is due in some measure to the proliferation of five-star hotels which buy up the good produce, and are not budget-constrained.

The reviled “outsiders” are part and parcel of the economy - buying, selling and transacting - and it is Goans who are at the other end of these deals. The much-talked-about Russian mafia, for example, has risen due to being able to buy land and dwellings from Goans. In legal cases, they are represented by Goan lawyers.

Influences old and new
It is not as though there never were foreign influences in Goa. The little territory was well known in the 1960s and ’70s for being the land of the free, literally. Those who wished to shed the shackles of their attire found acceptance in the then-sparsely-populated beaches of North Goa. Occasionally curious Indian tourists would venture to one of the “nude” beaches for an illicit glimpse of white flesh. But there was a line between alien and local. In the 1980s, numerous Europeans settled in Goa, setting up businesses and marrying Goan women. They integrated into the community that they chose to settle in, and there was no conflict.

Even when the population grew, tourism flourished, and different non-Goan ethnic groups began to take shape, the “us vs them” still did not escalate into the realm of conflict. Nomads from Rajasthan had long settled in small measures, making their living selling souvenirs and knick-knacks to the burgeoning tourist population. Kashmiris began flocking to the beach belt, setting up carpet showrooms. The international flavour was intensified when Israelis began moving in. A small Italian presence had always been there, centred around the Cottage Industries Exposition.

Perhaps inevitably, “foreign ethnic” groups began to carve out their territories along the tourist belt of the North Goa beaches. In Baga there is a “British area”, a few hundred metres away is a Kashmiri area, go north a few kilometres and it is the domain of the Russians (with billboards entirely in Russian, too). The crime that mankind appears inevitably drawn to has existed in Goa for decades. The local population is not exactly happy about it but it cannot be denied that some do benefit from it.

Law and disorder
Yet, the active presence of foreigners, while it impacted Goans’ lives by providing customers for housing and basic necessities, has historically not clashed with them. Former Superintendent of Police Ranjit Narayan, who was posted in Goa in the 1990s, throws some light on the genesis of the situation: “The decay had started those days itself, though the mafia gangs had not yet made their presence felt and the foreigners had not yet established their “enclaves”. Yet I do remember that the tendency to treat the Goa Police lightly was present even in those days.

An example which comes to my mind was the effort the local police had to make to arrest a German national from a South Goa beach - a detachment of the Goa Reserve Police had to be sent and rounds fired in the air before he and his supporters were secured. However, I never noticed any racist behaviour during my three year stay there. In fact I am quite surprised when such news is discussed.” Even before Goa became a hotbed of multi-national activity, both legal and illegal, Narayan says the attitude of the peddlers towards the law-enforcement agencies was not one of fear or respect.

“The Anjuna flea market was a well-known place where contacts were made and deals struck,” he says. “We wanted to choke such contact points and, as a first step, got the market closed. There was an instant reaction and to my surprise, the powers that be of those days were not amused. They exerted intense pressure, but till the end of my tenure I did not relent - the exuberance of youth, in hindsight! Soon I received my marching orders and was off to Delhi.”

Will the Goa police ever be able to maintain harmony among the different communities in the state, following this flashpoint incident? “My reading of the people is that any tourist is welcome as long as the money keeps flowing in,” says Narayan. “The present problem is, possibly, one of turf protection and could have been instigated by the other mafia gangs present there.

To my mind there is urgent requirement of sweeping the state clean of illegal foreigners - whatever be the colour of their skin. The police need to establish their authority and the rule of law all over the state, especially in the remote areas. The policy adopted in certain countries, especially the USA, called the ‘broken window’ policy, could pay dividends.

“The philosophy behind this policy is that every petty crime is taken seriously and the perpetrator faces punishment. However, for such a policy to succeed there has to be free and fair registration of crime, and non-interference by those who have the power to interfere. But such a situation is a pipe dream not just in Goa but all over the country. It is a quid-pro-quo situation - the police station in-charge is happy not to register cases - it lessens his burden and gets him a good report card. The people who have the power to interfere are happy since the situation gives them a window of opportunity to interfere.”

The Divide Grows

On October 31, when some 60 Nigerian nationals erupted in anger at the murder of their compatriot, blocking peak morning traffic on National Highway 17, they projected themselves right into the public glare, which has continued till today. What happened afterwards, the world knows too well, and soon, it was locals vs Nigerians. While allegations of racism and stereotyping flew around, the simmering cauldron had boiled over. Even now the ramifications of that continue, with Nigeria saying they would evict Indians living in Nigeria in a tit-for-tat measure.

“It is wrong to evict anyone because of their race, colour and creed. But any anti-social activity should be investigated and dealt with fairly,” Ian Henriques has said. Henriques is manager of the St Anthony’s Hospital and Research Centre in Anjuna. Joe Prince, a Nigerian residing in Goa and engaged in exporting apparel from Tirupur, South India to his country, said that an incident at Baga’s Tito lane in 2012 had even been referred to the embassy for its brutality and unfairness. A local big shot wheeling his car into the pedestrianized Tito’s lane one night, accidentally hit a Nigerian man, triggering an argument.

When the former sought a minister’s intervention, local police ordered to take action with the assistance of bouncers are believed to have gone on an indiscriminate rampage against all Nigerians on that street. “One moment, I was sitting in the restaurant talking, the next, someone was punching me. I was severely hurt and in hospital with multiple fractures. And then they wrongly booked us for fighting amongst ourselves. I had to pay R 15,000 to come out of prison” Now he finds it galling that several upscale clubs indiscriminately bar the entry of all Africans.

Alexander Shauun, Manager of Arpora’s Club Cubana said “There is no discrimination on the basis of any nationality. Across the board, we do not take in stags.” Yet another nightclub manager justified the informal ban. “When some of them so openly push drugs on the street outside, what are we to do? We cannot risk them doing that inside the club”.

The belief here in official circles is that Nigerians welcome cases filed against them, as it helps them stay on longer in the country. Now the spotlight is on not just the Nigerians and other foreigners working the drug trade in Goa, but also onto local involvement and gangs operating the peddling and distribution end of the trade in touristic, coastal Goa, as well as the local pusher-police-politician nexus.

Police say the entry consignments of cocaine, heroin, MDMA and Ecstasy tablets are sourced from foreign nationals bringing them in, while charas comes from North India. They also add that in addition to Nigerians, persons of other nationalities including Russian, Israelis, British and other nationals have been found involved and have been arrested for narcotics possession.

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