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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Goa: Recent burial in cemetery reserved for British people sparks controversy

A recent burial at an 18th century British cemetery, meant for the deceased soldiers of the erstwhile Empire and now a historic monument in Goa, a former Portuguese colony, has triggered a controversy.

The state Directorate of Archives and Archaeology has complained to the police, after an unclaimed dead body believed to be of a Protestant, a Christian sect, was buried at the cemetery. Last month’s controversial burial, according to historian Prajal Sakhardande, is the first such final rite performed at the historic cemetery since 1912. He says that the act was illegal and amounted to violation of laws which protect legally notified historical monuments.

“There should be no abuse of the historical monuments and henceforth such an incident should not occur,” Sakhardande told IANS.

The quaint cemetery, flanking the Raj Bhavan in the posh Dona Paula suburb of Panaji, was built as a resting ground for the British troops who were dispatched to Portuguese held-Goa in 1799 to ward off a potential French attack.

“The French and British were enemies, so there was a threat that the French would use Portuguese Goa as a base and throw out the British from India,” Sakhardande said.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had just seized power in France following a coup d’etat, before subsequently installing himself as emperor. Mysore king Tipu Sultan, who incidentally died in 1799, had been actively corresponding with the ambitious Napoleon, prodding the latter to invade the British-held Indian subcontinent.

As a safeguard against a possible French move to capture Goa to gain leverage in the region, Britain dispatched a contingent of troops who were stationed in the numerous forts in the Portuguese colony like Reis Magos, Aguada and the Cabo Fort — which now functions as the Raj Bhavan.

“The British wanted to protect their own interests. So from 1799 to 1850 all those British soldiers who died in Goa, whether they were soldiers or British officers or British women, this cemetery was reserved for them. They could not be buried anywhere else. Local Goans, Roman Catholics and Portuguese could be buried in other cemeteries in the state, but only the British soldiers, officers who were Methodist, a Protestant sect, were buried here,” Sakhardande said.

Other the British, including soldiers who continued to arrive in Goa, even after the contingent left the colony after the Napoleonic threat was over, continued to be buried in the cemetery.

There are 42 marked graves in the cemetery. The last body to be buried was in 1912.

After Liberation, the British cemetery came to be recognised as a state protected historical monument, with the Directorate of Archives and Archaeology as its custodian.

Which is why the burial of an unclaimed body after 109 years has triggered a controversy.

The issue was first red flagged by local activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Cecille Rodrigues, after she received complaints from the residents of a local housing colony.

Sakhardande claims that he has complained to the state Director of Archives and Archaeology, Blossom Madeira, who in turn has filed a police complaint.

While Madeira refused to respond to phone calls and messages seeking her department’s position on the matter, a complaint filed by her at the Panaji police station has said that locks which fasten the gates of the cemetery have been replaced.

“Department had put up locks on the entrance gate. During site inspection when the locks were tried to be opened, it was noticed that the department’s locks had been replaced… In this regard, a complaint may be kindly registered to ascertain the facts and for necessary action to be taken at the earliest,” Madeira’s complaint states.

An official at the Panaji police station said that a “preliminary enquiry” into the complaint was ongoing.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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