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The Rediff Special /Archana Masih

Explorer or Exploiter?

May 20, 1998 will mark 500 years of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India. Plans for a proposed celebration have fallen on rough weather. Amidst allegations that he marked the advent of colonialism, the Portuguese explorer is trapped in controversy in new age India.

With four small ships, 171 men, food reserves for a minimum of three years, a short and swarthy aristocrat took off from the western tip of Europe fringing the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Ten months later, past the Equator and vast expanses of unknown waters, he reached the lucrative Malabar coast of peninsula India.

The voyage connected Europe to India, and Vasco da Gama sailed into the pages of history.

Five hundred years later, the Portuguese explorer has been sucked into a whirlpool of controversy far more treacherous than the ones he encountered on his travels. His effigies are being burnt, black flags are being waved about and politicians are protesting angrily in Parliament. Several politicians -- from the Left and from the Right -- in new age India have denounced the proposed commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Gama's maritime achievement.

"Vasco da Gama is associated with colonialism and repression. The Portuguese came here and established their colony, celebrating such an event is improper," says Ram Naik, the BJP MP from Bombay.

A similar opinion is shared by the Deshpremi Nagrik Samiti in Goa which organised a statewide rally in the capital Panaji recently. The rally was attended by local freedom fighters who had fought Portuguese rule -- it lasted all of 450 years -- in Goa. "It is shameful for India to celebrate the arrival of Vasco da Gama who began the most torturous colonial era in the country," says Nagesh Karmali, president of the freedom fighters association.

The Samiti, after meeting the President of India, has also resolved to launch a separate movement to change the name of the port town in Goa named after Vasco da Gama and has demanded that the names of cities and villages written in Portuguese be changed.

Meanwhile, in Calicut, an action committee consisting of historians, writers, social and political activists has been formed to resist any kind of celebration to mark Gama's arrival on the Kappad coast. The committee has already drawn up a year-long protest programme, including demonstrations, public meetings and marches. "The arrival of Vasco da Gama unleashed an era of cruelty and exploitation," says historian Dr M G S Narayanan.

Many protesters in Kerala express dismay over the ruling Left government's willingness for such celebrations since they have been most vocal proponents of anti-imperialism. The Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Kerala government -- which had earlier agreed to the proposal from a German tour operator to re-enact Gama's landing in Calicut -- has thus been pushed into an embarrassing position.

In his address to the legislative assembly early this year, the governor expressed the view that the state government would celebrate the event to promote tourism. But the protests have dampened the enthusiasm of the Kerala tourism department. Tourism Director U K S Chouhan says some tour operators had approached him to sell the event to the international travel circuit. However, he added that those plans had been shelved as the department did not want any controversy.

Hussoung, a German tour operator, had reportedly traced remnants of the ship used by Gama. The company told tour operators in Kerala that it would bring several wealthy Germans aboard the ship following the same route as the Portuguese explorer.

Ram Naik reveals that the BJP is gathering countrywide support to oppose any likely celebration. BJP president Lal Kishinchand Advani also mentioned his disapproval when his Swaran Jayanti Rath Yatra passed through Goa last month. "If the government is sensitive to the patriotic feelings of the people it will be well advised to drop the plan," warns Naik.

Advice which has apparently already been heeded by the United Front government. Union Law Minister Ramakant Khalap -- also a Goan -- stated in Panaji last week that Prime Minister I K Gujral had asserted that the Union government will not participate in or organise any commemorative event. The decision in all likelihood is a reaction to the protests in Goa and Kerala.

The protests began when a group of freedom fighters from Goa issued a memorandum to all MPs indicating that there was a mood against such celebrations in certain parts of the country. Last month, the issue was brought to the notice of Home Minister Indrajit Gupta in Parliament, who in his reply, said, 'The Government of India considers it (Gama's arrival) as a historical event which could be recorded in the sense of finding a new sea route from Europe to India. More than that we do not attach any importance or significance to it.'

This response has come three months after Portuguese Foreign Minister Jamie Gama visited India to formalise plans for the proposed celebration. "We don't want to repeat history, but strengthen bilateral relations between our countries through the celebrations. It has a global purpose. The Government of India is committed to modern relations based on objectivity and a mature approach to reality," Jamie Gama said during his visit to Goa.

Revealing the developments on the Portuguese front, the country's cultural counsellor in New Delhi, Dr Luis de Moura Rodrigues told Rediff On The NeT, "A bilateral committee has been appointed to select activities for the year-long celebrations. The programmes have yet not been defined, but they will mostly consist of a series of cultural events, exchange of visits by high-level officials, besides exhibitions, seminars and film festivals."

The cultural attache also disclosed that the Portuguese have received no communique from the Indian government informing them of a change in position. Rodrigues, however, stated that the bilateral committee was being dealt through diplomatic channels, hence information about the committee members could not be released immediately.

His biographer believes the impression that Gama marked the advent of colonialism in India is based on relatively shaky evidence. "Vasco da Gama was not a clear 'forerunner of colonialism' in India. Many things happened, and a number of contingent processes intervened between 1498 and the second half of the 18th century. It is simply not correct to draw a straight line between Gama and Clive or Warren Hastings," says Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, author of the much acclaimed recent biography, The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama.

Dr Subrahmanyam, 36, an economic historian based at the Ecole Des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, has done extensive research in Portuguese trade and settlements in south India. In an e-mailed response to Rediff On The NeT, he said, "Gama himself was probably opposed to the imperial ideology espoused by the Portuguese state in his own period. This ideology was an anti-Muslim ideology, based on the idea of monopolising certain trade routes, especially those in spices. The expedition was intended to find Christian allies, so that the Portuguese Crown could build an anti-Islamic alliance. In fact, in this point of view, the Portuguese Crown had rather a lot in common with the RSS and VHP, and so it is funny if they should protest against the Portuguese!"

A petty nobleman, Vasco da Gama had led a politico-diplomatic expedition to India. Goa, the longest-held Portuguese territory, was conquered by Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1510, not by Vasco da Gama. As a matter of fact, Albuquerque -- often considered a great strategist, was Gama's rival, and Gama disapproved of the concept through which Albuquerque developed the Portuguese empire in India. Gama returned as viceroy of Portuguese India in 1524. Diu was conquered in 1535, Bassein in 1534 and Daman in 1559 long after his death in Cochin.

In all Vasco da Gama made three trips to India. Documented accounts of the Portuguese arrival in India indicate that they came 'to seek Christians and spices.' This is the reply one of Gama's crew members gave in Calicut. Letters of fifteenth century Portuguese kings explained that their discoveries -- like almost everything else -- was designed to serve God and make profits for themselves.

As for Gama's role in this design, Dr Subrahmanyam says, "Let us be clear about one thing. Gama was never interested in converting anyone. This was a later phenomenon. Gama was interested in making money, in building his career as a noble, and in acting out the orders of the Crown to a rather limited extent. I am not clear to what extent he can be seen to symbolise the Portuguese, since he was so often in opposition to the Crown."

There are some others who do not subscribe to the view that Gama's expedition was planned for the eventual purpose of capturing territories and converting natives. Radharao Gracias, spokesperson for the United Goan Democratic Party, says, "Colonialisation is a consequence of our own weakness. India was under foreign rulers like the Mughals much before Vasco da Gama. Fifteenth century events should not be judged by the logic and morals of the twentieth century."

"Personally, I feel there is nothing wrong in these celebrations. Vasco da Gama made a discovery and if the Portuguese want to celebrate, they are free to do it. It is a fact of history which cannot change," points out Dr Wilfred D'Souza, Goa's deputy chief minister. On the religious conversions of the natives, Dr D'Souza says it was minimal because Christianity did not come to India through the Portuguese, it existed long before their arrival.

In Dr D'Souza's home state, the Deshpremi Nagrik Samiti, in its attempt to bring greater momentum to the opposition, has decided to launch a year-long programme commemorating the birth centenary of Subhas Chandra Bose. The Samiti has also announced seminars, debates and published literature on Portuguese rule. All this is happening when a group of chemical preservationists appointed by the Archaeological Survey of India has just completed cleaning and preserving twenty portraits of viceroys in Panaji -- one of whom is Vasco da Gama.

Responding to the protests against the da Gama celebration in Goa, Dr D' Souza says, "Goans are very good at protesting. If Venezuela can commemorate the golden jubilee of Indian Independence, which I am presently coordinating, so can we. At least we could have listened to some Portuguese music."

Though Khalap stated that the Union government will not support any such celebrations, the government's stance is not clear. When this correspondent tried to contact Khalap in Delhi after his Goa trip, his assistant said the minister maintained his previous position and did not want to comment further.

Culture Secretary B P Singh, on the other hand, sharply suggested, "Vasco da Gama! Why him, why can't you write about some Indian, like Kabir?" He also stated that his department was not involved in the proposed celebration and indicated that the external affairs ministry was involved in the event.

Singh's colleague Ashok Vajpeyi, joint secretary in the department of culture, is reportedly co-chairing the committee with Portuguese Ambassador Marcello Mathias for the celebration. The committee has, however, not met so far.

The Portuguese for whom Gama is a national hero are celebrating the event in a big way. The celebration will include conferences featuring Indian and Portuguese historians and will be connected with the last World Exposition of the twentieth century, Expo-98 in Lisbon. "The Government of India was one of the very first to accept her participation in Expo-98 with a pavilion," says Portuguese cultural attache Rodrigues.

The quincentennial is eleven months away and Vasco da Gama remains mired in controversy. Caught in the crossfire of hostile public opinion, lack of official communication and the consequences of his presence in Indian history. Whether his arrival in India will be commemorated in some way or the other is yet to be known. As for that coast of Kappad near Calicut where he was welcomed 499 years ago, a black flag was hoisted last week.

Additional reportage: T K Devasia in Thiruvanathapuram and Sandesh Prabhudesai in Panaji

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