Bugle of Indian independence blared first in Goa village?

The monsoon rains raged around the Catholic priests setting up their tent in Cuncolim, the rural heart of Hindu Goa. They had little reason to suspect what was about to happen to them. Villagers, enraged by a series of temple desecrations, ambushed the clergymen, slicing their necks with scythes and felling them one by one with bows and arrows. The Portuguese retribution was swift and brutal, slaying 15 of 16 Cuncolim chieftans, with only one surviving to tell the story.

An emerging whisper among Goans holds that this 1583 mutiny in Cuncolim, not the Uprising of 1857 in Meerut, is India’s actual first rebellion against Western colonialism. The whisper is now starting to sound more like a roar – with a growing chorus of politicians, farmers, journalists, scientists and yes, even Catholic priests, arguing passionately for what they say is the sleepy Goan village’s rightful place in history.

Cuncolim-philes are gathering evidence and taking their case to the central government in New Delhi. Goan Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar last month promised Goa’s legislative assembly that he’d appoint an expert committee to examine the issue – no small gesture from a Hindu politician heavily reliant on Catholic support in his state.

The debate is far more than academic. The argument pushes back the roots of Indian nationalism by no less than 274 years, making a powerful statement about what it means to be Indian: That the notion of Indian self-determination is older and deeper than what’s been taught for generations. And that Goa, despite its Western flavour and its late arrival to the Indian union, sowed the first seeds of independence.

“The day they came to build a church … our people said no … So they said let us kill them,” explained Father Planton Faria, an aging Catholic priest who supports shaking up history in favour of the Cuncolim uprising at the expense of his own Church’s actions at the time.

I recently visited Cuncolim, about a 15-minute drive from Margao in South Goa, on a rainy monsoon afternoon not unlike that bloody day 429 years ago when the locals rose up.  There I met Oscar Martins, an insurance agent, and Vijaykumar Kopre Dessai, a teacher – both descendants of the Cuncolim chieftains slain by the Portuguese.

What they showed me next sent a tingle up my spine.

Inside a chapel near the village market, Oscar and Vijaykumar pulled aside a marble slab just below the altar dedicated to St Francis Xavier. They revealed the mouth of an eerie, narrow-mouthed well.

Here, in this well, according to Father Planton’s research, the corpses of the five Catholic priests are believed to have been dumped, after the villagers killed them and displayed their bodies in a victory procession.

“The chapel is normally closed, it is opened only during a feast once a year, when people drink water from this well, which is considered holy,” Oscar says.

Holy? It only takes a few moments in Cuncolim to understand the village is creaking with nuance. The five slain priests, all Europeans, were subsequently beatified. Some villagers hold the well to be sacred in deference to their memory. Others see it as a symbol of resistance to the not-so-saintly priests.

As a descendant of one of the slain chieftains, Oscar sees himself as a custodian of his ancestors’ legacy. He can point to land and baptism records matching his ancestors’ pre-conversion surname to a slain chieftain. He and Vijaykumar helped build a marble and concrete memorial carrying the names of the slain chieftans next to the chapel honouring the five fallen priests.

One of the most vociferous proponents of the campaign to put the Cuncolim revolt on India’s historical map is Indian parliamentarian Shantaram Naik, also a descendant of one of the chieftains.

Naik, of Congress, the political party of Mahatma Gandhi, has backed a memorandum submitted to the Goa government arguing that it was not Gandhi who first introduced a ‘no tax’ campaign as a means of protest against foreign rule. Naik believes that Cuncolim invented it first by refusing to pay taxes for several years to the Portuguese rulers following the chieftains’ killing.

“This prolonged ‘no tax campaign’ by the Gaunkars (original inhabitants) of the five villages was three and half centuries before Mahatma Gandhi launched his no tax campaign (in 1928),” the memorandum states.

And Father Planton, who is ailing and spoke to me from the confines of his bed, is devoting the twilight of his life to giving Cuncolim its due glory.

“Our people were the first ones to challenge the Portuguese government on taxes and said we will not pay taxes. For eight years (after 1583) they did not pay anything to them. Portuguese revenue records confirm this,” he said.

I asked the Church in Goa to comment on the events of 1583 and whether it agrees with the view that the killing of priests could be construed as a revolt against the Portuguese.

Fr Francisco Caldeira, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman, responded diplomatically. “There are two things – one is the revolt against the Portuguese and the other is the killing of priests. The priests who died were proclaimed as martyrs and they continue to be so till this day because they died for faith.”

To be sure, the residents of Cuncolim have no animosity toward the daredevil sepoy Mangal Pandey, whose famous refusal in 1857 to bite beef- and pork-fat-smeared musket cartridges brought in by the East India Company touched off a domino effect that threatened the very roots of British colonialism in India. The ensuing rebellion broke the back of the East India Company and is seen as an important precursor to India’s fight for independence.

Without diminishing the significance of Pandey’s fateful ploy and the uprising it spurred, many Cuncolim residents contend that the events in their village 240 years before Mangal Pandey’s birth – well before the East India Company even set foot on Indian soil – have gotten short shrift by historians.

In his book ‘Cuncolim Down the Ages,’ Father Planton used historical references from the Portuguese government’s official and semi official sources to trace the chilling 16th century story.

According to him, the priests’ killing reflected anger over the destruction of temples by the five Jesuit priests, who were backed by the Portuguese rulers.

“That is wrong. I have said openly. History is history. When Portuguese came, they destroyed so many times our temples,” he said.

Our Hindu temples, that is. Words from a Catholic priest.