Wondering whether a referendum has ever been held in the world’s largest democratic country? If you are thinking either briefly or deeply, then you are correct! An independent referendum has been held in India for the first time since her freedom in 1947. It is quite surprising that this referendum is the first and only one held in free India so far(excluding the one that happened in Junagadh in 1947), given the fact that India is a full fledged democratic republic. It is also the first time in political history that a referendum is being held for a state or a province in both India and the world, as referendums are generally held in autonomous regions, who are seceding from a country due to various differences. Now, I will elaborate the details about the Goa Opinion Poll, which was held in 1967.
The Goa Opinion Poll was a referendum held in the state of Goa in India, on 16th January 1967, to decide the future of the Union Territory of Goa, Daman and Diu within the Indian Union. Although popularly called an opinion poll, it was in fact, a referendum, as the results of the poll were binding on the Government of India. The referendum offered the people of Goa a choice between continuing as a union territory or merging with the state of Maharashtra. The people of Goa voted against the merger and Goa continued to be a union territory. Ultimately, in 1987, Goa became a full-fledged state of the Republic of India.
Since Goa was an acquired territory, it was not given immediate statehood but was incorporated as a Union Territory, expectedly for a decade. Unlike other Union Territories, which were directly administered by the central government in New Delhi, Goa was not allowed to have its own state legislature.
One of the main reasons leading to the referendum was the language spoken by the people. The Konkani language was the main language spoken in Goa. Apart from this, many Konkani people were bilingual as they spoke both in Marathi and Konkani languages. Among the Hindus in Goa, Marathi occupied a higher status and their culture was similar to the culture of the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. Konkani was spoken at home and in markets, but for religious literatures, ceremonies, political activities, Marathi was used.
Some people in Goa considered Konkani to be a dialect of Marathi and hence by reason, considered all Goans to be of Marathi ethnicity. As a result there were demands from various sections in Goa as well as from Maharashtra to merge Goa into Maharashtra.The enclaves of Daman and Diu were predominantly Gujarati-speaking areas and bordered the state of Gujarat. The two main parties in Goa, the United Goans Party(UGP) and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party(MGP), were formed with two opposing ideologies. The MGP wanted to merge the state of Goa into the newly formed state of Maharashtra. The UGP wanted to retain independent statehood for the former Portuguese enclaves. The MGP had the support of the lower castes among Goa’s Hindus, whereas the UGP was dominated by Catholics with some support from upper-caste Hindus.
Of the 30 seats in the Goa, Daman and Diu assembly, 28 belonged to Goa, and one each to Daman and Diu. MGP formed the government, having secured 16 seats while UGP secured 12 seats respectively. The assembly of Goa, Daman and Diu convened on 9th January 1964. In a representative democracy like India, the elected representatives take the decisions. However, due to the ongoing linguistic crisis between Konkani and Marathi languages, it was not possible everytime.
The UGP, headed by Dr. Jack de Sequeira, also knew that if the issue was put to vote in the state assembly, merger was a foregone conclusion. Merging Goa into another state was a monumental decision. Also the very future of the state and the identity of the Goan people was at stake. So they pressed for a people’s referendum instead of a vote among the representatives, as was the norm in a parliamentary democracy like India.
Dr. Jack visited New Delhi along with his MLAs and impressed the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru about the need of an opinion poll on this matter. However, he died before Parliament could take this decision could be taken and Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him as the Prime Minister. A delegation consisting of MGP MLAs and Maharashtra’s leaders went to New Delhi to convince him that a vote on the merger should be conducted in the Goa Assembly.
Dr. Jack, along with others, went to Bangalore where an AICC(All India Congress Committee) session was being held and met Shastri. They opposed the move to get the merger voted in the Assembly and impressed on Shastri and K. Kamaraj, the need to put this question before the people of Goa themselves instead of a vote in the Assembly. However Shastri died in 1966 in Tashkent and this decision was now left to the new Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Again Dr. Jack and his legislators met Indira Gandhi and submitted a memorandum that such a monumental decision affecting the future of the State could not be left to legislators alone, but should be put before the people to decide. Purushottam Kakodkar, the president of the Goa unit of the Congress Party, used his personal equations with the Nehru family to lobby hard for a referendum with the central leadership.
The referendum could be conducted via a signature campaign or by secret ballot. The UGP also demanded that expatriate Goans staying in other parts of India or the world, should be allowed to vote by postal ballot. However, this request was denied by the central government.
The President of India gave his assent to the Goa, Daman and Diu (Opinion Poll) Act on 16th December 1966 after it was passed in both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha of the Parliament. Henceforth, 16th January 1967 was chosen as the date for the referendum. Following points were drawn from the MGP in favour of the merger:-
- Goa was too small to administer itself and its effective administration would only be possible as a part of a larger state.
- The similarities between the culture and traditions of Hindus in both the states.
- Strong historical and cultural ties with Maharashtra.
- The belief that Konkani is a dialect of Marathi and that Marathi is the mother tongue of all Goans.
The MGP had promised that Goa would be granted several concessions after merger with Maharashtra. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Vasantrao Naik, backed up these promises. Some of these promises were:-
- Preferential treatment to Goans in government jobs.
- Industrial and agricultural development.
- Prohibition would not be applicable to Goa.
- Government notices in Goa to be posted in Konkani.
- Creation of a separate university for Goa.
- Development of Konkani language.
However, the UGP and many non-Hindu Goans did not agree to the promises made by the MGP. Their views were just the opposite as that of MGP. Arguments against the merger were:-
- Konkani is an independent language and not a dialect of Marathi. It was underdeveloped due to the suppression of the language.
- Konkani would be replaced by the dominant Marathi language.
- Goa had an identity of its own as the Goan culture was a mix of East and the West having been under the Portuguese for nearly 450 years.
- If Goa was merged, Goan culture would be subsumed in the Marathi culture and would disappear completely. Also, Goa would be reduced from a state to a “backwater district of Maharashtra”, ensuring regional imbalance.
- Prohibition would be imposed in Goa, which had a significant rate of alcohol consumption and brewing industry. It would also affect the economy and tourism specially, through which the economy of Goa works.
- The merger would result in a loss of jobs for Goans. The Shiv Sena, a Marathi regionalist party which had emerged in Maharashtra in 1966, favoured Marathis only, demanding preferential treatment for ethnic Marathis in jobs. It also spearheaded violent attacks against the South Indians in Mumbai and other parts of the state. If their moves succeeded, Goans would be sidelined for jobs in their own state.
The Christians of Goa accounted for 250,000 Roman Catholics during the 1960s as a major portion of the Goan population and had considerable influence. They were fearful that the merger would reduce their political influence to nothing in the merged entity. Many Goan Hindus, on the other hand, have relatives in Maharashtra, and most speak a dialect of the Marathi language. But the determining question was whether Goa should cease to exist or not?
The referendum offered the people of Goa, Daman and Diu two options:-
- To remain a Union Territory of India.
- To merge Goa with Maharashtra and Daman and Diu with Gujarat.
The two options were represented by two symbols: A flower for merger, and two leaves for retaining independent identity. Voters had to pace a “X” mark against the symbol of choice. The poll was held on 16th January 1967. Polling was largely peaceful with reports of a few incidents. Supporters from both sides tried their best to ensure that people voted. There were 388,432 eligible voters. A total of 317,633 votes were polled. Three days were allotted for the counting.
The results were encouraging and interesting too as 54.20% voted against the merger, whereas 43.50% voted in favour. Thus, despite the Hindus numerical superiority, Goans rejected the merger with Maharashtra. The anti-merger option won by 34,021 votes. In the state capital of Panaji, the results were cheered by a crowd of 20,000, who danced in the streets carrying branches, signifying symbolic of victory, set off firecrackers, and created such a joyous disturbance that the government had to call in police with tear gas to restore order.
Goa did not achieve full statehood in 1971 as it was expected. Following persistent demands, including a 1976 resolution by the Goa assembly demanding full statehood, Goa finally became a state on 30th May 1987, after 20 long years. Daman and Diu were separated from Goa in 1968 and continued to be administered as the Union Territory of Daman and Diu under the Gujarat Government. The status of Konkani was closely related to the issue of statehood for Goa. Although the issue of statehood was resolved in 1967, the Konkani – Marathi dispute continued to confront problems with the MGP.
Today, Goa is divided into 2 districts- North Goa with its headquarters at Panaji, also the state capital and South Goa, with its headquarters at Margao for administrative convenience. In 1975, the Sahitya Akademi recognised Konkani as an independent language. In 1987, the Goa legislative assembly passed a bill making Konkani the official language of Goa. Although the bill did not explicitly grant Marathi any official status in Goa, it contains safeguards for the use of Marathi in official communication and education. In 1992, Konkani was included in the Eight Schedule of the Constitution of India. Thus, 16th January is observed as Asmithai Dis(Identity Day) every year in Goa.