Home / Opinion / Views /  João Leão and Goa’s European Vanguard

Even as the rest of the West convulses itself about systemic racism and the importance of adequate representation, the government of Portugal has added its third senior minister of Goan and Indian origin.

João Leão, the new finance minister, joins another 46-year-old rising star, the minister for planning Nelson de Souza, in the cabinet of prime minister 58-year-old Antonio Costa, who received his Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card from Narendra Modi himself in 2017. All three have strong roots and multiple family ties in India’s smallest state.

The presence of three senior politicians of non-European heritage in Portugal comes at an especially meaningful moment triggered by #BlackLivesMatter protests, which have quickly mushroomed from the USA to European countries that also participated in the trans-Atlantic “chattel" slave trade, and continue to perpetuate institutionalized discrimination.

This is also the case for Portugal, where the first European slave market for kidnapped Africans was established in 1441. The Portuguese went on to pioneer and dominate the Atlantic slave trade, transporting an estimated 5.8 million unfortunates to the Americas

It was much the same in Goa, where the Portuguese established a slave market dealing in captives from across Asia and Africa, that lasted until the end of the 19th century.

Yet, in contrast to rigid colour bars in British India, the Estado da India enabled Goan elites (mainly upper-caste Hindus and Catholic converts) to catapult into what the late Goan historian Teotonio de Souza, and other scholars, classify as “subaltern elites." By the 19th century, these “natives" had the upper hand in Portuguese territories scattered from Macau to Mozambique.

This unique situation confounded the British. In his caustic, entertaining 1851 Goa and the Blue Mountains, Richard Burton complained, “equality allows [Goans] to indulge in a favourite independence of manner utterly at variance with our Ango-Indian notions concerning the proper demeanour of a native."

With equal rights bred in the bone, Goan migrants became nationalist politicians in many countries, from frontline anti-colonial freedom fighters in Mozambique, Kenya and Angola, to Armand de Souza, the firebrand editor credited with “the national awakening" in Sri Lanka. The UK has its own string of MP’s, from Sir Ernest Soares in 1900, to today’s trio of Claire Coutinho, Valerie Vaz and Suella Fernandes Braverman (the current Attorney General).

New Delhi-based policy expert of Goan origin, Constantino Xavier, says the rise of Leão illustrates “the historical trajectory, and the economic and religious profile, of elite, mostly Catholic, upper-caste Goans who migrated to Portugal. They quickly adapted, shedding Indian cultural baggage in a system that generally did not recognize differences to the extent the British or American multiculturalism does."

Born and raised in Portugal, 39-year-old Xavier delighted in Goan community affairs from his teenage years, including battling with Naraiana Coissoro – another senior Portuguese politician of Goan origin – who was fond of claiming the Goans of Portugal were fully integrated, and suffered no discrimination.

Xavier says he realized newer migrants enjoyed far fewer caste and class privileges. Also “the tag of "model minority" carried responsibility to support other minority communities. I took initiative to collaborate with other Indian community organizations, which was criticized by conservatives, but today Goans in Portugal are more comfortable identifying with India.

The IFS veteran Latha Reddy started her career in Portugal in 1977, eventually serving as India’s ambassador from 2004-6. According to her, the 2004 extradition of gangster Abu Salem, alongside support for India's claim for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, “put the relationship on a higher plane than before."

With notable affection, Reddy recalls meeting the current prime minister’s father Orlando Costa, the anti-colonial novelist, who “would always attend the flag hoisting at the Indian Embassy Residence on Republic Day and ask for a copy of our President's speech. In his last year, he phoned to say his health would not permit him to attend. When he passed away, I made a point to go to the Basilica of Estrela to pay condolences, and I recall a very touching conversation with his son - then Home Minister - about his father's deep love for India. Finally, it is such people-to-people connections that are so important in building lasting bilateral relationships."

Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer based in Goa.

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