On this day, revolutionary Prabhaker T Vaidya led a daring attack on the Cuncolim armoury in Goa that shook the colonial mindset.
Today is 13 April – a date in the history of India that is stained with the blood of innocents. It was the day of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre!
However, the tiny state of Goa has a different reason to commemorate this date. A lesser known incident happened on this very day in 1955 in the cause of Goa’s liberation, when the police station and armoury at Cuncolim, a small town in the south of Goa, was attacked and raided.
The daring attack was conducted by the members of the Azad Gomantak Dal, a nationalist revolutionary outfit committed to the cause of Goan liberation from the colonial Portuguese rule. My father, Prabhaker Trivikram Vaidya, led the attack.
Before the Cuncolim mission, my father was known to the local populace for his role in the Dadra-Nagar Haveli liberation. The success of this mission made him something of a legend for the people of Goa. It also gave him the dubious distinction of being the ‘Most Wanted’ enemy of the state!
This article is a freely translated excerpt from my father’s memoirs of the Goan freedom struggle written in Marathi, titled Agnichya Jwala! This article is a tribute to my father and the other members of his team, Goa’s bravehearts.
Translated excerpts from Prabhaker Trivikram Vaidya’s book:
Attack On Cuncolim Armoury – A Glorious Chapter In Goa Liberation Movement
In 1955, I was heading the Majali training camp of the Azad Gomantak Dal. The camp was responsible for planning and carrying out attacks on Portuguese forces in south Goa.
I was a great admirer of Bhagat Singh, and had read about how the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had profoundly impacted him. I strongly felt that 13 April ought to be commemorated in Goa.
I wanted to pay a tribute to my hero Bhagat Singh and the innocent victims of the massacre by carrying out some spectacular attack against the Portuguese forces on that date.
After much thought, I settled on the idea of raiding the police station and armoury in my native village of Cuncolim. Not only did it store a substantial amount of arms and ammunition, it was also a prestigious armoury for the Portuguese government in Goa, by way of its location and importance.
Cuncolim is a fairly bustling town almost centrally located on the map of Goa, and the armoury was in the middle of a crowded intersection in the heart of the busy Cuncolim market.
I belonged to Cuncolim and eighteen of my 22 years I had spent in the village. I knew the place like the back of my hand, making it easier for me to plan the whole operation.
The Portuguese police sergeant in charge of the armoury at the time, Sergeant Coelho, was a tyrant that ruled over the people of Cuncolim with an iron hand. He arbitrarily arrested any person whom he suspected of being aligned with the ‘Jai Hind wallas’ as he called us. He beat and tortured them till they broke down and wrote out fake confessions. He was both feared and hated by the Kunkolkars – the people of Cuncolim.
Once the plan was finalised, it was now time to think about the execution. Majali was located some 60 km away from Cuncolim in Karnataka. Even though there was a regular transport service between Majali and Cuncolim, we could not have used the road, as the Portuguese police were on the lookout for Dal members.
We had to walk the entire way to Cuncolim, through the dense jungles of south Goa in order to avoid detection. We decided to set off at night after a light dinner and planned to reach Cuncolim by dusk the following day, after a night halt in the jungles surrounding Vavulde, a small village. The question now was finding a place to stay in Cuncolim, where we could rest and plan the operation without raising an alarm.
One of our Dal Sainiks, Narayan Naik suggested his aunt’s house in Takabandh, Cuncolim, located in a secluded area about 2 km away from our final destination, the armoury.
Announcing an attack is very easy. Words are cheap and everyone loves a heroic deed. If everything goes as planned, the participants become heroes, loved and feted by the local people. But if the mission fails, it is always the leadership that gets the rap!
I wanted to plan this operation to the finest detail as I did not want to leave anything to chance. The biggest problem we faced was the location of the place. The armoury was located on the first floor of the biggest building in Cuncolim market, right on the main road, surrounded by shops, hotels and offices. At any time of the day, the place was buzzing with people.
Cuncolim had no electricity at that time, but nearly every shop had its own array of Kitson lamps that made the area very well-lit at night, adding to our problems. Also, there was only one approach to the building, a narrow, creaking wooden staircase of 21 steps.
To add to my woes, there was a restaurant located right opposite the police station that was very popular with the local people. As most of the Dal Sainiks were from Cuncolim, there was a possibility of the patrons recognising us. I tried to create a full blue print of the attack in my mind, but could not think of a suitable way to approach the armoury without being seen or raising an alarm.
It was now time to set off for Cuncolim, and I still hadn’t encountered my approach route. Still mulling over it, I led my team on our long and arduous journey to Cuncolim on foot.
We left Majali at 7pm on 11 April for Cuncolim. We were seven of us. Four members of the team belonged to the Dessai clan, the valiant original inhabitants of Cuncolim; the gaonkars. It was their brave ancestors that had led the armed uprising against the Portuguese missionaries and soldiers years ago in 1583. The uprising was brutally suppressed and all the leaders of the clan massacred through deceit.
Our first halt was at Kumfali, on the Goa-Karnataka border. After a brief rest of 10 minutes, we continued on our way to Gaondongari, our second stop. From Kumfali to Gaondongari, the path was through thick jungle, but the terrain was flat, so we made good time.
After another brief stop near Gaondongari, we set off for Vavulde, the place where we would camp for the night. Vavulde was located on top of a subsidiary range of the Sahyadris some 2,500 feet high. Even though we were tired after walking almost continuously for more than three hours, we braced ourselves for the long uphill trek.
By the time we reached Vavulde, it was almost one in the morning. We had exhausted our meagre supply of water. And I looked around wetting my parched lips with my tongue. A little ahead of us was a small puddle with some murky, stagnant water in it. This was not the time to worry whether the water was potable or not. I dipped my handkerchief in the water and sucked the moisture greedily. Others followed suit.
We camped in an abandoned cowshed. By now, we had walked almost nonstop for some 40 km. Our bodies were crying out for some rest. Within five minutes, my comrades were asleep. I was awake for some time, trying to think of the possible approach routes to the armoury.
Next morning, we woke up to the sweet sounds of the bulbuls chirping in the pre-dawn darkness, quickly freshened up, made a small fire from dried twigs, brewed ourselves some strong black tea and breakfasted frugally on tea and some biscuits we had carried with us.
We resumed our trek after breakfast. Cuncolim was less than 20 km away now, but the last 5 km were through a thickly populated, flat open terrain with almost no tree cover. We planned to cover those last 5 km at dusk in order to avoid detection.
The pace had now slowed down considerably as we had all the time in the world. We reached Bendutte, the last mountain village on the outskirts of Cuncolim, by 4 pm and rested in a coconut plantation. We had not eaten anything since our frugal breakfast.
Narayan Naik climbed a coconut tree and threw down some tender coconuts. We wolfed down the soft pulp of the tender coconuts and drank the cool, sweet, life-giving coconut water gratefully and felt instantly rejuvenated.
We reached our destination by 7 in the evening as planned. Narayan’s brother came to see us. I asked him to convey our messages to the Dal volunteers in the village, Khushali Dessai, Nagu Dessai and Shabu Dessai. Khushali and Nagu spent a lot of time in the Cuncolim market, and could have supplied us with up-to-date information about the goings on at the armoury.
The D-Day dawned. It was the morning of 13 April. I woke up with a strange tingling sensation in my body, a mixture of excitement, anticipation and apprehension. My colleagues were in a similar state.
Narayan’s brother had done his job well. At 8.30 am Khushali came to see us. He realised some big plan was on the cards, when he saw us kitted out in full fatigues, armed with our revolvers.
I questioned him minutely about the armoury, the timings of the staff on duty, their routines, how well were they armed and the quantity of arms and ammunition at the armoury.
Khushali informed us that there were about eight to 10 cops on duty at the police station and armoury. Sergeant Coelho had a sten-gun. All the cops were armed with 32 bore rifles and carried revolvers on their person. In addition, there were several rifles hanging on a rack in the inner armoury room and two huge tin trunks that possibly stored bullets, grenades and other ammo.
I instructed Khushali to return to his usual haunt, a teashop located bang opposite the armoury, and report back to us by 4.30 in the afternoon. By the time Khushali left, another enthusiastic Dal member from Cuncolim, Shabu Babani Dessai, turned up with some fresh fish.
Shabu was very excited to see us kitted out and kept insisting that the plan has to be a grand success. He also volunteered to join us and assured us that he would wait for us in the narrow gulley behind the police station.
These words by Shabu proved to be the key to solve the problem vexing me so far. I had found my approach route, thanks to Shabu.
Between the armoury and the hotel opposite, there was a narrow, dark gulley that led to the Christian cemetery behind. Next to the cemetery was the churchyard and opposite the churchyard, there was an open field that lead to a small thickly wooded copse. The copse opened into the rice fields on the other side.
The cemetery and the churchyard were always deserted by nightfall and there were no shops in that area, so it would be completely dark at night. It was the perfect approach road! I almost kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier.
After Shabu left, we had a nice Goan lunch replete with fish, and rested for some time. As the evening drew to a close our excitement had reached a feverish pitch. Khushali reported back at 4.30 as instructed and passed on an important bit of information From 6 to 7.45 in the evening every day, three cops leave the armoury to conduct a daily surveillance round through the market. Apparently, even chief constable Coelho used this time to have a quick rendezvous with his mistress.
Thus, it was clear that from 6 to 7.45, only about 50 per cent of the armoury staff would be on duty. Naturally, that was our best window of opportunity. However, it would be dangerous for us to approach the market before seven, as it was summer and there would still be light outside.
According to my calculations, it would have taken us about 15 minutes to reach the market from Takabandh, circumvent the crowded areas and approach the armoury via the cemetery. That narrowed the time available for the actual attack to a mere 10 minutes between 7.20 and 7.30. We had to adhere strictly to these timings in order to make a successful getaway before an alarm was raised.
I dispatched Khushali back to his post, with the instruction that he was to meet us sharp at 7.15 under a big mango tree in the wooded copse.
At last, it was the time to set off for the mission. We left Narayan’s aunt’s house sharp at 6.55 and walked in a single file till we reached the outer perimeter of the Cuncolim market. Now we had to cross the road connecting the market to Nainguillo, another locality, in order to reach the rice fields.
The point where we crossed the road was marked by a chapel dedicated to Francis Xavier. In 1583, when the Gaonkars had risen in revolt against the missionaries, the bodies of the Portuguese victims killed by the Gaonkars were hidden at the site. In a way, we were treading upon sacred ground, following in the footsteps of our illustrious ancestors!
We crossed the road without any untoward incident, walked across the paddy fields and reached the copse. As promised, Khushali was waiting for us under the mango tree. He had left his vantage point in the teashop less than two minutes ago and had the most recent information regarding the whereabouts of the cops.
He informed us that Sergeant Coelho had disappeared with his girlfriend, and two cops were out on their daily round. Another had entered the teashop just as Khushali was leaving. Khushali’s information meant that there were only about four to five cops on duty inside the armoury. Lady luck seemed to be smiling upon us!
As mentioned earlier, we were seven of us. Out of the seven, Rajendra, Kapitaon, Rajnikant and I had revolvers, while Narayan and Kashinath had a 12 bore rifle and a 410 bore single shot rifle respectively. Dattaram, our seventh member was only armed with a sharp scythe.
It was decided that the four members that carried the revolvers would mount the actual attack on the armoury, while the other three would be on the lookout and would be stationed on the ground floor.
I instructed the lookout team to fire two shots exactly 30 seconds after the lead team had entered the armoury. This was to deter the possible crowd of onlookers that could have hindered our escape plans.
I packed Khushali off to his haunt once again and we continued to walk in a single file towards the armoury. I led the way, followed by Rajendra, Kapitaon and Rajni. Narayan, Kashinath and Dattaram followed in the rear.
When we crossed the cemetery and reached the mouth of the gulley leading to the armoury, we heard a soft whistle and Shabu appeared dressed in black from head to toe. He assured us that he had been waiting since the last five minutes and no one had entered or exited the armoury in the time.
The time for action had come at last! I could feel the blood rush to my temples. I had no more doubts and no more apprehension, all I felt was a calm confidence. I led the attack, running up the stairs three at a time, followed by Rajendra, Kapitaon and Rajni in that order.
At the end of the third step, the floorboards creaked. Immediately I heard a voice from above asking, ‘Kon Re To’?(Who is it?) It was the sentry on guard duty outside the door leading to the armoury.
Before he could take a step forward, I had reached him and pointed my revolver straight at his head. He stuttered, as I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him inside, still at gunpoint. It was decided earlier, that while I held the sentry at gunpoint, Rajendra would frisk him for arms. But Rajendra forgot his instructions in the heat of the moment and rushed into the inner, armoury room, a mistake that could have cost us the mission, and me, my life!
I pushed the by now frightened, sweating man into a chair, assuming that he was stripped of his revolver by Rajendra and turned towards the inner room, where my comrades were engaged in a scuffle with the other cops. Just as I had turned, I felt, rather than heard some movement behind me. I turned around to find the cop pointing his pistol at my back, and Kapitaon struggling to restrain his pistol-held hand.
While the cop was a hefty man, Kapitaon was a thin, frail chap. Just as the cop was about to overpower him, I fired my Smith and Wesson. The bullet rammed into the fleshy part of the cop’s stomach, just beneath his ribs. He collapsed bleeding into the chair.
When they heard the sound of my revolver, the lookout team also fired their guns as instructed. The sounds of three gunshots boomed in rapid succession. In an instant, the bustling market emptied. The shop owners and customers took to their feet abandoning their shops.
By this time, we had succeeded in overpowering the remaining cops. We raided the entire armoury and ran down the stairs in triumph, carrying the sten gun, several rifles, four revolvers and the two trunks carrying the ammo. I was the last person to leave.
As I bounded down the stairs, I took a moment to look down upon the once busy traffic thoroughfare. There was not a soul in sight, just open store fronts, empty bullock carts and a silence that was as eerie as it was complete! The only sound I could hear was of the wounded cop groaning. We managed to escape to the safety of the wooded copse before the alarm was raised.
Our mission was a brilliant success. The daring attack on the Cuncolim armoury had its desired effect on the colonial powers. The Portuguese newspaper of the time, the mouthpiece of those in power, O Heraldo, wrote a strongly worded editorial condemning the attack, and showered vitriol on the Dal Sainiks.
The cop, who was injured by my bullet, later succumbed to his injuries. This was the first time a representative of the colonial rule had died at my hands. I never once regretted the act, nor did I feel proud of it. It was something that simply had to be done!
The Portuguese government of Goa took out arrest warrants against the perpetrators, terming us ‘dangerous terrorists’.
At 22, I was one of Goa’s ‘Most wanted’ men!
By Shefali Vaidya
The writer is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist based in Pune.