Church-Cuncolim Gaunkars clash over martyrs' memorial13 November 1999 22:07 IST
Little similar to the Ramjanmbhoomi - Babri Masjid issue, a unique kind of controversy is haunting the tourist state here on the issue of building a memorial of the martyrs, the villagers who were killed four centuries ago by the Portuguese Jesuits during inquisition.
The Church has objected, not to the memorial but the construction site, as it is adjacent to another memorial built 102 years ago in memory of the five Jesuit priests, who were killed by the same local villagers while retaliating against the forceful conversions.
The uniqueness of the issue however also lies in the combined efforts of Kshatriya community called Gaunkars, belonging to both Hindu and Catholic religion, to build the memorial in Cuncolim, a semi-urban village in South Goa, in memory of their forefathers of pre-conversion period.
The caste system in the Catholic religion still prevails till date in the former Portuguese colony even 500 years after the conversions from Hindu faith. In fact the casteist pride reins supreme even after separating them into two different religious faiths, especially in the village of Cuncolim.
The Catholic Gaunkars are also fighting the Church against its secular action of giving representation to the non-Gaunkars on the committee for parishioners. They have been trying to assert their sole right over the management of the village Church, citing the historical facts.
"Till date, the Hindu and Catholic Gaunkars are joint owners of various properties and assets which also includes Church properties", claims Josico Fernandes, secretary general of the Co-ordinating Committee of Gaunkars of Cuncolim.
Though property rights appears to be the real hitch of all the issues erupting in Cuncolim for several years now between the Gaunkars and others castes of Catholic religion, the issue this time is the construction of the martyrs' memorial.
"There is no casteist overtone to the issue. We, the Gaunkars, have promoted the idea of the memorial and others are free to join us. The purpose behind the construction is to remember achievement of our forefathers and keep the nationalist spirit alive", says Madhukar Desai, president of Cuncolim municipal council.
The incident goes back to 15 July 1583, when open war broke out between the chieftains of Cuncolim and the Jesuit priests at the spot where the memorial is now coming up. Though history says five priests were killed, the Gaunkars now also claim casualties on their side. In retaliation, 16 chieftains were called for peace parleys in the neighbouring Assolna village and mercilessly killed.
Only one could flee to tell the horrifying massacre while the Church confiscated their property and also converted them. Later, the Church beatified the five priests as martyrs while building a cross where they were killed. A chapel was built over the well in which their bodies were thrown, dedicating it to their remembrance.
"Our forefathers had waged a relentless struggle against the Portuguese rulers and the Jesuits for 25 years. They are the real martyrs in whose memory we are rewriting the history today", says Dr Vemssinio Coutinho, a US-based Cuncolim villager and a retired professor of Catholic University run by the Jesuits there. He heads the construction committee.
Though the Church is officially silent over the issue, Fr Socorro Mendes, the Cuncolim parish priest, has termed the memorial illegal. "No doubt the memorial needs to be built, but it is in violation of rules to construct anything within 100 metres of any historical monument", he says.
"The existing historical fact should not be eclipsed with another one", feels Fr Mendes, while also admitting that the methods adopted by the Church in those days appear wrong, but from today's point of view. But you also cannot say they were wrong if looked at it on the basis of the norms followed those days, he adds.
While the Church suggests that the monument could be built in Assolna where the chieftains were killed, Dr Noronha insists that the existing one is the most ideal site as the first War of Independence had broken there in the 16th century. "We are open for a dialogue", say both the parties, but not prepared to take initiative.
Cuncolim consists of around 2500 Catholic Gaunkars while the non-Gaunkars are around 11,500. The Hindu population here is around 6500 with Gaunkars still dominating in the local Shantadurga temple. The Muslims are only 2500.
The issue complicates further here with the Gaunkars, in a letter written to Pope John Paul II, demanding restoration of their traditional and ancestral rights in the management committee of the Church while also seeking clarification on the incident of massacre.
"The Church is enjoying right over religious affairs since 1942 when it was transferred to us by the Portuguese government", asserts Fr Mendes. He also blames the Gaunkars for making it a casteist issue while the Church is trying to play secular by giving representation also to the non-Gaunkars.