Many of you reading this will have some recollection of the 1971 Indo-Pak war, and perhaps equally many will not, having been born after it. Although I was just five years old that December, at kindergarten in Cristo Rei, I remember it well.
For weeks in the run-up to the war, my dad would have us huddled around the radio at mealtimes, listening to the All India Radio news, our only source of ‘breaking news’ in those days. He would twiddle the dials of our transistor radio (telescoping its antenna to its full height) and the quaint Pye radiogram (portmanteau of radio and record player), seeking out alternative updates from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Moscow. The valve radio would take a few minutes to get ‘warmed up’, and a whistling sound would precede the crackle and hiss when it was good and ready to deliver.
I think back then, the Navhind Times was the only English-language paper; all the others (Goa Monitor, West Coast Times etc) popped up much later. The Herald was still in its Portuguese-era avatar of O Heraldo, in that language. In addition to that, we got the Times of India, and there were the red-top tabloids Blitz and Current, and on weekends the Sunday Standard.
Thankfully there were no mobile phones or social media to stoke up war fever any further.
Although Goa was miles away from the border with East or West Pakistan, the rules of the nationwide after-dusk blackout applied to us as well. There were feverish discussions among the adults about the best ways to ‘black out’ the windowpanes. If memory serves right, the stocks of black paper at the usual outlets then, Casa J. D Fernandes and Bhale, soon ran out, and brown paper, the sort used for covering school-books, several layers of them, became the next best option.
I also recall rice-based glue paste being used to stick the paper onto the windowpanes. This was the sort of arts-and crafts stuff that we kindergarteners usually did, glue and paper, but here were adults taking to this very seriously.
We didn’t own a car then, but if I remember right, all vehicle headlights needed to be blackened over most of their surface.
Come dusk, and an eerie, unreal silence and blackness would descend upon the city. The streetlights were not switched on, and the traffic, which was anyway much lighter compared to today, reduced to almost nothing. Considering that our house faced the praça, (the main bus stand for local and interstate buses before it was shifted to the current location at Patto), usually abuzz with buses coming and going, that’s saying something.
A couple of vehicles would pass by, shouting out to remind people to ‘black out’. Gangs of stone-carrying youth would not hesitate to smash a window that they felt had not been ‘blacked out’ sufficiently.
And this is my abiding memory of December 1971: I was seated at our oval dining-table one evening, doing my arithmetic homework in one of those square ruled books, when a large stone came flying through one of the windows of the double Dutch doors opening onto our verandah. I remember the explosion of glass and the stone landing on the table, and bouncing a few times before rolling to a dramatic halt right in front of me.
I recall our sense of outrage at this act of vandalism, despite (at least in our opinion) having blacked out all our windows. Anyway, lesson learnt. We switched off all outward-facing lights and papered over the broken window the next day. The shattered pane remained a souvenir of the war for some time until it was fixed.
The other vivid memory is how we heard that hostilities had ended and that the war was over. The Bombay-Goa steamer (one of the three; Konkan Sevak, Konkan Shakti or Rohini) sailed upriver with all its lights blazing from all its decks. It was the most glorious sight for sore eyes. It was our cue to switch on our own lights and go back to our peacetime lives.
I’ve heard accounts by some people of a dogfight between Indian and Pakistani fighter planes being witnessed from Miramar beach, but apart from that, Goa didn’t see any real action during the 1971 war, as far as I know. And we should thank our lucky stars for that.
In a farcical example of “the first casualty of war is Truth”, some Goan friends who had family in Karachi at the time told me how, even while Pakistan was losing the war, its state-controlled press and radio had led its people to believe that its army was advancing ever forward, and was poised at the very gates of Delhi!
Amid the jostling among irresponsible television anchors to outdo each other in hyperpatriotism and ‘studio-led warfare’ following the latest escalation in Indo-Pak tensions, Vir Sanghvi’s talk show with former R&AW chief A.S. Dulat, Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain (former GOC, 15 Corps) and former Ambassador and Strategic Affairs expert K.C. Singh showcased much more sane viewpoints and advice. To summarise (my understanding of) what most of them were saying: A military option (to solve Indo-Pak tensions and the Kashmir issue) on its own will never achieve anything, unless it also factors in the people. And to quote Sanghvi, “War is too important a matter to be left to television anchors.” Truer words were never spoken.
It reminds one of the Russian regimental commander’s cynical diatribe about war in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’: “All kings except the Chinese wear military uniforms, and the one who has killed the most people gets the greatest reward … They come together, like tomorrow, to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers) and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit. How does God look down and listen to them!” (III, 2, xxv, 775-76)
After tensions and tempers have cooled off on both sides of the border, when each side makes purchases for fresh MiG-21 Bisons and F-16s to replace those shot down, it’s worth thinking about who in which other countries laugh all the way to the bank while our precious blood continues to be shed and vital energy, money and resources spent, on a subcontinent carved up by a withdrawing colonial power (as they did when relinquishing power in many other parts of the world as well) over seven decades ago. It is both ridiculous and extremely tragic.
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 March 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)