We have reached the second death anniversary of Fr. Bismarque Dias, but the unresolved case of his brutal murder still weighs heavily on Goa’s psyche and conscience.
At some point, in the month following his murder, perhaps as a form of catharsis for my own grief and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, in there still not being any closure to his investigation (on the contrary, the investigation was being botched and mishandled from the very beginning), I hand-painted a banner to just give vent to how I felt. Against a white cloth background with red hand-prints splattered all over, my family and I daubed thick coats of black paint spelling out the message “JUSTICE FOR FR. BISMARQUE!” across its middle. I mounted the black flag I had carried to the massive protest meeting at the Panjim ferry point on 21 November 2015 (and which had the unexpected side-effect of procuring my arrest when I refused to surrender it to a police inspector) above it. And I vowed that as long as his family chose not to inter his mortal remains, I would have that banner stretched across the railings of my verandah and the black flag flutter over it. I got curious looks and the odd snide comment, but I was just hurting too much to care what anyone else thought of my gesture. Everyone grieves in their own way, and this was mine.
And I did the same with my presence on social media; a picture of the iconic sketch of him that appeared all over Goa became my profile picture, there to stay until the time that I was able to attend his funeral.
At the time I had naïvely anticipated that it would be perhaps a matter of weeks, perhaps a few months, before there was some resolution. When I needed to leave Goa on a trip to Mumbai, my worry was that I’d miss his funeral, and I had left instructions to my family to call me in case there was such an announcement, so that I could cut short my trip to pay my last respects to him.
Two years later, much water has flowed down the Santo Estevam sluice-gate, and my sorry little banner has been battered and blurred by two consecutive monsoons, dust and vehicle fumes, and strong winds this year broke the mast of the black flag in two. But the mortal remains of Fr. Bismarque still languish in the morgue.
Weather-beaten as that banner may be, it’s still up. I can’t bring myself to take it down; I feel that in so doing, I’ll somehow be letting down the memory of the great man I still look up to. It is a tangible connection to keeping the fight for justice for Fr. Bismarque alive. What is not out of sight will hopefully not be out of mind (and heart).
About a year ago or thereabouts, I got a late-night call from people who knew me and who claimed to be ‘close friends’ of Fr. Bismarque. They were wondering if I would persuade the family to end the stalemate and give him a burial at last. They went to great lengths to try and convince me that there was nothing more to investigate, how they had done ‘investigations’ and ‘interrogations’ of their own, and had come to the conclusion that it was all an unfortunate accident. When I pointed out to them that if they were as ‘close’ to Fr. Bismarque and his family as they claimed, they had therefore no need of my intervention, it stumped them and they hung up.
No family would delay the final rites of a deceased relative, certainly not for so long, without good reason. As the family has eloquently put it in a public letter shared with me, “the remains of Father Jose Bismarque Desidorio Dias are absolutely required to complete the additional inquest to effectively conclude the cause of death.”
Does Fr. Bismarque Dias deserve the dignity of a proper burial? Of course he does. Such a great son of Goa, such a fearless, indefatigable warrior for Goa deserves this and so much more. But we also owe it to him and his family to ensure that justice is done by him, and sadly, until this is achieved, we have to support the family in their decision to carry on their noble fight.
The public letter also asks a very pertinent question that should give us all pause for thought: “In the event of the murder and discarding of the dead body in the river of a person of high society i.e. those in power etc. would they have received the same treatment as an ordinary person like Father Jose Bismarque Desidorio Dias and if they did receive such treatment would such corrupt forensic doctors, police inspectors and district magistrates be worthy of continuing employment in government departments?”
This is not the first time justice has been delayed and therefore denied in our country. But this should not mean the fight shouldn’t carry on.
And what of the legacy of Fr. Bismarque Dias? It is hard for me to try and recapture and regain the optimism and never-say-die spirit he radiated when he was with us, of not being disheartened despite all the political and environmental setbacks Goa has endured. But collectively, we have to somehow do this. We all miss him and his positivity so very much, but we also have to move on and learn to be Bismarques ourselves.
I particularly like the suggestion of my friend Salil Chaturvedi, of instituting a Father Bismarque Award for Environmental Activism. I think it is something he would have liked. And it also endorses the need for ongoing environmental activism. The fight is far from over, be it for Justice for Fr. Bismarque, or for Goa.
(An edited version of this article was published on 05 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)