First Tri-service Operation; First Operation Vijay - Armed Forces in Nation-building

Revisiting India's first tri-service operation, Op Vijay, and the dramatic end to 451 years of Portuguese rule in Goa. 

by Ashok K. Mehta

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Goa, unlike its masters in Delhi who rule Bharat, that is India, is not running a campaign to cleanse itself of colonial rule: that is why it is peaceful and civilized, though recent invasions from the North have disturbed the market. But harmony has prevailed, thanks to leaders like Manohar Parrikar, offshore casinos, heritage fish markets, low-duty liquors, and People's rice beer. The Portuguese Consulate sits at the base of Altino hill from where Goa is ruled today, as it was for 451 years earlier. Portugal, which had occupied Goa, Daman, and Diu, was the last colonizer to be evicted from Indian soil on 19 December 1961 in the first Op Vijay. Last Sunday, the 76th anniversary of Operation Polo, the defeat of Nizam’s forces in Hyderabad, was commemorated, but the event was politicized.

A representational image [Pramod Tiwari/ Unsplash]

India has not eschewed the use of force in national integration. Of the 562 princely states under the suzerainty of the British Crown, all were persuaded to accede to India except three: J&K, a Muslim-majority state ruled by a Hindu raja; Junagadh with a Hindu majority ruled by a Muslim Nawab; and Hyderabad, a Hindu-majority state ruled by the Muslim Nizam. In July 1946, Mr. Nehru said no princely state could stand against independent India’s Army. In May 1947, they were told that those that did not integrate would be treated as enemy states. The Nawab of Junagadh fled to Pakistan on 26 October 1947 after he acceded to it. It was militarily coerced by the 1st Armoured Division, and by 9 November, India assumed its administration. The J&K ruler signed the Instrument of Accession on 27 October 1947 after tribal raiders from Pakistan had begun the first war over Kashmir, which has not ceased to this day. The Hyderabad Nizam insisted on remaining neutral, forcing India to launch Op Polo on 13 September 1948, in which my battalion, 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), winner of three Victoria Crosses (equal to PVC), participated. Hyderabad was liberated on 17 September.

What remained were French and Portuguese enclaves on the East and West Coasts. While France vacated occupied territories in 1956, Portugal refused, necessitating Op Vijay (Kargil is Op Vijay II). I was fortunate to visit the surrender site last week on Altinho Hill, where 2 Signal Training Centre (STC) of the Army is currently partly located. Vijay Vatika is well-marked and indicates the place where Gen Vassalo e Silva surrendered to Lt. Col. Sucha Singh on 19 December 1961. Op Vijay was meticulously planned by GoC Southern Command, Lt. Gen. JN Choudhary (also led Op Polo). It was India’s first tri-service operation involving the 17th Infantry Division and 50 Para Brigade led by Maj. Gen. KP Candeth and Brig. Sagat Singh. The Indian Navy’s Op Chutney entailed reconnaissance and surveillance. On 11 December, the 17th Infantry Division was ordered to advance and capture Panaji and Mormugao. The assault began with artillery bombardment under air cover at 0400 hrs, with the Portuguese opting to offer resistance. The 50 Para Brigade of 1st Para Punjab and 2nd Para Marathas captured Panaji and Ponda the next day.

India employed an overwhelming tri-service force to defeat the Portuguese garrison of 7,000 personnel, one Frigate, and three Offshore Patrol boats. Casualties were on both sides – 22 Indian soldiers killed, while the Portuguese lost 30 soldiers and had 570 wounded, with one frigate disabled and the remaining 4,668 personnel captured. On 18 December, Portugal urged the UNSC for a ceasefire and ending hostilities. The US disapproved of India’s military action, while the USSR used its veto to ensure surrender. By the evening of 18 December, most of Goa was in Indian hands, even as Portuguese soldiers were ready to defend the port town of Vasco de Gama, according to Op Plano Sentinela. The Portuguese President ordered a scorched earth policy, but the Governor-General refused to implement it. He ordered a ceasefire and surrender at 2030 hrs on 19 December. The surrender of the garrison marked the end of 451 years of Portuguese rule of Goa.

Just above the Portuguese Consulate is the Army House, the erstwhile residence of the Military Commander, Gen. Vassalo e Silva. It is a 400-year-old Portuguese construction later acquired by the Governor-General. It must have commanded a 360-degree view of Panaji. After the Signals Commandant was allotted the heritage house, many Chief Ministers who also live on Altinho (anyone who rules Goa lives there) have had an eye on the house, including Parrikar. 2 STC resides dispersed in pockets of Panaji. Like the British, the Portuguese chose the best land for cantonments as well as several hill stations, especially in Himachal, after the British Commander-in-Chief chose to initially live in Simla. Many of today’s popular hill resorts were strategic locations covering Simla.

Many Goans have kept their links with Lisbon. Prime Minister Antonio Costa is half-Goan and has helped rev up India-Portugal amity. People in Goa affectionately call him Baboush (in Konkani, a young loved one). The Signals Army Unit in Goa maintains high standards of pride and decorum, co-habiting with Goans who look up to their Army for liberating Goa. Portuguese surrender should be commemorated befittingly as the first tri-service campaign at a time when theatricization is on the anvil.

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.