Polem was where Goa ended and India began, as the soil went from brown to red.

When I first arrived in Polem in 1956, the Portuguese immigration staff was largely of European origin. Checks were carried out way beyond sunset, and if you missed the last bus to Margão you could sleep in the verandah of a little restaurant near the check post or under the trees. The restaurant served xitt-koddi, fried bangdas, tisreos (clams), spicy xacuti and tender coconut water, along with a host of Portuguese wines – a small Vinho Porto cost eight tangas (eight annas or fifty paise).

On two occasions, I carried a bed-sheet and timed my entry into Polem only for the experience. The leftover passengers made friends easily and broke into mandos, fados or English pop, to the accompaniment of a guitar till late into the night. To keep up with the rising number of travellers, General Manuel António Vassalo e Silva, the Portuguese governor general, visited the post and ordered a spacious shed with toilets to be built there.

The passport system

On the other side of a hillock stood the Indian Customs office, a British-style building with a trellis frontage. Passenger baggage was checked in a shed outside the building next to a snack bar that served tea and samosas, and was frequented by office staff and porters. Those entering Goa via Karwar usually ate breakfast before setting out, and those leaving Goa carried staples like roast pork or chicken cafreal,  pão and bananas.

The immigration and customs posts stayed open from 10 am to 6 pm, all through the week. Those whose travel documents could not be processed had to return to Karwar. But if you were on the blacklist for being pro-Portuguese, you were deported to Goa regardless of your documents.

In February 1950, India presented its first aide-memoire to Portugal to discuss the handover of its territories, but Portugal replied that their future was non-negotiable. India allowed for a peaceful Exposition of St Francis Xavier’s relics in Old Goa from November 25, 1952 to January 6, 1953. The Bombay State Road Transport Corporation was permitted to ply its luxury buses right from the Belgaum railway station up to Panjim, which had a neat booking office.

But hardly had the Exposition ended, that Delhi started dispatching shriller aide-mémoires to Portugal for an immediate handover of its territories. India shut its legation in Lisbon from June 11, 1953, and started to mount pressure, both territorially and on Portuguese Indian-born emigrants working in India. Bombay was host to some 400 Goan clubs that provided Goans dormitory accommodation at a pittance. At a certain stage, these clubs were required by the Bombay Police to maintain registers under the Foreigners Act, 1946.

From October 1953, all Portuguese European officials were required to possess permits or visas to enter Indian territory; and in February 1954, this rule was extended to Portuguese officials of Indian origin. On July 31, 1954, Portugal announced that all Indian citizens entering its territories would have to possess a passport or an equivalent document, stamped with a visa from the Portuguese consular authority. India promptly made it mandatory for Portuguese citizens from the colonies who were entering the country to have permits from the Indian Consulate General in Panjim. Those proposing to enter India on Portuguese passports needed Indian visas, and had to be registered at the nearest Foreigners Registration Office before getting residential permits.

From August 1, 1954, the local Portuguese civil administrations of Goa, Damão and Diu, began issuing a bilingual transit permit, the Documento Para Viagem to Portuguese citizens travelling to India. The Portuguese passport and DPV had to be stamped by the district police headquarters before exiting Portuguese territory. This endorsement was valid for a week.

Those travelling to Portuguese territories were issued an Emergency Certificate printed on a sheet of brown paper by the Passport Office in Bombay. This certificate was valid for a fortnight, though it invariably expired by the time the Portuguese Consulate General processed the visa, in consultation with authorities in Goa.

Routes interrupted

On August 1, 1954, shipping and road transport services to Goa came to a halt. A year later, the meter-gauge train that ran from Poona to Goa via Londa also came to a standstill. At Castle Rock and Collem stations, passengers were put through immigration checks and their passports and travel documents were stamped.  At Caranzol, the first station in Goa, I recall a strapping white Portuguese immigration official with an automatic rifle strapped to his chest verify my visa on the train with due courtesy. On arriving in Goa, one of the few objects to be taxed were playing cards  – they were impressed upon by a Portuguese customs stamp. Foreigners had to report to the district police headquarters in Goa. As a British citizen, I was graciously assisted by the Portuguese-speaking regedor of Ucassaim, Chintamani Gaitonde, in extending my fortnight-long stay in Goa.


The August 15, 1954, satyagraha to Goa flopped with barely a hundred Goan volunteers gate-crashing. But a year later, Delhi aided and abetted a much more formidable satyagraha of thousands of Indians, hoping that locals in Goa would rise in revolt. But Goans were of a different psyche and could not be mob-roused by outsiders who had not realised that the political scenario in Goa was very different from that in India during the independence movement. Despite bloodshed, life moved on so peacefully that Pandit Nehru told the Rajya Sabha on September 7, 1955, that India was not prepared to tolerate Portuguese presence, even if Goans wanted them there.

The blockade and a chink

On August 6, 1955, the Portuguese legation in Delhi was ordered shut and Portuguese interests were entrusted to the Brazilian Embassy there. On September 1, 1955, a diplomatic, economic, post and telegraph, and travel blockade came into effect between India and Portuguese territories. Mail from Goa to the rest of India was routed via Karachi in Pakistani mail bags, but mail to Goa was redirected to the sender even if the address was under-scribed via Karachi, Pakistan.  However, by November 1955, the Universal Postal Union international protocol prevailed, and censored mail began to move via the southern-most land posts of Majali and Polem.

Around April 1954, India began issuing ad-hoc permits on compassionate grounds through the Bombay state government, regulated by the Ministry of External Affairs’ Goa office in the Bombay Secretariat. Every applicant had to be interviewed by the MEA chief, Ashok N Mehta, an Indian Foreign Service officer and son-in-law of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.

My friend, Benito de Sousa, was bluntly informed by Mehta that he could reach Goa only via Karachi, as he was a British passport holder. When my turn came, Mehta asked me, “Do you not know that foreigners are not allowed anywhere near the Goa border?”

“Yes, I am aware, but I seek this permit on compassionate grounds,” I replied. “I have to visit my grandmother in Goa, as my father is tied to his work in Aden.”

“Alright,” said Mehta, “I shall see.”

A few days after returning to Poona, I was surprised by a brown envelope affixed with an official service postage stamp. It carried a letter permitting me to travel to Goa via Majali for a non-specified period.

The Indian overland route permit
Taking leave of my grandmother, uncle and aunt, I boarded the 10 pm Bangalore Mail and arrived in Belgaum at around 6 am on May 30, 1956. Within half-an-hour, I got onto the Bombay State Transport bus to Karwar. It was a nine-hour journey through winding ghats offering unparalleled natural vistas, but the journey weighed heavily on my digestive system.

At Karwar, I was faced with a choice of only two hotels – the posh Sea Face Hotel and Hotel Rodrigues in the shopping centre. Being low on cash, I chose the latter and for five rupees got an apology for a room with sack-cloth walls and a bedful of bugs. The toilet were mercifully separated from the bathroom.

On the morning of May 30, 1956, I boarded the bus for Kodibag, carrying a green steel trunk. It was a 45-minute ride through palm-fringed roads lined with pretty cottages. From Kodibag to Sadashivgad, from where you caught a bus to Majali, was a creek to negotiate by launch  – a rather crude one when compared to ferries in Goa. After a stopover at Majali village, the bus proceeded to the immigration post where I was offloaded with a teenage girl and boy. Both these students had declared in an affidavit that they were moving to Goa for good.

At the Indian customs post, I was ordered to surrender my money  – 43 rupees, two annas and three pice  – against a receipt valid for four months. If I failed to return before its expiry, the money would be gifted to the Government of India, they said. Such perfidy, I fumed. We cooled our heels for 45 minutes till the Indian immigration officer showed up.

“Did you state in your application for this permit that you possessed a foreign passport?” he asked, looking at my British passport.

“Yes,” I replied, handing him a copy of my application.

He stamped the brown permit, but not the passport. My new found companions and I walked about two furlongs  – over 400 meters  – along no-man’s land. We then went through a gate and stopped at a police check-post before crossing the international line and entering the Goa Gate in Polem.

All three of us were bankrupt, and to worsen matters the fund from which Portuguese border authorities offered five rupias gratis to every stranded passenger had already been exhausted. So the uncle of one of my companions loaned me five rupias which I promised to return, noting his Goa address in my diary.

The same afternoon, my companions and I boarded the bus to Margão, a two-hour ride through largely virgin forest and past an impressive temple. At Canacona, a district police officer stopped the bus and called out my name. He had been telegraphed by Polém, about the presence of a foreigner, and after politely checking the entry stamp on my passport, he allowed us to proceed.

In Margão, I decided to take the shortest route home to Ucassaim, via the Cortalim-Agaçaim and Panjim-Betim ferry crossings. I reached Panjim at sunset, emerging a curiosity with a trunk that belied my journey from India  – a rarity during the blockade. One good soul, who may have gauged that I was cash strapped  – I had only five rupias left  – advised me not to buy a ticket on the ferry, but to claim I had a pass instead.

By the time I reached Betim, I was left with eight tangas (eight annas) to pay for my bus ride to Mapuça. As I alighted, a European in a dinner jacket took leave of those seated beside him, and wished me boa noite (good night), as was Portuguese etiquette. I hailed a Mercedes Benz taxi. The tariff was two rupias, but those were days of honesty and no haggling.

When I reached Ucassaim, it was already 8 pm. I had to bang on the door to jolt my relatives from their uninterrupted routine. Aunt Vitalina opened the door to her greatest surprise, for no one had expected me to beat the blockade and reach home. There were shouts of “Johnnie ailo! (Johnnie’s arrived)” from the neighbouring family house whose door had opened at the sound of the taxi. Uncle Alcantara came rushing down the steps ecstatic, and Aunt Vitalina rushed in to fetch money for the taxi fare.

The next morning, the Regedor of Ucassaim, Chintamani Gaitonde, registered my arrival at the district police headquarters, O Commissariado do Norte, in Mapuça. But because the Brazilian embassy in Delhi had not specified the permitted duration of my stay in Goa, I had to also visit the Quartel Geral (Police Headquarters) and Secretariat in Panjim. The latter affixed revenue stamps of appropriate value on my passport, and entered a notation on the same page. The stamps were countersigned by the Director of Civil Administration, Dr. José António Ismael Gracias.

On my return to Poona on September 20, 1955, the Portuguese immigration officer at Polém put a saida or exit stamp on my passport. Walking through no-man’s land, I was back at the Indian immigration post in Majali where I saw roughly three times as many people, as on May 30. My money deposited at the Customs was gracefully refunded, and I boarded the bus for Karwar, where I arrived by sunset and checked into Hotel Rodrigues for the night.

The next morning, I boarded the 8 am bus for Belgaum and at two police outposts, beginning at Karwar’s municipal fringe, we were asked to alight and details of our permits were registered.

Permits and etiquette at Polém

On April 3, 1958, India scrapped its permit system, but locals in Goa had to still produce the Documento para Viagem; those in the rest of India had to posses a Certificate of Identity. This was in addition to the visa, a bilingual document in Portuguese and English, issued by the Brazilian Embassy in Delhi or the Quartel General in Panjim.

Those entering Goa had to still go through immigration checks at Polém, where Indian travellers without a health certificate issued by the municipality were administered anti-cholera and small pox shots; and travellers could exchange upto 50 Indian rupees for 50 Portuguese rupias.

The Portuguese post in Polém was far more relaxed than the Indian one in Majali. In May 1960, my travel companion, an IAF Wing Commander who hailed from Porvorim, was invited to the Portuguese military-police canteen in Polém before he could board the bus to Margão. There was a standing protocol of courtesy when an Indian military man entered Goa at Polém. On another occasion, a woman who had lost her baby in Goa while on a visit, was graciously offered condolences by Portuguese immigration officials, on seeing the child’s death certificate. But when the same certificate was handed over to Indian immigration officials at Majali, they were sceptical and put the mother through some difficult questioning.

Border blacklist

Immigration staff at Majali had a thick handwritten book, with names of those considered personae non gratae on the basis of their activities in India, published writings, official placements in the Government of Portuguese India or connections with those on the same list. In Bombay, one never did know who was an informer, and even at a house party it was a safe bet never to air political views. I once stood behind an Indian immigration official as he checked my name against the blacklist, and found an equal number of Hindus and Catholics with remarks against their names. In January 1959, a family physician from Colaba, Dr. P.N. de Quadros and his family were debarred from entering India despite valid travel documents, and had to take a devious jungle route by country-craft to Bombay. Dr Quadros’ brother had been the President of the Military Tribunal in Goa, and had sentenced political agitators and satyagrahis. The same June, a pharma employee, Luis Antonio Chicó, and his family were detained in Goa for a month despite valid travel documents, and were allowed to return to Bombay only on the intervention of influential voices in Delhi. A few months later, a group of Goan tiatrists led by A.R. Souza Ferrão, and Fr Nelson Mascarenhas, assistant parish priest of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Dabul, were also disallowed entry to Majali for a month on their way back from Goa.

It may surprise young readers to know that Goa had a small airline called Transportes Aéreos da Índia Portuguesa. It originated in 1954, after the establishment of airports in Goa, Damão and Diu, and flew tri-weekly. The Heron aircraft had to be navigated with skill to avoid violating Indian airspace. After the Indian land permit had been made partially redundant on April 3, 1958, several Goans took the train to Damaun Road (renamed Vapi) and tonga to Chaala on the Damão border, to catch a flight to Goa. Some broke the journey at the Parsi-owned Hotel Britona in Damão Pequeno (Little Daman).

Last flight

On October 7, 1961, the Government of Portuguese India issued the following press note: “The Government of the State of India came to know through the press of the Indian Union about the decision taken by the Government to open two more points of passage from her frontier to Goa via Banda and Anmode. The new points of passage across the frontier opened by the Indian authorities will contribute to facilitate travel of Goans to and from the Indian Union. For this reason the decision has been welcomed by the Government of this State and orders have already been issued for carrying out the work necessary to open as soon as possible the frontier of Partadeu via Pernem....”

The new routes to Goa were never to be. They turned out to be Delhi’s carefully crafted ploy to allow the Indian Army access to Goa’s heartland. On November 25, 1961, hostile vessels appeared off the Portuguese island of Angediva and an Indian fisherman was shot while trying to fend them off.

A few days later, Indian naval ships appeared at the entrance of the Mormugão harbour, and started to monitor shipping movements. Within a week, Indian soldiers and armoured vehicles were parked at the frontier. Placido Rodrigues, a Goan traveller who happened to be at the Majali post on Sunday, December 17, 1961, was whisked away to safety by the Indian military, as armoured columns topped up fuel tanks and cranked their engines en route to Polém.

At 4 am the next day, the Indian army entered Goa, ending 451 years of Portuguese rule.

John Menezes retired as the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Bombay Port Trust. He lives in the heart of old Bombay, researching and writing about a city that jogs only in memory.

This is an extract from Bomoicar: Stories of Bombay Goans, 1920-1980, edited and compiled by Reena Martins, Goa,1556. Available via mail-order from goa1556@gmail.com.