Even as the Goa State Human Rights Commission on Monday ordered the North Goa Collector to liaise with religious authorities to conduct the last rites of activist Catholic priest Bismarque Dias whose body has been lying in the morgue of the Goa Medical College in Bambolim since his mysterious death in November 2015, his family is preparing to challenge the move.

Dias, who was passionate about environmental causes, had been found floating in the estuarine waters of the Mandovi river, 15 km from Panjim, around his home island of St Estevam in North Goa on November 7, 2015. His family believes he was murdered for his activism, which put land developers and politicians in his village under pressure.

Dias’ family said they would bury him only after a thorough investigation has been conducted into his death. They have set little stock in the police investigation, which maintained that there was no foul play involved.

In July 2016, Dias’s family moved the High Court, pointing to lapses in the police investigation and demanded that an FIR be filed. A separate petition making the same plea was also filed by some of Bismarque’s friends.

Keeping on the pressure

One petitioner and a member of the Justice For Bismaqrque movement, Dr Sameer Kelekar, said that the unburied body ensures that the authorities cannot sweep the allegations of foul play under the carpet. “The only sticking point for them is the body, which keeps the pressure on,” Kelekar said. “Once that is not there, it will be out of sight is out of mind.”

Shortly after a new state government was sworn in on March 31, Additional Collector North Goa, Sabaji Shetye sent a letter to Dias’ mother and brother asking them to bury the body within 15 days since it was not required for the investigation.

Acting on an application by lawyer Aires Rodrigues, the Goa State Human Rights Commission on Monday ordered the North Goa Collector to liaise with the village parish priest to conduct the last rites. Rodrigues told this reporter that it was Dias’ “human right” to get a dignified burial.

However, the assistant parish priest of St Estevam has made it clear that while they were willing to conduct the final rites for the priest, they would not do so without the consent of the family. For now the family is insisting that an FIR should at least be registered, even if against unknown persons, and a criminal investigation be pursued. They are seeking legal advice to challenge the order of the Goa State Human Rights Commission.

Given the high-profile nature of the cause, it is not clear if state authorities would risk any unilateral action.

Postmortem reports

The police have said they are satisfied with their investigation, which showed no foul play. Two postmortems point the cause of death to asphyxia due to drowning in water.

Dias was last seen alive two nights before his body was found in the company of two boys, during a late night out on the riverside sluice gates, where the priest is believed to have ventured into the water.

His family and friends said that Dias had only just filed a police complaint about death threats he had been receiving from land sharks. Dias had also filed complaints of zoning violations before the National Green Tribunal against developers in the village, besides involving himself in a number of land struggles across Goa.

In 2016, the priest’s death became a rallying point for candle light vigils, protest marches and village level meets against increasing land takeovers by real estate and government infrastructure projects.