The arrest of a 50-year-old man for allegedly vandalising several crosses and other religious symbols in Goa over the last month has brought some relief for the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, but its troubles are not yet over.

Since June 1, the police have recorded more than 12 incidents of vandalism in Christian shrines and a temple in South Goa. Additionally, around 40 tombstones were damaged in a cemetery in Churchorem, also in South Goa on July 10. The incidents and the delay in solving the case had put the heat on the BJP government in the state.

Police said the accused, Francis Pereira, who was arrested at 3 am on Saturday, has confessed to the crime and reportedly said he had done it “casually”, with no intention of causing enmity. According to some accounts, Pereira told the police that he damaged the symbols to “free trapped souls”. The police suspect his involvement in around 150 cases of vandalising religious symbols over more than a decade. The police have charged Pereira with several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 295 (defiling places worship) and Section 297 (trespassing on burial places).

While the police declared that the case had been cracked with Pereira’s arrest, activists and religious bodies have raised questions over the arrest and contend that the 50-year-old could not have been working alone.

Curious case

According to media reports, the 50-year-old lived with his siblings and their families in an ancestral house in Churchorem and plied his Maruti van as an unregistered taxi. In 2000, he was convicted in an attempt to murder case and served a three-year prison sentence. He had also unsuccessfully contested municipal elections from Churchorem in 2000.

Police said they had tracked him by tallying his handwriting with that on a piece of paper found at one crime site. They later said they had zeroed in on him as the van’s registration number had repeatedly figured in police records from many areas where the late night vandalism incidents had occurred.

“After his release [in 2003] he has been doing these kind of desecrations all over Goa,” Director General of Police Muktesh Chander told the News Channel Goa 365. “He had plans to desecrate many more important religious places and statues. We have seized the vehicle in which he was moving. We have seized the hammer with which he used to do all these desecrations. He has given a detailed confession of all these events.”

Reports quoted the police as saying that that Pereira was up-to-date with current affairs and kept clippings of recent news events. He also supposedly had photos of Osama Bin Laden, Donald Trump and Edward Snowden. The police reportedly found that he had Rs 22 lakh saved in multiple fixed deposits and are trying to find out where the money came from.

Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar even claimed that Pereira had been influenced by Israeli inmates during his stint in jail. “Those Israelis convinced him that idol worship is not the correct thing,” Parrikar reportedly said. “[Pereira was told that] all souls enter into these crosses, small temples and these souls do wrong things. Therefore these souls should be released.”

However, visuals of a smiling Pereira guiding the police as they search his house and laughingly telling them about the vandalism incidents had aroused scepticism over his arrest, especially the claim that he operated alone.

“The police must investigate further and find out if there is any political angle or communal angle,” said lawyer Cleofato Almeida Coutinho. “I cannot accept that this person could be involved single handedly. At least if they say there is some kingpin behind him, then the theory could have been bought.”

The Council for Social Justice and Peace, the social work wing of the Archdiocese of Goa, has also asked for an impartial judicial inquiry into the vandalism incidents. The Church body had earlier set up a team to investigate the incidents.“The extensive damage caused as witnessed by the fact-finding team could not have been possibly inflicted by a single person”, the fact-finding team of the Council and Centre for Study of Society and Secularism said in a statement. “The team strongly feels that the arrest appears as a familiar script to similar crimes across the country to pacify the civil society and the affected communities and divert attention from the actual perpetrators”.


Big relief

For the BJP, the arrest came as big respite as the spate of vandalism incidents had put the heat on the state government and Christian legislators, especially because of its timing. Around the time these incidents were taking place, the All India Hindu Convention in Goa organised by the Goa-headquartered Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and its sister organisation, the Sanatan Sanstha in mid-June. The four-day event also saw a preacher from the Sanatan Dharma Prachar Seva Samiti, Sadhvi Pragya, making controversial statements about beef consumption that caused outrage in the state and heightened the apprehensions of the minority communities.

Moreover, the incidents took place ahead of bye-polls in two constituencies, Panaji and Valpoi, to be held later this year

Already, the BJP is walking a tightrope in Goa, where it had to tone down its saffron image to get Christian support. Moreover, it had not won a decisive mandate in the 2017 Assembly polls – the Congress won the majority of seats in a hung Assembly, the but the BJP came to power by forming a coalition of seemingly disparate parties including the Goa Forward Party and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.

The party is also facing the heat from some saffron outfits like the Goa Suraksha Manch (founded by RSS rebel Subhash Velingkar, known to be anti-Parrikar) and the Shiv Sena, which have often taken a critical stand against the BJP. According to political analysts, both parties are hoping to sharpen and benefit from the the perceived disenchantment of the state’s hardcore Hindutva vote base with the BJP as it attempts to woo the state’s Christian voters.

The government and the police had thus taken the vandalism incidents very seriously. Special teams had been formed in each South Goa police station, supported with technical surveillance by the Anti Terrorist Squad, to track down the accused. The incidents had rattled the coalition government, with its legislators differing on whether the Central Bureau of Investigation should be involved. Even the BJP’s MLA from Churchorem, Nilesh Cabral, had threatened to protest against his own party over the delay in solving the case after the vandalism of the Guardian Angel Church.

Politics over the arrest

However, the arrest has not quelled the politics over the vandalism incidents and the government and the Opposition continue to attack each other. BJP MLA Cabral alleged over the weekend that Pereira was linked to the Aam Aadmi Party and had canvassed for it in the Assembly elections. He claimed that Pereira had defaced religious symbols to cast the BJP in a bad light.

This drew a sharp response from the AAP, which called a press conference and said that “the Goa police investigation into the desecration of the religious symbols has been seriously and irreversibly compromised with the shocking, blatant, undue and illegal interference of politicians”. It pointed to reports that the chief minister, Cabral and another minister had interrogated the accused after his arrest, after which a “cock and bull story has emerged” about his motive. An AAP press note said “the tiatr [a traditional Konkani form of theatre] script that has emerged clearly seeks to somehow implicate AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal and smacks of conspiracy.”

Meanwhile, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti that had organised the conference of Hindu Rightwing bodies last month has strongly objected to allegations that the vandalism incidents were in anyway connected with the organisation or the event. “Hindu-hater social workers, organisations, politicians, so-called religious priests should now tender a public apology,” said Chetan Rajhauns, spokesperson of the Sanatan Sanstha at a press conference on Saturday. He said the police should investigate if Pereira was connected with any sect that encouraged monotheism and opposed idolatry. “The secularists who were targeting the tolerant Hindu community over the incidents of iconoclasm for last 12 years have now shut their mouth,” the Sanstha said.

Social commentator Prabhakar Timble said the fact that a Christian man was arrested for the vandalism incidents “has become a stick for the Hindutva forces to attack secularists and secularism and the Hindutva forces are just relishing it”.

Vandalism at religious places in Goa is not new. The last decade and a half has seen a string of such incidents take place intermittently, which threaten to disturb the peace and put the government of the day on the backfoot. For instance, between 2006 and 2011, idols in several temples and some crosses had been defaced during the Congress-led regime under Digambar Kamat. Though the police had made some arrests in these cases, these did not result in convictions.