He was ten years old, in 1989, when his granddad Dr Jack De Sequeira passed away. “I remember him as a tall impressive personality with a long flowing beard, nearly always dressed in white. He had a beaming smile which warmed one to him,” says Jack Ajit Sukhija, diving into the recollections of the days gone by.
That’s how all Goans remember Dr Jack De Sequeira or Jak Siker as he is fondly called in his beloved Goa and has been duly conferred the title ‘Father of the Opinion Poll’ as it was he who led the fight for a referendum — the only one ever held — the one that let Goa decide its fate.
With Goa’s Liberation in 1961, there was a strong demand for the merger of Goa into Maharashtra—a demand that predated liberation.
The two main political parties of that time were on different sides of the political spectrum. Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), under the leadership Goa’s first Chief Minister Dayanand Bandodkar fought for merger, while the United Goans Party‘s (UGP)—made up of Goencho Pokx, United Front of Goans, Partido Indiano and Goan National Union—raison d’etre was separate status for Goa.
As family, it was but natural that growing up Sukhija heard a lot about the referendum and its significance in contemporary Goan history.
“Since I was a child, I’ve been amazed as well as curious as to the awe and respect with which people regarded my grandfather. And over the years, have gone on to research and discuss the event with several people myself,” explains Sukhija, who was born in 1979, almost 12 years after the Opinion Poll.
His curiosity led him to reading up on the events that led to the big day.
The 1963 electoral victory of MGP had given the party an upper hand. They moved a resolution in the Assembly for the merger which resulted in the opposition staging a walkout. As veteran journalist Gurudas Singbal put it, “Jack De Sequeira and the UGP attacked Bandodkar with the ferocity of a tiger. They were the real opponents of merger.”
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, politicians were bitter ideological foes waging fierce battles in the Assembly. However, they maintained civility and a cordial relationship outside the house. Sukhija goes on to reveal that it was common knowledge that after a fierce debate in the Assembly, Bhausaheb Bandodkar and Dr Sequeira would relax over a cup of tea and puri bhaji at Café Real.
Sukhija often heard many people whisper tales of his granddad and his unbreakable spirit, a morally upright man who never shied away from calling a spade a spade and standing up for Goa’s interest.
“One of his critics, an ex-freedom fighter, once told me that during the Portuguese regime, the colonial administration tried to shake down Goan businessmen for funds to fight the war in Mozambique. But Dr Sequeira, in his forthright manner told them that he’d paid all his taxes and saw no reason why he should give them more,” Sukhija narrates adding that Dr Sequeira was highly regarded by the community for his ethics.
It wasn’t easy to get the Centre to agree to an opinion poll and it took many back and forth trips to Delhi to put the case for a referendum before the government. Jack De Sequeira and his colleagues at UGP vociferously argued to present Goans the choice to merge or the separate status. With Congress President Purshottam Kakodkar supplementing in the lobbying efforts, the referendum was finally held on January 16, 1967.
Though Nehru had passed away, his promise to let Goa chart its own path was finally unfolding as crowds of Goans swarmed to cast their votes. The result was the rose on the ballet paper denoting the merger received 1,38,170 votes, while the two leaves, the symbol to remain a union territory, received 1,72,191 votes.
The verdict thus rendering Goa to exist as a separate union territory, and further giving Goa it’s asmita (identity).
There’s been recent discourse regarding Goa’s identity and who was (rather is) responsible to give it to her. Sukhija feels while some statements are made on no factual evidence, in the other cases since everyone is entitled to their opinions they need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
“The Opinion Poll victory would have not been possible without the efforts of large sections of Goan society. We must celebrate the efforts of all. That, however, doesn’t allow anyone to belittle the efforts and play dirty politics to put down the man most Goans identify with as the key leader of the anti-merger forces in the poll,” he adds.
Speaking about the relevance of the Opinion Poll, Sukhija concurs that the quality of life and economic prosperity enjoyed today is a consequence of the result of the referendum and that on all socio-economic indices, Goa trumps most states in India and neighboring Sindhudurg by a wide margin.
“Although, Dr Sequeira would’ve been horrified with the lack of ethics and blatant wastage of public funds noticeable today and he’d have rather worked towards seeing Goa develop in a more sustainable manner with efficient use of public funds and concern for its land and environment,” Sukhija says and pauses, before adding, “he fought the fight he was called to fight.”
Dr Sequeira held a moral courage that is uncommon in politics in the present times. “Imagine after he was defeated for the first time in 1980, he never again returned to politics as he realized his time was done,” says Sukhija, who also feels somewhere politics took a toll on him.
As a politician, businessman or family man, the infectious integrity of Dr Jack De Sequeira remains in the hearts of many. And as for Goa, he penned an important lesson in history that power is always vested in the hands of the people and that their resilience will triumph over any political game.