The quintessential scope of existence is often times camouflaged by the complex nature of our purpose in it. Therefore heroes and villains among us, as also saints and pagans, idealists and charlatans. Even infidels! One effects the other or becomes affected by the other. And once in every while, someone comes into being, culls through humanity's pile of discarded hopes and aspirations, and departs living us with a renewed sense of what existence is all about. Fr. Chico Monteiro was one such sentient being, whose contribution in this regard was slighted by the fact that he was a priest, not an activist. Had he been the latter, his name, unquestionably, would have been paralleled with greatness.
It was the mid 1960's when the State -- following Goa's liberation -- issued an edict to Goans holding Portuguese passports to surrender them, or in the alternative, emigrate to Portugal. Fr. Chico, who was a conservative in the material and theological sense, opted for defiance. He declined to surrender his Portuguese passport and challenged the State's order of deportation. His defiant stand startled the Goan community and practically overnight, found himself entrapped in the arena of political contempt, social ridicule and alienation.
At this point, it is necessary to recount that Catholicism was not indigenous to the land; it was brought in by the Portuguese. With Catholicism, as with any other religion, cultural prejudice and political affiliation became bred. And it was not Fr. Chico's elaborate scheme to come born into a Catholic fold. It was a fact of fate. The consequences, however, were unpredictable and inevitable. Almost tantamount to being asked to alter the color of one's skin upon being subjected to a whole new political climate.
Arrested and placed in judicial custody, Fr. Chico summed up his defense with a single line: "I was born in Goa, and lived all my life peacefully in Goa." Unbeknownst to Fr. Chico, his layman's version of defense resonated the very essence of the Geneva convention: One's place of birth conclusively determines one's nationality, and it is against all statutory and constitutional law and principles to denationalize one's nationality.
The trial gained notoriety, and it was the Indian Government which suddenly found itself coming under judicial scrutiny and going on the defensive. The trial also aroused Salazar's interest. The result? Portugal appointed Queen Elizabeth's personal counsel to represent Fr. Chico. Such notoriety, however, was not without its price. Fr. Chico was transferred from the Aguada jail in Goa to a maximum security jail in Patiala, where he remained incarcerated in solitary confinement for about a year, and subjected to psychological abuse. The attempt by authorities to fragment his spirit only led to the realization that they were dealing with one whose spiritual temperament was impervious to human tampering.
When the matter wended its way to the Supreme Court, the Justices muffled a brief admonishment. It was to be the last gavel, directing Fr. Chico back to jail in Patiala, not to freedom. It wasn't the end of hope. Whether by coincidence or divine prompting, the Holy See decided to intervene, successfully negotiating the release of Fr. Chico for that of Dr. Telo de Mascarenhas, a freedom fighter who was serving a life term in Portugal. Fr. Chico's release, however, was to be conditional. Upon his return to Goa, he was placed under house arrest in his ancestral home in Candolim and barred from holding any official position. A decade later, the terms of the house-arrest were relaxed to where he was able to walk within the confines of his village. Subsequently, he was allowed to once again travel freely within the territory of Goa.
It is unclear if the judicial curfew was ever lifted, or if Fr. Chico ever set foot outside Goa. An avid traveler in his prior days, he appeared to graciously resign himself to a life of judicial exile. As a priest, his allegiance to the Divine was of an uncommon grain and stature. As a man, he was genuinely attracted to all people as human beings. Despite been consecrated a Monsignor, he continued to don the cassock of a habitual priest. It was his way of affirming his disinclination for any position in the patriarchal hierarchy of the Church. In general, he had an unbiased enthusiasm for life and an untiring work ethic. As for his smiles, they were a trademark of his effulgent demeanor. They were vibrant with sincerity, and ungrudgingly impartial.
"Bloom where you have been planted!", urged the late music maestro, Fr. Lourdino Barreto, to his students. A stalwart in his own controversial right, he was also a close friend and admirer of Fr. Chico. And bloom they did, without being uprooted from their deep convictions. On October 30, 1990, Fr. Chico was laid to rest in the soil he was planted in seven decades before. The following year, he was posthumously conferred the Vincent Xavier Verodiano Award. It was to be the only civic recognition ascribed to his name.
If life is an intended conflict between the material and the spiritual, Fr. Chico proffered no treatise or comment. At least, he left no known written account of his crusade, and his grave mentions nothing beyond his name and the statistics of his life-span. Yet through it all, he held his head in a dignified rather than arrogant manner, exhibiting no scars of bitterness or intonations of having privately argued with God. Had his act of defiance occurred a decade later, he would in all likelihood have been hailed a conscientious objector', and spared from being hauled away and treated as a traitor. Instead, he became a prisoner of his conscience, and remained one to the end of his tenancy.
In summary, there's no mathematical distinction between what's justly right and what's unjustly right. It's all simply a matter of subjective rationale, reinforced by prevailing laws. Hopefully someday, time will reorient itself and manifest the extent to which Fr. Chico's fight for human rights in a remote part of the world, in the mid-sixties, might have influenced other human rights activists elsewhere. Like a seed that was sowed and drifted into oblivion, and found its prodigious sprout some place else . . . !
This article appeared in the Jan-Mar 2001 issue of the Goan Overseas Digest