On the evening of 7 November 2015, the body of Jose Bismarque Dias—a noted member of an activist group called Musical Warriors—was found floating on the Mandovi river. Bismarque had gone missing on the night of 5 November, while reportedly out for a swim in the river, which swings by St Estevam—the neighbourhood where the Dias family has lived for generations.
In a report that came out before his body was found, Herald, a local daily, noted that Bismarque’s “sudden disappearance has baffled the residents of Old Goa as he has been actively involved in a number of protests against some of the major government projects and policies including Special Economic Zone, Regional Plan and the proposed Mopa airport amongst other local issues.”
According to Investigating Officer Krishna Sinai, the initial autopsy report listed the cause of death as drowning. Bismarque’s family and friends do not share this thought: they called for a second autopsy, which is currently being conducted in Hyderabad. “Bismarque had many enemies,” said Sudeep Dalvi, who had known him for several years, and founded the group Musical Warriors, which protested environmental degradation by real estate builders. “We think it is a murder,” Dalvi said.
Father Bismarque, as he was commonly known, had been a priest with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Goa for well over a decade, before being defrocked in 2011. Reportedly, the church had sold the island of Vanxim in north Goa to private developers. Upon learning of the church’s decision, Bismarque allegedly raised the issue with the administration. “They asked him to remain quiet—shut his mouth—he did not. He protested. So one day, he received a letter from the church that his services are no longer required,” Dalvi told me, adding “But it was only after he was removed from the church that he found his true vocation.”
After he was removed from his post, Bismarque began raising his voice against sundry tourism projects that are initiated in Goa and require large-scale acquisition of land. In 2012, he also contested assembly elections, but lost to the Congress party’s Pandurang Madkaikar. A local newspaper reported last week that Bismarque “had a long running feud” with Madkaikar. In July last year, Madkaikar was accused of illegal land acquisition by Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, who was then the chief minister of Goa.
“We formed Musical Warriors earlier this year, when we felt that the small state of Goa is literally going to the dogs,” Dalvi told me. Since their inception, the Musical Warriors—whose protests take the unusual form of songs—have mostly opposed the prospect of a massive resort in the village of Tiracol at the northern tip of the state. In 2011, beating behemoths such as DLF and Oxford Properties, Leading Hotels Private Limited—an international consortium of more than 430 hotels and resorts in over 80 countries—won the bid for this government-promoted initiative. Next year, it was found that the project was flouting environmental regulations. Herald called the government’s allotment of land to leading Hotels the “Biggest betrayal of 2012.” “Things went from bad to worse when the government started supporting the builder lobby and the land mafia,” Dalvi said. Since then, a tussle between the activists and the government over the land has been ongoing.
This year, in June, Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar was quoted saying that it is too late to go back on the deal now. “Government has accepted the amount on (land) conversion. How can I (go) back now? It is my responsibility, I support it,” he said. Parsekar, whose constituency Tiracol falls under, added that he will give his support to “four more such projects.”
“Priests have a strong presence in Goa anyway, but Father Bismarque was universally respected,” a journalist, who has been living in Goa for five years, and requested anonymity, claimed over the phone. Herald carried an editorial on 7 November whose headline read, “Soldiers like Father Bismarque are needed for our fight.”
It is not hard to understand this adulation. The “fight” is the struggle of Goan natives against mass tourism, industrialization and real estate development—all of which has transpired in the state over the last three decades. Entire villages in Goa have been sold to developers. In this background, as a well-respected activist who was vocal on the issue of land acquisition, Bismarque’s was the figure of a man fighting against these forces.
But not everyone saw the same silhouette. When the gaze of realtors fell on St Estevam, Bismarque, naturally, was a figure of concern. And when you’re fighting for something like the environment, the residents too may take an issue with pushing away the financial opportunity knocking at the door.
According to Dalvi, a day before he went missing on 5 November, Bismarque had filed a report against a St Estevam resident named Cypriano Romero, allegedly for threatening his life. Sinai claims that no such complaint was registered. “Instead, Romero had filed a defamation suit against Bismarque some time ago,” Sinai told me. However, if Dalvi is to be believed, Romero was trying to get the residents of St Estevam to sell the land to a developer—“he is a pawn, that’s how acquisition happens, first the companies reach out to a few select people, who convince everyone else,” Dalvi said.
A portion of St Estevam’s geography lies out of everyone’s reach, including its residents. There is a dam, built on a stream of the Mandovi river, which cuts this patch off from the rest of St Estevam. This slim slice of land, according to Dalvi, is what the private developers are after. (He refused to name the developers because, he said, “Father Bismarque always told me to not say anything until I have documents in my hand.”) Dalvi claims that they are trying to build a road on the dam so the land can be accessed—the first step towards acquiring it. Father Bismarque was opposing the move; Romero was pushing for it. A day after he had gone missing, Inspector Sinai told me, some of Father Bismarque’s clothes were recovered from the sluice gate of this dam.
An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Jose Bismarque Dias was excommunicated. This has been corrected. The Caravan regrets the error.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.