The gun-metal statue of Edward J Soares in Goa's Aldona village.
In Aldona village of Goa, an annual memorial on December 9 marks the birth anniversary of a late educationist “who loved English Grammar” — the village celebrates the occasion as a “text book case for communal reconciliation”.
On the village square, atop a tercena (triangle), stands the gun-metal statue of Edward J Soares, a “strict and stern looking disciplinarian”, who with his “medium stature or rather slight build”, rebelled against the Portuguese regime to introduce an English Medium School in Goa.
While his legend begins with the St Thomas High School, which he started in 1923 at the age of 25, his statue, installed in 2006, was born out of an “unfortunate episode of communal violence” on the night of March 7, 1983.
“Where else have you heard that a night of communal violence and years of communal rift ended with a statue of a principal?” asks Cecil Pinto, a social commentator and Aldona native, as he recalls the night of violence.
“When we heard the verdict of Ayodhya, we could not forget our history and the lessons we learnt,” he adds.
Born in 1895, Soares travelled to England, France and Germany “to acquire new ideas” in education as early as the 1920s, according to his daughter-in-law Marie.
After founding the school in Aldona, Soares used innovative methods to pull students from every community and religion to his classrooms, including reading the newspapers during assembly hour to raise awareness among children of the freedom struggle India and Goa faced against colonisers.
Homes in Aldona started opening their doors as boarders for children who lived in villages far away, even as other students around continued to walk several kilometres to school, in some cases, even crossing the Mandovi river to reach Soares’s classrooms. According to a memorial book on Soares, several of these students went to work abroad - as far as Africa and America and Australia.
“Over the years, thousands of young boys and girls, Christians and Hindus from Aldona, and the surrounding villages, have received their education thanks to St Thomas High School,” wrote Soares’s student Archbishop Evarist Pinto, who went on to become the Archbishop of Karachi, in a memorial tribute. Soares died in 1955.
On March 7, 1983, about two decades after Soares’s death, and just weeks after an “inter-religious meet”, a resident crossing the village tercena saw construction work inside church land. On inquiring, he found that a temple was being constructed at the spot.
He scrambled to reach the Church bells and rang it “loud enough to wake the village”. Soon bells in chapels across waddos too were rung. Word spread, and everyone started to line up at the square. “It was late in the night and most men were in their shorts and vests. We just rushed in the middle of dinner, men from all age groups, how does one dress for a riot anyway?” says Cecil.
Faced with a crowd, the angry mob of Catholics saw that the “others had stones and sticks ready”.
A stone was flung, and within minutes, a riot broke out. “In the 1980s, it meant the fight ended with fractured skulls,” says St Thomas High School alumni Savio Figueiredo who went on to become the secretary of the Principal Edward J Soares Memorial Committee.
At the time, Catholics were the bhatkars or landlords in the region, with a smaller Hindu community making up the rest of the population. The “others” in the riot, Figueiredo says, were “instigated by three Hindu families with business roots, and didn’t have the support of all Hindus.”
“Their business suffered over the years, with the both the communities shunning them. You must understand, our side of villages are otherwise very progressive and cultured and we were always one,” stresses Figueiredo.
When the stones ran out both sides returned, with the tercena left for no one.
Residents however, took years to heal from that night. “Next morning, inside the local bus, college students and villagers sat next to each other, neither of us could see the other in the eye. It was a strange silence; childhood friends had become enemies,” says Cecil.
“It took years of healing. Placing our school principal’s statue in the disputed spot helped. He is one man all of us are grateful to and revere,” he added.
The then law minister and MLA Dayanand Narvekar, says “those who instigated were Hindus and influential. They must have thought a Hindu has been elected as a MLA from a Christian dominant constituency, so let’s use our influence to get a temple built in the village square. When I reached the spot at 1 am, they kept insisting that a temple existed in the same spot hundreds of years before the Portuguese invaded and that they are bringing the local deity back to her original spot from Kandola, Ponda. I told them these are heavy statements and need due diligence.”
On the night of the violence, by 4 am, Narvekar had called in the Mapusa Municipal Office, and got the debris cleared. “There was no trace of any stone left. We, including community heads of both sides, wanted to restore law and order, and more importantly, restore the social fibre that existed before that night. Any ulterior thoughts had to be crushed before sunrise. It’s tough to explain that such thoughts existed years ago,” he says.
By 6 am, the Hindus were promised another piece of land for their temple.
For over two decades after that, the spot was protected from encroachers, till the village residents -Christians and Hindus - unanimously decided to build Soares’s statue.
“Anything is possible in today’s India. Back then, we looked for leaders who showed us the way, inspired us. Building a temple was the easiest decision to make. It would have made a section happy. Today, when you cross the statue, you are not thinking religion, you are thinking gratitude for education. There cannot be anything more secular than this...” says Narvekar.
Now, the educationist’s statue stands as a “tribute of love from his ex-students, villagers and well-wishers and family”, with an annual memorial funded by his students across the globe.