Unfolding Operation Vijay (1961): How India Got Back Goa


India got independent on 15th August 1947, but for the next 14 years a natural part of India, Goa, and the territories of Daman and Diu, were left under the colonial rule of a fading power vastly weaker than former rulers of mainland India, the Portuguese. They had conquered Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur and maintained control over these lands for the next 400 years. Ruling the lands with an iron fist, they had committed atrocities of the same level as expected from a European colonial power. After 14 years of independence, and regular news of suppression and atrocities committed on natives, India decided it was enough. D Day fell on December 18, 1961.

This article tries to shed some light on what happened just before the Liberation of Goa from the clutches of the Portuguese, through the eyes of the world powers invested in India at the time of the Cold War. Before knowing what happened, one must first understand the order of the world post World War 2, the dynamics and power play at hand.

Post-World War 2 Order

The transfer of power by the British in the subcontinent was largely a peaceful and graceful one, British having realized they couldn’t hold onto India much longer, decided not to fight fate, and in 1947 Attlee’s government had given up the Crown Jewel of the British Empire in the hands of the Natives for a future unknown. The way they transferred power, in 1947, without much resistance, gained them many a friend in India. They had seen how the Dutch tried to hold onto their colonial legacy in Indonesia and failed for they didn’t realize the death of colonialism in Asia was abound. A lot of people in India, including then PM Nehru, had always resented Colonialism but were friendly to subsequent British governments, and due to this history, the British still had some pull in the subcontinent.

As the Cold war’s grip tightened over Asia in the 50s, the former rulers found themselves waning. British wasn’t doing so well, economically, diplomatically, and militarily. All of them are in some way connected to each other. The West was highly optimistic about India, to be raised as a bulwark against China and Communism in Asia, to show how a developing nation could and should grow, taking the role of leader of Asia. But India wasn’t doing so well in the early days either. It required money for things to happen. West knew that, and they were generous with their aid programs, Americans particularly.

Britain was struggling, they couldn’t keep up with the aid levels provided by the new powerhouses that were USA and USSR. To jump from a frying pan into the fire, the Suez Crisis happened in 1956. An uproar in the developing world, including India, assigning the crisis to the colonial tendency of the western powers and particularly Britain. Indo-British ties, which were already breathing difficulty, went to an all-time low. The very image of a colonizer they were trying to avoid, was creeping up again.

By the 50s Britain had also realized one more thing, the ship that ruled the world’s seas had sailed, they weren’t the power they used to be, reduced merely to a secondary role in world politics to the bolder and younger, USA. The loss of power, especially that one used to hold, isn’t easy to come to terms with. Budget cuts hit the British military in the 50s, from 1956–62, British Army was left half of its size. Their nuclear deterrence wasn’t so big either, but the commonwealth and their permanent presence in UNSC provided them with a façade of relevance. But they still had their history and a very real connection with former colonies. British tried to use this leverage when Americans tried to foray into South Asian diplomacy. Pakistan was already very close to the US, much closer than they had ever been to Britain, the only thing to show the British, in the region, was their strong connection to India, who’s premier and populace hosted a generally negative attitude towards the US but quite positive to their former rulers. The feelings were mutual, Americans, especially their military complex, preferred Pakistan over India any day, but successive American heads realized Indian importance and tried to improve ties. They knew the British had better relations with India, and partly due to their initial ambivalence in getting involved in Asia in the 40s, they wanted Britain to lead in South Asia, assuming a primary role.

One of the most important, and of the 12 original founding members of NATO, was Portugal. Their importance was deemed high in the early cold war, as they provided allies with staging facilities in the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. And by 1956, allowed NATO aircraft to operate from their airbases in northern and southern parts of the country.

Asian protégé

In the 50s and the 60s, the US had found a staunch ally in South Asia in form of Pakistan, an all-weather friend, through whom the Cold war now extended into Asia. It was in the late 50s that India started warming up to the US, to which till now it was at odds on multiple fronts. It was a personal connection between Nehru and Eisenhower, their personal history, that could have helped for the first time, provide an environment of affinity between the two heads of state when they met as respective leaders. Worrying a weak India was far more likely to fall into the hands of communists, Eisenhower stressed more aid and transfer of technology from the first to the third world. By 1960, India’s relations with both US and Britain were starting to look pretty good, a lot of damage caused during the Suez Crisis had been solved and it seemed there was a resurgence of ties. The rising border tensions with China, much like early 2020, pushed India more towards US and UK, with India ordering, for the first time, American cargo planes (most possibly Packets), for IAF, a domain monopolized by Britain till now. Americans also happy with the development, sent the first lot straight from USAF’s inventory, to be given to IAF at a week’s notice.

The American aid now started flowing a little more generously to India, for it became the central plank of policy to contain communism in South Asia by the Eisenhower government. The next head of state, which turned out to be Kennedy, was even more generous with aid to India. Kennedy’s fear of an expansionist China helped him foster closer ties with India, so much so that Ayub Khan got displeased, asking what the benefit of allying with the US, was if a Non-aligned country was to be preferred over an ally. When a task force found that the US should give India massive financial help, in 1962 Kennedy decided to give India $500 million, twice the amount they would go on to give the entire third world in the same period. Under Kennedy, in India, they seemed to have found a new Asian protégé.

Problems in subcontinent

The problem in the subcontinent was inherently a colonial one. It had been 14 years since the independence of India and the removal of all other powers from the continent, but Portugal seemed adamant about staying, latching on to Indian territories, fearing that once lost, the more economically important colonies of Angola and Mozambique would suffer the same fate. The Portuguese Prime Minister, António de Oliveira Salazar, who had come to power after a coup d’état in 1926 and remained in the position till 1968, was responsible for the setting up of a corporatist authoritarian government, called Estado Novo. A staunch conservative, nationalist, and economist before joining politics, he knew of the economic profitability of the colonies.

The Portuguese were worried that if the rule over Goa was given up, the international pressure to give up their African colonies would increase drastically. The US had a very close working relationship with Portugal and was a source of friction between emerging Indo-American relations.

Nationalistic sentiments were rising in the 1960s, calls asking to ‘liberate Goa’ were ever-rising, and Nehru was finding it hard to tackle the subject as time went on with Opposition slamming him in early 1961 in Lok Sabha. Nehru, although having initially ruled out military action around Indian independence, forever ambivalent, was now considering military action, all it needed was a spark to get the ball rolling. His growing ambivalence was worrying his newfound friends, US and UK.

As fate would have it, a pretext arrived in the following months. Reports of clashes between Portuguese troops and Indian citizens on the borders of Goa arrived in Delhi. One of the more notable and serious incidents occurred on 24 November near the island of Anjadev, which caused the loss of life of one Indian fisherman. Indian media, forever an emotional entity, swiftly started a ferocious Anti-Portuguese campaign. The public and media called for swift and decisive action to secure the fate of the people and territory. The local freedom fighters were poorly equipped and trained. No one was worried they could do anything, at least without outside help. The outside help from the Indian Army was soon to come. By the second week of December, Army was mobilized.

British Dilemma

The Anglo — Portuguese alliance was an old one and still is, the oldest enforced alliance in the world. Beginning with the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, the mutual alliance was ratified multiple times throughout history, notably in 1642, and 1661 and more so again in 1899 under the same name of the Treaty of Windsor. The 1899 treaty called Britain to defend Portuguese colonies from their “future and present” enemies. You can see where I am going with this.

Harold Macmillan, British PM, in his ‘Winds of Change’ address before South Africa’s parliament, in February 1960, called for a more enlightened European response to the upsurge in national consciousness sweeping across Afro-Asia. Britain wished other European powers to follow suit with them and give up their colonial possessions, which they did, in the 1960s a wave of powers gave up their colonies. Salazar rejected Macmillan’s counsel and Portugal retained its possessions.

The problems in the Indian subcontinent put Britain in a very awkward situation. On one hand, they wanted to preserve the alliance, and on the other didn’t want to be seen promoting colonialism. The relations with India were just improving after so long, they didn’t want to jeopardize a false dream of Portugal. Hell, even abstinence in such a situation by the British, could be seen as them giving a subtle nod to the Portuguese.

To avoid jumping in the fire directly, Foreign Office decided it was best Americans talked to Indians. It was the general belief that Britain carried more influence in India, and Americans, now the head of the western world, had more influence in Portugal. But recently the opposite was coming out to be true at this what Galbraith, then American Ambassador to India felt. Britain also thought about whether there was some loophole in the treaty, they thought whether giving some sort of material help or less direct form of assistance would give them the opportunity to shake their hands off while preserving the essence of the treaty. To make matters worse, the Portuguese called up the British before they had a response ready, with the call for British diplomatic support and access to RAF bases in Aden and Mauritius as a staging base for men and material bound for Goa. Portuguese even asked Americans for help, which included a suggestion to ask Pakistan to deploy a few divisions on the border to intimidate India.

American POV before D-Day

Kennedy on the other side of the Atlantic was equally worried at the prospect of hostilities. They didn’t have a historical alliance with Portugal, and thus their primary concern was that Indian hostilities would endanger chances for other countries to provide aid to India and its development projects, which would damage their grand vision of India becoming the economic powerhouse of Asia, above PRC. Earlier they had noted, ‘the majority of Goans are relatively passive in [the] present situation’. But as calls for action grew, so did American worry. Now they believed a single firing could call the Indian Army at Panaji’s doors.

Americans were struggling with the same question regarding colonialism as their British counterparts while discussing the situation. Galbraith was asking the State department to use this as an opportunity to deepen Indo-US ties, asking them to adopt a ‘bolder and dramatic’ approach to the problem at hand.

Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, didn’t have a similar view although. Salazar had asked Americans to refrain from making any public statement, specifically on the colonialism part. Rusk agreed. More so on Dec 8 Rusk even instructed Phillips Talbot, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, to issue the Indian government with a firm warning against launching a military assault on Goa. The clock was ticking.

When the news of the Indian Army moving, in the second week of December reached them, Galbraith had a told-you-so moment. Americans hadn’t tried to stop Portugal and now Indians were taking matters into their hands. That’s what Galbraith was told by M J Desai, then the Indian foreign minister. He also told that only the Portuguese commitment and concessions could stop any military action.

The slow and lethargic juggernaut that is Indian bureaucracy, had all but made up its mind and no one but the PM could stop it. Between an all-out conflict between India and the Portuguese stood a glimmer of hope, rapidly diminishing with one tick of the clock, in form Nehru’s indecisiveness.

On December 15, Galbraith cabled Washington, saying an Indian invasion of Goa was now inevitable, and could very well be launched tomorrow. But the D-Day for Indians was December 15, Army ready to go in later in the day. It was Galbraith’s desperate calls for a diplomatic solution, that caused Nehru to stay the hand for another 48 hours, hoping a last-minute resolution was possible. D Day was now 18th December 1961.

British POV before D-Day

While the Americans were struggling to keep Indians calm, the British informed Lisbon that it was ‘technically impractical’ for them to use Aden and Mauritius, and they preferred not to compromise its ability to act as an honest broker by appearing to take sides in the Goa dispute.

But in the end, it was also agreed that if they were pressed further, they would grant the Portuguese access to alternative RAF bases because they would not engage India directly. They didn’t want to ask Salazar to avoid conflict, because Portugal would not appreciate an ally, much less the one that promised to keep their territories safe, advising surrender.

Macmillan notified Nehru of their decision, informing him about the impracticality of usage of bases in Aden and Mauritius, carefully missing the other decision, and requested that India not get tied in a military dispute with Portugal. Nehru, like always, didn’t promise anything.

While Americans were arguing among themselves on how to solve the crisis, Britain was also entangled in the same problem, albeit much worse and with a lot more at stake. The process and conclusions were almost the same as Americans, to somehow stop the Indian invasion.

Nehru Decides

Krishna Menon, Nehru’s Defence minister, was much more sceptical of Salazar than the west, not believing that he would see the light of reason and would back off. He pestered Nehru to reverse the 48 hours stay, the surprise of military assault was already lost. He worried that there would be trouble if the army was left without any sort of direction at Goa’s borders. He asked Nehru to go forward with the assault.

With every tick of the clock, Nehru was coming to the conclusion that West’s plea of buying time would not pay dividends, Salazar was not a pushover, he was too invested in the colonial question.

Saying that public opinion had driven his cabinet “beyond the point of no return”, by demanding an immediate response. Galbraith told Washington, that Nehru indicated that military action was inevitable.

Nehru also justified his action using the UN, saying resolutions denouncing the Portuguese colonialism UNGA had passed in 1960 and 1961, asserted and legitimized Indian claim on Goa, his action was a police action, national liberation, and not an international invasion.

Indian Army Action

It was the 18th. D-Day had come. And so came large waves of Canberras at the dawn, flying in from Pune AFB, accompanied by Hunters from Sambra AFB, quickly taking out a comm hub at Bambolim. Brig (later Lt Gen) Sagat Singh’s 50th Para Brigade deployed from North East, racing towards Panaji. So did 63rd and 48th Infantry Brigade from the east, attempting a pincer move.

The Navy saw its fair share of combat too, INS Mysore, one of the Navy’s crown jewels, saw its 6 inchers providing fire support to an amphibious assault at the island of Anjadip. The island had better resistance to Indian troops than at a lot of places, only to fall the next day. The lone Portuguese ship, Afonso de Albuquerque, was badly damaged by INS Beas and INS Betwa and captured near Mormugao harbor. INS Delhi used her magnificent 6 inchers to support an infantry assault on Diu.

                                              NRP Alfonso De Albuquerque

Defenders quickly fell to the steel rolling in the streets followed by large swathes of infantry, most resorting to surrender than fighting a force many times their own. While the infantry was tackling garrisons and local formations, local defences were suffering crippling strikes to IAF’s Mystere fighters.

The army had lost 22 soldiers, including 2 officers, and about 54 injured in the operation dubbed Operation Vijay, which was over the next day. Portuguese also lost only 30 men and 57 wounded and about 3000 taken POWs. Operation Vijay was one of the first joint service operations by the Indian military, with a resounding success too, giving lessons for wars to come.

International Reaction

Portugal couldn’t make an immediate military move, the operation was over as soon as it began, and they had finally lost Goa after 400 years. Anticipating a defeat, Portugal immediately called for a UNSC emergency meeting. The meeting happened on December 18 itself, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, placed a draft resolution before Security Council members calling for an immediate ceasefire in Goa, withdrawal of Indian forces, and the resumption of Indo-Portuguese talks. British were initially hesitant on joining the resolution, knowing it would cause friction with India, a move which made Americans very unhappy. After some internal tussle between US State Dept and Britain, British Ambassador came around and fully supported the resolution. But the state department had instructed that when questioned by the press, the spokesmen were supposed to display sorrow, rather than anger, at the events in South Asia. The real beneficiary of this resolution was USSR, as the Soviet premier, Leonid Brezhnev, who was visiting Mumbai then, found a perfect opportunity to ravel in anti-American propaganda.


The American and Indian governments would soon forget the UN episode and start again working to improve relations, relations that would soon be required for 1962 were at India’s doors. But these relations wouldn’t fare the test of time. In about 10 years, both countries would find each other on opposite sides of conflict, inches away from a military confrontation. Ties that will only be normalized to a good extent in the late 2000s. Since then, it seems India is on its way to becoming what Kennedy wanted, and again finding itself in an eerily similar position as 60 years ago.

Goa was now free, with Daman and Diu becoming a union territory till 1987 at least when it would become India’s 25th state. Nehru would go on to regret his decision to send in the military, producing a “tremendous moral revulsion in him”. But was he wrong? What else could have been done? With that to ponder on, I leave you one again.


  1. McGarr, Paul M. The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United      States, and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  2. Subramaniam, Arjun. India’s Wars: a Military History, 1947–1971.HarperCollins, 2016.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed within the content are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of ISSF or its staff.


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