December 19, 1961: India Wins 2 Day War With Portugal

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A Brief History

On December 19,1961, the armed forces of India completed Operation Vijay, a land, sea and air assault against the Portuguese enclaves on Indian soil in the Goa region.  The mini-war only lasted 2 days, but it ended 451 years of Portuguese colonialism in India.

Digging Deeper

Portugal had grabbed a piece of India during the age of exploration when European colonial powers were conducting land grabs all over the world.  Portugal had established bases on the Indian sub-continent in the area of Goa and nearby regions, a modest holding by colonial standards, and Goa today is India’s smallest state.  The largest city in Goa is Vasco da Gama, reflecting its Portuguese heritage.  The Portuguese enclaves were located on the West coast of India adjacent to the Arabian Sea.

When India finally achieved independence from Britain in 1947 the Indian people were not of a mind to tolerate continued European hegemony, and chafed under the continued European presence.  During the 1950’s the government of India attempted to negotiate the exit of the Portuguese through diplomatic means, but when this course failed, only the military option remained.  As armed conflict loomed, the United States advised India that no assistance from the US could be expected for India.

As India built up the forces needed for the upcoming conflict, the Portuguese government advised their military defenders of the enclaves that they were expected to fight to the death!  (“…Victorious or dead” was the exact wording.)  At least civilians were allowed to be evacuated from Goa.

The brief war resulted in certain defeat for the Portuguese, as they were grossly outnumbered and outgunned by Indian forces.  The Indians fielded about 45,000 troops with naval support from 2 cruisers, a destroyer and 8 frigates, as well as a light aircraft carrier.  The Indian aerial complement consisted of 42 warplanes.  To resist this considerable force, the Portuguese had only 4000 men with a frigate and 3 patrol boats.  Indian victory was assured.  By the time Portugal surrendered on December 19, 22 Indian service men were dead and 30 Portuguese had died.  Each force suffered over 50 wounded, and Portugal had over 4000 men taken prisoner by the Indians.  The Portuguese frigate had been disabled as well.

Contrary to the joyous Indian reaction, the Portuguese were bitter and morose over their sound defeat.  Diplomatic relations with India were severed and Portugal refused to recognize Goa as part of India.  Finally, in 1974 relations thawed and eventually were normalized.  The Portuguese POW’s were held for 6 months due to intransigence on the part of Portugal to negotiate their release.

International reaction to the Goa War was split along Cold War lines, with the Communist Bloc supporting India’s actions as did much of the developing world.  The US and Western Allies mostly condemned the Indian military action.  The Catholic Church did not take a decided stand either way.

Although this was a limited war with what appears to be minimal casualties, it must be remembered that the families of the dead and crippled suffered just as much as those families of war casualties from larger conflicts.  Even minor skirmishes are of monumental importance to those forced into the conflict.  Question for students (and subscribers): Should India have continued diplomatic efforts to annex Goa, or was the military option the correct course?  Please share your opinions on this subject in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Khera, P. N.  Operation Vijay ; the Liberation of Goa and Other Portuguese Colonies in India (1961).  Gov. India, 1974.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of Indian troops being greeted by supporters as they march through the streets of Panaji shortly after the Portuguese retreat, is used on a website intended for educational purposes per the U.S. fair use laws, because:

  1. It is a historically significant photo of troops being greeted on entering a freshly liberated area.
  2. The photograph is only being used for informational purposes.
  3. This photograph was taken shortly after Indian troops entered the capital city of Goa after the defeat and retreat of the Portuguese. It is unlikely that other photographs may exist showing this historically significant event.

About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.